Thursday, 25 May 2017

This is England

I landed at Heathrow and found it difficult to get excited about my return to the old country after eight hours on a plane. I don't smoke, but have learned that in times of stress I can work my way through a pouch of rolling tobacco and then give up once I'm done without experiencing further cravings. This once again seemed like something worth considering so I went to the newsagent in the National Express coach station. He didn't have Golden Virginia, and I dislike the other brands. I walked around for a little while, but with forty minutes to wait for my coach to Coventry, I decided fuck it, and went back.

'What cigarettes do you have?'

'Benson & Hedges, Marlboro-'

'Ten Bensons will be fine. Do they still do them in packets of ten?'

They did. They were eight quid, but my need was great.

'These were less than two pounds last time I bought them,' I told the guy, but more depressing were the tabloid newspapers on display on the rack to my left. It was the day of Britain's unelected Prime Minister initiating Article 50, the one which would begin the country's long, slow, and possibly quite painful withdrawal from the European Union, and the Sun, the Mail, and the other usual suspects had risen to the occasion with characteristically witless puns offered in the general spirit of crowing.

Dover and Out...

See EU Later...

Jesus Christ.

Aside from issues of the National Enquirer and similar publications trumpeting the latest blow struck by Donald Trump in the name of plain talk and common sense - which I see in my local supermarket - I am usually able to avoid this specific kind of bullshit. It looked weird and slightly scary seen beyond the confines of the internet. I went outside the coach station and smoked my fag.

A couple of evenings later I am still jetlagged. My sleep patterns are in disarray. I have a pounding headache and can't sleep, and by the time I decide there's nothing else for it but to get up and take a paracetamol it's six in the morning. I go back to bed and sleep at last. I have a peculiar dream in which I'm offering a former work colleague a portobello mushroom.

'Do ye want this mushroom?' I ask him in a Glaswegian accent.

It's a sketch from Limmy's Show and is somehow interrupted by my mother calling. I wake up, disgruntled to have an unexpected visitor. It's half past ten in the morning.

Later we're walking to the village. He points to the race track as we pass and tells me it's closed down. Apparently the land was purchased by a wog. The wog applied for planning permission to turn the race track into something else and was turned down, so the race track, this thing of great beauty, has been ruined by a wog.

I haven't heard the word spoken aloud without quotation marks since about 1982. Maybe the gentleman in question has a bone through his nose and a tendency to say Ooga booga whilst rolling his eyes. There was a pause before the word, observed so as to check that it was the correct term by which to describe this terrible man, and apparently it was.

We walk on and pass a young man of what may be Indian ethnicity, someone coffee coloured.


He doesn't say it so loud as for the young man to hear, and I guess it's supposed to be funny - one of those things we used to be allowed to say before political correctness spoiled all the fun. I'm beginning to see a pattern here and now I'm wondering if the Union Jack was always quite so prevalent as it seems to have become, or whether it's simply that I'm noticing it more since the clusterfuck of Brexit and 37% of the British people finally getting to have their say - or whatever the figure was in the end.

The truth is finally unleashed as we hit the pub by the village green for a pint of something that I don't enjoy very much. It's the Romanians, he tells me, then adding Somalis and Gypsies to the list. I don't know how he has come by any of this information with which he regales me in an effort to prove his point. I don't see how any of the poor fuckers impact on his existence in any way beyond providing a few evidently satisfying scowls over the morning paper, which I later discover to be the Sun.

He doesn't like Trump either, but adds that one thing Donald has got right is the Mexicans. This he tells to me, an immigrant living in a city which in some respects may as well be in Mexico, drawing on his vast wealth of worldly experience with all those Mexicans flooding across the border, raping, pillaging, and bringing down property values with a taco truck on every corner.

Somehow I don't tell him to go fuck himself, instead saying 'I don't want us to fall out over this, but that's complete crap,' and so I tell him why. I give him the statistics and the facts so far as I understand them, the details which are all out there and freely available to view in the comfort of your own internet-enabled home if you give enough of a shit to want them. I tell him the stuff which I shouldn't have to tell anyone because it's fucking obvious if you have a brain.

Amazingly he doesn't take offense, I suspect because he's not actually that engaged with any of the arguments either way. It's all on the surface, like talking about the weather. The arguments are jigsaw puzzles, something to pass the time like picking up a newspaper and shaking your head.

Isn't it terrible!

We walk back.

I notice a copy of the Sun at rest on the kitchen table, so that explains that. The sideline of the front page declares that Theresa May's government will now be able to come up with its own human rights laws, having told Brussels to fuck off, and I guess this is presented as good news.

This has been one tough fucking day.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Poor Billy

It was the nineties and my job was to deliver mail to the upper half of the oddly numbered side of Lordship Lane, East Dulwich. It was one of the longer, heavier walks - so far as I was able to tell - but I had signed for it because it was better than delivering somewhere different every week, having to learn a whole new route from scratch every Monday. The walk was organised in such a way as to oblige me to begin at its furthest point, the house on the corner of Wood Vale where East Dulwich becomes Forest Hill, the house which had once been painted by the Impressionist Camille Pissaro. The idea was that, having started at the furthest point, the rest of the delivery was more or less down hill all the way, eventually bringing me back to the corner of Pellat Road, upon which our sorting office was situated.

Numbers 565 down to 551 constituted my first run of dwellings before I hit the corner of Underhill Road. These were huge, four story townhouses, possibly late Victorian and each divided into flats, some into three, others into as many as seven. They received a lot of mail too, three fat bundles of crap on a bad day with rubber bands straining to prevent an explosion of bills, bank statements and miscellaneous advertising, and all for just eight buildings, albeit eight buildings constituting maybe thirty individual addresses. Each morning I was dropped off at the top, near Wood Vale, and I looked down the hill at this first row and intuited that it would take about five minutes at most, and yet it always worked out more like twenty what with all the packets and standing around filling in forms referring to packets for those who were either not at home or not prepared to get out of bed at that time of the morning.

I only ever met two of the people to whom I delivered along that stretch, a woman rumoured to be on the game, which I suppose might possibly account for why she was usually awake and available to receive parcels at that time of morning, and Billy the blind bloke down at the last house, the one on the corner of Underhill Road. Every Saturday he received a registered letter containing money, which required his signature, but, being either blind or only partially sighted, he was unable to sign for it; so I signed for it, reasoning that although technically it was a sackable offense, the person most likely to object would be the addressee, but as he was getting his registered letter out of the deal it seemed unlikely.

'I'm blind, mate,' he told me, hands patting at the door frame so as to get his bearings. 'I can't see. Is that you, Postman?'

He was short and round, in his fifties with hair receding in untidy retreat. His eyes seemed to absently gaze in different directions and his mouth hung forever open dispensing a voice like gas hissing from a spigot, strained, the voice you do when you phone the boss pretending to be ill as you tell him you're not coming in. He wore an old unwashed dressing gown, or sometimes just a vest and pants like a down at heel character in a film set in the thirties.

At first I warmed to the man, enjoying this encounter with the disabled because it made me feel good about how readily I accept the strange and unfamiliar. It made me a good person, at least for the first couple of weeks.

'Mate,' Billy called me back one morning, having already taken possession of his white and blue envelope of money. He seemed to be staring at the trees behind me, and I realised that I found it slightly aggravating how he always called me mate. 'Do you fink you could try to be a bit earlier next week, mate? I gotta go out, see.'

No I hate to arse or I hope this dun't sound like I'm being rude but - nothing of the sort; just do I fink I could try to be a bit earlier?

It was half past eight in the morning. I had delivered my first letter a little over fifteen minutes before. The time of my delivering that first letter had been determined by how soon I'd been able to get out of the sorting office, which had in turn been determined by how much mail had come in during the night. I'd never enjoyed working Saturdays, so would always cut a few corners, getting going as quick as I could on that sixth day so as to finish as early as possible in hope of the weekend feeling like a weekend. Half past eight did not strike me as an unreasonable time at which to receive one's mail on a Saturday morning. I suppose I could have shaved off fifteen minutes or so by reversing those initial bundles, delivering them backwards and working up the hill towards Wood Vale, but it would be an inconvenience and would make me additionally late from the perspective of everyone else. I explained some of this to Billy.

'So do you fink you could try please, mate? Fank oo.'

He shut the door and I realised I didn't like him very much.

He arsed again and again, every few weeks for the next couple of years. Occasionally an unusually massive workload meant I was as late as half past nine, and on those days he was not just a little blunt, but openly hostile. 'I really need you to get here a bit earlier, mate, yeah?' Brows angled like a kid's drawing of an angry person over those googly eyes looking at different things.

'Like I told you, last time,' I generally explained with gritted teeth, but the information was obviously too hard to process; plus regardless of the hour, he always came to the door dressed like he'd just fallen out of bed, so it wasn't like he could claim to be waiting on me or anything.

If felt strange to hate a disabled man, but Billy made it quite easy, and it's not like it interfered with my job. Indeed, it helped as I began to encounter him out and about around East Dulwich.

There he is at the crossing in his dayglo orange waterproof, being safe and seen, tap tap tap tap with the white cane as he waits to cross the road. 'Excuse me, miss, I don't like to arse but I wonder if you could help me. I'm blind, you see,' in that little boy whine like something out of Dickens. Poor, poor Billy...

She smiles and laughs, self-conscious, taking his arm and helping him across; and she's always young and pretty, like a Princess helping out the poor goblin with his hurty foot.

'Fank oo, Miss. Would you like me to tell you a joke?' and so he tells her some schoolboy joke delivered in the bland, even tone of a kid reading it off a blackboard, concluding with hur hur hur hur and a grin of bad, uneven teeth before he's even quite got the punchline together. 'Fank oo again, miss. I fink you're very kind.'

Then he's off again.

Sometimes I see him in Landells Road. He walks down the middle of the street with a tap tap tap tap seemingly staring off at clouds. Sometimes there is a car behind him, slowly cruising along at walking speed because no-one feels comfortable yelling get out of the fucking road, you stupid cunt at a guy with a white stick. The pavement of Landells Road is wide enough for two people to walk unhindered side by side, the paving stones are all level, and there are no other pedestrians around; and yet somehow Billy is only able to walk down the middle of the street.

'Mate, mate, would jew like me to tell you a joke?'

I'm in the newsagent. Oh for fuck's sake, I think. Why does he need to be forever the centre of attention? He's telling the complete stranger stood behind me a joke which is a bit more Jim Davidson than the ones he keeps in reserve for the pretty young women who help the poor cripple across the road or hold open a door. It's something to do with a husband suspecting his wife might be engaging in an extra-marital relationship, and there are kids of six and seven paying for their choccy bars in front of me while this soft porn drones away in the background.

Why does he need to tell his fucking joke to the entire shop?

I'm just glad he can't see me. He still arse if I can try to be a bit earlier, next week, but these days I ignore him, walking away as he's talking. He gets his money. That's what I'm paid to do. If I wanted to get truly pissy I could refuse to hand it over on the grounds of him being unable to provide a signature.

I hear a more graphic telling of the joke about a husband suspecting his wife of infidelity in the cafe on Crystal Palace Road. This pisses me off because the two sausage, egg, chips, and beans ably cooked by the esteemed Mehmet, or occasionally Ken, his father, is the one part of my working day in which I am briefly freed from the bullshit of work and aching legs and my boss and stupid arseholes who sent a postal order in 1963 and do you know it never arrived?! Billy has tap tap tap tapped his way into the shop, opening with, 'sorry to trubble you, mate, but I was wondering could I have a cup of tea, but the fing is I ain't got no money so I know it's a bit of a cheek.'

Ken, the old Greek, looks uncomfortable but he isn't having it.

Billy whines, somehow keeping it jovial, and that's how he gets to telling the joke. He's going to pay for his tea with the gift of laughter, just like a wandering minstrel. He stands at the counter doing that Stevie Wonder thing. He gets to the rude words - cock and fanny - and Ken has heard enough.

'No, please leave. We don' want you here.' He takes Billy by an elbow and steers him back towards the door. Mehmet has the other elbow and is suggesting that if our wandering minstrel should come back with twenty-five pence then they would be more than happy to serve him a cup of tea.

They shove him out of the door. He stands looking up at the sign, or seeming to for a moment, then wanders off - tap tap tap tap. He doesn't even seem bothered. It was as though he was expecting it.

We don't normally talk much in the cafe, but as I watch him go I hear myself saying quite loud, 'I can't stand that bloke. I know it's a terrible thing to admit, but he really rubs me up the wrong way.'

I realise the little group of cabbies sat at the other table are all laughing. 'He's not even blind,' one of them tells me.

'He's not blind? Are you serious?'

'I've known him thirty years and he can see as well as anyone.'

'What the fuck?'

'His mum died a couple of years ago and I think he had a bit of a turn, and that's how he ended up like that.'

I remember all those young, pretty women helping Billy across the street, and I remember noticing how his course down the center of Landells Road seemed to follow the white line quite closely. Most of all, I remember the poor Billy act, every single fucking time, a human pity sponge. Next time I see him approaching down the center of Landells Road, seeing as there's no traffic, I wheel my big heavy delivery trolley out into the middle, across the white line. I just want to see what he does. Billy tap tap tap taps to within about twenty yards then tap tap tap taps his way between parked vehicles to the pavement.

I guess he has more problems than I realised, something worse than a simple visual impairment; and I find my dislike for him waning a little, because it's easier to just not think about him at all.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

I Do Know a Way...

I never imagined I would inherit a kid. I always liked the idea of passing on my genes by some vague method, but for most of my life I was never in any place which looked as though it might lead to such an eventuality. I read Susan D. Blackmore's excellent The Meme Machine and told myself that I would instead pass on my ideas, my memes rather than my genes. In any case, it seemed to be the way we, as a society, were going.

I never expected to marry anyone, or to meet anyone I would want to marry within days of having met them, or that a marriage resting upon so seemingly tenuous a foundation ever stood a chance of working; and yet here we all are, complete with a son from my wife's previous spell of matrimony. The prospect of suddenly becoming a stepfather would have seemed daunting had I thought about it, which I didn't because I filed the thought away under the heading of bridges to be crossed when the time is right.

My first meeting with the boy, such as it was, was as a face looming up on a screen as Bess and I were attempting transatlantic communication by means of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam. He wanted to know what she was doing and so I was introduced as Mommy's friend, the one she'd met in England. He was six or maybe seven and seemed to enjoy the novelty, if not the diversion of attention away from himself. The first thing he said to me was:

This was followed by further strings of what the Futurist F.T. Marinetti once termed parole in libertá, in this instance spontaneously generated by a small fist hitting a laptop keyboard in preface to an animated fight with virtual water balloons. This was an additional feature of Skype or YIM or one of those things involving a webcam, one allowing users to season text not only with smiley faces and the like, but a button which delivers a smirking cartoon child to my screen, a bratty homeboy who hurls an animated water balloon at the viewer. The projectile grows as it approaches until it fills the screen and then appears to burst with an electronically sampled splash. It's probably funny if you're six or seven but soon becomes repetitive for anyone older.

Meeting the boy in person was different and somehow involved less direct interaction. He didn't seem to understand what I was or how he was expected to process my presence. It wasn't so much that he disliked me, or even resented the intrusion - which would at least have been understandable - but he seemed somehow in awe of me, which was weird, and this was combined with his having become unusually fixated upon his mother over the years. He wasn't shy. He simply didn't talk to me, or interact with me. He gabbled away about nothing to his mother and would seemingly ignore me when I spoke; but it always turned out that he simply hadn't heard the question, his focus having been on other matters, and he's the same even now at the age of thirteen so it's just the way he is. Also, he was weirdly pushy for such a small kid, somehow precocious and yet without either the vocabulary or social skills to quite excuse it as idiosyncratic charm. His apparent confidence seemed astonishing, almost obnoxious, but as I've learnt, none of it is born of malice or is intended in quite the way it can sometimes seem. It's just how he is.

Bess told me that as soon as he was old enough to be costumed and taken trick or treating, he'd insisted they go as a bat and a pirate, his mother in fake paper wings.

'Wait,' I asked, incredulous. 'How old did you say he was?'

'About three, and my Mom took his side.'

'So you let a three-year old tell you what to do?'

I no longer need to ask such questions, having experienced his weirdly single-minded sense of purpose first hand. It's not really coercion so much as just really knowing his own mind, and you get used to it eventually.

We went to San Antonio zoo. It was odd but not unpleasant. He knew where he wanted to go and what he wanted to see, and once there he'd lecture us on whatever animal we were looking at. Did we know this? and Did we know that? but his speech was difficult to understand and some of his assertions were patently ridiculous, and anyway - shouldn't it be him asking the questions? What's that animal called, and so on? It was hard to even get a word in edgeways, not least because doing so would be to engage in a pissing contest with a small child, and we'd all end up feeling weird and bad and wishing we'd just kept our mouths shut.

'No, I'm pretty sure you'll find that elephants are from either Africa or India.'

He'd frown in thought and then announce, 'I don't think so,' like you'd asked him a question; but this came later, our first interaction beyond laptop screens and virtual water balloons occurred at the sand pit. Bess and I were exhausted with the novelty of this new world we were building and so we took the boy to the play area for a break from him lecturing us. He hit the sand pit and began making pyramids, but I could see his technique was pitiful.

'Screw it,' I told myself and went to join him. I sat on the wooden edging and started piling on sand, so he began directing me, making suggestions; and we opened negotiations. Later we collaborated on his latest Star Wars Lego piece, and I got the hang of how to tell him he's got it all wrong without it sounding like I'm calling him an idiot, after which I began to understand what made him tick a little better, if not why. We drove to Austin a few days later, which was tough with the continuous monologue coming from the rear, but I just had to go with it so I climbed over the back of my seat and submitted myself to an extended lecture on the numerous beasts of How to Train Your Dragon, illustrated with action figures and delivered as a seemingly endless series of lists. It would have been more entertaining had I been able to understand a few more of his words, but his enthusiasm made up for the shortfall. Much of the return journey was taken up with the animal guessing game. He wasn't very good at it but compensated by ignoring the rules with amusing abandon, finally defeating both Bess and I with the mystifying initials RB, which turned out to be rock buddy, which I suppose is what you call a rock who happens to be your buddy; which was the first time he made me laugh.

Bess and I were married and we all settled into a routine. The boy's personality remained forceful, unusually focussed, and occasionally a little abrasive. I'd ask him to do things and he wouldn't, or I'd ask him to stop doing things which he'd keep on doing regardless, and all because he's a kid and that's how they are so there's no point in taking it personally. I began to turn our yard into a garden by digging the whole thing up. This yielded huge mounds of large stones and so I made borders for flower beds, packing the stones tight as though making a drystone wall.

'I need bugs,' the boy tells me, and so I point to the borders I've made. 'There were quite a lot out there. Look under the stones, but put them back in the same places when you're done,' and he does this, but his interpretation of the same places means roughly within three or four feet of the original position. I am displeased, and my displeasure will be referenced each time I mention how the boy never goes out into the garden. It's because he's afraid of you, I will be told, and there'll be nothing more to say; but right now I've dug sixty-five paving slabs of red porous stone up from a corner of the garden and am planning to relocate them in a more practical setting at the rear of the porch. I've excavated a large rectangle of earth, levelled it as best I can with sand, and now the boy comes out to help me. He likes the look of the digging. I give him the other spade and he gets to work on a hole of his own, one which has more to do with art than landscaping.

'You realise I'm going to be covering this whole patch over with paving slabs?' I tell him.

He looks around. 'But what about the hole?'

'Well, that's where I was hoping to put the slabs down, so it will be covered over.' I'm silently kicking myself for my failure to deliver the cruel truth, that the hole he has dug is without purpose.

He considers this a little, then makes an announcement. 'I do have an idea.'

This is a really odd tick of his, the I do statements delivered as though in answer to a question we've all been asking ourselves.

'Go on,' I suggest.

He explains how we can finish the hole he's been digging, and how we can then lay down the slabs as I've proposed with the hole left intact. Therefore whenever we need to access the hole again, we can just lift the slabs and it will be there. I don't know why he thinks we will need to revisit the hole unless in the interests of nostalgia. There is a dreamlike logic to many of his suggestions.

We're out walking and we pass a fallen section of tree trunk. He'll run to it, climb over, start jumping up and down on it and looking for bugs, all inevitably leading up to, 'can we take it home?'

'It's five foot long and is too heavy and we couldn't fit it in the car if we tried,' we tell him; which is true, but we don't want to crush his dreams with the more honest there is no good reason why we should take that tree trunk to our home. We silently think of the other crap he's found now living in his room because no-one could come up with any good philosophical argument against his taking possession of a three foot length of telephone cable or the rusting hub cap from a truck.

We walk on and then it comes.

'I do know a way we could take the tree trunk home with us,' because he thinks we've been puzzling it over, trying to come up with a solution.

How can we make this happen?

He does know a way, and it's always something ridiculous which wouldn't work but nevertheless has its own internal logic of sorts. I do know a way has been applied to everything from abandoned cars to actual fully grown deer which he's already given a name and added to our expanding roster of household pets. He acquires things, or aspires to them because he likes the look of them and for no other reason that either of us can fathom. Trips around Lowes or Home Depot were once characterised by the boy asking for purchase of something he would have no justification for owning - as though we're in a toy store - a length of plastic pipe, a sink plunger, a box with holes by which one may sort different sizes of nails and screws. My wife and I now have a game between ourselves, what would Junior want based on who can pick the most esoteric item in the store, the thing the kid would ask us to buy him for no sane reason.

Six years down the line, it has become easier - no less weird, but at least somehow more familiar. His voice has broken and his vocabulary expands into increasingly baroque realms by which every other sentence is qualified with if I'm not mistaken or if I remember correctly, but it's easier to understand what he's saying if not why he's saying it. Every thing is still an announcement, often prefixed with a question - 'I do know [general outline of subject],' followed by 'would you like me to tell you about it?', and then a series of hesitations and bullet points. 'Well... wait... let me see... number one: the thing you really need to know about sharks is that...'

Six years down the line and it's more funny than annoying. He's weird, but not in a bad way, and we're probably all weird by one definition or another. The three of us have taken to family walks each Sunday afternoon, based on Danny Trejo suggesting that a good parent will make memories by dragging their kid away from the iPad whether they like it or not. The boy is still operating from a position of peculiar focus, and he'll probably never grow out of delivering long, long lists of fascinating facts to an audience which may not even be particularly interested, and occasionally he'll still find some object which we're not bringing home under any circumstances, and yet it will turn out that he does know a way...

It's been exhausting, but educational, and thankfully some of it has been fun. I'm not sure I'll be passing on an inheritance of any of my ideas after all, but maybe it doesn't matter.

Friday, 5 May 2017

The New World

Thursday the 23rd of June, 2011 was my last day in England; not my last ever day in England, although it felt like it might be. On Friday  morning I was up at three for the sake of catching a flight, an undertaking which I found weird with a touch of death sentence to it. There would be no going back. I was moving to America. It was the thing towards which I'd been working for a long time, the thing on which everything had been pinned, and yet on some level I'd never really expected the day to come because I'd been lost in forward motion. I hadn't even been up at three when working for Royal Mail, and the sky was still frozen black. My dad turned up in the car around four. He was driving me to the airport because neither coach nor train would have got me there in time.

The city was silent. It was still cold. I hugged my mother, then kissed her on the cheek and tried not to cry - and we've never been one of those touchy-feely families. It seemed like I would never see her again. I think I noticed a tear in her eye.

I'd been living in my mother's place whilst selling off a load of my accumulated crap and applying for the K1 fiancĂ© visa. The K1 would grant me three months in which to get married and apply for a green card, and now it was happening - an eventuality I had somehow not quite foreseen. It was terrifying, but I kept moving because the  alternative would have been much worse. I told myself it would all make sense at some point in the future, and hopefully the none too distant future.

I was flying from Gatwick, because when I bought the ticket I hadn't considered that it made much difference. I was still thinking of airports in terms of having lived in London, but Gatwick is a shitload further than Heathrow if you're travelling down from the north on the M6. My dad and I talked about whatever we usually talked about as  dawn broke and the motorway began to fill with early traffic, and eventually we were at the airport. I loaded my crap onto a baggage trolley and we wheeled off to the departure lounge. I hugged my dad, which I'm not sure I'd ever done before because, as I say, we've never really been that sort of family; and like a wanker, I started to cry.

He understood. 'That's a proper Burty trait,' he told me, and I remembered him describing how tough it had been working on a farm all those years, getting upset over the deaths of calves and cows.

Then followed about nine hours on a plane, landing at Charlotte, North Carolina for my date with Immigration which, after the previous two years worth of headaches accrued in preparation, took all of half an hour. I handed over my envelope of documents and they took me to a room where I sat with a bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun. He wasn't so intimidating as the bored teenager in a uniform with a massive gun who had once cadged cigarettes from me in Calixtlahuaca, but it was obvious that we were never going to be friends. It wasn't so much an interview as a conversation with someone who clearly wanted to be somewhere else, following which I was left with four hours to burn. My six o'clock connecting flight was pushed back to seven due to a surfeit of lightning, then to eight because there was something wrong with the aircraft, and then it was cancelled because apparently US Airways only had one plane, which was about what I expected. They'd done it before. My previous visit to America had briefly marooned me in Philadelphia. It was getting to be a habit.

The airline put me up in a hotel and I caught a flight to Houston early next morning. It was that or three further connections which wouldn't arrive in San Antonio until eight on Saturday evening. Bess picked me up from Houston with a two hour drive back to San Antonio. I spent the car journey and most of that first month in something of a daze. A foreign country looks very different to a holiday when it's supposed to be for the rest of your life.

I moved into Bess's apartment, a second floor flat in a place on Sunset Ridge. Sunset Ridge was a subdivision - as they are called - a complex of architecturally similar houses and flats on a hillside behind a large ritzy sign. The buildings were two storeys, stone clad with shallow roofing and a sort of alpine look. The lawns were neat, without fencing, and were tended by someone working from a main office which looked after the affairs of the subdivision. Neither trees nor bushes nor bedding plants were of any kind I recognised, and the Texas heat seemed phenomenal. I felt a little as though I had moved into a J.G. Ballard novel, and I could only wait for familiarity to set in so I could feel normal again.

The flat was a reasonable size, but too small for three of us, the third being the inscrutable kid who was seven and would eventually be my stepson. In my absence, Bess had found a house and we would be moving there in a month or so. Everything was in transition. An email I sent to my mother on Monday the 27th of June concluded:

Sorry about the sombre tone, there have been the inevitable couple of occasions where I've wondered if I haven't made a huge mistake, but I'm sure it will all look very different in a few weeks time.

Beyond such details, all that remains is a blur of images which seem alien even now, six years later: picking up a ton of Lego from the floor, and the child who barely seems to know what to say to me, instead addressing everything to his mother; smoking the last of my tobacco outside on the step of the building as colourful tropical birds hop about in the tree, unaware of how exotic they appear; dive bombed by sparrowhawks at Sunset Ridge's outdoor pool; taking shelter from the crippling heat of midday, inside with the AC up full and the lights off watching the new version of Battlestar Galactica; nothing I quite recognise in the stores and supermarkets, no kebab shop and no Asian-owned corner store; lightning flashing across the city in the evening like in a film, the city as a vista of treetops with the occasional water tower; dishes in the sink and a fridge containing only spray cheese and ice cubes...

It got better and it got easier, but it's still hard to think about those first months even now, because the shock was so profound; and this was immigration willingly undertaken as a matter more closely resembling choice than necessity, so I've been lucky.

It was probably the best decision I ever made.