Friday, 29 April 2016


The yard at the back of the house was a desert when we first moved here; or maybe I mean semi-desert - our own private Trans-Pecos to the tune of about half a football pitch, lacking only groups of wandering Coahuiltecs to complete the picture. The soil was fine black dust with some plant life dried blonde by the Texas summer and a generous smattering of bottle caps - mostly Bud Lite and related children's drinks. The bottle caps were at their greatest concentration around the dead trunk of a pecan tree, just a jagged pole left jutting upwards into the sky, no branches to speak of. A gas-burning barbecue grill had come to die against the trunk of the tree, rusted and with one shitty plastic wheel broken at an awkward angle.

The idiot who first showed us around the house tried to suggest it was some sort of feature, that maybe we could get the thing fired up and have parties out there once we were settled. A few minutes earlier he'd pointed to the crappy tubular plastic frame of a circular garden table, or what would have been a table if there had been any glass in it.

'You could probably get some glass cut for that,' he told us.

This was a full size table, albeit one of a kind I'd seen on sale at Walmart or one of those places for about fifteen dollars, which I correlate with it costing me a little more than that to have a square foot of glass specially cut at a Thad Ziegler outlet, therefore concluding that the guy who first showed us around the house was a massive competition-level knob.

We moved the broken barbecue grill around the side of the garage, unsure as to whether or not it was really supposed to be a feature, but reluctant to give it to one of those Mexican guys who drives around looking for scrap in case it was. I suppose it at least reinforces the impression I'm trying to foster of our having nothing worth taking in the event of burglary, in case it isn't obvious from the blinds at all angles and half-eaten by cats.

The house had been empty for a while, and before us there had been young guys whose main interests were apparently partying and drinking beer - possibly also pouring said beer over each other's heads whilst yelling awesome. The yard had not been watered in some time, thus leaving only seasonal rainfall and the local water table to tend the prehistory of my garden.

First I dug the entire thing over to a depth of about a foot, turning the earth and getting out the larger rocks, which I used to make a drystone border. This took a little over six months, bringing me around to spring. I tried Bermuda grass seed in some areas with mixed results, but kept on watering as I noticed a few patches of the naturally growing grass - seemingly a variation on Bermuda grass - making a return. I worked at this for a couple of hours a day and it still took two years to get it looking like something which had come about by means of human agency.

I started the Bermuda grass off from seed sown beneath a protective netting which retained moisture. The grass did well and came up quite thick using this method, but unfortunately so did a specific kind of broad-leaf weed which I will term arsehole daisy because I am yet to achieve formal identification. The problem got worse as I began to seed the northern side of the garden, the part which gets the most sun. Just three days after laying down the grass seed, the netting, pinned down at the edges, would be puffed up and stretched taut across great cabbage-like blooms of arsehole daisy. I felt like the monkey in the child's joke vainly attempting to return the cork to the pig's bottom, and even without the arsehole daisies, my established patches of bermuda grass were beginning to thin and fail.

I took an arsehole daisy to the local hardware store, but they didn't know what it was either. I bought a sack of supergrass to cheer myself up. It wasn't called supergrass, but it was some name like that, and it was cheap and absolutely guaranteed to be the most amazing grass you've ever seen, and it would definitely grow and everything, and you would be so happy with how fanfuckingtastic this grass was going to turn out that you'd probably shit yourself. Nevertheless it struck me as odd that the packaging made no reference to what actual species of seed I was about to chuck all across my yard.

The supergrass grew quickly into huge clumps of a tough, fat bladed plant which clogged our newly purchased lawnmower, and it was October and the weather was cooling again, too cool for Bermuda grass. I had the entire yard neatly defined by borders marked out with rows of stone, which helped somehow, but it still felt like I wasn't really getting anywhere. I switched to rye grass on the grounds that it reputedly does well in the winter. Local lore seemed to recommend a mix of Bermuda - which grows during the hot part of the year and then goes dormant as winter approaches - and rye, which will grow when the Bermuda is beginning to turn brown.

So I carried on, just doing what I could and trying not to get too pissed off with any of it. I'd read plenty of science-fiction novels wherein plucky colonists attempt to scrape a living from the harsh Martian soil, and I knew I had at least one advantage over those guys in so much as that I was still on Earth. I kept on watering, and between the Bermuda and the rye and whatever the wild stuff was that looked a lot like Bermuda, the yard at the back eventually developed a lawn, albeit a lawn with a couple of patches depending on the time of year. It became a garden.

It was a conscious act of claiming my territory whilst engaging directly with the physical substance of the land - which seemed important given that I'm new to these parts. Additionally I would suggest that gardening is good for the soul, or at least for the intellect, as D.H. Lawrence almost certainly observed at some point or other. In claiming my territory, I've taken it back from the previous resident morons with their shitty knackered barbecue grill; and tellingly this seems to have had an actual physical effect on the house itself, specifically the kitchen door which once had a tendency to stick during damp weather, and to stick so tight that on bad days it could only be opened by a hefty run taken at it with one shoulder to the fore. Yet after that first year the problem just went away. My theory is that the ground beneath the house had become so desiccated that the entire structure had begun to split in half, as suggested by a crack running across the living room ceiling and down the wall; so my keeping the garden watered seems to have at least fixed one aspect of the problem. We've had no trouble with the kitchen door since.

These days it's mostly just weeding and mowing, although there are still not quite enough hours in the day to keep on top of such an expanse, and I have to mow by hand with a reel mower, having apparently bust the electric mower on a particularly tough clump of supergrass. I've divided the entire patch up into six parts - two out front, four at the back - and I mow one each day so that it never becomes too gargantuan a task. So for two days out of every six I get to mow and nod or exchange grunting noises with passing neighbours. There's a hillbilly woman who lives down the road who always grins and shares some incomprehensible observation, for one example. I only know her because of Gary, her cat.

Gary has been spending a lot of time at our house, joining in when I feed the local strays. He's enormous, and we initially mistook him for our own Fluffy. At one point he turned up wearing a green collar with a little bell, which I found abandoned a couple of days later. I walked down the road and knocked on the door where I thought I'd seen him hanging around. The hillbilly woman looked momentarily terrified, then understood when I explained that her cat had taken to hanging around in my garden and I was just returning his collar.

'You mean Fat Cat,' she chuckled and yee-hawed toothlessly.

I can't bring myself to call him Fat Cat. It seems rude, and in any case he reminds me of Gary, my former similarly big-boned neighbour who always seemed to be there just hanging around whenever I went out into the back garden.

If it isn't the Hillbilly woman, it's Dee Dee or Angela or John, sometimes Frasier or Donna, and occasionally Shooty the drug dealer - which probably isn't his actual name. I smile and nod and look quickly away because he's rumoured to have certain mental health issues, and he's been inside the stripey hole, and there was something in the papers about a firearm which may or may not have been discharged into somebody. I'm not even certain that it's him, but he lives in that house, and I'm not going to ask, 'are you that crack dealer who shot his buddy a few months back?' He seems polite enough, whoever he is. His presence on our street means that I get to watch young men in basketball gear drinking their forties from brown paper bags, just like in the films.

Last week I was mowing the lawn and Shooty walked across.

'Hey, you want your lawn mowed?' he asked.

It took me a moment to confirm for the sake of my own peace of mind that yes, here I was mowing my lawn whilst a neighbour asked me if I would like my lawn mowed. Logically I suppose he wanted to know whether I would like him to mow it for ten dollars, or twenty or whatever the going rate was.

'I'm fine,' I said.

I had established my territory.

This is my lawn, I thought to myself as he walked back to his stoop in defeat.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Popeye's Concentration Camp

It's the weekend and the kid is away, most likely on his father's boat down in the Gulf of Mexico, face glued to a screen as he plays a game in which you have to manoeuvre a virtual kid onto a boat and get him fishing; so Bess and I have a day of doing whatever we like.

'How about Crystal City?' I suggest. 'How far is that?'

'Not too far,' She tells me, and it's settled.

She has been reading Jan Jarboe Russell's The Train to Crystal City, an account of the internment camp which was there during the second world war - the concentration camp, if we're to be honest. It was set up for the detention of persons of Japanese and - to a lesser extent - German or Italian heritage, those mostly American citizens whom the government suspected of having potentially divided loyalties. It was a long, long way from being fair, and life in the camp was tough in many respects, but on the other hand, aside from no-one being able to leave, I gather the inmates were for the most part looked after at least as well as anyone staying at a Ramada Inn. Some were to serve as bargaining pieces to be repatriated in exchange for the release of American families or hostages trapped over the other side, and so it was in everyone's interest that they should suffer no great hardship. In the historical hierarchy of concentration camps, Crystal City had very little in common with those set up by the Nazi regime in Poland; and yet the very existence of the place seems peculiar, like something from an alternate history - America's concentration camp.

It was nothing to be proud of - not least when some Jewish families were repatriated back to what had then not quite been officially recognised as a genocidal regime - but it was otherwise tame compared to what was happening in Europe and Japan.

Crystal City is about twenty miles from the Mexican border, south-west of us, therefore a drive of about 120 miles which we guess will take a couple of hours. The place isn't exactly near anything, which is presumably why it was chosen for the camp.

It's sunny, hot but not unpleasantly so, and we set off, initially heading for Pearsall - which is where Bess grew up - then taking US-57 west towards La Pryor. I've been west to New Mexico, but this is further to the south and the landscape is quite different. Mostly it's flat and arid, a forest of mesquite trees from one horizon to the other, and these are small, crabby mesquite, nothing ever reaching the heights or stature of the one we have in our garden in San Antonio.

As my wife read about Crystal City, I'd been ploughing my way through W.W. Newcomb's The Indians of Texas, picked up when I realised how little I actually knew about those who had occupied this land for most of its history. Unfortunately it turns out that not too much is known of the native Texans, partially because so many of them were nomadic cultures, and partially because it seems their decline began even before Europeans turned up and started building. San Antonio borders the former territories of a number of different groups, and the land to the south was inhabited by a disparate array of wandering tribes now remembered as Coahuiltecs, more for the sake of geographical convenience than anything. I was familiar with these people only in so much as that the Mexica who built temple platforms in Tenochtitlan far to the south would have dubbed them Chichimecs, a generic term for the nomadic tribes of northern Mexico roughly implying those who suckle at nature's breast. In the case of our Coahuiltecs, Newcomb suggests that the lifestyle was a matter of making do rather than choice, and that tribes inhabiting land such as is found in the far south of Texas have most likely done so having been driven away from some more fertile terrain. As nomads who lived rough and left few significant cultural artefacts behind, the Coahuiltecs are not so well remembered as their more settled neighbours, seeming more suited to the misleading historical role of the savage. Newcomb's book somewhat redresses this misconception, suggesting they were a quick-witted, civilised, and above all, adaptable people who managed to thrive in an environment which would have left most of us struggling at best.

Now as we head for Crystal City, I realise we are passing through what might be considered former Coahuiltec land, which is an oddly exciting thought. I gaze from the car window and consider what it would be like trying to get by out here. It's a subject Bess and I have stumbled across in the course of idle conversation many times, most recently as I related what I'd read about Coahuiltecs finding themselves obliged to eat poo.

It's not such a leap as you might think - or at least it doesn't seem so to me - but there is simply no milder way of putting it. I regularly see deer turds whilst I'm out cycling, and to me they resemble a more rustic version of the Lion Bar, containing plenty of large seeds, some dry grass, and very little material left to be identified as the actual turd. Barring the advent of the apocalypse, I'm never going to pick one up and take a bite, but I can see it might not be such a terrible option if your hunger becomes a matter of life or death. Hunger almost certainly was a matter of life or death for the Coahuiltecs, some of whom occasionally went one stage further and recycled undigested seeds found in their own poo, a practice referred to as the second harvest, and I can't even tell if that's funny or not. It's either disgusting or else it seems disgusting to me, but times were tough and I guess they knew what they were doing.

'Wouldn't you just eat grass?' Bess often suggests, horrified. The question usually arises as she describes the true story of someone forced to eat their own sofa during wartime conditions. It was a leather sofa.

Now we're following US-83 from La Pryor down to Crystal City, the home stretch, and we're both looking at the scrubby mesquite forest thinking about how it would be to live in this land without any real shade.

'What about mesquite beans?' she asks. 'Those trees make a ton of those things.'

'They ate those too, but not all year round.'

'Well, there are cacti.'

'Yes.' I note how there is barely a patch of sandy ground as far as can be seen which doesn't have nopal cacti springing from it. Black vultures circle in a distant part of the sky, so I guess there must also be the occasional bunny, maybe even deer.

Bess is still scowling. 'I don't know - eating your own poo...'

'Well, they probably had a lot of mouths to feed, and we'll never know how it was for them. I guess they did what they had to do.'

We pass a wild turkey at the side of the road. It's tall, slender, and quite dark. It reminds me of a dinosaur from Jurassic Park. This is only the second time I've seen one.

They're very intelligent,' Bess tells me. 'Not like the farmed ones. Those things are really goofy.'

When we come to Crystal City the place looks deserted, although to be fair, having grown up tightly packed into the twenty or so square miles of England's countryside, it doesn't even resemble anything I would call a city. The road is long and fairly straight and I can see a sum total of about three houses set back in the bush at any one time - as I suppose you would call it - rusted farm machinery occupying adjacent plots of dry ground. Eventually some of those buildings we pass seem a little bigger, and one of them is a library, so I suppose I may as well accept that it's a city by some definition.

'Wait,' I say, struggling to recall something to which I hadn't paid too much attention on the local news. 'Isn't this the place where there's no-one left in charge?'

Bess nods, but she doesn't recall much detail either.

The mayor and a whole load of city council types presently reside in the stripy hole on charges of corruption. We watched them all led away in cuffs on the KSAT news programme a few nights ago as we were waiting for Wheel of Fortune. There is no-one in charge - whatever that means - and this realisation strikes me as momentarily alarming in relation to the state of the place. We pass an occasional vehicle, but I see no people. I'm half expecting a tribe of cinematic anarchists from a TV show to emerge from a distant street, all shaking firearms and crowded onto the battered skeleton of a truck pulled by a team of horses.

We find the concentration camp on Popeye Lane. There's a sports ground, an athletics track, and a housing project a little way away. All that is left of the camp are crumbling concrete squares marking where the huts once stood, smaller squares at the centre of each which I guess may have been fireplaces. The ground is flat and incongruously waterlogged with crab grass concealing puddles here and there. We stand and read the plaque which has been mounted in acknowledgement of the place and how we probably shouldn't feel too proud of this detail of American history.

Bess is looking for Popeye.

Crystal City was known for its spinach, and in turn for its spinach factory, which I assume must have been a canning plant. Half of the accounts recorded in the book my wife has been reading mention a statue of Popeye, the cartoon sailor and spinach enthusiast, seen by inmates arriving at the camp. She consults Google on her iPhone, and then we drive a little further to where the statue has been relocated. I guess no-one felt too good about having Popeye the Sailor Man associated with a concentration camp. We find him under a canopy on what I assume to be Crystal City's main strip. For some reason I was expecting something on the scale of the Statue of Liberty, but this Popeye is more or less actual size. In fact, aside from the chin, his proportions seem oddly human. Perhaps the statue originally commemorated some nautical culture hero on whom Popeye was based, I think to myself.

We look around a little, inspecting a line of inexplicably closed-up shops one of which continues the Popeye motif with enthusiastic frescoes of both himself and Olive Oyl jigging a sailor's hornpipe across the facade. There's also the stalled caboose of an old railway a little further along the main strip, and no explanation as to why it's there. We look inside and find Christmas lighting of the kind which tends to be hung from lamp posts at the centre of town.

After another few minutes, we drive home.

'Wouldn't it be funny if that turkey was still there?' I suggest as the thought occurs to me. 'I wish I'd taken a photograph.'

Mere seconds later I realise that somehow I have been able to distinguish this particular section of highway from the rest, and had therefore been reminded of the turkey because there he is, or possibly she - still pecking away at the side of the road.

Bess slows the car some way past, and I get out, pulling my camera from its pouch, but the turkey is already gone.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Bad Day

The bad day began online, as is often the case, specifically with an email notification pertaining to a new post on Next Door - a social networking site designed to fill in for the role of neighbours actually talking to one another as they once did. Most of the time Next Door will be someone looking for a new home for some bit of old furniture, or offering a lawn mowing service, but recent postings have been rendered increasingly exhausting by our local gun nut whining about liberals, or Obama's plan to take away our guns, or the hypothetical presence of ISIS cells in the neighbourhood. So, having signed up I've tended to ignore the actual website, relying on either email notifications or my wife - who is now also a member - to keep me informed in the event of there being anything I really need to know. The email notification which heralded the approach of my bad day pertained to a thread headed Cat Killed in Wilshire Terrace, and which opened with the suggestion that I probably shouldn't read what followed if easily upset, and so I didn't.

I've been down that road before with the kind of email notifications you receive on a daily basis if you've ever signed an online petition to ban this, stop that, or to bring an end to such and such. This petition called for the prosecution of individuals who had posted a video clip of animal cruelty undertaken for kicks on YouTube. I won't describe what had been filmed, but the email provided a link to the offending YouTube clip, and by association an image and a description of what I would see should I follow the link. The act of cruelty had involved a cat and had been filmed for the purpose of entertaining the sort of cunts who would find such a thing entertaining; and given that the reason such cunts would even bother posting such a thing on YouTube seemed most likely be so as to upset people such as myself, then it bothered me how the petition site had effectively done their job for them, even without my watching the thing. Hence I do my best to avoid anything I'm likely to find upsetting beyond the limits of my distress serving some purpose.

We have a number of cats, and as I work from home I spend more time amongst cats than amongst humans, so it would be fair to say that I have a lot of time for cats. Unfortunately this often seems to place me in opposition to a certain section of the online community, namely those who use facebook principally to mount a protest against people posting pictures of cats on facebook. I can understand up to a point in so much as that I find the children's television show Doctor Who annoying and headachey, and there tends to be a lot of Doctor Who in my daily facebook feed; but being an adult I am able to reason that if something brings happiness to a person without involving others being marched off to the gas chambers, then that has to be a good thing. Generally I would hope others might be able to take the same view of those who, like myself, happen to like cats. Most do, but then there are persons like the facebook connection I made on the grounds of my having enjoyed his novel and that we know a load of the same people. His posts hilariously described facebook as catbook and suggested that the love of cats demonstrated by others was quite literally ruining his life. Our love of cats was making his existence a living hell!

Stuck in Guantanamo Bay, blindfolded and having a lamb korma pumped up your arse, or noticing that a facebook acquaintance has shared a photograph of their cat - same fucking thing, my friend, same fucking thing.

Then, on the day that Kirby - one of our own cats - went missing, an unrelated Google search brought me the appalling news of domestic cats having been found dead following probable torture by a psychopath three or four miles from our house; and this was immediately followed by the important novelist's side-splitting facebook post proposing swimming lessons for cats using the brick and sack method.

Ha ha.

I defriended the shit BBC medical-drama scriptwriting cunt, and have done my best to try to learn something from the experience, which is why I now chose not to read Cat Killed in Wilshire Terrace.

The day was okay for the most part. I cycled twenty miles as part of my new daily exercise regime, wrote the usual bollocks, and then mowed some lawn. Our garden at the back is enormous and so I tend to mow it in sections, one quarter of the whole area each day using a reel mower - that is to say one powered by myself - because I knackered the electric one last year. The temperature differential between Texas summer and winter is such as to necessitate two kinds of grass grown on a lawn. Bermuda grass thrives during the hottest time of the year, then dies away around November to be replaced by rye grass, which itself dies away when the Bermuda grass returns in spring. The cycle more or less looks after itself, the only significant problem being just how thick rye grass will grow in a very short space of time, even after what is only a light rain. It was rye grass with which I knackered our electric lawnmower, because when it gets thick, I may as well be trying to mow a lawn of rubber tubing.

My day began to turn bad as I now attempted to mow another quarter of lawn in the back garden. Rain the previous week had set my regular schedule behind by a couple of days in addition to bringing the rye grass up thicker than ever. I pushed the mower into the growth, then brought it back, then forward again, over and over across the same patch. It was like hacking away, like cutting someone's hair with a kitchen knife. The blades clogged with thick green wads, the wheels seized up, and the grass didn't even seem cut so much as crudely levelled; and although I'd opted for the reel mower on the grounds of its use constituting exercise, this was exhausting and far more work than seemed fair. It took me about forty minutes to make a lousy job of what would have taken ten minutes in summer. The work left me pissed off and rudely aware of our garden growing faster than my ability to keep it all in check. I'd finished weeding the cactus patch a week before, and it had returned to its overgrown state even before I could get back to work on borders I hadn't touched in over a year.

I could feel depression settling over me as it does from time to time, without warning, often even without any coherent reason. The term depression may be misleading, but it's the best I have. I've suffered on previous occasions, and have been given a medical diagnosis of my thankfully infrequent darker moods as something other than just feeling a bit pissed off. I once wondered if it might be hereditary given my grandfather's episodes of clinical depression, although being realistic, he was almost certainly suffering from post-traumatic stress following service in the second world war.

To get things in perspective, my circumstances were once substantially more miserable than they are at present. Specifically there's nothing about my present circumstances which could be described as miserable, or even unfortunate. I have no real cause for complaint, and so I suppose I must have some perverse subconscious need to arrange for my own discomfort from time to time. I find myself pissed off by things which don't matter and which have no long term consequences, unfortunate or otherwise.

I've mowed the lawn and now Bess comes home in something of a state. She too has received the email notification for Cat Killed in Wilshire Terrace, but she's read it and is upset. I tell her I don't want to know, and try not to think of what I read when Kirby went missing, what was done to those cats over by Windcrest, or wherever it was.

'The signs are all around on the trees and telephone polls,' Bess tells me.

Cats being mutilated in this area, they read. Beware!

I've already tried to rationalise some of the horrible possibilities. The cat was found on Bradshaw, about a mile away from us, maybe a little more. That places it in the vicinity of Catman's house. Catman is either the local crazy guy, or the local guy who just happens to live on welfare, likes cats and could maybe stand to take more care of his yard, depending on how you look at it. I would guess him to be about late fifties. He's tall and scrawny with straggly hair and a huge white beard. His clothes seem lived in and he pongs a little, but I've spoken to him in the local supermarket from time to time, and he's a nice if slightly intense guy. His yard on the other hand is a mess. It isn't that it's full of rubbish so much as that it is left wild and untended even by the variable standards of our slightly crappy neighbourhood, and there's a six-foot pyramid of discarded cat food tins at the back of the house accounting for why the garden is always full of cats. We don't know if they're his cats or just local strays that he feeds. Each time we pass either Bess or myself will submit an involuntary wave at the place and coo, 'Hey, Catman!' in the vein of Earl Hickey greeting Darnell Turner in an episode of My Name is Earl.

Catman lives one block down from the street on which the mutilated body of a cat was found. I know not everyone likes cats. I can easily imagine that a person who doesn't like cats might be prone to dark thoughts if they lived near Catman, within view of the pyramid. Additionally, it's presently spring break which is historically a time when retarded deeds tend to be done with greater frequency due to those responsible being at liberty rather than at school. Given the presence within our neighbourhood of at least one gun nut who worries he might be sharing his road with an ISIS cell, I can easily imagine someone young and morally stunted electing to take a stand against Catman by hurting one of his cats with the added bonus of terrifying the shit out of the rest of us. This is what I've been telling myself, that it might be a vendetta waged against one particular person rather than cats as a species. I tell Bess, but it doesn't really bring much comfort.

It's six in the evening so I cook the dinner - chicken in walnut sauce. I usually serve it with potatoes done in a certain Mexican style with bacon and coriander, but as we're both trying to cut down on the carbohydrates, I've done cauliflower as well as potatoes; but there's too much material for the one pan, and cauliflower florets fall to the floor as I mix in the seasoning. The pans, of which there are three presently on the cooker, have become too hot to pick up without an oven glove, and somehow I now have too little space in which to put anything down. I'm getting more and more stressed as food I've prepared spills from pans onto the tiled work surface and down into the cracks.

'Fuck!' I pick a stray cauliflower floret from the floor, step outside and hurl it against the frame of the porch to teach it a lesson.

Dinner is eventually served but somehow it doesn't taste so great to me, despite which I eat too much, or at least enough to leave myself in some discomfort. Bess thinks it tastes fine, so I suppose that's something.

After dinner we drive to the Methodist Hospital to visit Myra. She fell at the weekend, fracturing the bone down the left side of her face and jaw. They've operated and she has four metal plates and twenty screws in her skull. She looks a state. We're all relieved, but I can't stop thinking on what a shitty world it is that such a thing as this could have happened to the woman.

We return home, and more and more I feel like buying cigarettes, when I haven't smoked or even felt the urge in a long time. I feel numb. I feel like going to sleep for a year or two. The world seems cold and cruel and joyless. There is no prospect for anything good ever again.

Of course I recognise the feelings for what they are, none of which makes any difference to the fact of my experiencing them.

The signs are still up. Cats being mutilated in this area. Beware!

Bess and I bring all of the cats inside, except we can't find either Snowy or Kirby and have to hope they will remain in some place where a roving nocturnal lunatic is unlikely to find them. Keep your cats in at night, was the thrust of Cat Killed in Wilshire Terrace on Next Door, so we're doing what we can, not least because further dismembered bodies have been found in the same area. A few of our cats tend to remain inside at night anyway, but the others are accustomed to staying outside and are clearly pissed off with this change to the established routine.

Holly is in our bedroom. Ordinarily I would put her out in the hall and wedge the door shut with the doorstop so as to prevent her waking us up in the middle of the night, but tonight I can't be bothered. I'm past caring and I feel protective towards all of them because they're my family.

I just want it to stop.

I pop an Oxycodone I have left over from harrowing dental treatment some years earlier and look forward to the cotton wool effect. It's not something I'm in the habit of doing but tonight feels like dangerous, unexplored territory.

After I turn out the light, Nibbler or one of the others manages to get our bedroom door open because the lock has never worked and the doorstop I purchased from Lowes a couple of years ago - the only one they had in stock - is crap; much like everything. In the darkness I can feel a tidal wave of cats washing into our room and taking their places on the bed with us.

I don't quite sleep, and both Nibbler and Holly wake me from whatever state of slumber I almost attain with kitty headbutts at different intervals. Enoch wanders around the house meowing his arse off like a little velvet fire alarm every thirty minutes or so, just as we knew he would, which is why he otherwise usually goes outside at night. I can't even be mad at them. I love these cats and would do almost anything to keep them safe. I just hope Snowy and Kirby are okay out there.

They are, and are at the door waiting to come in when I get up to feed them all around seven. So far as I can see there are no mutilated feline bodies on the front lawn.

Even before she is out of bed, Bess looks at Next Door on her iPhone. The police report is in, because this kind of animal cruelty is now a felony. The police report is adamant that the Bradshaw cats were killed by a coyote. It's horrible, but it's at least preferable to that which we've been fearing for the previous twelve hours. Coyotes are a rare sight within the city limits, but not unknown. I myself saw one down on Holbrook over a year ago.

The whole day suddenly looks different. In fact the whole world looks different, and somehow we came through. I can live with acts of God or nature or whatever you prefer to call it.

Friday, 8 April 2016

I, Fatso

I experienced a medical condition during the winter of 2010, a certain itch brought on by a surfeit of the body's natural yeast. It was a condition I recognised as having affected at least two human females of my formerly close acquaintance, but no-one ever told me that a male might also suffer with the same embarrassing condition. I went to see the doctor, specifically asking to see a male doctor just as I would were I a character with a sensitive problem in a seventies situation comedy. He explained that it was common - much to my astonishment - probably resulting from either too much sugar in my system, or not enough exercise of a sort which would ordinarily convert that sugar into the energy by which I might open up a packet of crisps or wobble along to the chippy in Earlsdon High Street. He said that my condition was probably nothing, but recommended that I eat less shite, get more exercise, and have a blood test.

I wasn't aware of my diet being particularly poor, and ignored the associated segments of advice on the grounds of my having reached the age of forty-five without ever having eaten either a deep fried Mars Bar or anything purchased from Taco Bell; although I realised that he probably had a point about the exercise. When employed full-time by Royal Mail I'd never really had to think about exercise as an activity in its own right because the job was physically very demanding. Since leaving Royal Mail I had taken agency work with Parcel Force, but the work was intermittent - three days a week, sometimes two, and sometimes nothing at all. When there was no work to be had I spent my time engaged in selling off many years of accumulated crap on eBay, but would usually try to get in some cycling each morning for the sake of exercise and getting out of the house. Ordinarily I would follow a fifteen mile circuit of rural back roads through Kenilworth, the villages of Leek Wootton and Stoneleigh, and then back into Coventry; but this was winter.

I'd spent twenty years trudging around in the freezing cold and pouring rain of English winter, fingers numb to the bone, and with the midday sun barely risen above the rooftops of the houses on the other side of the street for most of November through to January. Just the thought of outside was bad enough, and with no wage-related incentive to propel me forward each morning, I had fallen to the habit of putting off the daily bike ride for later in the week when it might hopefully be a bit less miserable out there. Following the initial visit to the doctor, I coaxed myself back onto two wheels a couple of times, but it was hard to find the motivation.

I'd had a blood test and was called back to the medical centre now that the results had come though. This time I saw a female doctor but I didn't let it bother me seeing as this visit was not directly concerned with the previously mentioned sensitive problem and it therefore didn't seem likely that I would be required to slap it out on the table. She told me that I was overweight for my height and age, and that my blood pressure was through the roof, as was my cholesterol, and I would probably be dead before the end of the week. Okay, she didn't actually say that I would probably be dead before the end of the week, but given the severity of her report I expect she was thinking it.

'What can I do?' I asked, terrified.

She muttered something about reducing my daily quota of visits to McDonalds, something about exercise, and then wrote out a prescription for a course of simvastatins.

This seemed more shocking than any implied coronary resulting from my chip-scoffing ways. 'Is that really necessary?' I asked.

She seemed to think it was.

'Look,' I said. 'I've been sat on my arse eating crisps for most of the last six weeks, or may as well have been. How about if I get back to my daily routine of fifteen miles? I mean, that should make a difference, shouldn't it?'

'I'm more worried about getting those triglycerides down right now,' she said, whatever the hell that meant. Her face suggested this was a life or death situation.

I argued some more, then relented and picked up a box of the prescribed tablets from the chemist in Earlsdon High Street.

I started taking them, having read about the possible side effects on the side of the packet. As the warning predicted I was unable to sleep and began to feel somewhat depressed. By the third day I had been awake for seventy-two hours, and awake meaning wide awake, and I felt like killing myself. My existence had turned cold and grey and joyless. I hadn't seen the sun in weeks. There was nothing to look forward to. There was no good in the world. My life was pointless and a complete waste of time. I had never felt so profoundly bereft of hope as on that third day. I spoke to the woman at the chemists and she told me that it generally takes a couple of weeks before you get used to simvastatins. The urge to commit suicide would pass.

Fuck that, I said to myself, and stopped taking the things.

I returned to the medical centre. My doctor was seriously pissed off. 'You should have spoken to me. You don't just decide to withdraw from a prescribed course of medicine as you've done. You can't just stop like that. You're very lucky that nothing terrible happened.'

'Well it was either stop,' I explained, 'or hope I could make it another two weeks without slashing my wrists. I'm sure simvastatins are wonderful once they start working properly, but unless I'm actually at death's door, I'd really just like to see how I get on with a bit more regular exercise.'

She wasn't happy, which was too bad. I myself hadn't been particularly delighted by our initial encounter in which she had started on my prescription before I'd even finished speaking. It had felt somewhat as though she'd been considering what course of drugs would be best for me before I'd even walked through the door.

Anyway, as promised I'd been getting out on the bike every day, and accordingly when she took my blood pressure it was normal. Nevertheless she didn't seem convinced, but I refused to take any more drugs when the side effects seemed far worse than whatever good the stuff might be doing.

Six months later I visited a doctor in Knightsbridge for a medical assessment in accordance with the conditions of my applying for the K1 visa by which I would emigrate to the United States. My blood pressure was fine. My cholesterol was fine. I was in perfect health, despite the doom which had been foretold back in Coventry just before Christmas.

Five years later I am subject to another medical examination, this time at my wife's place of work conducted in accordance with the wishes of whoever it is that supplies our medical insurance. I take off my shoes and stand on the scales. I am fourteen stone, which is the heaviest I remember ever having been. A nurse takes blood from my fingertip, and then I sit and await the results. After about five minutes another nurse takes me to a different room. I sit in front of a laptop, and a young woman appears on the screen. She wears a headset and has the results of my blood test in front of her. I am mystified as to why this part of the consultation can't be done right here with another human present just like in the good old days.

The woman speaks. Her voice sounds autotuned, and the words suggest a script with the customary quota of phrases deemed conducive to customer satisfaction by some focus group. She smiles far too much and talks about the two of us like we're a partnership, how we might consider refraining from emptying an entire shaker of salt over our platter every time we sit down to our daily triple-cheese lardburger.

My cholesterol is high.

My blood pressure is high.

What a fat bastard I am, and so on and so forth.

I might like to consider engaging in daily exercise, which I suppose means that the fifteen miles I've been cycling more or less every day, five days a week for the last five or six years isn't actually exercise. I should also cut down on processed food, and I have trouble working out what she even means by this given that I haven't eaten a Dairylea cheese triangle since I lived in England. I need to stop eating all those naughty but nice things which I'm not actually eating anyway, unless you count chicken fried steak at Jim's diner once every couple of months.

Screw you, Lady, I think resentfully whilst smiling and thanking her for her competitively priced time. I'm already looking forward to the online customer satisfaction survey.

It's true that I'm fourteen stone, which is the heaviest I've been; but then I'm fifty and I no longer smoke. I'm no stranger to carbohydrates, it's true; but at the same time I exercise regularly and it's not like I'm chugging Big Macs all day long, or at all for that matter. This annoys me somewhat, although I suppose my own personal call centre healthcare professional failing to suggest a course of simvastatins must count for something. I suppose I could cut down on mashed potato and pasta, but I'm reminded of my mother being advised by her doctor to avoid cheese.

'Then what would be the point in being alive?' she asked.

I could cut down on mashed potato and pasta, but I'm not going to because that's why I cycle fifteen miles a day.

As a concession I've now upped my daily ride to twenty miles, mainly because it's weird being fourteen stone and I have trousers and shirts I would like to wear again before I die; but this is as much as I'm doing because if a daily twenty mile bike ride isn't enough, then maybe I'm simply destined to be fat and there's nothing I can do about it, short of switching to a diet of food I don't want to eat.

Somehow it transpires that fifteen miles a day wasn't exercise, and yet twenty is, because I've already lost a couple of pounds

I suppose that's a good thing.

Friday, 1 April 2016

Durham, NC

'Don't you just love fandom?' the fanzine editor asked me. We'd met for a drink and there had been a peculiar lull in the conversation, at which point he just came right out with it. It was as much a statement as a question, and to my ears it had the cadence of isn't life so much better with the love of our Lord Jesus? The problem was that I didn't love fandom and I didn't know how to answer. I felt bad for the fanzine editor, and then bad for myself because he was the nice guy whilst I was the cynical gremlin of judgement, not even true to myself, choking back my own poison lest it reveal me as such and ruin the mood. I had once enjoyed the thing enough to have bought a ton of tie-in novels and to be able to hold a conversation with the fanzine editor, but my interest had dwindled when the television company resumed making the series; and my interest had further curdled to a faintly carcinogenic slurry as the show began to engender a new, more toxic species of fan, and as their numbers began to multiply.

My problem stems principally from the fan aspect, at least as I understand its contemporary meaning. There are plenty of things which I like but for which I'm reluctant to call myself a fan. There are probably entire episodes of The Sopranos which I can recite line by line from memory, but that's because I like The Sopranos. I have no need to belong to a greater whole of anything, or to define myself as such for the benefit of my peers. I see fandom as being about branding - dedication to a commercial franchise signified by a set group of ideas and images. Whatever may be done or said by those ideas and images is usually of importance secondary to their repetition; and when I say branding I specifically mean brand loyalty of the kind which either excludes everything external to the franchise, or which at the very least favours mainly that which echoes some aspect of the franchise, not least the fact of it being a franchise as distinct from any more organic expression of culture.

I hadn't been to a comic book convention since the early nineties. I no longer really draw comics as I once did, and as for reading the things, I've had an on-off relationship with the medium for the last two decades. There are comics I still enjoy, but nothing I enjoy so much that I need to pay fifty quid or equivalent for the privilege of dressing up as one of the characters whilst hanging out with others similarly costumed as what may as well be corporate mascots. I've never wanted to belong to any club which would have me as a member because if they want my membership then it's unlikely that they really know anything about me, or that they care to know anything about me.

Besides, in my day - seeing as I'm now of an age which allows for use of such a preamble - it was the fancy dress parade. I refuse to acknowledge the term cosplay - a clumsy conflation of costume and play by which participants distance themselves from an activity traditionally associated with very small children. It isn't the activity which particularly bothers me so much as the implicit anticipation of not only my approval, but my hearty endorsement of persons who feel best able to express their inner selves by dressing as Batman, or River Song, or Pinkie Pie. It isn't that I disapprove so much as that if you reduce yourself to a dull, juvenile symbol by your own free will, if you identify so heavily with what is essentially just merchandise, then I simply don't think that you and I will ever have much to say to each other because I suspect that behind the glitter and the cape, you probably won't have much to say about anything; and this makes me feel sorry for you, and disappointed. I don't want you banned, stamped out, or subjected to scorn, but neither do I want to have to think about you for any length of time, and you don't get a cookie just for being you. You shouldn't need my approval.

I hadn't been to a comic book convention since the early nineties, but Charlie said he'd been invited to one in Durham, North Carolina - right here in America. I told him, 'great - maybe me and Bess can fly up there and meet you or something.' This had been suggested in England back in June - one of those commitments you make as a sort of place-holder whilst knowing it will cost and therefore probably won't happen. I mentioned it to my wife as soon as I was home in Texas, and she provided the motive force which would ordinarily have faltered as I faced up to the reality of travel plans and plane tickets and places to stay. I'm glad she did, because Charlie is one of those people I should have seen with a little more frequency over the past couple of decades. We were at art college together, we attended comic book conventions together, and so much as any of us ever had a little gang, we were in the same one. Then our lives flew off in different directions and everything became complicated; but once a couple of decades have passed, life becomes too short to let the complications get in the way.

Charlie draws a hugely successful comic book called The Walking Dead, itself the inspiration for a hugely successful television show, and he is as such probably the closest I come to knowing a celebrity. My comic habit is severely reduced compared to what it was, and I haven't really enjoyed what few episodes of The Walking Dead I've seen. I can see that it's a quality product but it probably just isn't for me, which isn't unusual given there being very little television I like at all these days. Charlie, being both a fully grown man and a nice guy, doesn't seem to mind.

Because I don't just love fandom, I suppose I have a few reservations about the event, but the point is getting to hang out with my old pal, and getting on a plane and having an adventure, and the sort of adventure which Junior might hopefully appreciate despite it occurring in the real world rather than on a screen. It's the sort of thing which we, as a family, probably need to do more often.

We fly on Friday the 13th, changing at Atlanta then arriving at the airport in Durham after dark. We haven't spent long in the air when you add it up, although with all of the waiting around, it feels as though we have. Happily I have not been driven to silently grinding my teeth whilst assembling a series of barbed comments, as occasionally transpires when we spend time as a family. It's not that I don't get on with Junior but that his behaviour can sometimes be quite demanding. On bad days he may come across as rude, needy, and entitled, although in all fairness this could be partially because I have become actively attuned to notice such behaviour - feeding the irritation like you scratch at an itch. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and rests significantly on the fact of his being a twelve-year old boy, and things tend to go better when I'm able to keep this in mind. The prospect of the three of us up in the sky squashed into economy seats for a couple of hours was one I had been trying not to think about, but once it happens it's fine.

We land at Durham and take a taxi to the Marriott Hotel, the one in which the comic book convention is to be held. The trip seems to take some time and I guess that the airport is some way out of town. I find it frustrating that it's already dark because even just the bushes and trees at the side of the highway - what I can see of them in the glare of sodium lamps - are a testament to our being somewhere other than Texas. I've been to North Carolina before but just passing through, changing flights or a night at some anonymous hotel when a flight has been cancelled. I want to get a look at the state to see how well it compares with my mental image, cohered during many hours of listening to David Sedaris describe his formative years growing up in Raleigh. I want to be able to see if the place is anything like I imagined, but it's dark and all I can do is boggle at trees with tall, thin trunks and the unsettling absence of cacti. We come to Durham and I try to recall the name of the flooring company run by Paul Sedaris, younger brother of David, but I know it's unlikely that he would have an office or an outlet in Durham, or that we might just happen to drive right past it, or that it will mean anything if we do.

The hotel is huge and ornate, tall ceilings with gold fittings and many reflective services. We sign in, and the receptionist chuckles as she notes that we are from Texas. 'Like I couldn't tell.'

I'm wearing my Stetson and one of my favourite shirts, one that makes it look as though I'm wearing the state flag, most likely originated with either a garage or some fried chicken concession.

'He's not even American,' my wife chuckles, and we all laugh. The joke should be old by now but it still contains some magic.

We find the room and realise there's been a misunderstanding. We have two single beds. This means the boy will have a bed of his own as requested, but Bess and I will have to sleep whilst balanced side by side on a mattress with the dimensions of a long thin sofa cushion, and neither of us are what you'd call petite. Otherwise, the room seems fine. We return to reception and explain that one bed fails to meet out requirements as Texans. Unsurprisingly there's nothing they can do. Everything is fully booked due to the convention.

There seems to be a dining area, a raised enclosure at the heart of the lobby in which persons dressed as characters from The Legend of Zelda pick at plates of hotel food. We're all hungry, not having eaten fried chicken for a number of hours, and so we pick a table and direct meaningful glances at staff whom we hope are passing waiters but who may simply be porters. We watch entire teams of Avengers and other characters I don't recognise pass by and at least know that we are in the right place.

I've sent Charlie a text message to explain that we are here but I haven't heard back.

'He's probably busy,' Bess suggests.

Having myself been let down by mobile phones failing to work in foreign countries, contrary to the claims of the network provider, I'm not so sure; and I'm almost at the point of scarfing leftover fries from the abandoned plates at the table recently vacated by girls dressed as Japanese cartoon characters. I go for a walk to find a waiter or someone, just so far as the end of the lobby, although it should probably be noted that you could almost certainly park a Boeing 747 in this particularly lobby. I follow Spiderman, Deadpool, and a couple of Klingons past the bar to the glass double doors beyond which are the convention halls. I can see security guards and swarms of people dressed as cartoon characters on the other side of the glass. Stranger still is the promotional poster pasted to a board: NC Comicon and just one name in huge letters, Charlie Adlard.

'Fuck,' I say to myself, quite loudly.

I've understood my friend's fame at least since the days when he briefly considered changing his name to Charlie X-Files Adlard because that was how it was written by everyone else. He's now Charlie Walking Dead Adlard and it has only just sunk in. I have an urge to grab complete strangers by the sleeve and tug and point and yelp, 'that's my mate!'

I return to the wife and kid, and miraculously we attract the attention of a waiter who delivers conflicting statements: the kitchen is now closed but yes, he will be happy to take our order. We've been waiting forty minutes and are grateful just for the attention, even if we can't quite tell whether we've just ordered food or not. It eventually turns out that we have, and that with which we are served probably isn't great but nevertheless tastes amazing to us; and in any case Junior is past caring, being at the point of kid-overload having spotted the millionth person dressed as a ninja from some game or other. I wonder to myself whether he knows these are simply regular people dressed up, or whether he thinks those three stood over by the elevator are actual Mario brothers. It probably doesn't matter.

By the time we've eaten, it's late so we go to bed. Bess and I do our best, balanced on our thin strip of mattress. Junior snuggles under the sheet of his bed to yelp and hoot to himself for another couple of hours whilst playing games on his iPad, at least until I let fly with some of the barbed comments I'd set aside for just such an eventuality
as this. Part of the problem is that he requires no more than about ten minutes of sleep a week, and short of gagging and locking him in a trunk, he can on occasion be slow to respond to suggestions such as shut up and go to sleep. I'm not even convinced he quite understands it as an instruction. If he considers his room-mates at all, I expect it's only in terms of what he will tell us about the game over which he's been yelping and hooting next morning, because we'll be dying to know.

Parenting is more difficult than it looks, although not necessarily more difficult than I thought it would be.

We don't sleep well, but we do sleep and are awake at eight. I have a bath and we return to the lobby for breakfast, which is when I notice that I've had a message from Charlie. Still jetlagged, he hadn't received my text until after we were all asleep. So we have breakfast and I give him a call. We arrange to meet at one of the dealers' tables within the convention, a retailer of signed Charlie Adlard originals.

We enter the convention and wander around for a little while. I don't see anything I understand well enough to want to buy, but probably about half of the attendees have come in some sort of costume and it's entertaining by itself just watching them. I stand by everything I said in the first couple of paragraphs, but find there is nevertheless something oddly life-affirming about this peculiar situation. Everyone seems to have made a significantly greater effort than they ever did in my day, and regardless of which corporate mascot is represented, I cannot help but appreciate how much fun they all seem to be having, and the fact that no-one really seems to give a shit what anyone thinks.

Why are they doing this?

For FUN, man! Pure fuckin' FUN!, I think, recalling the line from one of my favourite Baby Sue comic strips. I dislike fandom and cosplay and the obsessing over details which only matter because it's either that or recognise that one's entire life has been a waste of time, and I dislike these things particularly when they are pursued to the exclusion of every other potential cultural experience; but when you glance across a crowded room to see some guy dressed as Groot, the tree person from Guardians of the Galaxy - presumably on stilts inside a papier mache construction resembling a tree trunk, those objections are reduced as unto a fart in a thunderstorm whipped up by Thor himself.

My wife and I are speechless - awestruck, and Junior is close to exploding with kid-excitement.

Somehow even more impressive is a distinctly well fed Ghost Rider - a kind of supernatural biker with a flaming skull for a head, in case you've made better use of your life than I have. Our boy simulates flames with a day-glo orange wig over a rubber skull mask, and if any of his friends have pointed out that he's a little on the chunky side compared to the comic book character, then I guess he must have told them to piss off. I'm so impressed that I take his photograph.

When we encounter Charlie he is with a young woman whom he introduces as his personal assistant. Her name is Nicole, and by absurd coincidence it turns out that she once lived in San Antonio, and she lived in a place just off Eisenhauer, a road I cross on an almost daily basis. I briefly wrestle with the coincidence, and also the realisation that Charlie has a handler these days. He submits a fake growl and paws the air with imagined claws like an enraged bear, and I fail to notice that as we discuss hotels and schedules, Nicola is batting away autograph hunters so we can talk in relative peace. Bess fetches out a stack of issues of The Walking Dead because there are a load of folks back home in San Antonio all lined up for autographed copies. They can scarcely believe I'm friends with a genuine star, and Charlie doesn't seem to mind because he's a nice guy and I guess he's used to it. He whips out a magic marker and scrolls an elegant signature across the covers of copies for the kid, his dad, and Duncan, our boy's best friend at school whose entire family identify as Walking Dead obsessives. Charlie has a mammoth signing session this afternoon but will be free to talk under less hectic circumstances for a while after that, so we arrange to meet again around six.

We look around the dealers' room.

'Nice costume,' some guy tells me, because I still have my Stetson on. I was going to tell anyone who asked that I'd come as Hank from King of the Hill, but I suppose I could just as easily be that Walking Dead guy; you know - the one with the hat.

Image Comics have just published a hardback called The Art of Charlie Adlard, and I leaf through a copy at one of the stalls. It's strange to see some of the older material in this historical context, and I can remember him spreading pages of The Tar Baby across the dining table at my dad's house in Coventry. His figures had an initially exaggerated, cartoony quality, but have since tightened up, and his use of shadow has always been astonishing. It feels amazing to see someone I know personally having done this good, having gone so far in his chosen field without either compromise or turning into a dick. It's the kind of success story which sod's law generally prevents, but just this one time it has all worked out just right. I've known this for a while obviously, but now that I've seen the evidence I feel so proud of my old friend that it's embarrassing.

The guy running the stall comes over and tells me he can probably get hold of a signed copy if I'm interested. I buy Mark Millar's 1985 instead.

We have a look at the Lego exhibition, and then Junior stops at a stall selling wooden props, an actual size recreation of Thor's hammer or a replica of the gun with which Bloodstab shot Facepuncher in that issue of Foe Destroyer. He examines a selection of fake swords, then picks an angular wooden shield with a black squiggle on the front, which is handy because it's the only item airport security are likely to allow on the plane. It's from The Legend of Zelda, Junior explains to us in greater detail than we really need.

'Shield bash!' he keeps exclaiming, pulling a melodramatic expression and thrusting the wooden plaque at an imaginary enemy. 'Shield bash!,' he tells us over and over.

The thing looks kind of underwhelming, pretty much an irregular offcut of wood to which someone has added a fabric handle and varnish; but Junior thinks it's great and that's what matters. Even as I write, six months after the fact, I notice that he still sleeps with the thing in his bed from time to time.

Eventually we get tired and return to our room to rest, passing an impressive Asian incarnation of Patrick Troughton's Doctor Who as we do; and then we share an elevator with an individual who I'm fairly certain is the real Captain America.

I only rest for a little while, and then go out for a walk around Durham just to get the lay of the land. Strangely it feels like England to me, or at least more like England than Texas ever has. The trees are all different but they're more or less the same shape, and whilst curbstones and buildings are definitively American, the air tastes similar, or maybe it's some chemical on the breeze, or just the fact of it being so cold as to warrant layered clothing. I experience no nostalgia because I am reminded of those freezing days when the sun barely rose above the level of the rooftops on the other side of the street, which is something I know I will never miss. I walk so far as something called the Old Five Points. It seems to be a run down neighbourhood suffering the first incursion of gentrification so far as I am able to tell. There's a parking lot full of people with some kind of makeshift stage being set up, and some guy asks if I would like to be included in their prayers.

'I'm good,' I tell him as though I've just been offered a cigarette, smiling like we both know how hard it is to give them up.

After an hour I make my way back to the hotel. My wife is awake and is watching the news which is now full of explosions in Paris but with not very much in the way of actual information. Everyone interviewed says that they think what has happened is terrible, which doesn't really need stating. I guess we must be gearing up for another war.

At 4.30PM we return to the lobby as arranged and meet Charlie for a beer. He's been signing autographs for most of the afternoon, both him and Gerard Way, the former singer of My Chemical Romance. It turns out Gerard Way is here because he's written a comic book called The Umbrella Academy which has proven popular, winning awards and everything. I try to remember what I know of My Chemical Romance, which isn't much but I have an impression of them sounding like the Bay City Rollers with black eyeliner. Charlie doesn't seem to have any strong opinion of the music, but he regards Gerard Way himself as a decent guy. Typically we spend most of the time talking about bands, one of the threads of our shared narrative being the band for which I once played guitar supporting the one for which he once played drums. Charlie has recently been in the studio with the Cosmic Rays for whom he presently plays drums. We talk about the album they've had pressed, and the new guitarist, and the old guitarist, and absent friends, and America. Junior has his picture taken with Charlie, but is otherwise suffering from stage fright. Bess later observes that for her the best part of the entire weekend was seeing the smile on my face as Charlie and I caught up.

He has to return to signing duties around six so the rest of the evening is mostly just bumming around and filling time for Bess and myself. Junior plays games on his iPad. At one point I step outside for a walk and buy an issue of NC Slammer from a gas station.

NC Slammer is a local newspaper comprising the mugshots of everyone arrested in the Wake County area presumably since the previous issue, giving names and reason for arrest - overdue library book to kiddie fiddling to mass murder and all points in between. The paper is divided into sections, grouping certain kinds of perp together. The Love Birds - Jail Birds section, for example, lists married couples who have been arrested together. This pair of doozies, reads one typical and dubiously grammatical entry, was arrested in Auburndale, FL for stalking and harassing their neighbors. And their neighbors' elderly parents. Tearing down their fence, putting up surveillance cameras, hollering out obscene insults, shining high intensity lights through their windows all night long. Threatening to kill their dog! and mug shots of the unhappy couple are inset into a pink love heart. A disclaimer runs along the foot of the page reading all suspects are presumed innocent until proven guilty, just in case you had forgotten. I suppose if nothing else it brings comfort to angry shut-ins, at least confirming that the rest of us really are out to get them.

Who's paranoid now?

I take my copy of NC Slammer back to the hotel and show it to Bess.

'This is what your friends and relatives think America is like,' she sighs.

We begin the next morning with another walk. I've spoken to Charlie and it doesn't seem like we're going to get another chance to see him, as we suspected would probably be the case. He's committed to another day of dishing out autographs. He's now at the stage where certain fans even have his autograph tattooed onto their flesh. We step outside the hotel and see a sandwich board pertaining to this morning's signing session. Charlie and the bloke out of My Chemical Romance will be signing your shit at ten in such and such a building, it says. The building in question is across the other side of the square. Fans clutching copies of Walking Dead and Umbrella Academy are already lined up in their Frankenstein boots and black eyeliner. The queue is about three wide and maybe two-hundred feet long, and it is eight in the morning - two hours to go before the doors open.

'I guess Charlie's going to be busy today,' my wife observes.

We have a stroll in the crisp morning air - something we don't really get in Texas - and then we gather up the kid and get a taxi to the airport. The taxi driver is from Somalia and he spends the journey telling us about his country, which I find fascinating because he's giving us a positive spin in telling us about his family and so on, reminding me that the qualities of a person or a place are rarely the same as what we Americans have heard about them on the news - using we Americans here for the sake of argument.

We fly back to San Antonio.

I have seen my old friend, and I have seen how well he's done for himself. I have seen a different state of the country in which I now live. Junior has his shield and is still proclaiming 'shield bash!' every thirty minutes, throwing dramatic shapes for the benefit of an imaginary audience; and he has his signed copies of comics for himself, his dad, and his friend Duncan. In my diary I have noted:

These conventions seem significantly less macho than the ones I used to go to, and there are more little kids so the atmosphere seems less oppressively spotty and teenaged.

I still don't love fandom, and I still think adults who dedicate their entire existence to what is in essence escapist children's entertainment to the exclusion of everything else are fucking idiotic, and I still have nothing to say to the person whom comedian Louis CK described as a non-contributing product-sponge cunt; but the weekend has nevertheless opened my eyes. I shared an elevator with Captain America, and it's an encounter I will never forget.