Friday, 29 August 2014


My wife explained the plan, and it had sounded as though we were going to stay at a hotel somewhere within thirty minutes drive of home, and the point of going to stay at this hotel would be so as to have ourselves a night out at a hotel. I asked again and she confirmed that I had understood the proposal quite well. Her friend Andrea had made arrangements to stay at the J.W. Marriott Hill Country Resort and Spa some time in July, and we would join her for the last day of her holiday so that the boys could play together. To me it sounded something like going to stay with a next door neighbour for a couple of days, scheduling the sort of fun one might enjoy at home but without the convenience of actually being at home; but I agreed because I knew it couldn't be that simple, and that there had almost certainly been some factor I'd overlooked.

The date approached and Junior became more and more excited, with myself becoming accordingly more irritable as the vocabulary of his excitement reduced to a cluster of just five or six phrases repeated every few minutes for what he clearly and genuinely believes to be comic effect because he's eleven and no-one wants to tell him otherwise. He's basically a good kid, but a good kid with the energy of one of those early black and white Disney cartoons in which everything on screen has a face, and each face is rolling its eyes and singing Ukulele Lady. He apparently requires no more than two hours sleep a night and is thus most generously described as lively. Doting relatives gather around to coo and refer to him as our precious little boy as he repeats some zinger from a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon which I've already heard fifty or sixty times that morning, and I will grit my teeth and think to myself sure, he's precious as they come when you're not the one trying to get him down from the ceiling with a garden rake. Before this is taken as evidence of some profound underlying dissatisfaction with my lot, I should probably state that I feel I have more than earned the right to vent the occasional cloud of steam. Stepfatherhood, so it turns out, isn't easy, but by the same token, I never for a moment imagined that it would be.

Anyway, so far as I understood it, we were to drive for some thirty minutes to a local hotel, leaving our ordinarily well-behaved cats a twenty-four hour window in which to fill the house with territorial aromas and poo in whichever locations they felt would best serve to register feline displeasure regarding the disruption of their daily routine; more specifically we were to drive for some thirty minutes to one of those places in which I am rudely stashed by airline companies whenever my connection is cancelled. I don't fly very often, but when I do, I'm nearly always delayed and slapped in some anonymous hotel in Philadelphia or Charlotte or wherever. It's not that these places are necessarily terrible, but I always find their particular brand of sterilised corporate hospitality profoundly depressing. They seem to presume that ten golfing channels and a coffee machine will compensate for whatever karmic forces have most recently pissed on my chips, but they never do. Aside from anything else, I'm very particular about my coffee and will drink only proper instant granules, which I can never get because everyone involved is determined that I should experience their version of luxury. Hotels at which I have stayed in Mexico City carry none of these supposedly elegant touches, and instead have had roaches, random fist-fights in the hallway, the hits of Elvis at volumes which crumble the mortar from between the bricks, and still they feel somehow more homely and inviting than their more affluent northern cousins.

So, just to be absolutely clear about this, our familial assembly would - through our own free will - take a room at a fancy hotel, and I would spend the night glowering at Junior from the other bed in order to keep him from whiling away the small hours in his usual fashion, gibbering and shouting to himself in commentary to the video game replaying inside his head with his customary approximation of the sort of cigar-chomping racetrack wit which doesn't really suit a boy of eleven.

Oh my God - he's playing the Bulbasaur! This guy is really good, and I mean really good...

At least since I've been old enough to make a decision, I've never really gone in for amusement parks, resorts, holiday camps, or anything suggestive of regimented fun; but both Junior and my wife had been looking forward to the excursion; and as I've long since outgrown any notion of not getting my own way being a violation of my human rights, we saddled up and were away. We drove north, but not so far as to really be able to say we had left San Antonio for sure, and we soon approached the hotel complex built upon a stately rise of land. It was large, its clean stone lines filling the horizon and reminiscent of the architecture one once saw in low budget 1970s science-fiction films starring either Roddy McDowall or Ike Eisenmann.

'You know, I have a good feeling about this,' Junior observed in portentous tones from the back seat, once again channelling some elder statesman of the sort who might puff thoughtfully on his cigar before delivering bon mots from his stoneclad fireside. 'I think we're going to like this, and you know I don't say that often.'

'Okay.' There didn't seem to be much point in asking for an elaboration. I doubt he'd thought the statement through to any particular depth, but he'd clearly enjoyed how it sounded, so it had done its job.

We parked, following urgently voiced testimonials to our requiring no valet parking service, and I thought of all the bellhops who would stand and grin, palm held out for a ten or a twenty every time one of us so much as farted. I thought of this without even being quite certain of what a bellhop is, beyond some vaguely defined kid in a bright red hat who takes your money for doing something you could have done yourself. Happily there were no bellhops to be seen, predatory or otherwise, and once we'd checked in, we made our way to a room high up on the eighth floor from which we had a panoramic view of the Texas hill country underscored by a brief strip of golf course.

Tommy arrived from a room on one of the floors below, having spent the entire morning asking his mother when we would arrive. The boys quickly formed a yapping huddle of notes compared and plots hatched. They had heard tell of the magic of room service, and that which could be remotely summoned as though one were a minor regent in the event of parents or guardians looking the other way.

Once we were settled - which didn't take long as this was to be a one night stay, so we hadn't brought much - we headed for the pool. The boys coaxed my wife and I onto the least daunting of three waterslides. We each took a toob - a transparent inflatable donut doubling up as both float and seat - and made our terrifying and rapid descent to the more serene watercourse at the bottom of the waterslide, from which we entered a drifting gauntlet of water cannons operated by the children of other guests, but not minding too much because it was a hot day. This tributary fed into the gentle current of a much larger loop running around the circumference of the main pool, and so we spent the rest of the afternoon floating along and trusting that the two boys were probably old enough to look after their exhausting selves. Luckily for all concerned, they were, and despite the place being fairly crowded we all managed to find each other to eat burgers and drink soda when the time seemed right, then back to sailing the artificial creek serenaded by slide guitar music piped from speakers set at intervals along the bank, this being Texas and all.

This was not my natural environment, but it was nevertheless comfortable, and there was nothing aggravating. Occasionally we registered the presence of the sort of assholes who inevitably emerge when a crowd of people reaches a certain size, but it was too hot to really care about them, and too hot for them to do anything too annoying. The only group to hold our attention for longer than a couple of seconds were a chain of four guys who had moored themselves to the bank of the loop, resisting the gentle pull of the current. They grinned and loudly congratulated themselves on their cunning defiance of the laws of nature.

'I like totally think beer is awesome' one of them probably roared in jovially independent spirit. 'How you like those apples?'

'Let's check out some broads,' another of their number may have suggested before laughing like a big hairy man. 'Haw! Haw! Haw!'

Within another minute we had floated out of range, and when the current eventually brought us back around again, they were gone.

Aside from eating and sleeping, that was all we did, hour after hour floating around in the sun; and my default mood of faintly acidic contentment mellowed to such a degree that Junior was able to coax me onto the most terrifying of the three waterslides. I still have no idea why he's seems so determined to herd my wife and I into certain activities, but it seemed like he would appreciate it, possibly just for the sake of some common experience. So we all carted our toobs up the winding stairs, and I watched as the boys vanished screaming down the chute, myself following a moment later and finding this time I kind of enjoyed it. That night we all slept soundly, even the kid. Next day I even found myself laughing at one of his zingers probably lifted directly from a SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon. Just as my wife had assured me, our overnight stay at the J.W. Marriott Hill Country Resort and Spa really wasn't that simple, and there was of course a fairly significant factor I had overlooked, as is thankfully often the case.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Announcements in the Grating Monotone of a Happy Dalek

'Remember how when you were at school, everybody wanted to be one of the black kids because they always seemed the coolest?'

I didn't because the population of my school had been almost exclusively white, of which there was not one individual whom I had regarded as cool or had wished to emulate in any way. Nevertheless, I'd seen Grange Hill so I understood the general principle, and I saw where this was going.

'How come we ended up with that pair of clowns?'

Rodney and myself looked over to where Toyan was once again collapsed with laughter, and to the sorting frame a little further along at which Joe stood grinning to himself, making some grating announcement to no-one in particular regarding Frankie Dettori.

We sighed in unison.

I'd recently transferred from Catford sorting office, an office which had been blessed with a higher percentage of black staff. I say blessed because in my experience ethnically diverse offices tend to be better places to work for the simple reason that black people - meaning those of African or Caribbean descent - tend to be less tolerant of bullshit. It's a generalisation of course, but during my time at Royal Mail I usually found that when unrealistic or unfair amendments to established working practice were imposed from above, black people seemed more inclined to stand up for themselves, whilst whitey would usually grumble, and then just get on with it as best he or she could whilst whining about others not pulling their weight as a cover for his or her having caved in like a wanker.

Members of Royal Mail management often found themselves under pressure from higher up, specifically pressure to achieve effectively impossible goals in terms of productivity; and so, themselves brainwashed into believing that the word impossible simply signified a lack of can do attitude, would, for example, ask an already overworked van driver to incorporate the work of another's route into his own without payment of due overtime. By way of example, this was roughly what was asked of a driver named Bobby Duncan, or at least named Bobby Duncan for the sake of this essay. Bobby had declined on the grounds that what he'd been asked to do could not be achieved in the time available, but the manager had refused to back down, and so it had gone back and forth all morning, drawing the usual snide and mocking comments about black people being scared of a bit of hard work from those who really should have known better. Eventually, threatened with disciplinary action, Bobby found himself overcome by a mighty and righteous fury. The manager, sensing that he had perhaps misjudged the situation, retired to his office and locked the door, obliging Bobby to take up a broom that had been left against the wall and proceed to batter the toughened glass by which those in the office were able to observe the shop floor.

'Come out of there,' Bobby ordered with quite a lot more swearing. 'Come out of there right now!'

It particularly impressed me that although Bobby spoke with a loud, commanding voice, he didn't exactly sound angry. It was simply that he felt his frustrations would be most eloquently expressed by forcibly introducing the broom to the manager's bottom, and this simply wasn't going to happen whilst the cowardly man had locked himself in.

'Calm down. Look, I'm calling the police!'

I could see him dialling through the glass, wide-eyed at the ongoing assault.

Bang bang bang.

'Come out of there and face me.'

Another postman, another black guy as it happens, came along and reminded Bobby that whatever the deal might be, it probably wasn't worth a night in the cells. Bobby conceded that this was a well-made point and they both went outside for a ciggie.

Sadly Bobby was suspended, although the event was later memorialised in an adaptation of the Harry Roberts song heard echoing amongst the sorting frames whenever we were having a bad day:

Bobby Duncan is our mate, is our mate, is our mate,
Bobby Duncan is our mate. He smacks guv'nors.

In 1993 I transferred to East Dulwich sorting office and was surprised to find myself surrounded almost entirely by white people. I had no explanation for this, given that East Dulwich itself was not lacking in ethnic diversity, but there it was, and despite my being entirely Caucasian, it made me uneasy. At this point it wasn't even that I valued the company of any one racial group over another, or that - as I have said - ethnically diverse work environments tend to have fewer persons inclined to just roll over and swallow whatever foolishness is foisted upon them from above; but simply, if you're white, and everyone around you is white, the higher the chance of your encountering someone who regards this as an ideal state, and who assumes that you too would very much like to stick them in a boat and send them all back; and as such people tend to be idiots, their presence reduces your chance of being able to find anyone with whom to have a decent conversation. I always imagined this might be just me, but my wife has expressed a similar sense of unease when we find ourselves driving through areas which seem just a little bit more white than can be considered healthy. This doubtless makes us sound like we're trying too hard, but that's just how it is, and any stance which probably annoys Richard Littlejohn cannot be without some merit.

Joe came first and then Toyan, two young black guys at East Dulwich. Toyan had somehow picked up the nickname Love Daddy, and although he was good at pulling the frowny rap face that best suited his new title, he didn't seem able to go five seconds without collapsing into hysterical laughter at the slightest provocation. He was a nice guy, but he was the opposite of cool, and Rodney and I sought the company of someone who said funny shit which would make sense when repeated to people we knew outside of work.

On the other hand, Joe seemed to be entirely his own phenomenon. He shuffled around like some weird Caribbean Womble, always grinning, always wearing full uniform at all times, including the dayglo waterproof jacket. He smiled and moved his head in the manner of a gnu seeking water when he spoke, never once appearing without his sunglasses. He seemed to represent some halfway developmental stage between Bingo from the Banana Splits and Stevie Wonder, but for words delivered like announcements in the grating monotone of a happy Dalek.

'Hello Lawrence,' he announced with excessive volume as I took my seat in the canteen. It was his first day and he extended a hand in a woolly glove, having presumably already been told who I was. 'My name is Joe. I like The Sweeney, but not because of the swearing!'

He laughed to himself. I imagined some private joke, something from a home in which he had been chastised for bad language. The unprompted declaration of love for a notoriously violent 1970s cop show was peculiar, but seemed like a distant relative of the conversational small talk with which Joe had not quite got to grips.

I shook his hand, and made no further contribution to the conversation because I was eating my breakfast, and I didn't really need to say anything as Joe droned away about his favourite television shows and Frankie Dettori, the Italian horse racing jockey. He seemed to be enjoying his own testimony.

Over the next couple of weeks, it wasn't so much that we learned to avoid Joe, but that we learned to resign ourselves to the inevitable in the event of working next to him. He was patently not all there, but harmless and sufficiently able to do as he was told as to do the job well enough to keep from being sacked. It would be annoying to find oneself stationed at the next frame, subjected to whatever was uppermost in Joe's thoughts that week, but so long as you could keep in sight that really he was just trying to be friendly, it wasn't so bad.

'You know, Lawrence, I only have another six weeks of my classes and then I can get a better job than this one.'

He'd been droning on for a full two hours, something about evening classes at an adult education centre, and my patience was wearing thin. 'Maybe you could become a brain surgeon, Joe?'

He laughed. 'I doubt I could do that, Lawrence. I'm not intelligent enough to be a brain surgeon,' and he said it with that same fixed smile as always.

I felt terrible. I gritted my teeth and mentally gave myself a kick up the arse for being such a tosser. Joe hadn't picked up on my sarcasm, or at least it didn't seem that way. He wandered off towards the registered letter office chortling to himself, chuckles interspersed with the name of Frankie Dettori invoked for reasons best known to himself.

George Stone, a postman who often popped into The Foresters around midday upon completion of his delivery, once gave an account of the week that Joe had been assigned to deliver mail to East Dulwich Grove. George had been sat in the pub from around one until four during which time he'd watched Joe chaining a delivery trolley to the street sign on the other side of the road, then alternate bundles of mail with returning to spend an hour or so in the betting shop next door, over and over until George went home, and presumably after as it had begun to get dark. Joe was clearly a gambling man and fond of the horses, so that explained that.

He drove us nuts at times, not least because of how it was impossible to be angry with him without feeling guilty, although on the positive side, he seemed more or less impervious to the occasional cutting remark; at least until we began to notice that his ceaselessly droning testimony had begun to include unsettling references to enemies.

'Enemies, Joe? What do you mean?'

'There are a lot of sharks in this office, Lawrence!' He emphasised the word sharks as though trying to scare me. It sort of worked, and more terrible insight was gleaned a few weeks later when we heard he'd been attacked whilst delivering to the flats on Dog Kennel Hill. He was back at work next day, a black eye, but still sounding as incongruously cheery as ever. It took some time but we eventually got the story.

It was hot, the middle of summer, and Joe was as always walking around in full uniform, waterproof coat zipped up to the neck.

'You must be sweating your bollocks off, mate,' some passing stranger had quipped in jovial fashion.

'Go to hell!' Joe had declared in the voice of Davros vowing the destruction of all non-Dalek lifeforms.

Whatever the deal was, it wasn't so much that he was ill-equipped to cope with daily life, but that he did better if you just let him get on with it in his own way. We all sat in our line sorting large flat envelopes into the frame, chunk chunk chunk as each one hit the metal at the back of its allotted cubby hole. Joe was sat at the end of the line, waterproof coat, black eye, chuckling away to himself.

'Frankie Dettori... hur hur hur...'

'Why is he wearing those?'

I looked and noticed he wore a pair of tight fitting white gloves. It made me think of Mickey Mouse.

Someone sighed, and began an account which explained why I had earlier noticed Joe leaping around at the back of the sorting frame, doing jumping jacks. Tom and Darren had told Joe he needed to do a series of special sorting exercises each morning before getting down to work. It was a directive issued from on high and everyone had to do it. The man said so.

Now they had given him a pair of gloves that somebody had found. Someone told him that he had to wear these special sorting gloves to prevent the spread of disease.

Joe either hadn't noticed that only he wore the magic gloves, or  he was happy just to know that he wouldn't be catching AIDs from any of the letters sorted that morning.

Lloyd sighed and shook his head. 'Joe,' he said, not unkindly. 'Take the gloves off, man.'

We watched their conversation, Joe incongruously smiling as the truth of the prank was revealed, as two more names were added to his list of sharks. We shook our heads and felt bad because it was still funny, despite everything.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Hey! Hey! We're the Benders!

During the warm summer evenings of 1981 my friends and I would  hang around Shipston's sportsfield on the London Road. The sports field comprised tennis courts, football and rugby pitches, and a club house from which we were excluded, being just fifteen, or I suppose sixteen in the case of Pete and Steve. We spent most of our time sat upon the swings of the children's play area, there being no children around to make use of them at that time of evening. This displeased Biddy Crump, an elderly pear-shaped woman and Daily Mail reader who lived opposite the entrance to the sportsfield. Her husband had been Geoff Crump, one time mayor of our small market town; but he'd passed on some years before, leaving her a widow and custodian of his beloved wellington boots, so local legend had it, specifically a fairly implausible local legend which held that the woman presently had her husband's beloved vulcanised footwear mounted in a cabinet and on display in the living room.

'Get off them swings!' She scowled at us from afar as she ambled across the car park towards the clubhouse. 'They're not for big boys like you!'

Had we been slightly younger, we might have taken more notice, but we were teenagers, and the edict had been delivered in a comical rural accent by someone with a funny name who, as widow of a mayor, presented herself as an authority figure and therefore a legitimate target; and an authority figure without any actual authority so far as we could see. Furthermore, we were sat upon the swings talking. None of us smoked, nor had we developed any premature alcoholic tendencies. We weren't in the habit of vandalising anything or terrorising anyone for chuckles. As usual, we were minding our own business, trying hard to squeeze some fun out of living in Shipston-on-Stour.

Sometimes we would answer back - and Pete tended to be the one with the wittiest replies in this capacity - or we would wander off to investigate the corner of the field in which a new quota of recently used condoms would appear each time we went to check. We would stand around and speculate as to who had been doing a deed about which we could only dream. At other times we would simply ignore Biddy and so she would waddle angrily towards the clubhouse, threatening to fetch Ted Hunt, proprietor of the establishment. It was an empty threat given that Ted Hunt didn't care enough to subject himself to our protests, peppered as they would be with insults built upon the unfortunate rhymes to which his surname lent itself with such ease. Eventually, having concluded whatever business she had at the clubhouse, Biddy would have to make the return journey, pretending not to notice that we were still there so as to avoid acknowledging the futility of the earlier exchange. Sometimes Pete would shout her name at astonishing volume as she disappeared from view. She would come back from around the corner and stare for a moment, unable to retaliate. Pete progressed to shouting her name backwards, pronouncing it Yiddib, an ingeniously pointless insult, we all felt, specifically designed to bewilder its victim.

With hindsight, it may seem harsh or unfair to some, but we had become a little territorial with regard to our right to sit on the swings and talk rubbish of an evening. There was Pete, Graham, and myself, our numbers occasionally bolstered by Eggy, Dean, Steve, Sid, Mark, Anders, Cloppo, Dean's little brother, or Janice, who was Dean's girlfriend. We didn't really have anywhere else to go, and it wasn't like we could all pile around someone's house in such numbers. We tended to avoid the square as it was usually full of local bikers and their younger admirers, kids our own age with denim jackets upon which were painted the covers of albums by Whitesnake or Rainbow, kids who always seemed to have something to prove.

These kids regarded at least a few of our own group as essentially homosexual and thus sorely in need of punishment. I myself was quite a scruffy child with my worn anorak and saggy corduroy trousers which I distinctly recall having been held up with baling twine at one point. My hair was not long, but I was very much a stranger to both brush and comb, at least sufficiently so as to have earned the nickname Worzel Gummidge after the popular television scarecrow played by Jon Pertwee. Pete and Graham were both of smarter appearance, and Pete in particular aspired to being a mod in keeping with his sartorial impulses. We were doing okay in school, if not spectacularly so, and couldn't really be considered stuck-up toffee-nosed swots unless your standards were so low as to define the act of wiping one's own bottom following defecation as la-di-da and ostentatious. We didn't generally like team sports. We kept ourselves to ourselves, and we all fancied girls - possibly excepting Sid who never really engaged with that one subject and seemed tellingly keen on musical theatre; but nevertheless, we were the gay boys, or the benders - as was probably the most popular term of the time. We didn't smoke, drink, or get in fights, and we listened to bands like Crass, Joy Division, the Stranglers or even Secret Affair in preference to affirming our heterosexuality with a big denim soundtrack of Queen, Judas Priest and proper music of that kind. We weren't homosexual, but we may as well have been for all the difference it made, and we felt somewhat outnumbered by the bikers, the heavy metal kids, and their legions of little followers.

If the sportsfield was not exactly our territory, we nevertheless felt a little safer there. Within plain sight of the clubhouse, a shitty Ford Cortina might occasionally dispense older kids who would pause to remind us that we were gay bum boys before heading into the clubhouse to discuss the size of each other's choppers over a jocular pint or twenty, but this was better than a shitty Ford Cortina pulling up at the side of the road to dispense the courier of a battering because one of us had looked at him funny. On one occasion a group of much younger children, possibly having been brought there by shitty Ford Cortina and bribed to befuckinghave with a pop and some crisps whilst dad discussed penises with his drinking buddies, decided that we were all bare bummers and ran around shouting this verdict, despite our all being fully clothed. This was difficult to take seriously, so Graham threw himself into the role, protesting that this was, after all, no longer the nineteeth century. These denim-clad offspring of Whitesnake fans were so appalled by the possibility that maybe we really were bare bummers that they went to play elsewhere, on the other side of the tennis courts.

More unnerving was the arrival of Bonnie, Janice's much younger sister, and her friend Joanne. They would have been about thirteen, and seemed keen to score points with the older boys and bikers, and they had apparently decided that we were easy targets.

'I've seen more cock on a dead sparrow,' Bonnie smirked at us from the roundabout, having finally caught our attention. We had been hoping that she and her little friend would get bored and piss off, but it wasn't to be. Bonnie smirked a lot, and her features were well-suited to it - like a sort of fish-faced young offender luxuriating in the knowledge of being a girl and thus traditionally immune to the kind of retaliation her comments might warrant under other circumstances. We told her to fuck off, but it didn't bother her, inviting only the somewhat obvious response of just who was going to make her fuck off, and which army they intended to enlist in furtherance of this objective.

Joanne, her sidekick, would underscore each comment with guttural laughter. Hur hur hur hur.

More cock on a dead sparrow - the accusation was bewildering, as none of us could really care less about this weirdly vicious little creature's estimate of our collective masculinity. Someone probably made a comment about the reproductive organs of the common sparrow being mostly internal, so the comparison seemed poorly made, but Bonnie seemed to take all those long words as proof of her original statement.

'Hur hur hur hur,' Joanne chuckled because we were all big queer benders or whatever.

Why us?, I wondered. These girls went to our school, and now they really seemed to be going for the jugular. Had any of our group even done so much as noticed them before, or were they simply joining in with the town consensus? After a while they seemed to lose interest, but hung around by the slide and the roundabout. At one point, Bonnie somehow fell over and, laughing, registered a loud complaint about having hurt her quim, and she actually used the mediaeval term. I got the impression she wanted us to hear, and I found it surprisingly unpleasant to listen to a thirteen year old girl who had apparently adopted the vocabulary of a seasoned author of down-market pornographic copy.

They started in on us again, this time with Joanne enthusiastically joining in to catalogue our numerous imagined failings as men. This seemed a poor decision on her part given that whole deal about people in glass houses not throwing stones. She was a bullish girl with a head the shape of a huge unshelled peanut and a deep, gruff voice.

'She's more of a man than all you lot put together,' Bonnie smirked.

There was moment of silence as everyone gave serious consideration to the comparison. Graham muttered something along the lines of how he didn't think anyone could argue with that.

Another moment passed before the laughter erupted in force. Pete laughed so hard that he fell off the swing as Joanne's heavy brow lowered to define the frown of a small, female Incredible Hulk.

'Oh dear.' Steve tried to speak through the tears, addressing Bonnie. 'You've really dropped your friend in it there.'

They left, because there was no coming back from that one. They had shot themselves in the collective foot, and from then on, each time one of us passed either girl in the school corridor we would be subjected to some reiteration of the theme of our being gay homosexual benders. Such comments were countered with reference to the ambiguous sexuality of JoManne, as we came to know her, or by singing a few bars of the Song of the Volga Boatmen, or beating our chests and roaring like gorillas, or lowering our voices as far as they would go and simply retorting with the words deep voice, drawing the syllables out as though it were a Gregorian chant. Eventually it worked, and the girls got bored, and hostilities ceased.

With hindsight, we said some truly horrible things. Joanne may have been entirely happy about her own appearance, or we may each have contributed to some later body dysmorphia, or she may have had a terrible home life which had driven her to take it out on us, or she may simply have been too fucking thick to understand the flaws in her own bullshit small-town mentality; but what has been said has been said, and it was all a long time ago, and in any case, we didn't start it.

Friday, 8 August 2014

The Fourth

It is the fourth of July. I've woken early, fed the cats and spent an hour or so reading. My wife is still in bed, but is now awake. She has been off work for a few days, the first holiday she has taken in what seems like at least a year. Junior is staying with his father, and so we have had a relaxing time.

'I don't think George Washington has been yet,' I tell her. 'The pumpkin pie and beer we left out are still under the tree.' It's an old joke but it still raises a laugh, and seems to work for both Independence Day and Thanksgiving. If you've been good, George Washington will bring you presents.

'Was this independence from England, or was it something to do with the civil war?' I still have trouble recalling which public holiday relates to which historical occasion. I've been here just three years.

'Independence from England.' Bess then tells me that Canadians once tried to burn down the White House.

'During the war of independence?'


'What the hell did it have to do with them?'

'They sided with your lot.'


In my head, the thousands of square miles of land north of the 49th parallel transmogrify into a cartoon character, a geographical slab of orange mashed potato with legs and a face.

Ooh ooh, I'll help you, England. I'm on your side. It turns to blow a raspberry at a similarly shaped character representing the United States.

'I'll see you in a couple of hours.' I kiss my wife on the nose, pull on my boots, and head out of the kitchen door. Yesterday I bought a small United States flag in HEB. There were a load of them on sale at the checkout, one dollar each, the Stars & Stripes on a rectangle of cloth attached to a foot or so of wooden dowel. I bought one because I could think of no good reason not to and they seemed quite nicely made, and now I've mounted it on the rear of my bicycle, expecting it will catch the breeze as I cycle along. I know people who may find this ridiculous, but I'm past caring. I also wear a Stetson because I burn easily and it keeps the sun off my head, and a T-shirt which was a present from Bess's aunt which bears the message you might give some serious thought to thanking your lucky stars you're in Texas. It is exactly this sort of confrontational humour which appeals to me.

I saddle up, in a manner of speaking, and freewheel out onto the street, across Harry Wurzbach Parkway, and down past the school. It's only just gone half past seven, and although the air is warm it's still quite pleasant. I'm pleased with myself. I try to cycle fifteen miles every day, so during summer, the earlier I can get going, the better. Most of the trail I follow is through woodland, so I'm in the shade, but the heat nevertheless becomes a little too much to endure if I leave too late in the morning.

The roads are quiet and for some reason I find myself thinking of Brackenridge Park. We used to spend a few hours there every Wednesday evening. Bess's mother would collect Junior from school, and once my wife had finished work, we would all meet up at Brackenridge Park. There is a race held there on Wednesday evenings, and Sid always runs, so we go along to watch him and to lend our support. Sid is an old friend of the family to the point of more or less being one of the family. He is in his seventies and is one of the tallest men I have ever met, so it's always fairly easy to spot him, bobbing along happily at the rear of the crowd, at least a couple of feet taller than everyone else. We all wave, and he waves back.

Thirty or so minutes later he will come to find us at one of the benches where Mexican families hold their barbecues.

'Howdy, Mr. Burton.' He has the smile of someone who knows something but isn't telling, and he speaks slowly, with disconcertingly lengthy pauses occurring mid-sentence. 'Well, you know I've been reading,' - and into one of those pauses as he sits, arranges his long legs beneath the bench, then considers the rest of the sentence before at last submitting 'about your MI5 and your secret service.'

I'm English, so they're my MI5 and my secret service. I can never quite work out why Sid imagines I will have any useful information on these subjects, but I suppose it's his way of bringing some common ground to the conversation. It seems to make him happy, and so that makes me happy. He's Jewish and very, very much a Texan - a cultural mix I could not have envisioned at any point before I came to live here. I suppose we must seem quite exotic to each other in certain respects.

'So how's my silver fox?'

He is now addressing Bess's mother, who probably heard fine but isn't sure how to respond to that one. Bess and I exchange a look of amused incredulity, and even Junior seems to find it funny to hear his grandmother addressed as such.

Silver fox!

My wife's mother might be described as the strong, silent type. She doesn't give much away, and tends to speak only when she has something she feels is worth saying. I am told she once talked a gun-wielding nutcase in a diner into giving himself up, and I can well believe it. She carries herself with the sort of authority which makes the rest of us disinclined to address her in terms quite so playful as silver fox.

Junior has just called Sid bald eagle, too quiet for Sid to hear and offered as a sort of counterpoint to silver fox. My wife is silently trying  to swallow back her laughter. Sid, as Junior has clearly noted, has a certain heraldic grandeur, and so the nickname seems well chosen if a little blunt.

We haven't met up at Brackenridge Park in a while, and I wonder why I should be thinking of it right now as I turn off Corinne Drive and head down Eisenhauer Road towards the market on my bicycle. I suppose maybe that it could be the weather, or just that I feel similarly relaxed.

I cycle onto the path that is the Tobin Trail, which follows Salado Creek from the Spanish missions in the south of the city all the way up to McAllister Park in the north. There are quite a few people out this morning, running, cycling, or walking their dogs, which are mostly either chihuahuas or dachshunds for some reason - both popular breeds in San Antonio. A few people have small flags pinned to their cycle helmets or elsewhere. Everyone smiles and says good morning, and now I remember just why I picked out my one dollar Stars & Stripes from the bin next to the checkout at HEB. It's because I like living here.

A few hours later on some social networking site I see that an acquaintance has marked the occasion with a quote from Harold Pinter:

The crimes of the United States have been systematic, constant, vicious, remorseless, but very few people have actually talked about them. You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good. It's a brilliant, even witty, highly successful act of hypnosis.

I respond with thin sarcasm, adding I wish someone had mentioned this before. Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem to warrant any greater effort on my part. Whilst it may well be true, it has no direct bearing on my situation, and nothing is going to piss me off today.

Friday, 1 August 2014

On Punching Brick Walls

I could be wrong, and I may quite easily have conflated one bad memory with another, but as I recall it was the night of the party. The party was in Overhill Road in East Dulwich, not far from where Bon Scott, one time vocalist of the Australian hard rock band AC/DC famously and tragically cashed in his chips. I didn't know the people, although I had delivered their mail for a couple of years back when I'd been on that route. They were friends of Dora the Explorer, my girlfriend of the time. I'm not sure how she knew them.

I hadn't wanted to go to the party, because I dislike parties as a general principle. I dislike the noise, the smoke, the terrible musical preferences of other people, and my face hurting from grinning at strangers and people in whom I have either little or no interest. I am simply not a person who enjoys social situations, and typically Dora the Explorer told me that this was because I never made the effort to enjoy them, and that I needed to branch out. I was by now well accustomed to her holding four fingers aloft and telling me that I could see five, so there didn't seem to be much point in fighting over it. It was true, I conceded, that the party was in the future, and that I had no psychic ability by which I could see into said future, and I was thus unable to say with absolute conviction that I really would hate every second of the party; and so by default Dora the Explorer was right as usual.

Her name wasn't really Dora the Explorer of course, but she was short and with that same haircut, so the name will do for now. I suspect the anger issues and what we may as well refer to as short woman syndrome were possibly more pronounced than with her animated namesake, but then cartoon Dora was lucky enough to have been born in some undifferentiated third world Banana republic and was thus spared the living hell of growing up in Richmond with an expensive private education and the grim spectre of inheritance tax enforcing sale of the place in France when mother joins Bon Scott in that great big shareholder's meeting in the sky.

So we set out for the party, walking up Lordship Lane towards the Plough, or the Goose and Granite as some faceless corporate carbon blob had retitled the historic pub at the junction of Lordship Lane and Barry Road. We waited at the bus-stop, then caught a bus two-hundred yards to the corner of Overhill Road. Dora the Explorer had declared that this was a long, long way, and too far to walk, because apparently she was only two feet tall and had already walked to the shop at the end of her road that day. I couldn't be bothered to argue. I already knew I would be wrong.

My powers of precognition had been similarly acute with regards to the party. We stayed for three or four hours. I watched Dora the Explorer hand out business cards she'd had printed, advertising her services as a gardener. She had stopped turning up at the two or three regular gardens which she supposedly tended, but I guess she liked the feel of thrusting her business cards in the faces of complete strangers. She called it networking, and this made her a more successful person than the rest of us.

I failed to find interesting conversation because I couldn't hear anyone over the probably ironic seventies disco records rattling speakers arranged all about the house, and the people out in the garden were smoking joints, or partaking as they say in the business. I've always found the smell unpleasant, and the conversation which comes with it dull and repetitive, because no-one can just light one up; they must talk about it as well. I hated the party, having decided that I didn't want to enjoy myself, as Dora the Explorer later explained.

It wasn't a good evening. We weren't fully recovered from the argument which had concluded with my punching a brick wall. As stated, I'm no longer absolutely certain of the terrible party having followed this particular disagreement, but even if it didn't, it may as well have done.

She had arrived at my flat - my new flat - all dressed up and ready to go, purple backpack bulging with business cards, Overhill Road dutifully marked on the map as it sang away in the back pocket of her jungle adventure shorts. If there's a place you got to go, I'm the one you need to know...

It wasn't that I made a habit of punching brick walls, but it was something I did from time to time when experiencing significant frustration. I was almost always on my own, and I never punched too hard, just enough to vent sufficient anger as to allow me to think in a straight line once more. It seemed more dignified than throwing my head back and howling like either a wolf or Robert Plant. I had a friend who broke his guitar hand by punching a shopping centre. It had struck me as a particularly stupid thing to do, not least because the motivating frustration had, as I recall, been some idiocy entirely of his own making, either a heroin habit, or a girlfriend calling him an insulting name having discovered him to be shagging someone else on the sly. Whatever it was, it had been a situation to which poor me didn't really apply, but nevertheless that had been the thrust of his campaign. Whatever my failings, I was at least better than that.

I had moved into my new flat, smaller than the previous one and with the rent costing three times what I'd been used to. It wasn't an ideal situation, but it had been the best I could find, although quite naturally I was not entirely happy about it. As usual, Dora the Explorer's sympathy was not overwhelming. Her lips narrowed, and she flicked her hair, raising her head to regard me through school ma'am spectacles.

'Well, perhaps you should have listened to me for once.'

'Listened to you...' It felt as though I rarely had the opportunity to do anything else, and I was confused as to where I'd screwed up this time given that I'd hardly been actively seeking smaller and more expensive accommodation.

'You'd be helping both of us by moving into my spare room, but no,' and there followed a detailed list of the ways in which I had let us both down.

Dora the Explorer had a room in her house which she rented out to students from time to time. Laura, her most recent lodger, had recently left, leaving Dora the Explorer with no income other than the gardening jobs in which she had lost interest. She had suggested that I become her lodger, thus killing two birds with one stone, providing her with an income, and bringing us one step closer to living together as a couple. I tried to explain that I didn't want to move into her spare room. I had too much stuff, I was in my forties, and I had no wish to be in a relationship with my landlady. Additionally, I doubted I would be particularly easy to live with, and knew for sure that this was equally true of Dora the Explorer.

She expanded on her disappointment, and I understood that my problems had come about because I had failed to do as Dora asked. This was her understanding of the situation. This was her understanding of most situations. She began to explain how hurtful it was to know that I had no respect for her opinion, that I had failed to value her advice, taking another problem to the place in which they all came to rest. Dora would figuratively kick you in the shins, and then complain that you had not thanked her, and when finally you thanked her because it was the only thing that would shut her up, she would complain that you had not sounded sincere and ask you to say it again, and to keep saying it until she believed you.

I went over it again, why I didn't want to move into her spare room, trying as hard as I could to emphasise why it was potentially as bad an idea from her perspective as from mine. As I finished, I realised I had mistakenly reiterated the case for my defence in Mandarin Chinese, and that she hadn't understood a word. Again she explained how hurtful it was to know that I had no respect for her opinion, and that as ever I failed to value her advice.

'Shall we go to this party?' I suggested, hoping to sound breezy and enthusiastic, and that she would be so confused as to forget what we'd been talking about. Unfortunately I forgot to not speak Swahili, and my suggestion came out as yoo a lọ si yi kẹta?

She went on, her voice rising in tone as she began to resemble a tiny female Davros with a Johnny Ramone haircut. She was beginning to rant, the usual stuff about how I never listen, and how her Daleks would once and for all wipe the scourge of the Thals from the face of Skaro. She held up her hand, showing me four fingers which I knew would be five. I understood on some level that this was fucking ridiculous, and that I wasn't going to be bullied this time. An irresistible metaphorical force met a figurative moving object and I experienced a sort of mental white-out.

I had walked out into the hall and thumped the wall next to the door to the kitchen. There were a few small cracks in the plaster and my hand hurt like hell, but for a second all I could think of was how beautiful was the quiet. Then I felt awkward, ridiculous.

Dora the Explorer sat in silence. She had begun to cry.

'What's wrong?' I was amazed at how calm I felt.

'I was scared you were going to hit me.'

'I would never have done that.' This was true. The idea seemed ludicrous. I just didn't work that way, but I knew then that I had only given Dora the Explorer something new with which to beat me over the head. From that point on my terrible temper would be invoked each time we argued as a result of my failure to obey without question. She would refer to battered women, and tell me that this was not a fate she wanted for herself, thank you very much.

Next day we travelled to Richmond to meet her mother, the woman who was the alleged cause of all Dora the Explorer's problems, or at least those problems which weren't directly my own fault. I liked her mother as I had never had a good reason not to. She was small, frail, very old, and almost unfeasibly upper-class. Her face would light up with genuine affection as she finally made it to the door when her daughter came to visit, but the smile would fade as Dora the Explorer began to upbraid her about the state of the seemingly clean and tidy house, or items in the fridge which were past their sell by date. Margaret, a neighbour of similar age and horsey heritage drove us all to a nearby botanic garden somewhere past Hampton Court. We ate a civilised lunch in the restaurant.

'I say, what did you do to your hand, old thing?'

I regarded my swollen knuckles. I had made a brave attempt to affect nonchalance, to eat with one hand as though it were a conscious choice, sawing things in half with the edge of the fork.

'I had an accident at work.'

'Oh goodness! You really must be more careful, dear boy.'

The concern was unexpected but appreciated. I savoured the sensation of someone giving a shit about my well-being, these elderly matriarchs of a world I would never understand, a world which had somehow spawned the passive-aggressive control freak to whom I was betrothed. I looked around the table, at the two old women enjoying the day out and relishing the splendour of their surroundings, then at Dora the Explorer as she scowled at her food, already silently composing the usual complaints regarding service or standards; and I wondered what any of us could have done to deserve this.