Thursday, 28 December 2017

Cat Café

For the uninitiated, a cat café is essentially a feline adoption centre which provides refreshments. I assume it's a mostly American thing but I could be wrong. Bess and I went to one in Austin. It was a large room, like a small department store filled with cats and furnished for the comfort of the same. There was a food truck parked outside but it was closed up, so that day we saw a load of cats but weren't able to get anything to eat; which was okay because we saw a load of cats and the shortfall is pretty much what we have come to expect from Austin which, for all of its admirable qualities, amounts to Texas for people who don't like Texas, in our experience.

The San Antonio cat café introduced itself through a facebook group promising that it would be coming soon to a then vacant premises very near where my wife works. We drove past a few times but there was nothing doing. Bess sank some money into the endeavour by paying in advance for a cat party. As should be obvious from the description, a cat party is simply getting the cat café to yourself for a couple of hours so you can invite friends who also like cats, and everyone gets to sit around petting felines while drinking tea and eating tacos or whatever. This kind of deal is central to the whole raison d'être of a cat café. The money goes towards the upkeep of the place and the care of the cats which have ended up there, everyone gets to hang out with the aforementioned cats, and hopefully one or two of them will find themselves adopted as a result.

We kept driving past, but the place remained vacant.

'I want my cat party,' my wife growled form time to time.

Summer turns to Autumn, and eventually the place opens, but in a different building a couple of miles down the road. We go along to the opening night. The new venue is a converted industrial unit divided in half with a wood partition. The café element constitutes the conversion of the space on one side of the partition to catering purposes. There's a small kitchen and a coffee machine. This being the opening night, they have ordered a stack of pizzas from Papa John's or one of those places, of which about three slices are left as we arrive, despite that we have arrived on time.

'Help yourself to nachos and popcorn,' our hostess suggests, breezily indicating bags of chips and one of those things dispensing the bright yellow chemical sludge everyone refers to as queso.

You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!

Well, never mind, because we're here for the cats.

Through the partition, the other half of the place is large with chairs all around, tables, cat trees and related fixtures. There are cats everywhere, all shapes and sizes, all ages, regarding us with bemusement as cats do. They look healthy and happy, and there's no weird smell about the place which seems like a good sign.

'Wait,' I say. 'Is this the cat party you were talking about?'

'No,' Bess tells me. 'This is the opening night.'

I realise this should be obvious from the fact that we're here with a whole load of complete strangers.

'So the cat party will be just us?'

'Well, we're allowed twelve people so there will be my mom and Andrea and a few others.'


We stay for about ninety minutes, playing with the cats, petting kittens, getting to know them. Our favourite is called Max, apparently the alpha male. He's constantly on the move, patrolling the room, making sure everything is in order. He has a peculiar stumpy tail, like that of a bobcat, but apparently he was born that way.

Just as we leave, more pizza turns up.

Never mind.

Weeks pass. Bess, sensing that the proprietors of our local cat café seem lacking in respect to certain organisational skills, makes a phone call to ensure that they haven't forgotten about our cat party on the Sunday afternoon.

They haven't.

Of course they haven't.

It's written down right in front of me.

We arrive on Sunday, Bess, myself and the kid, and strangely the place is already full of people.

'We're here for a cat party,' Bess explains. 'It's already booked, and I paid months ago.'

'What's a cat party?' wonders Spotty, who seems to be the one in charge. I remember her from last time, helping direct visitors towards the nachos and the popcorn. She calls the boss.

'They didn't know we were coming?' I ask.

Bess pulls a face.

'You paid, didn't you?'

She tells me how much she paid, and the figure is such that I'm not going to repeat it in case it makes us seem either crazy or like we have far too much money; but whatever happens, it goes to the care of the cats, so that's what matters.

I look around. In addition to nachos and popcorn, they now have candy bars. I get up and head for the coffee machine. Spotty comes over to see what I'm doing.

'I take it this works like the ones you see in hotels?'

She concurs, and points to where the creamer is kept.

'You don't have milk?'

She shakes her head. 'It'll be a dollar-fifty a cup,' she smiles helpfully.

'Okay. Forget it then.' I return to my seat. 'Apparently whatever you paid doesn't stretch to coffee,' I tell Bess.

Spotty hands me a tablet, a disembodied screen like the boy's iPad. I don't much like these things. 'What's this for?'

'We need you to sign a disclaimer before you go in to see the cats.'

'A disclaimer?'

'It's just for the sake of insurance.'

I look at the image on the screen, boxes in which I am supposed to enter my name. It has no keyboard.

'What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Do I just think my name at it?'

Spotty taps at the box in which I am expected to enter my details and a keyboard appears at the foot of the screen.

'I'm over fifty,' I can hear myself explain quite loudly to no-one in particular. 'Why would I know or care how these things are supposed to work? Seriously? I like to keep mainly just stuff which matters in my brain, and nothing of value has ever occurred within the vicinity of or by agency of an iPad.'

After five pages and the same count of minutes, I find I am required to suffix my petition with my signature, somehow written on the screen using my finger as a pen.

'Oh God - not this again.'

I sign. As usual the digital snail trail bears no resemblance to my signature.

The good news is that the woman who runs the cat café  has turned up. She explains what a cat party is to Spotty, her employee, then checks emails and text messages and eventually confirms that we have one booked. She suggests that it would have been helpful if we had phoned to check beforehand, but never mind.

By now the rest of our guests have turned up, Andrea, Bess's mother, aunt, brother, and grandmother, people from her workplace - Alex, Tristan and Alejandra.

We go in to see the cats. Some of those we remember from before have been adopted, but Max is still in charge. The chairs are mostly occupied by grumpy teenage girls playing with their phones. I suppose they too have paid to be here.

We hang around for our two allotted hours, as though the timetable means anything, and our hostess provides a tray of lunchables around ten minutes before we leave. Lunchables are packages of crackers which come with salami and squares of cheese cut to size. They're what your kid would take to school.

You are spoiling us, Mr. Ambassador!

We go home, happy to have spent time with unfamiliar cats, but glad to get back to our own. We find ourselves oddly glad that it's over.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

After Five Decades of Christmas...

The earliest Christmas I can remember would have been on the farm in rural Warwickshire, the house heated by just one open fireplace. I came down the stairs, into the front room, and my parents were both sat on the couch awaiting my arrival with a little stack of presents.

'This is Huckleberry,' said my mother by way of introduction to a triangular dog. He was covered in orange felt, with eyes, nose, and freckles picked out in black and white patches of material. He had long flappy ears hung from the apex of his peculiar triangular body and a tail sewn on at the back. I thought he was wonderful. I recall him as being about three or four feet in height, most likely because I was small at the time. He probably wasn't that big, and I may have been as young as four. It's strange to realise I can recall something which probably happened in the sixties, and a time when my parents were still in their twenties.

I understood Christmas as the day of getting free stuff, possibly because, birthdays aside, we didn't get free stuff at other times of year. Childhood as a couple of decades spent happily beneath an avalanche of consumer goods seems to be a more recent development. Of course, I also understood the true meaning of Christmas as it's sometimes known, because I'd been raised to understand that not being an arsehole was a year-round deal, not just an act to be trotted out when you wanted something. I never bought into Father Christmas or the currency of any lists he supposedly kept. I appreciated the ceremony and the build up, everyone generally being a bit less miserable than usual and Slade on the radio. At school we sang carols - none of your happy clappy rubbish, and certainly no having yourself a merry little Christmas or any of that pish - and we made Christmas trees, Santas or snowmen from cones of coloured paper and tinsel like they'd done on Blue Peter, and all in preface to a wonderful day of good food, rampant acquisition, and usually something which you wouldn't ordinarily get to see on the telly. It was a simple, uncomplicated pleasure and served as an axis around which the rest of the year revolved.

The next decade was much the same, only with central heating in a different house and Micronaut toys giving way to albums by David Bowie or the Ramones; then an acoustic guitar and books about art, the great painters of the twentieth century.

The two decades after that saw a steady decline in my enthusiasm for the day of getting free stuff. This was because I had a job. I was a postman. People in England complain that Christmas starts too early, usually about half way through September, which is when its approach is first heralded in the larger department stores. For those delivering mail, it begins earlier, usually around June, that being when we'd be inundated with the first mail order catalogues directed at people spreading their Christmas budget across the second half of the year. The junk mail was horrendous in both its quantity and its banality, as customarily printed in garish colour on the outside of each A4 envelope and targetted at those with the least money to spend. Trudging about in the wind and rain with those same shitty envelopes, day after day, week after week, became really depressing. The most hateful were sent by a company imaginatively named Studio as though to invoke things of great artistic beauty which might come your way if you just kept up the payments. Each year, Studio decorated its envelopes with a different cast of characters designed to coerce you into buying their cheap tat, and worst of all were the Santa Babes, basically Care Bears in Christmassy hats, frolicking and trowelling on the corporate saccharine with the sort of abandon that makes Frozen look like cinéma vérité. The Santa Babes made me feel bad for everyone involved. There was something faintly disgusting about older and probably not that bright people screwed out of their meagre savings by directed application of cartoons from a nursery wall. It reminded me of the old biologists reduced to animals in tiny cages with just a bit of straw, renamed Big Ears and Tigger and fed on slops in Troy Kennedy Martin's
harrowing television adaptation of The Old Men at the Zoo.

The Christmas advertising really kicked in at the close of August, and the volume of mail began to build around November, becoming a back-breaking deluge by the end of the month. Overtime would be dished out whether we wanted it or not, and an eight hour day of hard physical labour would stretch to eleven or twelve, leaving for work at five in the morning, getting home hours after sunset, six days a week, sometimes seven for that final week; and working on Christmas Eve, finishing around one or two then spending the rest of the day crammed onto buses and trains slowly crawling across London, making my way to Coventry, to the house of one parent or another when I'd much rather have been home in bed and sleeping through the whole fucking thing.

It was hard to keep up the Christmas spirit after all those Santa Babes, all those weeks of ending each day feeling as though I'd been run over by a truck; and Christmas with the parents felt stranger and stranger as I turned thirty, then forty. Nevertheless, it was nice to see my parents, albeit seperately, and it was nice to just not be at work, and to have someone else serve up a roast dinner; and those are the aspects of Christmas I like.

Now fifty-two, married, and no longer breaking my back for a living, there are still aspects of the whole deal which seem uneccessary and tiresome. We'll spend three hours watching the boy open presents he probably isn't actually that excited to receive, novelties and nick-nacks and crap mostly representing a faintly dippy adult's idea of what a fourteen-year old boy might want, when mostly he just wants non-physical things he can play on one of his games systems; and some of the novelties and nick-nacks will be more the sort of thing you'd give him if he were still about four, but we all smile and no-one says anything because we're just happy to have dispensed with the letter from Santa and the fake bootprints across the carpet using flour to simulate snow. He was getting a bit old for it at least seven years prior to the custom's discontinuation.

Then there'll be the novelty corn holders my wife recieves each year as part of a running joke she no longer entirely gets or remembers, and all that stuff for which we'll say oh you shouldn't have, because we quite literally wish that you hadn't - a set of novelty pint glasses featuring scenes from A Christmas Story and other items which lack any context beyond that of gifthood, all destined for some corner of the garage so we don't have to think about them or feel bad for the rest of our curmudgeonly, ungrateful lives.

We've all agreed to participate in the gift exchange through the agency of Elfster, a website which takes our names, shakes them up, then assigns each of us the person upon whom we will each spend one hundred dollars, selecting presents from their online list. It's not a bad idea, all things considered, although I can't help feel it sucks the spontaneity out of the occasion, reducing it to just acquisition, the model to which I subscribed when I was four and didn't know better.

Christmas is mostly greed and flashing lights, and in Texas it doesn't even come with a guarantee of the parts I recognise. Thanksgiving steals the emphasis from anything I'd identify as Christmas dinner, and without equivalent gastronomic pleasure, it being a plate of mostly soft brown food - turkey served with mashed potato for God's sake - which screams nursing home, at least to me; and then we get to see what Elfster brought us on a day which usually isn't Christmas, because it isn't convenient.

Regardless of all of this, I'll open a few presents on Christmas morning and watch my wife open whatever I've given her. I'll eat some of the pork pie I had to make myself because you can't get it in Texas unless you want to pay $70 for refrigerated postage. The Christmas morning pork pie is either an English tradition, or just something my dad thought up, but I like to keep it going and I make a pretty decent pork pie. Then we'll maybe go for a walk or a drive, and in the evening I'll cook a roast dinner with Christmas pudding and brandy butter to follow - more stuff I had to order online because you can't get it over here.

After fifty-one reiterations of the allegedly happiest day of the year, these basic things are all that I require, and none of the rest matters too much.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

The Gift

'I need to buy rhinestones,' my wife told me. 'I'm going to glue them to the pumpkin.' It was the most profoundly Texan thing I'd ever heard her say. She was decorating a pumpkin for Halloween. She'd painted it black with a grinning muertito skull on one side, embellished with floral patterns; and now she was going to cover it in rhinestones.

She bought a large bag from Michaels, our local arts and crafts superstore. It was a big pumpkin but she still ended up with some rhinestones left over, so she glued those to the novelty wooden plaque which Mary had given us.

Mary is my dad's partner. She would have been his third wife but he didn't want to remarry after the second one passed away. He didn't seem to think it would be appropriate. Mary means well.

In 2009, I packed in my Royal Mail job in London and moved back to Coventry. The plan was that I would stay at my mother's house, generate some money by selling off my accumulated crap on eBay, and apply for the fiancé visa which would allow me to move to America and marry Bess.

Mary was initially sceptical. 'Never mind, lovey,' she told me, as though it had already all gone tits up. 'You can always move back here if it doesn't work out in America, and I think you'll find Coventry has a lot to offer.'

Nevertheless, I stayed at my mother's house, generated some money by selling off my accumulated crap on eBay, applied for and was granted a fiancé visa, following which I moved to America and married Bess.

Mary was very happy for me, once it seemed as though it had worked out after all, despite everything. She seemed to like the sound of Bess, whom I had described as having blue eyes, reddish hair, and a generous build, because I don't believe in the ideal female figure, and if I did it wouldn't be a lettuce-scoffing stick insect.

'They're very jolly, aren't they?' Mary observed thoughtfully.

'Yes,' I said, scarcely able to believe my ears, what with it being the twenty-first century. I suppose if she had been black, Bess would have been praised for her natural sense of rhythm.

'Here,' Mary said. 'I bought this for you.'

She'd been shopping at Morrisons and had apparently called in at some sort of retailer of nick-nacks on the way home. She gave me a heart-shaped piece of wood painted white and embellished with the words Love laughter & happily ever after. I wasn't sure if it was missing a comma and couldn't tell whether the words represented a list or an instruction, although both readings probably amounted to the same thing. There was a piece of string at the back by which I would be able to hang it in my home in America, now that it had all worked out, despite everything.

'Thanks,' I said.

Mary went back into the kitchen and my dad leaned across to stage whisper, 'Listen - if that doesn't make it into your luggage when you fly back, I understand.' He glanced towards the kitchen. 'You know she means well.'

'Yes,' I said, relieved to discover that my father and I were on the same page of this particular book.

A few years earlier one of Bess's friends gave us a thematically similar piece of wood for Christmas. It resembled a wooden baton, about a foot in length, painted black with always kiss me goodnight printed along its length. I suppose the point is that you leave it on top of something as a reminder. If left on top of something near a doorway or entrance it could perhaps also be used to strike an intruder. I don't know why such a thing would need to exist. Were our marriage headed down the toilet, advice printed on a piece of timber wouldn't make much difference one way or the other; and because our marriage is going pretty darn well, despite everything, we don't really require physical restatement of the fact.

Love laughter & happily ever after was hung from the dimmer switch in the front room because I didn't know what else to do with it. I would have felt bad excluding it from my luggage because, as my dad pointed out, it was meant well; and I would have felt awkward just chucking it to the back of some cupboard for the same reason.

'Gross,' my wife commented, trying not to laugh.

'I know,' I said, and we left it there because it was sort of funny, and it saved us having to think ill of those who give freely despite having no taste, because that would in turn lead us to think ill of ourselves, ungrateful pair of snarky cunts that we are.

The dimmer switch in the front room connects to an annoying chandelier type affair of five lights, a massive lump of swinging metal with which I frequently brain myself when doing anything on that side of the room. I don't even know why we have a dimmer switch. Pissing about with the voltage seems to dramatically shorten the life of the bulbs, and at one point we seemed to be replacing one of them every couple of weeks. Furthermore, it's not like there's ever anything to be gained from having the lights low. We don't indulge in romantic dinners because we're not fucking teenagers and we usually watch Wheel of Fortune whilst eating from folding tray-tables at the other end of the living room; and for all its fine qualities, Wheel of Fortune is seldom arousing.

Then a month ago, the dimmer switch began to emit a worrying electrical fizzing sound, so we stopped using it. Bess looked at the cost of getting an electrician out.

'Fuck it,' I suggested. 'Let's do it ourselves. How hard can it be?'

We watched a couple of YouTube videos, bought a multimeter and a new light switch - the regular on/off kind, not a dimmer - and I made the repair. It took about ten minutes and the replacement switch cost something like sixty cents.

Love laughter & happily ever after lost its home and went to live in the garage, because otherwise it would have fallen to the floor whenever we turned off the lights in the front room. Then Bess rescued it and hung it somewhere else because she said it seemed right to do so seeing as how she'd speckled it with leftover rhinestones and all. We no longer have to spend so much money on light bulbs, and I've learned how to use a multimeter. I am now able to stick the prongs into electrical sockets so as to check the voltage with casual abandon.

That's your happy ending right there.

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Unlike Ayn Rand, I endorse the general concept of charity, even though I'm never quite sure where I, as an individual, stand relative to public acts performed so as to raise money in its name. Several decades ago, Mandy - my girlfriend at the time - recruited me to a sponsored walk in aid of an organisation called Respect for Animals. Naturally I was opposed to animal cruelty, and was therefore happy to walk a couple of miles along the bank of the River Thames knowing that the money I raised would buy much needed Nicorette® patches for Beagles, or something; but the thing which bothered me was that the organisation benefitting from my legwork was called Respect for Animals. It sounded wanky and right on as though named by some condescending tofu-scoffing middle class twat keen to present something which working class thickies wouldn't need explaining to them, and which wouldn't terrify those Daily Mail readers perpetually on the defensive at the thought of anything having rights, particularly scrounging benefit cheats of the four-legged variety; and I was going to have to go into work with my silly little forms to screw some sponsorship out of my colleagues.

What's it for? they would ask, and I would have to tell them, and as I explained it would feel as though the organisation may as well have named itself Hey kids, let's not be fascists because that's like a real downer, yeah? Let's show some respect for animals, because like some of them are like really amaaazing, you know? Hey, anybody want any more taramasalata? Melissa Jane bought plenty at Waitrose so, you know, like help yourselves, yeah?

Back in the present day, its October, traditionally the time of year when my wife and myself undertake a charity walk in aid of fragile X awareness, and hopefully also some research given the cost of the tickets. This is the third year we've done it, although it should probably be taken into account that the first two were both rained off. It doesn't rain much in Texas but when it does, it really fucking rains. The walk usually takes place at Raymond Rimkus Park in Leon Valley, which was under five or six feet of water this time last year so it wasn't simply a case of remembering to take a brolly. One might think these cancellations would be a bit of a pisser for the charity in question, but surprisingly it wasn't so. The deal, so I am told, is that we all buy advance tickets which entitle us to take part in the event, and that's where the money comes from. Then all that is required of us is that we turn up, collect a free t-shirt, take part in the walk, and the job is done. It sounds a bit Kafka-esque to me, but it's a day out and it's a good cause, and all I have to do is hang out, walk around a park, then eat a few complementary tacos.

This year, the weather has turned cold, but there's been no sign of rain, so it seems like it's actually going to happen. While Texas enjoys an autumn in terms of leaves turning brown and falling from trees, where temperature is concerned, we wake up one September morning and find that it's winter. Last night we were still frying eggs on the pavement at eleven, two hours after sunset; but today we will need woolly jumpers, hats and gloves. It's like someone flipped a switch and turned off the summer.

Anyway, it's Saturday morning, and we're all awake and wrapped up warm. Junior has been obliged to rise five uncivilised hours prior to his customary weekend réveille. We drive over to Myra's place with the kid whinging and whining for most of the journey. It's too early and it's cold. It's colder than it's ever been before. It's probably not even this cold on Pluto, he suggests.

I spent the first ten years of my life in a farmhouse in England, a farmhouse heated by just a single log fire in the front room, no double glazing or insulation, and a farmhouse which was in such a poor state of repair as to have cracks in the walls through which wind, rain, and even snowflakes would occasionally enter. Sometimes I tell the kid that he's never experienced real cold, but I bore even myself just saying it.

Myra is the mother of Andrea, who is my wife's best pal; and Andrea is the mother of Tommy, who is our boy's best pal. Sometimes we go over to Myra's house for Thanksgiving. She's always interesting and tells us of her school days in a class of children in a school of just one room in what sounds like the old west. She doesn't seem that old, and her testimony probably reflects on how this is still a young country when it comes to the descendants of the more recent waves of settlers.

We are standing around outside Myra's place, flapping our arms to keep warm when Andrea arrives with Tommy, then the six of us walk to the park. We find other volunteers gathered around a covered pavilion with tables, benches, and the barbecue pits you always find in Texan public parks. Crappy music is playing from speakers wired up to a laptop - vintage hair metal for the oldies, autotuned idoru for the kiddies; but there's food and coffee. There are a couple of folks milling around with clipboards but nothing seems to be happening so we help ourselves to tacos. The tacos are wrapped in foil and kept in insulated styrofoam boxes, so they're still hot. They've been ordered in from Las Palapas, so we're eating the real thing as made by human hand with not a blob of bright orange cheese style snack product to be seen, which is nice.

'It's the least they could do,' Bess explains, before telling me how much the tickets cost - a figure so inflated that I've since forgotten it on the grounds that it couldn't possibly have been that much.

'Can we go to the park park?' Tommy asks.

I don't understand the question.

'Sure,' says Andrea, and the boys run off towards the trees just past where we came in. My enquiry reveals that we're in the park, therefore a smaller play area which I didn't notice when we arrived is the park park. Nothing is happening yet, so it doesn't seem to matter.

Beyond the pavilion are football fields as I would think of them, as distinct from handegg fields. There are a couple of small groups having a kick about in the distance, some taking it seriously with track suits and rules, others just passing the time and staying warm.

'Look!' I point to a family with a couple of small children, making their way over from the football field. The smallest child shuffles along dressed in a one-piece animal costume complete with ears. It's very cute. Maybe she's a bear or something.

Bess responds with her customary awww, and we try to work out what the animal could be.

Eventually it seems like something is happening so I go to fetch the boys from the park park, even though I'm not actually sure where it's supposed to be. It doesn't matter because they've heard the call and are coming to meet me.

We assemble and then walk around the circumference of the park, following the path. Volunteers are situated along the way dispensing free candy and similarly artificial treats to the younger walkers, who have been given buckets in which to collect their candy and treats because it's so close to Halloween as to make no difference. We share out the treats between us. I initially decline, then cave in and take a bag of Cheetos, mainly out of curiosity. They're bright orange, salty, and taste more like actual food than I thought they would. As I munch, we pass the family of the little girl in the animal costume. Her fluffy suit is a bit saggy, tan with large dark patches and small knobby horns on the head.

She's a giraffe, we realise.

The route we follow is punctuated with volunteers dishing out candy and informative signs stuck in the grass at the side of the path, reminders of why we're doing this. The US National Library of Medicine describes fragile X thus:

Fragile X syndrome is a genetic condition that causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment. Usually, males are more severely affected by this disorder than females.

Affected individuals usually have delayed development of speech and language by age two. Most males with fragile X syndrome have mild to moderate intellectual disability, while about one-third of affected females are intellectually disabled. Children with fragile X syndrome may also have anxiety and hyperactive behavior such as fidgeting or impulsive actions. They may have attention deficit disorder (ADD), which includes an impaired ability to maintain attention and difficulty focusing on specific tasks. About one-third of individuals with fragile X syndrome have features of autism spectrum disorders that affect communication and social interaction. Seizures occur in about 15% of males and about 5% of females with fragile X syndrome.

This information is reiterated in simplified form on the signs we pass, one of which lists associated physical characteristics. One associated physical characteristic is large, sticky-out ears. This gives me some pause for consideration given that more or less the entire population of my school had large sticky-out ears.

After fifteen minutes, we're back at the pavilion. We eat more tacos and wait, although I can't tell what for. The boys have once again ran off to the park park.

A rope is thrown over the branch of a tree and a piñata is hauled aloft. Suddenly the place is full of children. I take another walk across to the park park to find Junior and his friend. This time I'm all the way there before I see them. It's mostly swings, roundabouts, and climbing frames of colourful toughened plastic. I would have thought the boys were a bit old for it, but then what do I know?

'There's a piñata if you're interested.'

'Okay!' They come along, jabbering away in what may as well be their own shared language for all the sense I can make of it.

We get back to the tree and I see that they're attacking the piñata in shifts, small kids first, older ones later. The smallest don't seem to fully grasp what is expected of them as an adult gives them the stick with which they are expected to get bashing. Most of them just tap the piñata a couple of times and look confused. The giraffe steps up to the plate, as they say, but she doesn't have much upper arm strength either. It looks as though we could be here all day. Eventually someone finds one of those small, violent kids from somewhere, all beetle brows and an evil grin. He smashes the papier-mâché with a high pitched yelp of triumph and makes it rain candy. The kids pile in like a pack of dogs. It's a feeding frenzy.

Then there's a prize draw. We find out how much money we've raised and it seems like a lot. We hang around and eat more tacos until it seems like time to go.

Once again I wander off to the park park to fetch the boys. They're on the swings, yelping and laughing and repeating meme-derived catchphrases to one another, and stood at the third swing is the giraffe. She seems upset and confused and she's calling Mommy over and over like its a spell which will summon her mother from the ether.

Oh fuck, I think, mind spinning with all sorts of unfamiliar, protective instincts. I look around and believe I recognise the giraffe's mother over the other side of the park park. We pass her as we go to join Bess, Andrea, and Myra.

'I think your giraffe wants you,' I tell the woman, pointing to the forlorn little figure still stood alone at the swing.

'Oh yes - she wants me to help her up,' the woman explains, amused, informing me of something I had genuinely failed to realise. I feel a great sense of relief, and we all go home.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Carla Lane's Obsidian Butterflies

It was the year 1-Reed [635]. The Chichimecs came out of Chicomoztoc and there was unrest. The two sons did not care about the unrest. They were not concerned with it. Their names were Tata and Tlapatecatl. They were older than children but younger than men and they lay upon their mats even though it was day.

Itzpapalotl came into the temple. She saw that her two sons were lain upon their mats looking at one of the painted books. She said to them, 'Should you not be out seeking labour? You have no idea what is on your faces, nor on top of your heads!'

The two sons regarded each other with wisdom but they spoke not. It was but a passing thing. Tlapatecatl said, 'We desire only for our breakfast to settle in our stomachs. When this is done, then we shall go abroad to seek labour.'

Itzpapalotl looked first at her son with the straight hair shaped like a mushroom and the moon face, than at the other son whose hair was curved like that of a Totonac or a Huastec. The look was comical and yet without causing her own face to widen. She told them that she did not think a tortilla could take so long to settle. She wondered if the tortilla had stuck to the stone during cooking and the two sons had themselves become stuck as a result.

'Recall that we are talking about your tortillas,' said Tata with a face of knowledge. It was well known that Itzpapalotl was not a good cook. Her food was bad. When she cooked, people became ill. Often when the people talked about the cooking of Itzpapalotl, there was a sound of laughter in the air. This was because everyone knew that she burned her tortillas, and they said of her ahuautli that it was the same coming out as it had been going in. No-one could tell the difference.

Itzpapalotl crossed her brow. It seemed to her that she should strike back with words of thorns: 'I have heard say that Mixcoatl the Cloud Serpent requires two young and strong men to carry all the chameleons that he catches. That is what I have heard.'

Tlapatecatl looked at the painted book. His eyes remained fixed. He said, 'There is only one problem with that, mother.'

'Tell me what the problem is,' she demanded.

'You tried to kill Mixcoatl. He hid himself in a cactus for fear of you, and then he ran to the south.'

'Yes,' Itzpapalotl agreed with reluctance. 'You have reminded me of that very well.'

Maitlatzinconetl then went into the temple. He had about him his work, his wooden tools and stone knives. His face was like a beast of the wetlands beyond Cuauhnahuac. It was as though he had the belly of a fat man upon each cheek, and when he spoke words, each belly moved with a wobbling motion. He said, 'I am now going to my labour. I work on teeth. I make them better. If I cannot make them better then I will pull them out. That is what I do. I would love to be here in the heart of my family but I must be about my labour.'

'That is too bad,' said Tata, although he did not seem to mean it.

'The same is true of your mother's cooking,' observed Maitlatzinconetl and they all laughed except for Itzpapalotl. Itzpapalotl looked sad.

Later she encountered Ocelotl at the tianquizco. She bought corn and she saw him there. His face became wide. 'I would like very much to have sexual intercourse with you,' he explained.

'Do you not know that I have a husband and that I am very happy?'

Ocelotl said. 'I know and these facts do not trouble me, for I do not wish to have sexual intercourse with your husband.'

Itzpapalotl's face became like unto a clear sky. She did not quite seem to know where she was. Her mind was in confusion. She tilted her head to one side and placed a fingertip to her lips as though asking a question at the calmecac, but she did not ask a question. She was thinking about how her life had not turned out exactly as planned and how it would be interesting to allow Ocelotl to go into her in that way, even though it would make everyone angry if they found out.

That is what she was thinking.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Gun Fun

My wife changed jobs a few months ago. She likes the new place better, and the people she works with are more like regular human beings than the previous cast of loyal corporate work units. I've now met a few of them and I found them easy to get on with, even given that I don't know the first thing about computer programming and I don't understand what any of them do.

I've agreed to play airsoft with some of them at the weekend, and the weekend is here. I don't know what airsoft is but I assume that it's like paintball and that this will be some kind of team-building enterprise. They did the same thing at my old workplace, back in England, except it actually was paintball and I never went along. Nobody asked me, so I didn't know about it until I saw the photos of them all stood around grinning in their camouflage clobber spattered with primary colours. They probably didn't ask me because they thought I was weird, so I've never played paintball either.

Anyway, whatever it is this time, it's something I've never done, so that seems like as good a reason to do it as any. I've been ill during the week, a stomach complaint from which I'm still not quite fully recovered, but fuck it - we've all been stuck inside for most of August, taking shelter from the heat. The exercise will do me good.

We head south out of San Antonio, towards Pleasanton, and there in the middle of what is doubtless somewhere to the locals but is nowhere to me, is Mission Airsoft. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but probably something on a larger scale than a couple of wooden huts and a trestle table; but then it turns out that my expectations have all been off whack today, either crossed wires or me failing to take in certain crucial details.

This isn't team-building. It isn't even anything to do with where my wife works, not specifically. She knows Alex from work, and he said to come down and play airsoft this weekend, and so here we are.

We park, then approach where our fellow airsoft players are milling around. Next to the huts is a sort of marquee, like a tent with open sides so that we can fiddle with our guns in the shade. Behind this is woodland of typically south Texan type - saltcedar, mesquite, and gnarly, scrubby trees without anything much you could ever use as a telephone pole or a fence. Most of our fellow airsoft players look to be about seventeen. Alex himself is older, but still young enough to be my son; although on the other hand, I'm still not entirely accustomed to being in my fifties, and people of my own age always seem old to me, so the generation gap is probably something Alex is more likely to notice than I am.

Bess introduces us.

He's tall, kind of skinny with blue eyes and some Hispanic heritage in there somewhere, but he's originally from Wisconsin. All I know about Wisconsin is that it's cold, that they eat a lot of cheese, and that it's the home state of Clifford D. Simak, one of my favourite writers. I am aware that all generations since my own are distinguished by things I don't understand and which don't really appeal to me, console games and not reading books being just two; but still Alex and I somehow manage to have a conversation without my asking what it's like to have been born in the same state as an author he's probably never heard of. We get on fine, I guess because we both have a sense of humour, and on some level I am aware of the absurdity of my being there at all.

Alex plays a lot of airsoft and has his own guns, so he lends one to me and one to my wife, saving us the cost of hiring inferior models from the wooden hut. He also lends us protective facemasks and goggles, and we have our own hats - that being the other recommended item of  clothing. Mine is a baseball cap sporting the logo of the Wack 'em & Stack 'em barbecue team run by my wife's first husband. The name quotes Ted Nugent, vocal firearms advocate and right-wing guitar hero. I have my gun, and my hat with a Ted Nugent quote sewn across the front, and I'm feeling unusually Texan today. If only the lads at the mythopoetic men's self-actualisation workshop could see me now.

We lock and load, tipping little pellets of paint into our magazines. We pull down visors and adjust camouflage straps and give ourselves the appearance of a nineties power electronics act. Then we stand and listen to the referee instruct us as to what we can and cannot do once play commences. He's the only person present who stands a chance of being older than I am, and I get the impression he may have served in the military. The little khaki munchkins have all heard the speech before, leaving just me to ask the stupid questions like will it hurt? Apparently it may sting a little, but not so bad as with paintball. Suddenly I wonder what the hell I'm doing here, and why I agreed to this. I don't want to be stung at all.

We divide into two groups, fifteen or so persons to a team. We wander off into the woods and choose our positions. I had imagined it would feel kind of cool, hefting a weighty firearm through the wilderness, my eyes ranging from side to side for some glimpse of the enemy, all senses alert as I say things like bandits at twelve or I figure we got us a code nine, whatever the fuck any of that means. I had imagined it would feel kind of cool - which I say as someone who customarily shuns the term - and yet it feels somehow stupid, even a bit unpleasant. I don't want to shoot anyone, and I don't want anyone to shoot at me, not even with an air rifle. I don't understand what is to be gained from this experience.

There's some objective, something about capturing the enemy flag or piece of cloth or something like that. I anticipated running around in the woodlands, but it isn't really the sort of woodland which is conducive to running, so it's all stalking and firing. Bess and I stick together, but otherwise we're alone. Everyone has vanished into the undergrowth. The whistle was blown a few minutes ago and it's all gone quiet. Occasionally there's the phut of an airgun somewhere in the distance, occasionally a yell of I'm hit and someone trudging off towards the tree designated as home so as to reclaim one of the three lives we all get, but mostly it's silence.

A figure emerges from the undergrowth ahead. I look down the sight of my weapon and pull the trigger. There's a tiny kick of compressed air and a satisfying thud.

'You got me,' he says with laughter which somehow conveys the quality of a sigh. I've shot the referee.

'Sorry,' I call back, probably sounding more like Basil Fawlty than anyone wearing a hat quoting Ted Nugent has ever sounded before.

We continue to wait.

There's further movement and I realise that I have no way of knowing who is on which team. I suppose we're expected to deduce this information from the direction in which the potential target is moving.

Suddenly I'm hit, and yes it fucking stings.

'There's me,' I report, and wander off towards home to wait out the remaining fifteen minutes. I have two lives left, but I doubt anyone has been keeping count.

The game ends in a draw, possibly.

Alex pleads for us to stay. He seemingly feels guilty that we didn't have an amazing time. We assure him that we had a great time but have other things to do, and anyway we hadn't really planned on staying all afternoon - which is true. I wouldn't say I've had fun exactly, but I did something I've never done before, and that's close enough.

Friday, 17 November 2017


It's called football but I can't get used to it. I've lived in America for over six years and I'll say gas rather than petrol, cookies rather than biscuits, but football goes against the grain. I was never the most ardent devotee of the English game, but there it was in all our lives regardless of personal preference, and it was hard to miss the crucial detail of it involving persons moving a ball around a field by means of a foot, hence the name. Here in America, the ball is shaped more like an egg and, aside from an occasional kick, it's mostly conveyed around the field by hand. The game looks more like Rugby to me, and I hated Rugby at school so I have trouble seeing the attraction.

Every evening I watch the local news on KENS5, even though there's never much actual news. Usually it's five minutes of shootings on the southside and then straight to fifteen minutes of weather reported in far more detail than anyone could ever possibly need, particularly given that nine times out of ten, the forecast is that it will probably be fucking hot. As the forecast ends, big-faced Bill Taylor does his John Wayne swagger across the studio to where big-faced Joe Reinagel is waiting, and thusly does slow moving horseplay ensue, how 'bout them Cowboys, and that sort of thing with playful upper-arm punches. Big-faced Joe Reinagel turns to the camera and tells us something about either the San Antonio Spurs, the Dallas Cowboys, or Tim Duncan, and he tells it as though it's important. We'll get a clip of some player discussing an upcoming game. Usually the player will express the hope of his team winning the upcoming game, and maybe he'll offer reassurance that he himself will be doing his absolute best to ensure that his team wins the game; and somehow we need to see this night after night, year after year, as though any of it matters; like it's ever going to be anything different.

So, LaMarcus Aldridge, your guys are up against the Houston Armadillos tonight. How do you think that's going to play out?

I'm hoping we lose!

Big-faced Joe Reinagel will talk a little more about sports, then flash a cheeky grin and promise us a sight like unto none which has ever before been beheldest by man, coming right up after the break; then two minutes of commercials promising an end to either constipation or diarrhea, and back to the studio for a YouTube clip from the Cowboys game at the weekend.

The ball is thrown.

The man catches the ball.

Then he drops the ball.

Hooting and hollering is then generated by Bill, Joe, Sarah, and the guy with the creepy eyebrows, whatever the fuck he's called. Can you beat that!? You see how he just dropped that puppy!? He had it in the bag but - man oh man - he just couldn't hold onto that thing, and he dropped it.

We watch the clip two or three times as the hooting and hollering increases. Well, did you ever see anything like that!?

Nevertheless, here I am at the Dub Farris Athletic Park to watch a friendly game of handegg. Dub Farris was a much celebrated high school handegg coach around these parts, and I don't understand the name either. Let's just assume his parents were fans of King Tubby. I'm at the Dub Farris Athletic Park to watch Brandeis playing Clark, rival high school handegg teams. I don't really have a horse in this race, or even any interest in being here beyond the purely anthropological, but Tommy plays saxophone in the Brandeis marching band and he's one of Junior's best friends.

'Give it a chance,' my wife almost certainly tells me at some point or other, although the main reason she ever brings me along to this kind of thing is because she finds my sarcasm entertaining.

We join a long, long queue for tickets. The field and stands are just behind us, fenced off, and things are already warming up - cartwheels, cheerleaders, some bloke dressed as a horse and so on. It's like a child's drawing of the circus in which every act occurs simultaneously in different parts of the ring, except this is really happening. Imagine a science-fiction scenario in which the universe will cease to exist should its creator ever experience even a fleeting instance of boredom. Maybe that's what's going on right here, right now. Five minutes shuffle along until we have tickets, so we go in.

We walk along before the bleachers. To our left is the field and a million entertainments occurring all at once in a last desperate bid to keep the creator amused because we don't want to die. To our right is seating occupied by a multitude of parents, relatives, friends, and possibly also the guy who made the universe and everything in it. The blue and orange of Brandeis are to be seen everywhere, on clothing, painted on faces, and even a couple of comedy wigs resembling a duotone version of the one worn by Jonathan King when he performed One For You, One For Me on Top of the Pops back in 1978. There's so much blue and orange that we could be in some high contrast drama about an android hunting down meth-cooking alien prostitutes in cyberspace.

We pass before a large phalanx of cheerleaders, then up the steps to the back. The cheerleaders are in front of us as we look down, and the band are to the right, all dressed as Quality Street soldiers. They're jittery because they're kids, all nervously fingering flutes, cornets, a tuba, twirling drum sticks and so on. Far across on the other side of the field I see bleachers full of Clark people, parents, relatives, friends, and their own phalanx of cheerleaders directly facing our lot, and the same with our respective marching bands. Maybe they're going to engage in some kind of face off, trying to out pom-pom each other, or to blast each other off the back of the stadium with honking and hooting. The Clark mascot is dressed as a cougar, whilst ours - and I'm somehow already thinking of Brandeis as us - is a bronco, specifically a horse. The potential seems endless, even without anyone having mistakenly thought I was referring to a sexually adventurous older woman.

Tiny figures are moving around on the field, hunching together, but I can't tell if they're warming up or the game has started. There's a scoreboard to my right but I don't understand that either. I seem to be experiencing information overload. Everything is happening at the same time and at maximum amplification. It's a lot like listening to the first SPK album.

Time passes and I am able to identify which part of the scoreboard counts down towards full time - or whatever they call it here - four quarters, each of fifteen minutes duration. The game is in progress and I missed it. There was no change in emphasis to mark the transition from pre-game horseshit to actual play, possibly because the game is the least important part of why we should all be gathered here this evening.

Once the egg is in play, it's up to the players to get it as far along the field towards the opposition's end zone. They can kick the egg, or they can pick it up and run with it. Once the egg and those players in possession have vanished beneath a mountain of bodies, everything stops, then starts again from this new position further along the field. If you're watching the game on television, the time during which play remains suspended will be given over either to advertising, or to the punditry of commentators describing what we've just seen with our own eyes, or even to interviews with the players in which they describe what we saw them doing with our own eyes and then tell us whether they feel either happy or sad about it.

It isn't like Rugby after all, or at least there's enough of a difference for even me to be able to see it. Incredibly, it looks a lot more violent, and at last I understand why players wear all that padding and the helmet. A couple of them are concussed and carried off on stretchers during the first half.

On the other hand, it reminds me a lot of basketball. As with basketball, I'm watching a distant huddle of people, and it's fairly difficult to tell what is going on; and the shortfall is addressed by the information overload of the band and the cheerleaders and the audience responding as one with carefully choreographed enthusiasm. It's probably not quite so shit as basketball because there's no Jumbotron exorting us to make some noise, and no fucking DJ, but it's close enough as to make no difference.

One thing which handegg doesn't remind me of is football, meaning the game in which players move a ball around with their feet, the game which you can actually identify as being a game. The beauty of football is that you can see what's happening from halfway across the stadium, and something usually is happening, and is happening up and down the full length of the field, and it can continue happening without stopping every thirty fucking seconds. Due to the nature of the game, supporters will give the play of the ball their full concentration, because the game moves and it's quite easy to miss something; and support will be expressed spontaneously, just whatever comes into your head without the need of bells, whistles, and associated horseshit designed to plug every single orifice in your attention span.

We lasted the first half, comprising a couple of distended periods of stop-start-stop-start-stop-start play each adding up to fifteen minutes. Half time is more of everything happening at once, but with marching bands on the field, honking away as they form Busby Berkeley patterns across the pseudo-grass - oh say can you see and the usual selection of star spangled hits, then a few others thrown in, hooting interpretations of popular hair metal ballads and Seven Nation Army by the Shite Stripes, and then Rock and Roll by Gary Glitter, hit maker and renowned kiddy fiddler. I guess his reputation didn't take quite the same nose dive over here as it did back in England, although in its defense, the song does go do-do-dooo-do Hey! do-der-do so it's real catchy and all.

We leave at half-time, having dutifully watched tiny distant figures form patterns and make music, and one of those tiny distant figures was Tommy. I don't know how the rest of the game will go, but it doesn't seem to matter because I have no idea how the half that I've just seen went; because it never was about the game, and handegg is not really even sport as I understand it.

Handegg is about the experience of being there, being part of the team and singing along with the approved anthems. Watching handegg is more or less the same as standing in Red Square back in the good old days of the cold war, watching tanks roll past, prefixing marching legions of perfectly choreographed soldiers turning as one to salute Brezhnev without breaking a step, then more tanks, then those massive trucks with ICBMs on the back. Handegg is the American wing of the Spectacle reinforcing itself by yelling at you in surround sound for a couple of hours, occupying every sensory node with a dumb patriotic noise whilst reminding you that if you fall behind on those payments then maybe you don't really love America, freedom, and Gaaard after all, you communist!

So personally, I'm not a fan, but at least I'm now able to loathe it with authority.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rockport after Harvey

I'm about to leave the house as I catch the last moments of some feature on the local radio station. People are steering clear of Rockport in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, believing they will only get in the way of the clean-up operation. The woman speaks of coastal businesses trying to get back on their feet but finding it difficult with the usually steady flow of visitors having dried up. 'If ever you felt like driving down to Rockport, maybe stopping by for something to eat,' she concludes, 'they would really, really appreciate it right now.'

I've seen photos of the coastal towns since the hurricane hit back in August, and the devastation has been profound. Byron's family have a couple of houses down there. He drove down to assess the damage on the Monday following, despite radio announcements stating that anyone not local would be ordered to turn their vehicles around. He got through somehow. The damage to the places owned by his family - who seem to have second, third and fourth homes all across the state - was minimal, at least compared to some.

'Let's go to Rockport,' I told Bess. 'This woman on the radio said they need our business, and I've never been to a disaster area.'

I'd kept an eye open for Angela working the tills at HEB, our local supermarket. Her family used to live across the road from us until the landlord sold the place. Angela, her mother, and all their cats moved to another place about a mile away; but Damean, Angela's younger brother, went to live in Rockport with his dad. Damean was a decent kid. He was friends with my stepson and a good influence. He would come over and shake his head at the state of Junior's room.

'You gotta clean this up, dude. No-one can live like this.'

Angela still works in HEB but I haven't seen her in a month or so and I want to find out how things are with Damean down in Rockport. I ask Jennifer, who also works the tills. She tells me she hasn't seen Angela in a while, although she knows that her colleague has to work her hours around school. I suddenly notice that I'm a fifty-year old man enquiring after the private lives of significantly younger - and not unattractive - Latinas who work in my local supermarket.

The weekend comes around and we drive down to Corpus Christi, a few miles from Rockport but more direct for us, being at the other end of a major highway running south from San Antonio. The trip is a little under two hours, and as we approach the coast we keep our eyes peeled for signs of storm damage. There are a few telephone poles which seem to be at a bit of an angle, but it's hard to say whether this means anything; and as we hit Corpus Christi, it really doesn't look like there has been any recent occurrence of anything of meteorological significance. Then we pass the local supermarket, now reduced to a branch of EB. More and more signs are missing letters, but it falls some way short of the carnage we expected. We stop to buy used books at a branch of Half Price, then drive across the water to Padre Island, taking the scenic route.

Actually, it's probably the surreal route more than it is scenic. To my eyes, Padre Island is one of the strangest places I've ever been. Coastal Texas is flat and bordered by a thin strip of barrier island about a mile out to sea, also flat, forming a similarly slender strip of inland salt water extending all the way up to Galveston. The inland waters are calm and expansive, some of them seeming to reach the horizon. Also they are shallow so it's not uncommon to see a lone fisherman in wading boots somehow stood several miles from the shore. The vegetation is of the kind found in flat, hot, windy places; and one of the most distinctive birds is the brown pelican, which is enormous and prehistoric in appearance; and of what dwellings there are, half of them are raised up on stilts. It makes me think of J.G. Ballard's Vermilion Sands.

We cross the inland waters and drive towards the shore. As we pass the Best Western motel we are pleased to note that the giant concrete Mermaids, starfish, and related Neptunian figures of the theme park opposite have sustained no obvious signs of damage. Driving further, then taking the road which follows the coast up towards Rockport, we begin to see Harvey's signature. We follow a long straight road, a geological demonstration of perspective and vanishing points with inland waters to the left, dunes to the right, and very few trees. The leaning telephone poles have now become too much of a thing to be anything other than storm damage, and we begin to pass a few houses, with here and there patches of blue stretched across rooftops where tiles and even beams have been ripped away in the tempest.

Eventually we come to Port Aransas, which is marginally more populous, and here the road is lined with piles of trash and detritus. It takes us a few minutes to work out quite why this should be, and we guess this is the ruined contents of flooded homes and dwellings moved outside to await collection. The realisation is chilling because there's so much of it, and because most of these homes are raised up in the air on thick stilts, ten or twelve feet above ground level. Given that we're less than a hundred yards from the sea front, its hard to imagine the Biblical deluge it would have taken to flood these dwellings on such a scale. There are boats and yachts upside down in the middle of parking lots, but strangely, aside from the occasional blue roof, most of the buildings appear structurally intact.

Bess had been hoping we might get something to eat at the Restaurant San Juan in Port Aransas, because we went there before. The food was good and the owner addressed everyone as boss. We pull up and see that the door is open but the lights are off. Buckets,  stepladders, trestle tables, and an empty parking lot suggest the place is not yet quite back on its feet. We're getting closer to where Hurricane Harvey made landfall, having attained Category 4 intensity.

We drive on, taking the ferry across the inland waters to Harbor Island, then heading north towards Rockport. We begin to see ruined buildings, just piles of bricks, and a fifteen minute tailback on the highway turns out to result from the clean-up operation as a swarm of trucks migrate slowly south, absorbing the disgorged contents of homes. The mountains of trash are the highest we've yet seen, and the local supermarket is reduced to a branch of HE. The strangest thing is that the devastation is far from uniform, with some homes standing untouched amongst neighbours lacking a roof or a couple of walls. Certain stores are open for business, while others barely seem to have anything left worth saving. Each intersection has become a forest of makeshift signs stuck in the ground - roof repair, or we will buy what's left of your home. Something about the signs bothers me.

We make it to the sea front.

The aquarium is a pile of rubble. It's upsetting as we both loved the place, but Bess tells me all of the fish were released or otherwise ferried to safety before the storm hit, which is some comfort, I guess. There's an art gallery near the ruined aquarium where we once made a failed attempt to use the restroom. We had no idea it was an art gallery, there being no signage to that effect, but we took it to be open to the public due to crowds milling around guzzling wine - maybe a bar or something; but it was an art gallery and there was a private view in progress, and no we couldn't use the facilities being as they were reserved for a better standard of person; and now the place was quite clearly screwed, boarded up and not coming back any time soon; therefore boo hoo.

Reminded of our original mission, we continue our search for somewhere to eat. The fast food chains mostly seem to be back on their feet, and McDonald's is even hiring, but the smaller places are clearly struggling, and the first we find is cash only. We pass a collapsed barn which had been a used book store only six months before, and then we are out the other side of Rockport. We turn around, deciding to take a second look at a place we'd passed back on the highway just before the edge of town. It's called the Original Vallarta, acknowledging either a similarly named rival or possibly a fraternal establishment further up the road, and it is bright orange - always a good sign. Menus are painted directly onto the wall, and families are sat within watching sports or telenovelas.

The food is great.

Mission accomplished, we hit the road and return home, wiser and slightly fatter.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Thank You for Your Service

I am writing a book, the proposal began. I am looking to hire an artist to create an original colored drawing of my proposed book cover. I am willing to negotiate a reasonable fee. If my book is published, the artist would be appropriately recognized in the acknowledgments. If anyone is interested or knows of a "starving artist" that would be interested in the job…

He concludes with a name and telephone number. For the sake of convenience, I'll identify him as Ludovico Sforza after the selfsame Duke of Milan and patron of Leonardo da Vinci - the man who commissioned Leonardo's Last Supper. Ludovico Sforza had posted the request on Next Door, a social media site, where it was spotted by my wife's aunt, who immediately thought of me seeing as how I'm artistic and all.

I wrestle with my conscience, knowing for certain that undertaking such work will doubtless be arseache from beginning to end, whilst trying hard to resist my own inherent cynicism, and to keep from thinking of the aforementioned cynicism as simply realism based on direct experience. Idiocy wins out, so I give the guy a call.

'Who is this?' he asks. He sounds alarmed.

'I've heard you need a cover for your book.'

'How did you get this number?'

'You put out a request on Next Door, and that's why I'm calling.'

The penny drops.

'I guess you must be from Alabama,' he says.

'I'm from England.'

'I know,' he says, and I realise it was a joke.

'If you want to meet to discuss this,' I begin, then remember that I have no idea where he lives. 'Do you drive? Only I don't.'

'That's no problem. If you give me an address I'll come to you. I'm only a little way out.'

'Okay then, although I'm not too sure about next week. Maybe an evening would be better. Except I'm not free on Sunday.'

'Well, Saturday…'

'I think Saturday is out too. Maybe Sunday evening or something.'

'I'll be at church all day Sunday, so that doesn't work for me.'

An alarm bell goes off but I manage to ignore it. 'I meant during the evening.'

'Yes, that would be fine. You see, I'll be at church all day, but I will be free in the evening. I'm retired.'

The alarm bell continues as a warning light additionally flashes an amber alert. Ludovico Sforza is not only a retired gentleman who attends church, but one who attends church all day, one who remains - presumably out of choice - at a church beyond the reasonable time limit during which anything useful or healthy might be communicated. I don't have anything against the religious, and there are at least a couple of people I like who might be described as such, and generally I dislike the crusading atheist more than I dislike your average person of faith, but - you know…

He arrives at seven with a folder the size of a breeze block. This is his novel. 'I have fifteen chapters,' he explains. 'At the moment I'm writing one a month, and I'm presently on the thirteenth, so I estimate it should be ready around November.'

He sits. He doesn't require tea or coffee. He is fine. He shows me a cover he's mocked up. 'I'm no artist. I can't even manage stick figures, but this should give you some idea. The novel is called Earth in Flames.'

The image shows the globe, apparently ablaze, with two figures inset, the head and shoulders of a man and woman locked in a kiss. The man is made of fire, and the woman of ice.


Ludovico shows me a map of the world as it will be in his dystopian science-fiction novel sixty-seven years hence. The world will be divided among three superpowers, with Europe and Africa belonging to the Islamic Caliphate. I remind myself that he hasn't yet said anything annoying, only hinted at the potential for his doing so at some point soon.

'I was a Navy SEAL,' he explains, accounting for his retirement and at least some of the experience which has inspired Earth in Flames. 'This is the tale of a military man, a fighter. He's the male character. He's a very angry figure and he's hunting this woman. His mission is to find this woman and he chases her across the globe. You see, she is represented by the ice character on the cover. She is very devout, humble. She's a deeply spiritual person and very beautiful, maybe Hispanic looking - olive skin. The world is mostly dominated by an all-powerful secular state and Christianity is outlawed.'

He pauses, allowing time for the sheer enormity of this last one to sink in, as unfortunately it does.

I remind myself that he hasn't yet given any indication of other sympathies I tend to associate with people who believe Christian values to be under attack, if that is what he believes. We talk about the cover. He shows me a variant idea also knocked up on the computer, same thing but the male figure is more obviously militaristic and carries an assault rifle.

'I think I prefer the fire and ice version,' I say, trying to be diplomatic. 'I mean you don't want it to look like one of those,' - I'm struggling to think of a term for military wank written by soldiers, Bravo Two Zero and that sort of thing. 'I mean I don't get the impression it's a military book.'

'Oh but it is. The atheist character is a navy SEAL.'

'I mean, it's not just that.'

'Well, no.'

'The thing is that these fire and ice characters, I mean it's an allegory. You don't have anyone in your novel with mutant superpowers like the Human Torch or Iceman. I think it might be better if I were to take that angle but suggest the fire and ice thing with how they are lit, so that it's not quite so obvious.'

So that it doesn't look like an issue of The Watchtower, I think.

We talk about the writing, seeing as I've had a novel published by someone other than myself, and which has been purchased and read by people I've never met. He describes the pain of writing a single paragraph, of re-reading it the next day and having to change everything. I'm familiar with the pain, but it was a long time ago, and I tell him that we've all been there. I don't tell him I made it past that stage about ten years prior to writing the novel which I've had published because it will sound like I'm boasting.

'If I like what you've done and I'm able to use it,' he says, 'I'll give you a credit at the beginning of the book, providing we can agree on a price.'

I couldn't really give a shit about the heights of fame and international recognition to which I will soar as cover artist of Earth in Flames, particularly given that its author isn't even sure how he's going to publish the thing.

'How does fifty dollars sound?' I understand the going rate for a book cover to be about four-hundred but fuck it, I'm trying to help the poor cunt out here, and it's all practice, and maybe I'll end up painting something of which I can be proud.

'Fifty dollars sounds very fair,' he agrees.

He leaves, and I notice after the fact that he told me he'd been a Navy SEAL more than twice, maybe four or five times. I wonder if he expected either myself or my wife to say thank you for your service as is the custom over here. It has become a mantra. Some guy on a forum begins a sentence with when I was in the military and the next ten responses will begin thank you for your service. Terminal patriotism sufferers salute so hard as to concuss themselves whilst screaming thank you for your service at the faintest whiff of khaki.

I have endless respect for anyone who places themselves in danger for the greater good, but thank you for your service seems like sentiment beyond reason in many cases. So far as I'm aware, military personnel are paid a wage for their service and their families are often provided housing, so I like to know what an individual's service actually was before I fall at their feet in tears screaming my undying devotion. If your service was stacking naked bodies for totes awesome LULZ at Abu Ghraib or delivering a liquid pork enema to some conspicuously Islamic detainee, then I reserve my right to remain unimpressed; and I'm going to need something a bit more specific than preserving freedom before I go all weak at the knees, which doubtless makes me a liberal faggot to those who love America so hard that they want to turn it into Soviet Russia with better weather. I think of the state my grandfather was in following the second world war, having served with the Chindits in Burma, fighting the Japanese in the jungle. About a third of them made it back alive. I don't know whether idiots screaming thank you for your service really would have been much use to him.

I leave it a week, then paint the couple in close up. I don't usually bother with preliminary studies, but I want to get this right. I scan the study and send it to Ludovico Sforza attached to an email.

I've painted a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on, although the colours will require a little work. I thought you might like to see it, so it is attached to this email.

He responds.

I appreciate the artistry but the characters have nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed. I like what you did, but do not want typical male and female characters on the book cover.

It's the as we discussed which bothers me. I recall the discussion fairly well, particularly the detail in which I proposed that characters literally composed of fire and ice will look ridiculous. I get the feeling that further progress will prove frustrating as my client continues to find fault with my interpretative ability because I've painted a cover rather than just taken a telepathic photograph of the image he has inside his head. It's tough because telling an otherwise amiable person to fuck off does not come naturally to me, but eventually I get the email written.

After some consideration, I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline this job because I don't think I can paint what you want me to paint, so you might do better to keep looking until you find someone who can. The study I sent was, as described, a rough preliminary study of the couple for the cover, just for my own reference with regards to shape of faces, lighting and so on because, however the characters end up, they will need to be lit, and their faces will be of certain shapes. To suggest that it has nothing to do with the fire and ice characters we discussed in turn suggests that regrettably we're not on the same page here.

It's done, so I no longer have to worry about the possibility of #alllivesmatter the novel, or a future with gay marriage and women's rights described as a dystopia, and it's as though a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I tell myself that I will know next time, although honestly, I knew all along this time, and still it made no difference.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Chuck Ramirez

I'm in HEB, my local supermarket. My shopping basket is, as usual full of cat food.

'Oh. My. God.'

I look up. There is a vaguely Hispanic looking dude stood in front of me with his mouth hanging open. A couple of seconds have passed before he realises that he should probably say something.

'You are the very image of a friend of mine.' His mannerisms seem a little camp, which I realise may not directly correlate to his sexuality, but this really sounds like a chat-up line.

'Okay.' I'm not sure what else to say. If he thinks I'm hot, it really doesn't bother me.

'A friend but - well, he died a while ago. You look just like him. Have you ever heard of an artist called Chuck Ramirez?'

I haven't. I shake my head. 'Sorry, no.'

'It's the eyes…' He seems to be moving his hands as though framing a film he's planning to make. 'You could be his brother.'


I can't help but think of Richard Ramirez, the serial killer, which means at least I won't have any trouble remembering the name of my alleged doppelgänger.

'He was a photographer,' - my admirer suddenly remembers something and steps back a little. 'I need to take a photograph of you. Is it okay if I take a photograph?'


'They ain't gonna believe…' he fumbles in different pockets. 'I don't have my phone with me.'

'Well, I'm in here every day about the same time, usually buying cat food.'

'I'll look for you again.'


I'm smiling as I head for the checkout because it's funny.

'It sounds a lot like he had the hots for you,' Bess suggests when I tell her about the encounter that evening. She hasn't heard of Chuck Ramirez either, but she looks him up on her phone, and there actually is a resemblance, stronger in some photographs than others, and particularly around the eyes. A website called Ruiz-Healy Art has this to say:

Chuck Ramirez (1962-2010), one of San Antonio's most beloved artists, was a major force in the San Antonio art community before his untimely death in a 2010 cycling accident. A 2002 Artpace resident, Ramirez' work has been exhibited nationally and internationally. As an artist and graphic designer, Ramirez employed the visual and conceptual techniques found in contemporary advertising and package design, isolating and re-contextualizing familiar objects to explore cultural identity, mortality, and consumerism through his photographs and installations.

The next evening we're driving back from Jim's diner, or possibly some other diner, and something catches my eye as we cross North New Braunfels onto the Austin Highway.

'Holy shit!'

'What?' Bess squeaks in panic, almost losing control of the wheel for just a fraction of a second.

'Look!' I point.

We are driving past the McNay Art Museum. What's on at the McNay is advertised on four sides of an immense wooden cube permanently situated on the grass triangle adjacent to the museum. The side facing us is taken up with the fourteen foot high image of a woman's handbag, top open to expose key chains, pills, a cellphone and so on. Above the handbag is the name Chuck Ramirez. The poster promotes an exhibition of his work. It's just started and will run for the next couple of months.

I've lived in San Antonio since 2011.

I'd never heard of Chuck Ramirez, my double, before yesterday.

Today I see his name in letters several feet tall.

It feels a little like the universe is fucking with me, as though it's only just thought of this guy.

Next evening we go to have a look at the exhibition, which is called All This and Heaven Too. It mostly comprises large photographs of small everyday objects, handbags, a vase of flowers, trash, Mexican candies and so on. It reminds me a little of the work of Andy Warhol, which is unfortunate because I couldn't care less about the work of Andy Warhol, generally speaking. I find it bland, and that it seems in many cases to be intentionally bland is not enough to excite my interest.

Each to their own.

The gallery is packed, I guess because it's only the second or third night. I anticipate people dropping their drinks and standing, open-mouthed to point at me, maybe even a few screams.

Oh my God! It's him! There he is!

It doesn't happen. Maybe the resemblance is dependent on lighting, or whether or not the eye of the beholder finds me sexually attractive; leaving just the art as the sole source of potential pleasure, and it simply isn't the kind of art I'm ever likely to appreciate.

I think of people I knew at art college, still plugging away, these days as facebook friends who post slightly blurry photographs of an old tin mug on a piece of wood, or rusted cooking utensils. The photographs appear frayed at the edges as though printed on handmade paper, and always there's the associated information about what type of camera or lens were used. I've never worked out why they share such images with the rest of us, or what I'm supposed to get from them.

The exhibition isn't that big, and after twenty minutes it feels like we've tried, so we go to the gift shop. I look at the art books. Most of them seem to be geared towards fostering an appreciation of art amongst people who don't actually like art but might not mind getting some gifty book for a birthday or Christmas present: Matisse, van Gogh, Picasso, Warhol, Dalí, all of those guys…

Bess buys chocolates for her grandmother, and we head out for a quick look around the other galleries, the permanent collection, the place where they hang paintings by Corot, Dufy, Renoir, Courbet, Marsden Hartley and others; and I remember how much I like these paintings, like a good beer after a bland yet efficient hamburger which I hadn't really wanted in the first place.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

My Long Lost Uncle Richard

Derek, Peter, Richard and myself, June 2012.

Back in 2007, just as Arthur Burton, father to my father, shuffled off into the great beyond, another Burton emerged from the woodwork, a Burton named Richard Straley. My cousin Mark had been engaged in genealogical research, climbing out onto long-forgotten branches of our family tree to see if there was anything of interest dangling beneath. In the meantime, Richard Straley had undertaken familial detective work of his own, and the two of them met in the middle.

Going back to the beginning, my father's parents - my grandparents - were Arthur Burton and Marjorie Brush. Arthur had one brother, Charlie, although the two of them didn't get on very well. Hitler kicked off, and Arthur went overseas to fight, but ended up captured, taken prisoner, and was as such forced to march across Poland towards the end of war as part of a notorious undertaking which it is believed claimed the lives of thousands. Marjorie meanwhile had been working as a nurse somewhere in London, and I understand that Charlie continued to labour on the farm. Neither of them had any idea as to whether Arthur was dead or alive, and Marjorie had a child by Charlie.

When it transpired that Arthur was still very much alive and on his way home, the child was given up for adoption and seemingly never mentioned again. My understanding is that Arthur never knew, and neither Marjorie nor Charlie were in any hurry to spill the beans, although personally I have to wonder if this might not have been the true root of what animosity everybody recalls as having existed between the brothers. I remember that Charlie passed on back in the seventies, and that we went to look around his house, which seemed huge and fascinating to me. I wondered why we had never, to the best of my knowledge, visited him, but if there were an answer I probably wouldn't have understood it.

Marjorie was killed in a car accident around what I recall as having been the same time, or at least the same decade.

Then in 2007, my dad discovered this previously unknown older brother, or half-brother, or possibly two-thirds-brother given that his uncle had been the boy's father, more or less keeping it all within the same gene pool. My dad gave me an email address and I wrote to the man, attaching some photographs I figured he might want to see. He replied in an email dated to Friday the 17th of August, 2007.

Wonderful to hear from you. I had no idea you existed, so it's an additional pleasure and the fact you are a painter completes my pleasure. I am going to have to reply at great and boring length tomorrow or the day after as we have to collect my son Ben from camp at Bewdley tomorrow at 9.00AM - means an early start.

Thank you so much for the photos, both of your work and the family. So sorry about your grandfather but I hope to be able to make the scattering of his ashes. Pat will let me know when and I believe your dad is organising it. Especially nice to see Elizabeth as that is the only photo I have of her.

Thanks so much for writing. I really do appreciate it.

This was followed up on the Sunday.

I'll try to get this email off in one go but there is a lot to say and tell and my son will need the PC when he decides to get out of bed.

It really was exciting to hear from you. So sorry that Arthur died but I hear from Pat that the funeral went well and Peter has his ashes. I believe they are to be scattered on Mum's grave and I hope to be there for that. Pat said she would let me know when, but apparently Peter is organising. I'll wait to hear when and where.

What amazing photos. They came out perfectly. Mum's home on the farm looks very warm and cosy. I would imagine you enjoyed going there. Such a shame I never knew them.

I had been trying to find my natural family since about 1984 when I finally got hold of the adoption papers, and I could never understand why my father was Charles Burton but Mum married Arthur Burton. I looked and looked in all sorts of records but there were so many Burtons it was impossible, but I did put the details on Friends Reunited where eventually Mark Jeffries found them and hey presto - here we are a family again. Getting used to meeting so many new people has been quite an experience, especially as there is such a strong family resemblance, especially with Frank whom I believe is coming to the UK next year. If you have any other photos you could share with me I would be very grateful. Trying to build a family from nothing is a challenge!

I lived most of my life in Southampton, going to Art College there, 1967-1970. Then there was the Open University arts degree, 1971-1974 whilst working as a postman. Then a year out driving a tractor on a farm at Eastleigh just outside Southampton, then teacher training in London, 1975-1976, finally getting a teaching job at Blackpool College, 1976-1980. I left there to come down to Gloucestershire and set up a Theatre in Education group, going around secondary schools putting on set plays for GCSE. That folded in 1981 and I went to Gloucester Art College where I stayed until I retired in 2001.

I met my lovely wife Eunice at Gloucester in 1982. We married then and now have two sons, Ben, 17 and Pete, 14. My life is very simple now. I try to keep painting, design websites, cook and shop. Eunice works at the University in Student Support Services.

Your life sounds really interesting. I've never been to Mexico but our two sons are adopted from Brazil and we spent some time there in the mid-eighties and early nineties. I tell a lie - in 1980, to get over a failed relationship, I took myself to the USA and got a Greyhound ticket for thirty days, I went all over the US and into Mexico but did not stay. Mexico City was so polluted I just got the next bus out. Shame really - I should have stayed. I wanted to look at Diego Rivera's murals.

More later, but Ben has surfaced and needs to complete some college work on the PC.

We briefly spoke on the phone, and it was both weird and exciting to find myself in conversation with a Burton who spoke with what was, roughly speaking, a London accent, one who had been both a postman and a painter, much like myself. We finally met in June, 2012. I was married and living in Texas, but I'd returned to England for a couple of weeks to see friends, relatives, and to catch up. My dad drove across to the village, Cranham in Gloucestershire, and we met in a pub called the Black Horse. My uncle Derek turned up unannounced, based entirely upon my dad having mentioned that he intended to visit, and so we had a table full of Burtons. This was unusual for me, or at least it was unusual that I should be present given the geography and everything. The Burtons have a very distinctive look characterised by a certain shape of face and the big lips which earned my dad the nickname Smiler at school; and there were four of us, and two of those were identical twins; and one of them was someone whose existence had only recently been revealed to us - that same face but with a London accent coming out of it, roughly speaking. It was weird, but nice.

Richard was erudite and funny, and it was one of those occasions where you realise how much you have in common with others, forgetting entirely about the differences. We all got pleasantly drunk and then went our separate ways.

I kept in touch with Richard through facebook, on and off, and oddly it was his invitation which had first drawn me to the social media site. One year, somebody bought me a collection of Accident Man comic strips written by Pat Mills and drawn by Duke Mighten, who, in the dedication at the front of the book, thanks my college lecturer Richard Straley for putting me on the right track and keeping me focused; so that merited a raised eyebrow or two. I had a vaguely famous uncle, and one who would address me as dear boy from time to time.

Unfortunately, Richard's health had been an issue from the moment I first knew of him. He was a man of sedentary habits who seemed to enjoy pies and beer significantly more than he enjoyed exercise. He used a mobility scooter to get around, but even this was difficult given his living in an isolated village in which everything seemed to be uphill, and in a small house built before wheelchair access even existed as a term. Last December he suffered a fall and was rushed to hospital in a coma. He recovered, but never enough to come home, and then I found out that he passed away on Sunday the 3rd of September. I suppose, it wasn't entirely unexpected given the state of his health over the previous year, but it was nevertheless sad, and a waste, and a loss, as deaths tend to be.

I knew him for just ten years, which was better than not at all.