Thursday, 30 November 2017

Carla Lane's Obsidian Butterflies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is what she was thinking.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Gun Fun

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bess introduces us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We continue to wait.

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

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

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

The game ends in a draw, possibly.

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

Friday, 17 November 2017


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

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

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

I'm hoping we lose!

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

The ball is thrown.

The man catches the ball.

Then he drops the ball.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Rockport after Harvey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We make it to the sea front.

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

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

The food is great.

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

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Thank You for Your Service

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

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

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

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

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

'How did you get this number?'

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

The penny drops.

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

'I'm from England.'

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

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

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

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

'Well, Saturday…'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Well, no.'

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Fifty dollars sounds very fair,' he agrees.

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

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

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

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

He responds.

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

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

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

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