Thursday, 10 August 2017

It's Not Always Good to Talk

I'm very glad that you asked me that question...

I'm being interviewed for a podcast called Raconteur Roundtable. The interview lasts about an hour and is conducted over a Skype connection. Most of it is about my science-fiction novel, Against Nature, which was published by Obverse Books back in 2013. The interview is fun but exhausting, and I make the mistake of attempting to respond to certain questions with answers beyond the range of my ability to articulate them. I write a lot but I'm not very sociable and I don't engage in profoundly intellectual conversation on a daily or even yearly basis, which leaves me ill-equipped to discuss certain aspects of my own work. If I were able to tell you that, I should have said, I wouldn't have needed to write it in the first place.

Skype is a programme which facilitates communication between computers in different parts of the world. It makes use of a webcam so that you can see who you're talking to, and the webcam usually has a microphone built into it. My interview is conducted in audio only, but the webcam is nevertheless plugged in so that I can use the microphone, and thus am I able to watch a video image of myself as I speak. I'm sat in front of the Mexican national flag which I have hung over the back of some shelving. I'm going cross-eyed and duck-faced as I scrabble around in my vocabulary and attempt to form sentences. My hand wheels in the air at the side of my tilted head in illustration of something or other and I realise I've somehow turned into Suzanne from Orange is the New Black, and that I sound demented.

The thing is - well it's sort of, you know—what I'm getting at is that I was always looking for something. I mean I used to be into flying saucers and all that sort of rubbish, but I—well, it was like this. I discovered... I suddenly... I was looking for like a total... You know, I was always interested in ancient Egypt. I don't have the words here - what I mean to say...

As we conclude the interview, I tell them that I'm aware of having been unable to form sentences, or indeed to say anything useful, but they insist that I did fine and that they'll be able to edit it down to just the good stuff. I leave it at that.

I'm woken at three in the morning by my telephone beeping so as to alert me to the fact of the battery having run low and that it requires recharging. I've forgotten to switch the phone off because I barely even use the thing. Most of the time I keep it charged just in case my wife has an emergency and needs to reach me.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I swear and scrabble around in the darkness, struggling to unwrap the phone from my pants in the laundry basket at the side of the bed.

Beep. Beep. Beep.

I turn the fucking thing off, then lie wide awake for the next few hours. I have David Bowie's Never Get Old stuck in my head and my thoughts are cycling, over and over - what I should have said, how I shouldn't have agreed to the interview in the first place, and how I wish there were a specific individual responsible for the fact of my stupid fucking phone having an alarm which beeps when the battery needs recharging so that I could track him down and smash his kneecaps and elbows with a ball-peen hammer.

I have to get up at seven, so naturally I lie awake, hot and restless and pissed off until approximately ten to seven.

I sleep briefly.

I get up at seven to feed a million cats, then come straight back to bed as my wife gets up and goes to work. I sleep until about ten and have a dream in which I am menaced by Adrian Meredith, an older boy who didn't seem to like me very much when I was at junior school. He's pushing me around. He needs me to do certain things. He wants me to go into a pawn shop and buy back his girlfriend's gold necklace, the one he pawned to them in the first place.

I get up and have a slow, crap day - headachey with a sore throat, so the oak pollen is probably high and it's something like 98° Fahrenheit outside.

In the evening my wife and I eat at Hung Fong on Broadway because the kid is with his dad tonight, and I've found myself unable to venture out onto the surface of Venus so as to visit the supermarket from which I would ordinarily purchase the ingredients for whatever I would have cooked as our evening meal. After Hung Fong we visit Northstar Mall because my wife needs the battery of her iPhone replaced. It charges, but only just, and she's had it about five years. She tried the AT&T store, but that line of enquiry went about as well as we expected it to, so now we're at the Apple Store in the mall. It's like a dining hall designed by IKEA, pine benches and the kind of stools you would expect to find in a pretentious kitchen. The place is packed, but it's hard to tell whether anything is actually happening. Everyone is stood or sat around, pissing about on MacBooks, chatting to staff without any obvious sense of urgency. The staff can be identified by their all being in their early twenties and skinny with beards, excepting the single female. Some of them also have ear gauges, and I expect there's a hat rack laden with fedoras somewhere at the rear of the store, ready for when they all fuck off home at the end of the working day - if we're going to expand the definition of work to such limits as to incorporate this bunch.

We can't tell what we're supposed to do, who we're supposed to see. Each one of the staff is chatting to someone, busy in his own way. There's no queue nor till nor any obvious point of focus to the store, because that would be like sooo predictable. There's a bench at the far end of the store identified as the genius bar by text printed on the wall alongside a symbol resembling an atom with neutrons and protons in orbit, possibly so as to make a slightly mystifying association with Albert Einstein. I am familiar with the Apple corporation's repurposing of the term genius. I have iTunes on my computer, and the genius feature is something which plays my tracks at random. This seems a very loose application of the term to me, something relating to the fetishisation of the mix tape, now that we've rendered cassettes obsolete and decided that they were called mix tapes, which they never were. It's because simply choosing something is now considered a wildly creative act, so when you're putting together your mix tape and you have Madonna's Material Girl followed by something from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, that makes you a genius, yeah?

Even so, I can't tell what they're doing at the genius bar, and it isn't even the sort of bar at which you could buy the beer necessary for some of this arrangement to make sense.

'Maybe we just send out a vibe,' I suggest, 'or maybe if we take our clothes off...'

A young man - I'd guess in his early twenties - with a beard takes my wife's telephone number. It's a little before eight in the evening.

'I'll send you a text when someone is free,' he tells her. 'It shouldn't be much more than three quarters of an hour.'

We leave the store and take the escalator to the upper level, the food court I suppose you would call it. We buy ice cream from Marble Slab - because there's always room for ice cream - and sit and wait for the text summons to come to the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery.

We are summoned as we head back to the store just in case they've sent the message and we failed to receive it on the iPhone which doesn't always work because of a problem with the battery. The time is 8.45PM, and we waste another five minutes back in the store trying to work out who has summoned us. Eventually a young man with a beard identifies himself and shows us to a couple of stools. 'Someone will be with you shortly,' he tells us.

We wait.

I reintroduce the idea of taking our clothes off, but Bess isn't so keen. I move the stool away from the bench so that I can lay on it on my stomach. I stretch my legs out back and spread my arms. 'I'm a plane!' I tell Bess.

This doesn't work either so I try to look like I'm buying something. I take a box from the shelf and pull faces so as to suggest that I'm weighing up the pros and cons of buying a household lighting system which can be controlled from your iPhone. I guess my pantomime isn't very convincing because no-one comes to manage the potential sale. Try as I might, I am unable to impersonate interest in something which no-one sane could ever possibly need in their home.

The store begins to empty. An assistant with an unusually prodigious beard leaves.

'That one must be their king,' I point out, having decided they're like an ant colony. I say it loud in the hope of annoying somebody.

Twenty minutes have passed and a young man finally comes to see what's up with my wife's iPhone. Weirdly, he has no beard and he's kind of chunky.

'It's the battery,' we say.

He takes the iPhone into the back room in order to perform a full diagnostic. 'It's the battery,' he tells us fifteen minutes later.

I think of the phone guy in Earlsdon High Street back in Coventry, England; forever sat there yacking away to his ancient sidekick, always with a fag on the go. It's my phone, you just about manage as he snatches it from your hand, presses a few buttons, pulls a face, rips the back off, replaces something, then chucks it back.

'Call it a tenner, mate.'

We're a long way from Earlsdon High Street, and still some way from a fully operational iPhone. It's booked in, but it will take an hour and a half and my wife will be able to collect it tomorrow around noon.

'An hour and a half?' Bess is sceptical. 'There's a guy on YouTube who does it in twenty minutes.'

'Well there are other jobs we have, cracked screens to be replaced and so on.'

Neither of us can be bothered to point out that these alleged cracked screens are nothing to do with us. We just want to go home.

On the way to the parking lot we pass a Microsoft concession out in the mall. I wonder out loud if they have fights with the Apple colony, like the Bash Street Kids and their rivals in the pages of the Beano.

'Maybe that's where the King went. Maybe someone challenged him to a duel?'

We may never know the answer.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Schnitzel & Giggles


So far as I can remember, my first village fête was in Wimpstone, a row of houses in rural Warwickshire which I'm not even convinced was ever really long enough to be called a village, although it probably seemed like the big city when I was five. The River Stour runs along the back of Wimpstone, past the last house and under the main road, and I imagine the fête must have occupied the triangular patch of land framed by road, river, and the garden of whoever lived in that last house. That's how I remember it, although it was nearly half a century ago so I could be wrong. I recall attractions which didn't even do much for me at the age of five, if that's how old I was; and I remember old crap turfed out from attics and cupboards beneath stairs for sale upon tablecloths laid across the grass. I bought a book about Robin Hood, or at least I cadged pennies off my mother and bought a book about Robin Hood. It was an orange hardback, the kind which would once have been wrapped in a garish technicolour cover, and it was illustrated. It seemed like quite a find and left a bigger impression on me than anything else that day, or from any village fete since.

Just once, I would like to have been as excited about a village fête as Randy is about the Camden County Fair in My Name is Earl*. 

Hey, everybody! I'm Gus, the Camden County Fair bear, runs the commercial while Randy tries hard to keep from exploding with anticipation. Who's ready for some fun? Enjoy food, fun, prizes, an Osama bin Laden shooting gallery; And this year, get your picture taken inside the actual car from Smokey and the Bandit. It's gonna be bear-tastic!

Subsequent commercials additionally promise that the event will be not only bear-riffic, but fully bear-awesome. I know bear-awesome doesn't make any sense, and yet it sort of makes perfect sense; and one day I'll attend a village fête which will be genuinely bear-awesome. Maybe that day has come.

We're out driving. We don't know where we're going because we're having an adventure; or Bess may have some vague idea seeing as she has the wheel because I never learned to drive, but I suspect she's playing it by ear. It's June and we live in Texas, so needless to say it's fucking hot, somewhere up in the vicinity of 100° Fahrenheit; but our lower humidity makes the heat marginally more bearable than it would be in England, and in any case I don't know what that is in old money, so it's just something we deal with, even if it rules out long rural walks at noon.

As we approach Boerne, we see a sign for the Berges Fest, which isn't a village fête because we don't really have villages in Texas; but it sounds like it might be a county fair, and might therefore be bear-awesome. I guess Berges derives from berg, apparently meaning mountain in German; and Boerne is a culturally German town on the edge of the Texas hill country, which I suppose amounts to more sense than my assumption of this being the Berges County Fair, because there is no Berges County. Boerne is in Kendall County.

We park in a suspiciously empty lot, probably a field which has only just been opened up to handle the overspill from the existing lots. We walk amongst giant trucks and make appalling jokes about what we're going to find, because we don't yet know what we're getting into. Thankfully it isn't a Klan rally or an international swingers' expo. It's a fair, if not strictly speaking a county one. It's food, music, heat, and booze. Fest is probably as good a term as any.

First we have cups of corn, something my wife recalls as having been a treat when she was young, but of course a new one on me. We stand next to the fifteen foot inflatable cob and the guy fills polystyrene cups with bright yellow corn. We get plastic spoons and are invited to mix in our own butter - which is in liquid state at this point - mayonnaise, and paprika. Surprisingly, it's delicious.

We approach a covered marquee with open sides, one of two. There's a stage in the middle and an oompah band, all pigtails and lederhosen. The musicians are arranged upon the stage in a half-circle, three rows of them, all seated, because technically they are an oompah orchestra. Sadly there seem to be more people on stage than in the audience, but happily those on stage are having such a great time that they don't really care; and not once am I reminded of that scene in Cabaret.

Finishing our corn, we investigate the other marquee. Within, we find an array of craft stalls, but they seem to be of the kind we see everywhere selling the sort of stuff which fills the stores of Boerne and New Braunfels - pieces of wood embossed with motivational slogans, and the like. There are also stalls selling car insurance and double glazing.

Who the hell goes to the fair and buys double glazing?

There's an ice cream stand run by a likeable old coot with a moustache of the kind my English relatives probably imagine to be more common in Texas than is actually the case. Bess chooses coconut and I decide that I want the eggnog flavour, so our guy works his way around a succession of nine or ten freezers before locating our requested flavours. The ice cream is home made, frozen onto sticks, and delicious.

Beyond the marquee, we find a rodeo in progress, or at least we guess it's a rodeo because there's a rodeo clown stood in front of an audience. An absent minute passes before we see the cattle in a pen on the far side of the bleachers. There's also a distorted commentary coming through the tannoy, but we can't tell what he's commenting upon because nothing seems to be happening, and the commentary is delivered in that accent which sounds like someone playing with a selection of rubber bands. The rodeo clown is just standing there.

Another minute saunters by, and still nothing has happened so we walk in the direction of cheering and excitement. Here is another, smaller crowd, and they too are watching something narrated by a man with a microphone. We shuffle to the front of the crowd and see dachshund races in progress, a couple of little sausage dogs being petted and steadied at one end of a track with their people waiting at the other - doggy people, one of them a woman wearing a t-shirt upon which is written don't ever let go of your wiener in country and western lettering. Suddenly the dogs are off, tails wagging, some panting as they happily trot off in the vague direction of the finish line. They don't seem to be in particularly competitive spirit, but another minute passes and we have a winner. His name is Michael and his owner scoops him up and lavishes him with kisses.

The dachshund is a popular dog in our part of Texas, second only to the chihuahua; but it's hot, and it's difficult to imagine a full afternoon at the dachshund races; and already my wife has been distracted by a food truck, not because she's hungry, but because she's drawn to novelty. The truck has a name, as though it's just a restaurant on wheels. It's called Schnitzel & Giggles, so my wife takes a photograph and posts it on facebook.

It seems like we've had all the fun there is to be had, so we leave. It's been the kind of occasion which might have seemed more significant if we lived in Boerne, which we don't. It's been a great way to spend thirty minutes, but fell sadly short of bear-awesome.

*: Stole Beer from a Golfer, the seventh episode of the first series, in case anyone was wondering.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Cats' Breakfast


It was my fault - my idea, so I only have myself to blame. I don't recall how many cats we had at the time, but it was a good few less than we have now. They'd been living on dry food because that was how Bess had done it since before we were married. I'd raised an eyebrow, vaguely recalling something about cats fed on dry food alone having medical problems, possibly something to do with a brand inanely named Cupboard Love; but it turned out that I was remembering something from back in the eighties. Dry cat food had come a long way since then, so it turned out; plus there was the advantage of being able to fill a cat feeder and it being good for a couple of days, with cats eating just when they felt like it.

Yet something about this system felt wrong, and it was hard to ignore the detail of how excited the cats would get when I bought them the occasional tin of food as a treat.

'I'm going to start giving them a regular breakfast,' I announced one day. 'Same time every morning. I don't mind getting up to do it.'

My logic was that firstly it would be fun for the cats, giving them something to look forward to; and if they'd been outside during the night, it would provide an additional inducement to come home, hopefully reducing the occurrence of anyone vanishing for a couple of days at a time. Also, the more varied diet would probably be good for them, and we'd save on bags of dried food.

So now it's a regular thing, part of my routine; and I like routine because it means you get things done without having to think about them, freeing up the day for more important stuff.

I wake at any time between six and seven, rarely later. If it's summer, it will be light. If it's winter, it will be getting light. If any of the cats stayed in during the night, usually they'll be waiting outside the bedroom door, or Jello will already have forced the bedroom door open. Only Jello and Kirby seem to have this ability, although to be fair the locking mechanism of the bedroom door is crap, so all it really requires is a good, hard push.

I get up, throw on a robe, take a leak and then enter the front room. Occasionally Fluffy will have either produced a hairball or else laid an egg during the night, so I usually deal with that before anything else, if necessary. Fluffy isn't keen on the litter tray, despite that it's kept clean, and all the other useless advice you'll find on the internet when Googling why does my cat keeping taking a dump on the rug? Online wisdom suggests that he poos in protest, but none of us can work out what might have prompted him to express his reservations in this way. He has a pretty easy life, all things considered. I suspect he simply dislikes the litter tray and would otherwise prefer to use the facilities outside.

So I enter the front room, and if there's no damage control to be undertaken, I throw open the front door. This means Fluffy can go and take a dump in a bush if he needs to, and Snowy is usually sat on the garden path awaiting breakfast. Where once I'd step outside and call out their names, now I simply leave the door open and let Grace, Holly, and occasionally Kirby arrive in their own time, not least because Grace has usually found her way up onto the roof during the night and sometimes needs a bit longer.

I go to the kitchen and arrange seven metal bowls on the counter, then open the back door and let Nibbler in, and sometimes Jello if he's been outside during the night. By this point I usually have the full complement of seven cats marching around the front room or in and out of the kitchen, and the meowing can be deafening. Snowy is always right up on the counter top, quite happy to be fed directly from the tin. I've tried to find some way around this, so as to enable me to at least open tins in peace, but there isn't one, so Snowy gets first dibs - an entire five ounce can to herself because she has twice the appetite of everyone else.

It's probably a good thing in certain respects. She went missing earlier in the year, and we found her twelve weeks later trapped in the garage of a neighbouring house which had been unoccupied for some time. She'd somehow survived three months in isolation without regular food and water. She was the weight of a newspaper when I picked her up, which was kind of horrifying, but has nevertheless since fully recovered. We assume she must have caught mice or cockroaches or something, but she probably had a bit of stored fat on her side too.

Once I've shaken the hockey puck of food into Snowy's bowl, I put the tin down on the kitchen floor. It gives Jello something to think about and keeps him from joining Snowy on the counter top whilst I fill the other bowls. It's all a bit like juggling, but by this point I can do it in my sleep.

Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Holly, and Jello each get the contents of a three ounce can. I can usually shake these out, then convey the five bowls to different parts of the front room in a single trip, which at last silences the chorus.

This leaves just Kirby, who gets Princess food because she's weird and highly strung. She'll eat what the rest are eating, and have no qualms about finishing off abandoned bowls, but for some reason you have to start her off on Princess food, which is a fancier, marginally more expensive version of what everyone else is eating and comes in a sachet. It would be annoying, but I'm used to it.

Kirby came to us as a kitten which some friend of my wife had rescued from an unpleasant neighbour. The unpleasant neighbour had taken three tiny kittens from a feral cat, declared them guilty of having been born in her yard, and then left them to die in a metal bin with the lid on beneath the scorching Texas sun, because that's the sort of thing unpleasant neighbours do. Anna heard the cries, rescued the kittens, and then found it in herself to not drive her car back and forth over the head of the unpleasant neighbour, which is what I would have done under the circumstances. Anyway, the point is that Kirby had a seriously rough start, and then suddenly she was our cat and I was her Daddy; and I'm still Daddy all these years later. She follows me around the house. She sits and watches me, waiting to see what I will do. When I look around, usually Kirby is there. At times it drives me nuts, but there's not much point getting pissy about it, given that she's a cat; and I suppose I should be flattered.

I fill Kirby's bowl, convey it to the hall, and pull the door closed so that she gets the required couple of minutes to eat without interruption, because the rest have usually taken to a game of musical bowls by this point.

Then comes phase two.

All the while, a group of five or six strays will have been waiting outside our back door. This is also my fault. It began shortly after I began providing a regular breakfast for our cats. There would always be some food left uneaten, so I took to leaving the bowls outside the back door for the benefit of passing strays, of which there were a couple, specifically a couple who told their friends.

Feral cat populations will tend to stabilise, rarely exceeding a certain number of cats per colony, and you can look it up online if you don't believe me. So far as our back yard is concerned, and keeping in mind that we already have seven cats, that number seems to be about six, although it recently dropped to five when Garak stopped showing up.

Garak was a slightly elongated cat from a house at the end of the street. He wasn't actually a stray, but was nevertheless happy to help out at breakfast time.

Don't mind if I do, he seemed to say as he sauntered onto the porch each morning. For the sake of calling him something more personal than that one over there, Junior named him Greenie after a lame character in something called Maze Runner. The name Greenie implied a new arrival and this cat had just showed up, so there it was; but I wasn't going to call him Greenie because I disliked the name, and Maze Runner sounds rubbish, and when the boy has emptied his first litter tray, maybe then and only then he gets to decide what we're going to call those cats he occasionally notices over the top of his iPad. Anyway, this cat looked like a Lester to me, so that's what I called him until a neighbour informed us that he already had a home and was known as Garak, presumably after the Cardassian tailor from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Garak was fine by me, because somehow the cat really did resemble the character played by Andrew Robinson.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Garak simply stopped showing up - although I've seen him out and about a couple of times since so I know he's okay - and the b-team now comprises just Gary, Mr. Kirby, Charlotte, and the Gus sisters. These are the strays I feed, although technically Gary isn't a stray either. He lives at a house at the opposite end of the road to the former residence of Garak, but his owner is deranged and calls him Fat Cat, presumably because he's huge and fluffy and she doesn't have much imagination. I call him Gary because he's large and not very bright and is always hanging around whenever I open the back door, much like Gary my neighbour from when I lived in London, whom I miss.





Charlotte is a Siamese cat, named after my wife's stepmother, the one who was niece to Johnny Cash.

The Gus sisters, whose obvious affection for each other suggest that they're almost certainly related, are named as such due to their shared resemblance to the late Gus, short for Asparagus.

Mr. Kirby is a stray we first noticed when searching for Kirby, who briefly went missing. We noticed him because he resembles our Kirby quite closely, but for his possessing a massive pair of knackers. Like his female counterpart, his black on grey stripes divide into spots in places, suggesting some Bengal heritage, and unlike our Kirby, he makes a hooting noise in lieu of a meow.

So, with the indoor cats fed I step out onto the back porch to feed the rest, unless it's winter and not yet light. If it's still dark, there will usually be a couple of trash pandas hanging around in the hope of getting in on the act; and while I like trash pandas, they hustle the cats away from their food and have a habit of taking everything to the water bowl to wash it before they eat, which may sound endearingly weird or even cute, but gets a little annoying after a while given the state of the water afterwards.

Anyway, Mr. Kirby remains a little feral. I can stroke him when he's eating, but he will otherwise avoid coming too close if he can help it; and yet at breakfast he hoots away like I'm a long lost friend.

I have six bowls which I place on the glass table on which we keep pot plants in the corner of the porch. I have three of the five ounce cans and I divide the contents between the six bowls with a fork. Mr. Kirby gets the first one because he's usually right up there on the table. Then I give Gary a bowl, because even though he has a home - albeit one in which he may not be appreciated as is his due, judging by how he spends all of his time at our house - if I don't give him a bowl, he'll just nab one from someone whose need may be greater. Finally I set the other four bowls down, and the three girls watch and wait for me to leave before joining in. The fourth bowl was originally for Garak, but now serves as a spare. As I go back inside, Nibbler usually slips past me in search of further gastronomic variety, and so the fourth bowl means everyone gets to eat.

This done, I make my toast and coffee and go back to bed to read for a while. Some days it's a pain in the arse, but it never takes longer than ten minutes, and even on a bad day it brings a great sense of satisfaction as I watch them happily stuffing their faces.

So now you know.


Thursday, 20 July 2017

Get at Me, Dog


It's about seven in the evening, still light, and we're watching King of the Hill. For the past half hour I've been dimly aware of a dog barking, although it's more like yapping because it's a small dog. There are dogs around here, mostly spread out in an assortment of yards so we hear rather than see them. One of them gets to barking and they all join in and it becomes background noise, something you no longer notice after a while; but I notice it now because it's on our porch, right outside our front door.

'That arsehole,' I mutter as I get up.

I suppose it's a stretch to say that we live in the 'hood, but at times you could be forgiven for thinking so. By zip code we're in the affluent part of the city, except we're in the crappy, run down corner, which suits us just fine. It's affordable, and we don't have to look at no socialism signs stuck in anyone's lawn, or have doctors, lawyers and dentists complaining to the city about the state of ours. More obnoxious relatives tend not to visit, possibly for fear of some neighbour stealing their hubcaps, so it all works out quite nicely. On the other hand, we get to be neighbours with Shooty the drug dealer. He's a young man living at home with his family and certain social issues meaning that he doesn't play well with others. He's been inside the stripey hole for something or other, but now he's toned it down, just selling the occasional baggie to fellow enthusiasts.

Once he called out, 'Nice bike!' as I rode past.

Another time he asked if I'd like him to mow my lawn, which struck me as a stupid question given that I was myself in the act of mowing it when he made the enquiry.

That's been the full extent of our interaction, although I once helped his mother push her stalled car to the side of the road. She was intrigued by my displaced nationality and I had the impression she was taking the piss out of me, just a little.

A couple of years back Shooty supposedly shot someone in the head inside his own home. I guess they must have had a disagreement about something. The entire street was full of cops, and even a television news crew, but no gun was ever found. Everything returned to as it was before, except that now I had a nickname for the guy which saves me using the more nebulous those people qualified with similarly vague hand gestures.

Shooty has a dog, a chihuahua. He's had it for about a month. It roams up and down the road, just yapping away. It never seems to be inside his house. It's always there, sometimes yapping outside our window at two in the morning. Sometimes I see Shooty walking his dog, which just means that he walks alongside it as it covers its usual ground, up and down the road, yapping away. We have cats, so it's becoming more and more annoying.

'That arsehole,' I mutter as I get up and rush out onto the porch to chase it off. No-one fucks with my cats.

Shooty himself is there, stood at the end of our drive, stood on our drive. 'Good boy,' he says in his stupid sing-song voice. 'Good boy.'

He's a walking, or at least shuffling, cliché. He makes me think of Chico and the Man, although truthfully I barely remember the show. He's the racist beaner caricature of the stupid, simple Mexican who wobbles his head from side to side as he grins and admits I no know, Señor. It's a bit of a shock to realise that such people exist.

'Good boy,' he says as he watches his dog bark at the side of my house, as though this isn't something the dog would be doing regardless of his tutelage, like this is some fucking trick he's managed to teach his pooch. 'Good boy.'

How the fuck is that good?

I stand on the porch, arms spread like I'm Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood as Ferris drives past. It's a challenge. Get at me, dog.

'You maybe want to call him away - off my lawn,' I suggest kind of forcefully. I should probably be scared of this arsehole, but I just can't get there. I can't bring myself to respect this walking cliché; and besides, twenty-one years as a postman has made me pretty hard to kill. I can feel myself wanting him to start.

'He like to chase the cats,' Shooty explains happily, because like, liked, likes - that be some complicated shit right there. Ain't nobody got time for that.

'Yeah, I can see that,' I say. 'That's why I want him off my lawn. I don't want your dog chasing my cats. Do you understand what I'm saying here?'

Incredibly he doesn't, and I hear some sort of question forming as I slip back into the house and close the door, because I've remembered that there's never anything to gain from getting into arguments with morons, and this moron supposedly shot someone in the head. Additionally, it's mainly just the yapping that's driving me batty. Not even Holly, our smallest cat, is bothered by the chihuahua.

'Something's going to happen to that dog,' my wife mutters darkly, and over the next few days we realise we've both been thinking the same thing. The dog is always there, with his owner usually nowhere in sight. All we need to do is to lure him into the car, drive out to Boerne or Selma or somewhere, and let him go, hopefully to find a better home with owners who actually give a shit and don't just let him roam free. The plan changes to taking him to an animal rescue center in another city, then to the one in our own city because it's not like Shooty's going to bother to check.

One week later we hear Shooty having an argument with the guy over the way. The guy over the way owns a couple of large flat-faced dogs, quite vicious looking. One of them escaped a few years ago and met me as I returned home. It was sat on my own porch growling at me, and not that happy waggy-tailed growl of when Fido or Rags or Scamp just wants to play; so thankfully the guy over the way makes sure his dogs stay inside his yard. Excepting this one occasion, I guess.

'How can you be so stoo-peed?' Shooty is screaming. 'He jos' a leel' puppy dawg! He never done no harm to no-one!'

My wife and myself peer out of the door, across the way, then duck back in before we're seen. Shooty is stomping back to his own house. As keen practitioners of the detective arts, my wife and I are able to ingeniously piece together a scenario equating to what we think must have happened.

The chihuahua was roaming up and down the road unsupervised, as it always is. One of the larger dogs escaped and attacked the itinerant chihuahua. Elementary, my dear Watson.

So fuck it, we're definitely going to dognap the yappy little bastard. Truthfully, we feel sorry for him having such a shitty owner. Maybe he'll have a better life with someone else. We're definitely going to do that.

Then I go back to England for a couple of weeks, and a couple more weeks have passed following my return before I remember the chihuahua and realise that I haven't seen him around.

I mention it to the woman next door, having previously established that the dog's constant presence was likewise getting on her nerves.

'It died,' she tells me.

'What? Seriously?'

'I saw her just putting it in the trash so I had to ask, and she told me it died. It had been laying around ill for a week, then it was gone.'

'Maybe it ate something.'

'Yeah maybe - you know they just let it run all up and down the street. It could have eaten anything. They didn't really care for it none, just let it loose.'

I step back inside, a little shocked.

Poor little cunt.

I didn't like the dog much, but I didn't want it to die. Maybe somebody else enjoyed the constant yapping even less than we did and laid out poison.

Then again, I wonder if Shooty even bothered to feed the thing.

I guess I don't really want to know.

Friday, 14 July 2017

Enter Catman


We're driving around the neighbourhood as usual. Sometimes we come straight home, and sometimes we cruise, circling this block, that block, doubling back and driving in what is almost a spiral pattern, and all because we like to see cats. We live in a web of suburban sprawl strung between a couple of highways, Harry Wurzbach and Rittiman - single story homes with massive yards and a lot of trees like much of San Antonio. It's a good place for cats, our little corner, because there isn't much traffic and the roads are mostly crappy so no-one races out onto the highway at unreasonable speed. There are a few regular places which we like to drive past so as to admire the cats - the little calico and ginger colony down on the corner, then a couple of snowshoe cats who are usually sat upon the immobilised car at the house opposite; or we'll cross Rittiman into the Heights, the wealthy part, and drive past the house of Kitler, so named because black patches of fur on his otherwise white face give him a passing resemblance to Adolf Hitler. There's the sea of tails house, identified as such because my wife passed it one morning as she was out running just as the door opened and the yard briefly swam with happy tails aloft as everyone went in for breakfast. Bess says she couldn't actually see the person stood in the shadows holding the door open, but something about the scenario suggested the phrase fuck my life.

We have seven cats, or twelve if you count the strays which I feed and which don't really belong to anyone but tend to spend a lot of time hanging around our yard. Personally, I don't officially count the strays due to a city ordnance preventing us from having more than eight cats, which is probably for the best.

Our cats, in order of age, are Fluffy, Nibbler, Grace, Snowy, Kirby, Holly and Jello; and for the sake of convenience I address the outside cats - in order of size - as Gary, Mr. Kirby, Gus III, Charlotte, and Gus II. Gus was our senior indoor cat before she passed on to the great couch in the sky. Two of the strays approximately resemble her, and are hence titled as her successors. Gary isn't technically a stray because he belongs to a neighbour, but they don't appreciate him so he spends all of his time at our house. His actual name, as heard screeched by a mad, old German woman, is Fat Cat, which seems undignified so we call him Gary instead, after a former neighbour of mine with whom he shared certain characteristics, namely that he's massive, pushy, and always hanging around whenever you go out into the garden.

Suffice to say, we like cats.

We like cats so much that we drive around looking at other people's cats; and one of the places past which we drive on a regular basis is the home of Catman.

He lives on a corner a few blocks from us, a distance of maybe a mile. He probably has more cats then even we do. His yard is heavily shaded and always full of them. Sometimes he too is there, sat in a wicker chair with his cats, so we wave as we drive past and say, 'Hey, Catman!' in the general amiable spirit of Earl Hickey greeting the Crabman on an episode of My Name is Earl. Catman can't hear us but he usually waves back.

Sometimes I encounter him in the local supermarket. He's difficult to miss because he has long straggly hair and a huge white beard of Gandalf proportions. He looks a little like a crazy person, and his shopping trolley is always piled high with cat food and cans of twisted tea - an alcoholic variant on iced tea which is popular hereabouts for obvious reasons. Sometimes he's talking to somebody, because I guess everyone knows Catman; and sometimes he's just talking to himself so I'll say hi, and he'll smile and return the greeting because I guess he says hi to everyone. Sometimes he is accompanied by a certain aroma, but nothing so strong as the bouquet of the eye-watering park tramps I recall clearing the upper decks of Lewisham bound buses in south-east London. Texas is fucking hot, a place where you can work up a real world class stench if you really put your mind to it, and possibly also your arse; so I guess our boy at least makes some concessions to personal hygiene.

A few nights ago we drove past Catman's place and saw kittens, only a few weeks old by the look of them, three or four little black ones with the spike of fluff tails and all jumping around, pulling air-ninja moves on each other. Naturally, we're back for more.

'Hey, Catman,' we call in unison as we notice him sat over by the tree. He waves back, puts down his twisted tea, and comes over to us. I realise that this is in response to my wife having slowed the car and wound down her window.

'We saw you had some kittens,' she says.

'You want a kitten?'

'Oh no - no!' We wave our hands with some urgency, sign language approximating no thank you, we already have twelve and that's more than enough.

Catman extends his hand into the car and we all shake.

'Mark,' he tells us.

I can see four or five cats behind him, lounging around in different parts of his yard. I don't see the kittens. Maybe they're inside.

'How many cats do you have?' my wife asks.

He doesn't answer directly, or indeed at all, instead telling us about his cat colony permit. It sounds like something he's made up, although I later discover that there really is such a thing and that they cost only ten dollars. Anyway, he talks and I immediately recognise a cadence consistent with someone living at a tangent to what the rest of us generally agree to be reality; it's kind of as I suspected, and why a small part of me wanted to scream what the hell are you doing? when my wife slowed the car.

Then again, I've known my share of nutcases over the years, and statistically speaking most of them are a lot more sane, or at least a lot more fun, than the regular boring arseholes and shitbags one is obliged to deal with as part and parcel of daily existence. Mad isn't necessarily a problem, although what kind of mad can be a concern, partially because we've now been here five minutes and Mark hasn't stopped talking, or even given indication that he might pause for breath any time soon. He tells us about the neighbour shooting at his cats with a BB gun and we're duly horrified.

'She doesn't like cats,' he sighs. 'I went round there and you know she has all these hummingbird feeders all in the trees in her garden, everywhere you look, and she loves her hummingbirds. She has names for them, and so I guess I can see why she wouldn't like cats, but I tried to talk to her. I told her when she shoots at a cat, can't she see how that's like someone shooting at one of her birds? She just couldn't seem to see it. So where do you live?'

Bess tells him. I tell myself that he probably won't remember the address.

'I had this beautiful Siamese cat and you know this guy wanted to buy her. I said, I told him, she ain't even mine. I have a permit, you know. I went to the city and got me a permit for a cat colony. He lives over that way.'

Mark gestures towards Rittiman, beyond which are the Heights and the home of Kitler.

'I was at his house and you know it has these big metal gates and all of the security alarms. He wanted to buy my cat but I wasn't going to sell her.'

I study his face. It's been hard to keep from noticing the little cuts and scrapes. They show because he's the palest man I think I've seen in a long time, which must take some doing in Texas. He doesn't look unwell, despite reddish rings beneath his eyes, but he looks as though he's had a bad fall, or he's recovering from something; and yet his eyes are clear. He looks at you and understands. He is intelligent.

Nevertheless here it comes, just as I knew it would.

'You see I was dead and they brought me back to life.' He lifts his shirt to reveal pale green scabbing on a couple of burnt patches around his ribs. The injuries look painful. He's telling us something about being revived with electricity, like you see on the television with the doctor yelling clear, but the account is becoming confused and his testimony leaves no room in which to refer to that which we've already been told. This is one jigsaw puzzle we won't be piecing together any time soon. He was in the house in the rich neighbourhood, or else he was in the pharmacy on Broadway, just across the road from the old Methodist place. My wife later tells me that the wandering spirit was supposedly that of the dead guy to whom the funeral service was dedicated, but somehow I recall a different version. Possibly the confusion comes from Mark's telling.

'The pastor - I mean the preacher - he came in through the door and I could hear him speaking to me, but not with my ears. It was like telepathy in my head. I knew then that he wasn't a good man. He was fallen - you know like the yogis in the Himalala - Himalya - the Himmo—'

'The Himalayas,' Bess suggests.

'That's the place. He was talking to me but there was no sound, and I was just in the pharmacy.' He pauses, maybe realising what he's just said. 'Doesn't that sound crazy? I mean, I ain't saying that was what really happened, but that was how it seemed to me.'

The story continues, branching further. He was in the pharmacy and he was dead, or he was somewhere else, maybe the rich neighbourhood. He was in space looking back at the Earth from a great distance, and there was that light we always hear about, but he wasn't going to go towards it. Jesus Christ was there with a censer like the kind used in a church, swung back and forth on a chain, but there was blood in the censer.

As he relates the tale, he pauses to remind us that he isn't suggesting that any of this is literally what happened, only that it constitutes his experience of something. I recall reading of a similar defence made by Philip K. Dick, the science-fiction writer who famously experienced all manner of visions and delusions whilst remaining otherwise lucid and aware that what he experienced might not be entirely real by any accepted definition of the term. I have also read of some condition whereby the two halves of the human brain fail to communicate with each other as they should, meaning that thoughts crossing the divide will sometimes appear to have originated from somewhere beyond the self - hence those voices in the head we've all heard about. It strikes me that some of this may apply to Mark.

He doesn't know when to shut up, but otherwise he's polite and he's amiable and intelligent. His madness doesn't express itself as anything malign or necessarily likely to endanger anyone excepting possibly himself. Clearly he is able to function as well as any of us. He has a place to live and he takes good care of his cats and he gets by; and as he talks I can't help but notice how it's difficult to truly dislike him. He's weird and eccentric but he's kind of a regular guy too, in all ways that count.

'Where did you say you live again?'

This time my wife amends the address given so freely earlier, subtracting five from the house number. He probably won't remember, but it seems a little early in the relationship to be inviting him in for iced tea and further discussion of psychic forces he has known. I breathe an inward sigh of relief and hear myself saying, 'Listen, Mark - it's been nice to meet you but we really have to get going.'

We've been here thirty minutes, just sat in the car listening. Notice of our impending departure caused a brief stalling as he acknowledged that maybe we had other stuff to be getting on with, but he somehow manages to keep us there another ten minutes, and the narrative begins to eat its own tail: died, met Jesus, brought back to life, there was a light, planet Earth seen from a distance way out beyond the moon, brought back to life again, the censer full of blood, the pharmacy over on Broadway...

We leave, and he doesn't seem to mind. He's just happy to have met us, and we're happy to have met him. He goes on a bit, but I'd still rather listen to some guy tell me about mysterious lights and astral travel than how much he earns or how to get ahead in business.

Crazy probably depends on where you're standing.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Airport


Here's how a modern airport works. Far beyond the end of the runway, beyond all those fairy lights, off in the long grass stands a little man with a pair of binoculars and a notebook. He spends the day looking up into the sky, looking at all the planes that come and go and noting down their number plates. Sometimes there are too many planes, and in such cases he'll count them all a couple of times over just to be sure, then mount his bicycle and get back to the control tower as quick as he can.

'Too many planes,' he'll shout up at the window, and providing someone up there hears him, they'll talk to the men flying the planes by means of a special two-way radio, just to make sure they don't all try to land at the same time. Sometimes there are only a few planes, but on other days there might be a lot of planes, especially when one of those new countries has been discovered - like Valeria or Lexavia to name but two of the most recent; so that's a sudden increase in tourism and, by association, air traffic, and before you know it, there are just too many planes up there. Worse is that we have no way of telling just how many planes there might be. There is simply no way to be sure. It's something we shall never understand. It's a mystery.

I'd spent three weeks back in England. I'd had quite a time. I'd met up with family, friends, and old friends I hadn't expected to see. I'd packed a suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes - obscure and mostly noisy bands from the eighties and nineties whose work I intend to digitise and make available on the internet - and this time I took the trouble to check what luggage restrictions would apply.

Back in 2015, I turned up at Heathrow with as much crap as I could physically carry, materials which never made it into the shipping container when I first moved and which were subsequently marooned at my mother's house. I had an earlier suitcase full of ancient cassette tapes, an acoustic guitar, a large portable art portfolio, and three or four additional bags all bursting at the zippers. I knew there might be some kind of excess baggage fee, but I didn't mind paying another twenty quid or so. Unfortunately the anticipated twenty quid fee turned out to be closer to four-hundred, so I wasn't going to make that mistake again.

This time, I'd weighed the suitcase on my mother's bathroom scales, then taken out one cassette after another until the weight crept below the permitted limit. This left me with a surplus of twenty-six cassettes which I posted to myself. I spent about a hundred quid posting stuff to myself because it wouldn't fit in my luggage, and thankfully it all arrived at the other end in one piece.

My mother drops me off at the coach station in Coventry, and this time I manage not to cry. I give her a hug and a kiss on the cheek, which represents a gaudy demonstration of affection in our family because we're civilised and not inclined to ostentatious sentiment. The coach trip is boring, but it gets me there in plenty of time. I bum around Terminal Five looking for things to do, smoking my last ciggies for a while and eating bland sandwiches before getting into a fight with a machine. It's the check-in machine, one of those features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency.

I press an icon on the screen and it asks to see my passport, face down in the scanner.

It asks to see my green card.

This unit cannot process your request at this time, it tells me. Please seek assistance.

I get the same response from a second machine.

I find a human and she suggests that I simply go straight to the check-in desk, which I would have had to do anyway even if the machine had worked. I suppose it's okay for me to go straight to the check-in desk because at least I made the effort to use the machine. The human at the check-in desk tells me that my possession of both a passport and a green card probably confused his mechanical colleague. I hump my permitted twenty-three kilo suitcase of industrial noise onto the scales and begin to sweat, waiting to be told how many thousands of pounds I've just incurred in excess baggage charges.

'Is it okay? ' I ask after a silent minute. 'Not too heavy?'

'It's fine,' he tells me.

The flight is long, cramped, and boring, and I'm stuck right in the middle. I watch Rowan Atkinson in Maigret Sets a Trap, which I find soothing because I've spent the last three weeks watching relaxing crime dramas - Midsomer Murders, Lewis and the like, these constituting my mother's preferred viewing these days. Then I watch Doctor Strange - which is okay despite the presence of Cucumber, Arrival - which is excellent, and finally a sappy American made music documentary which compensates for minutes wasted on boring Fatboy Slim by showcasing the altogether more entertaining Virus Syndicate. Once I've watched all the in-flight telly I can stand to watch, I fill in a customs form, declaring that I'm not bringing anything naughty into the country. I value my precious suitcase of noisy tapes at five quid, because there's really no point in trying to work out what they're all worth. It's not like I'm going to sell my rare Opera for Infantry cassettes and use the money to fund the downfall of the dangerous orange shitgibbon.

Eight hours after take off, we land at Chicago. We land at Chicago later than anticipated because there were too many planes at Heathrow. Apparently they had all turned up at once, completely unexpected, not even a phone call or anything; and so we were unable to leave on schedule. As I shuffle from the plane, I consider asking a stewardess whether she thinks I'm really going to be able to make it across the airport in time to catch my connecting flight to San Antonio, but I already know the answer. I already know the answer because when travelling in the US, I always miss the connecting flight. Every single occasion of my coming back across the Atlantic, I've ended up stranded in Philadelphia or Charlotte or New York because they can't find the plane, or they've found the plane but some kids have drawn cocks on the side, or they've run out of fuel, or it might rain, or there's poo on the fucking runway. It has happened every single time, and tonight I get an unscheduled stay in the windy city. I've been in transit for thirteen hours and somehow I'm still thousands of miles away from home.

As I squirt from the connecting tunnel into the womb of O'Hare international, I raise a finger to catch the attention of a stewardess, but before I've even finished my question she directs my attention to the wall upon which an array of envelopes are affixed with tape. I see that my surname is written on one of the envelopes, but my thoughts are momentarily elsewhere, flustered by the blandly efficient tone of the stewardess telling me that I'm screwed, albeit not in those specific terms. I thought they had been trained to sound like they at least give a shit.

Amazingly, I don't lose it. I was expecting this eventuality. In fact, I would have been more surprised had I made my connecting flight without disruption. The envelope contains a letter telling me how deeply everyone regrets everything, along with tickets which will secure a room and breakfast at some local hotel.

I am swept through baggage claim by tidal crowds exiting the plane, then on through to customs and Homeland Security. Every few minutes I have another piece of paper shoved at me. They all go into different pockets as I try to concentrate on what the hell is going on and where I need to go. I ask directions of a woman who turns out to have a near impenetrable Swedish accent, and who helpfully barks at me whilst pointing at a line of machines, features installed for our increased comfort and convenience so as to dispense with human inefficiency. I can't even get to the machines because there are too many people and the crowd is chaotic, and I don't even know what the fuck I'm expected to do once I get there. After some wrestling, the robot asks for my passport and I answer a series of questions. It prints out my forty-seventh piece of paper to add to all the others I will eventually be expected to hand over to someone or other. Eventually I am through to passport control, or whatever it is. I am asked a couple of questions by a guy who doesn't care, and I'm subsequently waved through. My pockets are still very much stuffed with pointless forms, tickets, declarations, dockets and bits of paper. At no point has anyone asked to see any of them, and yet I've already entered the United States. Almost an hour has passed since I stepped from the plane.

I wait outside with other disgruntled passengers. It's dark and hot, a temperature differential which confirms that I'm back on American soil, accordingly bringing me the only twinge of pleasure I am able to experience under the circumstances. We wait forty minutes until a minibus bearing the name of our hotel appears. It fills to capacity before I can get a seat. The driver tells us that his colleague will be along in another half hour.

We continue to wait. I compare disgruntled notes with a fellow traveller, a German. He is unsure as to the departure time of our replacement San Antonio flight in the morning. I empty my pockets of all the slips of paper I've accrued, but somehow I've mislaid my boarding pass, the one piece of paper which actually does useful shit, the ticket which will eventually get me home.

Fanfuckingtastic.

A second minibus eventually shows. It's after nine. We landed a couple of hours ago. I talk to an old couple who take up the seat in front of me. They tell me that they very much enjoyed England. I tell them that I'm glad to be back in America, despite this evening.

I phone my wife once I'm at the hotel. She already knows what has happened, and knows not to wait for me at the airport. I think she's more distressed by it all than I am. I consider phoning Joe, my friend who lives in Chicago. About a month back I told him that my connection would occur in his city, and that it almost certainly wouldn't be happening given my previous experience of trying to catch a fucking plane in America. I may be giving you a call if I end up in some hotel, I told him, but now that I'm here I realise my mood is best kept in quarantine, and that I will make for terrible company this evening. I don't know Joe very well, but from what I do know, I already respect the guy too much to ask him to babysit some pissed off English dude.

Next morning, I have breakfast at the hotel. It's free, as it should be. I kill time, watch some television, then eventually make my way back to the airport. The missing boarding pass turns out to be no big deal after all.

Yesterday I wore my Lone Star shirt and stetson. I wear the stetson as a matter of course, but I figured that wearing it in combination with the shirt would give me a notionally patriotic appearance, reducing my potential significance to those factions within the Department of Homeland Security who now - so I am informed - make it their business to check your social media to see if you've referred to the current president as a dangerous orange shitgibbon, an identification you might imagine would be covered by that whole deal with freedom of speech, that thing which is supposed to make America great. I had already deleted all references to the dangerous orange shitgibbon from my facebook page, and also any links which might expose me as one of those bleeding heart liberal faggot types; but still, I'm reluctant to take chances, hence the shirt and the stetson. However, I'm now behind schedule and I'm not going to wear the Lone Star shirt a second day running because I have standards. Instead I opt for my Henry Rollins for President t-shirt because it at least suggests patriotism in some form.

I make it through customs and security just fine, aside from one officer having a rummage through my backpack, seemingly intrigued by all the funny looking shit which showed up on the x-ray machine. He scowls at my ancient tapes of industrial noise, but thankfully doesn't find my pornography - a 1993 issue of Knave which I own because I'm in it. Specifically the magazine features an article about A Reflection, an unpublished comic strip written by myself and drawn by Charlie Adlard way back at the beginning of his career. Ignoring the bongo periodical, the security officer finds a set square once owned by my grandfather. I guess maybe it looked like a weapon on the x-ray. Once it's obvious that I'm not about to blow anything up, I'm through. Weeks later I discover that my friend Jane, another English citizen living in the US on a green card, experienced just the sort of difficulties I had anticipated. She was detained at length, and interviewed twice before being allowed to re-enter the country. I'm inclined to wonder whether it was the stetson which helped, which eased the process for me.

I head for my departure gate and an old coot similarly kitted out with a stetson squints at my t-shirt. 'Who do you want for president?'

'Henry Rollins,' I tell him. 'It's a long story.'

My estimation of his voting habits thankfully turn out to be entirely wrong. 'Well, I ain't got no idea who that is,' he sighs, 'but he can't be no worse than that dang fool we got ourselves right now.'

My flight back to Texas runs without incident.

Finally I am back in San Antonio.

Heading for baggage claim I see Daisy Bee hamming it up on the concourse before a bunch of school kids. She is my first familiar face, our famous local clown. She is our equivalent of Krusty because, as I've noticed, there are certain peculiar parallels between life in San Antonio and what you see on a typical episode of The Simpsons. We have a clown. We almost certainly have a guy in a bee costume. We even have our own version of Kent Brockman. I've watched him on the news and I've shaken him by the hand.

Baggage claim echoes traditional song from a marginally less traditional trio of female Mariachi musicians - violin, guitar, and guitarrón. It feels like a personal welcome, as though they're playing just for me, and it makes me think of Michoacan, which makes me happy. The air is hot and the music is sweet.

I am home.

Friday, 30 June 2017

Can't Get No


There are those who understand the general deal with moving to a different country, and there are those who don't. An example of the latter would be the relative who spent ten minutes yacking away about some special cheap phone rate she'd arranged with British Telecom, then thoughtfully suggesting that I too might look into getting that same deal, seeing as how I was about to move away and everything.

'I don't think they have British Telecom in America,' I told her, because it was the only answer I could give.

'Oh! Do they not?' She seemed genuinely surprised. I don't know if she ever watched The Royle Family, but I have a feeling she would most likely have given it a miss. It's just people talking, she would probably argue. Who wants to see that?

This is the kind of person who has understood my migration to another country mainly in terms of what I'll miss about England, or rather what they think I'll miss, somehow imagining that the two of us are essentially the same and with the same tastes.

I wonder if they show Stars in Their Eyes over there.

I'll just have to take the chance.

I could be moving to a land where the President greets me in person at the airport, bequeathing me the equivalent of millions of pounds in local currency in advanced thanks for culturally enriching his nation, and he'll give me a house too. Beer will be free forever, and the national anthem is different each year, but always something from Machine Gun Etiquette by the Damned; yet if I want to eat Findus crispy pancakes, then I'm screwed.

Fuck that! Stop the plane! I'm staying put!

I'd be an idiot if I'd moved to a different country in the expectation of it being exactly the same as the one I'd just left, but nevertheless, there are aspects of living in England which I've missed, or at least things I've occasionally felt like eating; then again, missed is perhaps an overstatement. There's nothing of which the absence has given me a sleepless night, leaving me crying, why oh why oh why over and over as I sweat and claw at the spectral form of a can of Batchelors mushy peas I've hallucinated above my bed. That said, there are certain things I've made a point of stuffing into my face whilst visiting friends and family in England, making the most of them whilst I could.

Bread. I ate bread during my time in England, but it would be an exaggeration to say that I stuffed my face with it. I ate bread in the form of toast most mornings, and on Tuesday the 11th of April I ate a sort of smoked salmon and a fried egg on toast thing - as it is described in my diary - at a pub called the Forest in Dorridge, a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham, a few miles south-west of Solihull. I cycled to Dorridge as part of a pilgrimage, because it turns out that John Wyndham was born there. I found no blue plaque, and the waitress who took my order had never heard of him, or even of Day of the Triffids. The waitress who brought me the smoked salmon and a fried egg on toast thing actually had heard of Wyndham, and even recalled having read Chocky at school, but hadn't realised he'd been born there.

The reason bread makes the list is that it's mostly shite in America in so much as that it's difficult to get decent bread - decent bread being any bread which doesn't prompt an exclamation of what the fuck is this? when you put it into your mouth. Tortillas excepted, baking is not generally something which is done well in the States, and we seemingly take our cues from Mexico in this respect; and much as I love Mexico and all things Mexican, the use of flour in a recipe doesn't mean you additionally need a pound of fucking sugar.

I have surmounted this problem by limiting my purchases to the one brand of bread which doesn't taste like it wants to be a cake when it grows up.

Chocolate. We seem to be somewhat limited in our range of available sweeties here in America, possibly due to loaves of bread occupying the same ecological niche. Hershey bars are okay, but they're not Cadbury's. Butterfinger and Three Musketeers bars are decent, although cops have been known to mistake the silvery wrapper of the latter for a firearm and shoot the black man aspiring chocolate consumer to death just in case. We also have chocolate bars called Pay Day and Oh Henry!, one of which is okay, but I can't remember which one; and yes, the names are a bit weird. I have no idea what that's about. Still, it's not like I eat a lot of chocolate, so it's another thing I haven't really missed.

Doner Kebabs. I had a period of at least a year, possibly as many as twenty, during which I more or less lived on doner kebabs; and it's hardly a coincidence that these were also my most sociable years, an era in which I took great pleasure in getting shit-faced in the pub at least once a week. Not only is a doner kebab exactly what you need at two in the morning when you're full of beer and likely to burst into song*, but it's also a near foolproof hangover cure when eaten cold next day. We have doner kebabs in Texas but they're not the same. The pita bread is always strangely puffy and I can't get used to it, plus the thing needs to be drowned in chili sauce, which no-one observes on the grounds of everything else in Texas being drowned in chili sauce. The Texan doner kebab - which for all I know may well be closer to some Turkish original than its English equivalent - is pretty decent, but I nevertheless planned to eat five or six doner kebabs a day for the duration of my return to the old country. In the end I forgot, aside from one I had at the Istanbul Restaurant, at 17, The Butts, Coventry, the consumption of which came reasonably close to constituting a religious experience; and yes, The Butts is what the road is called, owing to the presence of the former residence of the man who invented arses.

Dunn's River Nurishment. Okay, I'll admit - I probably would have voted for Donald Trump had he promised to bring Dunn's River Nurishment to the shelves of our stores and supermarkets, or I would have done had I been registered to vote. Dunn's River Nurishment describes itself as a nutritionally enriched milk drink and may be considered the oil upon which south-east London runs. It comes in a can, tastes like heaven, cures hangovers, probably cures cancer, and the vanilla one turns your pee dayglo. Needless to say I was guzzling this elixir more or less non-stop for most of my visit.

Fish and Chips. I didn't really realise that I'd missed fish and chips. I ate fish and chips when I lived in London, but only if I was too knackered to cook and wanted a change from doner kebabs, and only because there was a decent fish and chip place on Underhill Road, decent fish and chip shops having more or less disappeared from London towards the end of my tenure, replaced by establishments such as the Sea Cow on Lordship Lane. The Sea Cow is fish and chips for people who don't actually like fish and chips, charging a couple of quid for a pizza box containing seven or eight hand crafted potato rhombusoids fried in oil sourced direct from the pores of this really amaaazing native woman we met when we went kite-surfing in Tunisia. I never had fish from the Sea Cow because it was too expensive, and Robert Elms used to big them up on his London radio show, if you're still not convinced. Anyway, fish and chips has been one of those things for which I might experience an occasional craving, and the craving usually disperses as soon as I start eating them, so it's not such a big deal.

'Do you make fish and chips for yourself?' one of my wife's friends once asked in an amusingly ostentatious display of what I'm sure she considered cultural sensitivity. I can't remember what answer I gave, but it's easy enough to get fish and chips in Texas providing you don't mind the chips being called fries, and there's an endearingly corny nautically themed restaurant chain called Long John Silver's which does fish and chips at least as good as most places in London, possibly excepting the one in Underhill Road.

All the same, I was in England for about three weeks, and I seemed to find myself up at Gabriel's chippie in Earlsdon High Street almost every other day. I guess I had missed fish and chips after all.

Fry's Turkish Delight. I scoffed one of these more or less every time I happened to pass through a supermarket, newsagent, or any other shop selling them. I'm sure I've seen them on sale over here in America, but I guess they never caught on and remain popular only amongst exiles and anglophiles. I don't suppose anyone has much room left after all that bread.

Marmite. Contrary to the mythology, Marmite is reasonably easy to procure in America, being sold in snooty stores such as Central Market, which is probably our Waitrose. That said, similarly contrary to the mythology, I'm one of those people who simply thinks Marmite is okay. I can take it or leave it, and at seven dollars a jar I usually leave it. I didn't think about Marmite at all whilst visiting England. Those who just can't live without Marmite probably have some obscure medical condition, and are to be pitied.

Old Jamaica Ginger Beer. See Dunn's River Nurishment, apart from the actual description, qualification as the oil upon which south-east London runs, and the bit about it turning your pee dayglo. America seems to be the home of disappointing beverages, at least when it comes to anything implying beer. We have root beer for the kids, which carries one of those flavours you'd associate with perfume and doesn't seem to refer to anything existing in nature; and the grown-up beer is similarly shite, requiring that we import the real thing from Mexico. We have ginger ale, which isn't even worth discussing, and admittedly you might occasionally find some designer label bottle of the good stuff for about a million fucking dollars, but it's never a patch on Old Jamaica.

Pork Pie. My dad introduced the family tradition of a pork pie on Christmas morning back when I was a kid. Apparently it had been a tradition in his family when he was growing up, although no-one else I've spoken to has heard of it. He later abandoned the tradition following a tour of a pork pie factory. I believe it was the vats full of eyelids, arseholes, foreskins, and ball bags which put him off. Still, I wasn't there, and his description wasn't so vivid as to bother me, so I still find myself hankering for a pork pie on Christmas morning. In Texas we traditionally have pork tamales on Christmas morning, which I suppose is the same but with a corn husk instead of a crust. Nevertheless I'd still rather have a pork pie, which is unfortunate because you can't get them in Texas. There's a mail order company selling individual pies at a decent price, but the refrigerated postage is something like seventy dollars, and whilst I like a pork pie, I don't like them quite that much. One a year usually does me. My mother got one in when I was staying, and it was nice, and it was enough.

Steak & Kidney Pie. When Don Maclean first sang American Pie on an episode of Crackerjack broadcast back in 1976, he was referring exclusively to baked goods with fruit-based fillings. It seems that to most Americans, introducing meat - or indeed anything savoury - into a pie makes about as much sense as pork and lamb ice cream would to any English person with the likely exception of Heston Blumenthal. There are anomalies such as chicken pot pie and Hot Pockets; but chicken pot pies are probably the American equivalent of tripe and onions or something, and Hot Pockets - which are actually quite nice in an artificial sort of way - are basically meaty versions of McDonalds apple pies aimed exclusively at skateboarders and people who like to do ordinary things prefixed as extreme so as to make themselves seem really, really peng and fire.

Growing up in England, I never really thought about steak and kidney pie, but the idea that there might ever be a time when I found myself circumstantially prevented from eating one would have filled me with horror. Texans are obviously big on the whole steak aspect, but the rest of the cow is apparently mysterious to them - excepting culturally Mexican Texans who curiously seem to maintain the dietary habits of folk in nineteenth century Lancashire, albeit with more chili and less rainfall. This means that should I require kidneys, then a Mexican butcher will be the man to sell them to me, which is a relief because I'm obviously going to have to make my own.

I'm sure it can't be that difficult.

*: Usually Who Gives a Damn by Sham 69.

Friday, 23 June 2017

Banbury

'What a handsome fucker!' exclaimed the Pixie happily.

I leave Newbold, Warwickshire around eleven, cycling a zig-zag path heading east along the smallest country lanes I can find in the hope of avoiding anything you'd call traffic. Sue has offered to give me a lift from Halford, reasoning that it's a long way on a bike and Sunrise Hill will probably kill me. I've told her I'll be okay because I need the exercise and enjoy cycling.

'I scoff at hills,' I roared laughingly in the manner of Brian Blessed, but not out loud. My laughter was internal. I hadn't heard of Sunrise Hill, but I've cycled up other hills, and surely it couldn't be any worse than the one outside Wellesbourne; and people who cycle less than I do always seem to regard the smallest speed bump as a giant escarpment; and other reasons, probably...

I cycle from Newbold to Halford, then on to the villages of Oxhill and Upper Tysoe, at which point I come to Sunrise Hill; and unfortunately it is indeed a bastard. Fuck you, I mutter to my inner Brian Blessed, conceding defeat after about a hundred yards and getting off to push the bike the rest of the way. I stop to catch my breath three or four times, and after about ten minutes I'm at the top of the hill. I follow the road into Shenington, along what turns out to be the edge of the escarpment, dipping right back down to my original elevation and then back up again three or four times, up-down-up-down-up-fucking-down and rarely has such agricultural language been directed against a single geographical feature.

After seventeen miles I'm in the next county, Oxfordshire, and specifically I'm in Banbury. My guesswork regarding travel time has been a bit out and I'm late for Tom and Fiona's barbecue.

Tom probably isn't quite my oldest friend, but he's the first I visited on a regular basis. He lived in an old farmhouse in the village of Darlingscote, Cotswold stone, exposed wooden beams, and uneven floors. I found the place magical. The main thing we had in common was, as with all children, probably that we were the same size, but we shared a sense of humour and we both liked Star Trek. We'd play in the fields at the back. He was probably Spock, which I'm guessing from the fact that he'd keep calling me Jim, and somehow, despite this, I was a Cyberman from Doctor Who. The logic of these scenarios probably doesn't stand up to much scrutiny, and the continuity is all over the place, but I guess it worked for us at the time. My assumed identity for such childhood roleplay tended to be one chosen for its silent implication of terrible power, which unfortunately didn't necessarily translate well when the point of the game was in pretending to be captured on an alien planet or whatever. Tom didn't seem to mind, or possibly even to notice that my Cyberman was a fairly boring choice of persona; although I distinctly recall Sean objecting to my electing to be the Mighty Thor on the grounds that Thor was never really known for jumping around all over the place, unlike Spiderman.

Somehow we drifted apart about half way through secondary school, our respective peer groups polarised by divergent relationships with pop music and the automotive industry. Years later we ran into each other at a school reunion, having both reached an age at which what differences we had cultivated no longer seemed to matter; so that was nice; and amazingly, he was still very, very funny. Stranger still was that he'd married Fiona, with whom I had shared a table during art lessons for most of the fourth and fifth years.

I've been to see them once before in Banbury, back in 2015 during a previous visit to England, and this time they're having a barbecue. My road map doesn't extend into Oxfordshire, so I've scribbled directions on post-it notes copied from what I could find on the internet. I don't know Banbury at all, despite having lived nearby for the first twenty or so years of my life. I asked my mother about this and she told me we'd simply never had any good reason to pass through Banbury. It wasn't on the way to anywhere we ever went. This might partially account for why I'm already lost. I stop to ask directions, and happily it turns out that I've been heading the right way, and that Tom and Fiona's house is only a little further. Tom calls my mobile just as I turn the corner into his close.

'Where are you, Loz?'

'I'm right outside. I think I can see you,' but the bloke pottering about in his back garden seen through two panes of glass is someone else. I've been here before but none of the houses look quite familiar; except maybe one of them does, sort of...

I lock my bike, shove it down the side of the garage, then pass down the side of the house into the garden, greeted by a chorus of jokes about where I've left my horse. I'm wearing my stetson, so I only have myself to blame.

Nathan, son of Tom and Fiona, crushes me with a bear hug and a grin.

'Hello, Nathan,' I wheeze.

He lifts a glass from the garden table to show me with some pride. 'I can drink beer now!'

'Blimey,' I suggest, doing the mental arithmetic and realising he must have passed eighteen since I last saw him. 'I'm surprised you remember me. I was only here for an hour or so, and that was two years ago.'

'I remember you.'

Sue is already here. 'I told you I'd give you a lift,' she sighs.

Tom works the barbecue, flipping burgers and hot dogs, and Zoe is here too. I haven't seen her since school. I vividly recall thinking she was the blondest girl in the whole universe on our first day at Shipston, and she is still lovely as ever. It seems almost scary how little we've all changed, and mainly because we obviously have all changed but it's hard to tell, so I'm probably losing my marbles.

I pull up a lawn chair and we get down to the important business of talking complete bollocks, catching up with the last thirty years of business.

Paul Betteridge is definitely dead, we conclude. The facebook account has to be someone using his identity for reasons best known to themselves. Sue remembers his demise quite well, and with good reason given his attempt to brand her with a lump of red hot metal, fresh from the furnace. I don't remember him being such a bad lad - really more of an inventive nutcase, but then he never tried to brand me. This at least means that I haven't just imagined him ending up in a coma after crashing a stolen combine harvester into a haystack, or whatever it was that happened.

We discuss who has had a sex change, mostly referring to sons and daughters of people we knew at school, or daughters and sons depending on how much time has passed since I wrote this. It's difficult to imagine how such a conversation would have gone one generation past, but in 2017, none of us seem that bothered by the idea. It's weird and out of the ordinary for sure, but I guess we're all too old to give that much of a fuck about someone else's business.

Fiona and Sue talk about work, which opens out into a wider discussion of the joy of telling people we don't like to either piss off or stick it up their respective arses. We talk about Nathan, the kids, and even a few grandchildren who've been buzzing around at the periphery of the conversation, what they will do, what sort of world they will live in, the usual stuff.

The strangest development of all seems to be that Tom, Fiona, and Nathan are one of those ballroom dancing families you hear about, all three of them, and they're probably fairly good at it because they keep winning prizes. Tom invites me to inspect the shed he's built at the foot of the garden. It's bananas and yet brilliant - a stroke of genius. It's his own tiny dance studio, complete with the mirrored wall and all the trimmings; at which point I notice he's lost a spare tyre since I was last here. I guess it's good for him.

We eat burgers and hot dogs, and Fiona and I compare notes about diverticulitis which she recently contracted. Thankfully she's getting better now.

I hit the road about four, reasoning that I want to be back in Coventry before it gets dark, which I just about manage. I've covered one hell of a distance on just two wheels, and it's been knackering but absolutely worth it. I've spent an afternoon in the company of people I never really anticipated seeing again once I'd left school, and not because I ever had a reason to avoid anyone, but because we all seem to have shot off on different paths; but meeting up again, I realise that we probably all have more in common than we did first time round; and that we've made it to fifty without turning into arseholes, which is nice.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Darkest Warwickshire


I spent the first eighteen years of my life in the county of Warwickshire, then five years in Kent, and the rest of the time in cities up until I came to move to Texas in 2011. By my mid-twenties, Warwickshire had become something like a foreign country. I visited only infrequently because I had no reason to do otherwise. My parents lived in different parts of the city of Coventry and I'd lost touch with more or less everyone I'd known at school. The countryside in which I'd grown up was reduced to a lost rural idyll occasionally seen as decorative background on a television programme.

In 2009, I moved from London to Coventry in preparation for  the larger transatlantic leap. My job in London had turned to shit, as had my domestic situation. It was time for a change.

The first revelation which came to me once I'd relocated to Coventry, was that I could cycle out of the city and find myself in the countryside in a matter of minutes. This hadn't been possible in London. Having become so accustomed to an environment comprising endless lines of vehicles belching fumes across a panorama of fried chicken outlets, rural England seemed newly magical to me. Everything sparked off some long-neglected childhood memory - grass verges blooming with cow parsley, tiny colourful birds flitting in and out of hedgerows, the silence of just wind and maybe some distant aircraft crossing a landscape of fields dipping down towards hidden church spires. I found myself in quiet lanes wherein my existence would have made no sense at any point during the previous two decades. I was entirely free of the pressures I had endured for so long. Even the novelty of it being ten in the morning and there I was not breaking my back whilst getting yelled at by an overpaid metropolitan idiot was astonishing, and such realisations continue to astonish me even today.

In 2015, I spent a couple of weeks back in England, visiting my parents, both still living in Coventry. The visit included excursions out into the country, into rural Warwickshire, even to Shipston-on-Stour where I had attended high school. Neither of my parents had much reason to visit the old places, and so my presence allowed for the indulgence of low-level nostalgia, just seeing how things had changed. One such expedition took us back through Newbold-on-Stour, a village at just a few miles distance from where I once lived. The White Hart was still there so my dad and myself stopped in for a pint. Wouldn't it be funny if we saw Gordon, I said to myself, and there he stood before us, right on cue as though summoned into being by my thoughts.

Of the people I'd known at School, only Juliet and Gordon had been associated with Newbold-on-Stour, so far as I could recall. Juliet had turned up on facebook a few years earlier with creepy messages about how she'd always loved me, which I probably could have lived without. Gordon on the other hand had remained mysterious. We'd been friends at school - close, but apparently not so close as to have stayed in touch past the age of sixteen, and I'd never quite been able to work out why. I remembered him as one of the gang, perhaps a little too fond of puns, but generally decent. The two jokes which had stayed with me over the years, both of his own composition, had been as follows:

1) Proposal for a verdict which might be delivered by an official judging a competition comparing girls' fannies: On the hole I'd say it's all been very good.

2) Get the Murphy habit, a phrase spoken whilst giving a thumbs-up gesture, but with the thumb concealed in the palm of the hand as though partially severed. This riffed on get the Abbey habit - the slogan utilised in advertising for the Abbey National building society, similarly accompanied by a thumbs-up gesture - and the fact of Mr. Murphy recently having injured or possibly even lost one of his thumbs. I think Mr. Murphy may have been a woodwork teacher. Gordon took some pleasure from the delivery of the joke, and I recall being slightly irritated because I had no fucking clue what he was talking about or why he thought it was funny. I responded with a combined slogan and gesture of my own, a variation on Mr. Spock's live long and prosper thing accompanied by the wilfully unrelated phrase don't ask Arthur for a cheese sandwich. I could just have asked Gordon to explain, but I suppose I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to be a bit of a cunt.

I'm not sure why I should still recall these two jokes in particular, but I suspect it's something to do with their being the same sort of shite which I probably once produced, so it may stem from some sense of relief that I hadn't in these instances. On the other hand, Gordon lent me The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle when it came out, and we even had him as guest on a Pre-War Busconductors cassette, announcing I'm Gordon Everett and I don't appear anywhere on this tape. So it felt as though the two of us should be more than just fellow carbon blobs who merely happened to have passed through the same educational colon at roughly the same time; and when I realised that this was the older version of himself stood before me in the White Hart, I experienced a feeling of immense pleasure. Unfortunately, an hour over a pint in a pub with my dad present wasn't really adequate when it came to catching up on the previous thirty years, but it was a start.

Now it's 2017, and I'm back in England once again, and Gordon is right at the top of the list. We've enjoyed sporadic communication through social media, but it's not the same as having an actual conversation, and this is why I haven't spent too much time worrying over any political differences we may have developed over the intervening years. This has been a matter of concern from time to time, particularly now that the internet has brought everyone any of us ever knew back into present day reality. It's not that I expect everyone I've ever known to have stayed the same, or even to subscribe to views compatible with my own; but I dislike it when a person of whom one might once have thought highly turns out to be a complete fucking knob.

I once assumed, somewhat arrogantly, that it was my having spent my life moving from place to place which granted me some enhanced sense of perspective, allowing me to be right about things. This view was mostly based on my having stayed in touch with Tim, who had lived his entire life in his mother's shadow in the house in which he grew up, then married a woman closer to his mother's vintage than to his own count of years when his mother passed away, and then eventually ended up standing for election on behalf of UKIP because he didn't want his beloved United Kingdom to become like America or Japan. I didn't really understand this view or just which episode in the vast wealth of his worldly experience it had been drawn from, but this was apparently because I had run away from England, as he put it. Thankfully, as I have come to appreciate, Tim's brand of myopia tends to be an exception rather than the rule.

I set out around midday, allowing for three hours by bike, it being somewhere between twenty and thirty miles to Newbold from Coventry. I could have blagged a lift or taken a series of buses, but I need the exercise and I'm excited at the prospect of all that countryside. I avoid the worst of the traffic by following my own meandering route along minor roads, down through Leamington Spa, then on to Wellesbourne by way of Bishop's Tachbrook. One of the worst hills I've ever had to push a bike up is on the A429 just south of Wellesbourne, so I attempt to circumnavigate it by heading west through Loxley, after which it's mostly downhill to Alderminster then another couple of miles to Newbold. Taking the Loxley road inevitably means I nevertheless end up having to scale the same slope as I would have tackled on the A429, but in less concentrated and more scenic stretches. The entire journey is scenic, excepting the crappier bit of Leamington Spa. I stop every half hour or so to photograph lambs and sheep, or to gaze in wonder at rolling hills, or to munch on the pork pie my mother insisted I bring with me. I spend much of the journey talking to myself, mostly exclamations of would you look at that, because the landscape seems once again magical to me, despite the distant familiarity of childhood. It rains a little but I don't care, and I stop to watch pheasants strutting around in the fields - usually a spectacular male with the green and scarlet head, and his harem of little brown ladies. I stop in Alderminster to stare at my first primary school, long since converted into a funny looking house. I was only there a couple of months before being moved to Ilmington C of E Junior and Infants, but I can still remember my first day. All these memories have become like something I may have read in a book, intangibly exotic; and along such lines I'd intended to look for Whitchurch, a settlement abandoned in the sixteenth century of which only a farm remains, along with a Norman church in the middle of a field. My mother has told me about the place, and I'm astonished to have spent the first decade of my life living within two miles of this ghost village. I had intended to look for Whitchurch, but three hours has turned out to be an uncannily well crafted estimate and I don't have time.

I arrive at Newbold village green. There is a line of cottages running down the left hand side and Gordon lives in one of them. He didn't give me the address, instead suggesting that I phone him when I arrive, but he emerges grinning from the cottage on the corner before I can make the call. I'd guess we were about the same size when we were at school, but now he's large and imposing in a way which suggests a life of pounding fence posts into the earth with just his fists. He wears braces without it seeming like an affectation, and he has an oddly distinguished appearance. He looks thoughtful and confident. I expect I've changed too.

We chuckle amongst ourselves, discussing the weather and variations on holy shit, here we are; and then we wander across the green to the pub, taking Bumble the dog with us as we go. I later discover that Bumble was born on the farm constituting all that remains of Whitchurch. We talk about how things are, how things were, and the probable causes of how the latter became the former. We talk about people we knew, people who've died, people who are doing quite well for themselves, and how one of the hard cases of our shared youth has spent the last three decades as a one-man reenactment of the film Trainspotting. We always knew he wouldn't amount to anything, and it seems he hasn't.

It's a conversation of a kind which I've occasionally found uncomfortable. I worry that the person or persons to whom I'm talking will make certain assumptions about where I'm coming from. Look at me, I will seem to say in between listing all the exotic places I've been and famous people I've known, allow me to regale you with tales of my many, many adventures in exotic lands far, far away from where we both went to school. So if I have anything exciting to impart - like my recently having become related to Johnny Cash by marriage, for example - I'll play it down and try to make it sound like it's no big deal, no more interesting than what happened to the bloke who used to run the Kerry Tea Rooms over in Shipston. This kind of pre-emptive humility ordinarily makes conversation awkward, something to be negotiated; but for once, it's different. Gordon seems genuinely fascinated by how the hell I ended up in Texas. He hasn't taken the fact of my having done something as an accusation suggesting that he hasn't - which is how it often feels; and because patently he has done things, he feels no need to prove it.

In the mean time we talk about Jason Roberts, because Gordon recalls all sorts of details of our school biology lesson which have escaped me. We both sat at the back with Jason, and possibly Graham Pierce. The teaching methodology of Mrs. Lewis seemed mostly focused on our spending the next hour copying something out of a book as she busied herself with other activities, and so the back row of the class became a sort of comedy workshop hosted by Jason. I'm still able to recall the vaguely jazzy theme tune, Jason playing the bench like a piano, singing and winking at us.

It's joke time...
It's joke time...
It's joke time...
So let's all tell some jokes...

Gordon recalls that many of the jokes were about a block of wood, the chicken crossing the road because it needed a block of wood, the big chimney making some comment about a block of wood to the little chimney, and so on. You probably had to be there.

On other occasions we plotted our first television series with proposals for sketches and the like, an example of which is one of Jason's many explorations of his fried egg theme, composed on one side of A4 which I kept for the sake of posterity.

Enter Brutus.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

There is a silent awaiting of Brutus' plea.

'—fried eggs!'

There is a great cheer from the crowd and Brutus is bombarded with fried eggs. The silence dies down and Brutus smiles proudly before his nation.

'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your—'

The excitement is tremendous as the crowd await Brutus' plea.

'—bacon!'

There is suddenly an uproar in the crowd and an old man appears to come forward, looking up to face Brutus.

'But Sire, Sire - we have no bacon,' says the old man in a sorrowful voice.

'What? No bacon!?,' screams Brutus. 'How can we have fried eggs without any bacon?'

Jason really had a thing about breakfast foods and would randomly insert the words bean, bacon, or fried egg into historical essays; then proudly reveal the verdict a week later, very good work in red biro beneath a page claiming that Christopher Colombus was celebrated for having crossed the Atlantic to discover fried eggs in the new world. Mr. Lewis took the history class, and his teaching methodology seemed to have certain elements in common with that of his wife, our biology teacher.

I realise there's probably no-one else left in the world who finds this shit as funny as we do, Gordon and myself.

Following a pint or possibly two, we wander down the road so I can see what Gordon does, because as I mentioned, he's done things. We climb past hedgerow to a large, slightly knackered looking shed. Inside are a number of horse drawn carriages in various states of repair. Someone called Rod is in the business of restoring them. Gordon draws my attention to the plush finish of one, describing a process of layering paint which is then sanded down, then painted over many times until a perfect sheen is achieved, something like the quality of a precious stone.

'So you, er...' I'm still trying to work out Gordon's part in the equation, given that he's already told me this isn't his workshop.

He smoothly lifts a wooden box from the rear of one carriage, dark, brown wood richly polished, beautifully dovetailed joints, and inlaid fixtures of brass or similar, including a monogram. A tray lined with green baize lifts from the box and I see spaces for fluted glasses and wine bottles. Now I recall something he told me in the pub, something about having to start all over again with brass inlay because someone with too much money had changed their mind.

'Holy shit,' I say. 'You made this?'

He usually makes furniture, as I recall him having told me, but I didn't quite realise that he is a genuine craftsman. I think I imagined something like the shelving I habitually knock up from supplies picked up at the local hardware superstore. Aside from the presence of horse drawn carriages, the workshop is just a workshop, messy with a chemical smell in the air, crap blaring from a tinny radio, and pictures of women's tits on the wall.

'You must make a fucking fortune doing this,' I suggest, in direct response to a mention of Prince Philip having ridden in something tarted up beneath this very roof.

'You would think so, wouldn't you?' Gordon reports, then reminds me that very few of the filthily rich ever became filthily rich by paying their bills on time or agreeing to fair prices. It's the same with all those oil barons who live in Alamo Heights, back in Texas.

We walk back to the village green and, not for the first time, I curse the fact that I was unable to take the woodwork class past my third year of high school because it clashed with art.

I ask about Gordon's father. Their family used to live on a farm just outside the village as you head towards Shipston, a farm distinguished by a large complex of greenhouses full of tomatoes. The greenhouses are still there, as is Gordon's father, but everything else has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

'The countryside is dying,' he tells me.

The village is now mostly populated by people working in the city, or who have retired from working in the city. No-one makes any money from farming these days, and farms which can't adapt to what few niches are left to them are often sold off to developers. The news makes me feel somehow uncomfortable. It isn't like I was particularly tied into the rural economy when I lived here, but it's difficult to miss the changes and the sense of pessimism. Gordon doesn't even seem particularly angry about it. He's aware of it happening and is simply trying to adapt as best he can.

Here is the thing which I fear might divide us. He's quite clearly picked a side because he hasn't been given much choice, and that side is acknowledged by a Countryside Alliance sticker on the glass of the door of his cottage. I've a feeling I may be on the other side of this particular fence because I view fox hunting as unnecessary and probably barbaric, and suspect the Countryside Alliance to be mostly tweedy women in green wellies called Marjorie and people who believe that Nigel Farage is only saying what the rest of us were thinking. The thing I fear is discovering that I have no fucking clue what I'm talking about.

We resume drinking at the pub and Susie arrives with Floella - Gordon's partner and daughter respectively. Susie apparently regards me as famous by virtue of having read my blog, which is hugely flattering. The two of them argue about Yorkshire pudding. Gordon is cooking tonight, but Susie lacks confidence in his Yorkshire pudding, which tonight will be made using an arguably unorthodox recipe.

Gordon is philosophical, taking the position that the pudding may well turn out shite - in which case Susie will have been proven right - but asking whether any of us can really presume to know what the future holds?

Back at the cottage, I respond to a request to draw Floella. She giggles, but mostly sits still. She sends me shy glances but doesn't quite have the confidence to engage directly. Gordon tells me he has a loft full of stuff I drew at school, and I wince a little because I recall him being quite easy to caricature. Apparently there's a cartoon strip I drew called SuperGord which I strongly suspect to be a strip about a superhero with nose-based powers, Gordon being fairly well blessed in that department. I just hope I wasn't too cruel, and thankfully Gordon's report of having been immortalised in this fashion suggests that if I was digging him in the ribs, at least it wasn't with such force as to leave enduring scars.

As I draw, I marvel at being sat in a half-timbered cottage, and one which my old friend calls home. Living in the US, I now know people who have never even seen a building of such antiquity.

Dinner is wonderful, and the Yorkshire pudding is excellent. Gordon's seemingly reckless approach to cooking is vindicated.

Next morning we take the dog for a walk around the fields at the back. Gordon talks about the wildlife he routinely encounters, the hedgerows, and life in the country; but in case I'm making it sound like a lecture, it isn't. It's a conversation, and I have to admit I'm learning a lot. He even talks about fox hunting in a way which communicates points I'd never even considered. I'm still not sure I can budge on that particular one, but everything else he tells me has a terrifying underlying veracity, and his arguments, born from direct experience, are rock solid. The most basic distillation of his problem is that those attempting to make a living in the English countryside have been denied a voice, and even my own arguably skewed understanding of the Countryside Alliance would seem to confirm this; and because they are denied a voice, decisions affecting the rural economy are made largely by persons who remain unaffected by those decisions; and perhaps most crucially of all, human society as a whole - at least in the west - has become increasingly divorced from the seasons, from the cycle of life and death, and from the way nature works, which is possibly why we're all in such a mess, generally speaking. Perhaps it is because we don't like to be reminded of where our food comes from, that we don't like to be reminded where anything comes from. We, as a people, don't like consequences.

We walk and we talk about hunting and management of the land, controlling the populations of certain predators, and I realise that even where I disagree, or where I have reservations, Gordon lives here and he's the one who understands the place and how all its pieces fit together; and I remind myself that sometimes we need to admit that we just don't know, so we listen to someone who does; and that's what I'm doing.

We have breakfast, bacon purchased from the newsagent because the farm shop is closed this morning, and by chance we encounter Mr. Goodfellow on the village green. He was my French teacher thirty years ago. Weirdly, he remembers me, and weirder still. he doesn't appear to have aged. He laughs a lot more than I recall him having done back at school.

At midday I climb back onto my bike and head off towards Banbury, Oxfordshire, for a meeting with others from school, a day older and arguably a couple of years wiser.