Thursday, 14 September 2017

I, Writer


If you're anything like me, then I doubt there can be a day goes by without you pause to reflect and ask yourself, what is the magic of this thing we call writing? Well, happily I'm here to help you out, to draw back the curtain of mystery and answer that question, for I have the privilege of being a writer. I've always written, whether it be my wonderful books, personal letters bringing a little sunshine into the lives of my many, many friends, or even just notes to the milkman requesting an extra pot of low-fat yoghurt. It is my trade and I am very good at it.

Writing is easy for me. I sit down at the computer and adventures and stories just flow from my fingertips. I know not where they come from, and in truth I'd rather not shed daylight upon magic, for it seems wiser to simply be grateful that I am so able to spread happiness with the amazing tales I tell. Consider if you will, the humble street sweeper or fast food worker. Watch him as he works that broom and cleans our roads of fag packets and dog poo, or observe as the young lady takes our order for burger and fries, then calmly assembles our meal with the sort of care which suggests she could do it in her sleep. Do they pause to consider their duties? Does our man regard his broom and decide to use it in a particular way, or does our waitress stop to ask herself where she might find the fries in her workplace? Of course not, and that's how writing is for me.

I can write all kinds of wonderful stories. Some of you may know my name from the series of exciting adventures I have written featuring He-Man and his Masters of the Universe, but I've also written grown-up books too, such as Black Pudding Row, a heart-warming tale of down to earth folk in a pleasant town in the north of England. Then there are the regular blog posts in which I share my thoughts on writing, allowing you the reader a precious glimpse into the creative process and how I come by all of my amazing ideas. I don't even know if any of these words will be read as I write them, but I, ever the optimist, persevere nonetheless for there is no greater satisfaction than knowing that I have brought pleasure to someone, somewhere. You might say it's a calling.

From time to time I may stray into a book store, and sometimes I see that my works are on sale, ready to be snapped up and treasured by an eager public, but other times it seems my name has been overlooked. I am not there. Not even my He-Man adventures. Of course I feel sad, for in many ways I am no different to any of my readers and I too am only seeking for some little diversion from the daily drudgery of life, something magical, a world of wonder and adventure to explore, because that's really what a good book should be. And I try my hardest to write only good books.

I have not yet won an award, and nor have I been asked to speak at any important literary events, but that doesn't matter to me. The only recognition I crave is that of my loyal readers recognising me as the one who tells those wonderful, crazy stories. Does our friend the street sweeper care that his only satisfaction comes from a living wage and the knowledge of a job well done? Does the fast food girl ever dream of breaking the world record for how fast she is able to serve her hungry customers? I don't think they do, because, much like myself, they just get on with it and do what needs to be done.

Wait a moment, Lawrence, I hear you ask, how can you know such things? Surely you, as a writer, have never had to sweep a street or flip a burger? How can you know?

Guilty as charged, for I have been blessed with the talent by which I make my daily bread, and by which I am able to place myself inside the world of a street sweeper or a fast food operative and imagine how it must be for them. And in doing so I am able to understand something of their respective worlds, and how in a funny way, we are all very similar. The girl serving burgers might feel a little glum when they dock her wages for forgetting to supersize a meal, just as I too become downhearted when I see that a book store carries none of my titles, or when an important television executive responds to one of my imaginative proposals with a cursory rejection letter.

But then under such circumstances I, ever the optimist, might walk down our wonderfully clean street to the fast food outlet and cheer myself up with a meal and a shake, just as those people might finish their shifts and curl up in front of a roaring log fire and escape into one of my wonderful novels. Thus does the circle of love, life, and laughter maintain itself. Because we're all worth it.



In closing I'd just like to reiterate that I'm really not bothered about not having won any awards. I really can't emphasise that enough. It doesn't trouble me in the slightest.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Emerald Dynasty


Emerald was a small black cat who took to hanging around our yard, having noticed that I occasionally left out bowls of food which our own cats hadn't finished. We didn't realise she was a stray because she looked so well groomed, but it seemed significant that we could never get anywhere near her, and that she always seemed to be hanging out with SOF. SOF, standing for Son of Fluffy, was another stray, one presumed to have sprung from the union of our own Fluffy and a female stray to which the kid gave the name Juliet, because even he could see that romance was in the air. I say presumed, but none of us were really in any doubt as to SOF's heritage. We mistook him for Fluffy a couple of times, and even his meow was the same. Unfortunately, like Emerald, he too was absolutely feral and wouldn't let us get anywhere near him.

Emerald became a familiar sight, and enough so for the boy to give her the name because of her green eyes; but still we were never able to get near her, and she'd approach a bowl of food only after we moved away to let her get on with it.

One day as we came home, we spotted kittens over at the neighbour's house. Frasier wasn't home, we guessed, and we went over to have a look. We had no idea where they could have come from. By this point we'd worked out that Emerald was female and probably a free agent, but she hadn't looked pregnant. Then again, neither of us could quite recall when we'd last seen her.

Just by Frasier's front door was a planter formed by three low brick walls running up against the side of the house. There had never been any soil in there, not so far as we knew, and a sheet of board lay across the top. Presumably he used it as storage space. I lifted the board and we had an aerial view of three tiny black kittens scrabbling to get away from the light. They were a few weeks old at most, very much mobile but still clumsy. We picked them up, noticing they were kind of chubby.

'Holy crap,' exclaimed my wife. 'These are some seriously chunky kittens.'



The one she held still had blue eyes and was noticably fluffier than the other two, although the third had vanished into the undergrowth at the side of the house.

'They have to be Emerald's kittens, I guess,' I said, as much a question as anything. 'I wonder where she is.'

'She'll be nearby,' Bess told me. 'Mother cats leave their kittens hidden while they hunt for food. Sometimes they don't even leave them all in the same place.'

Kittens are my favourite thing in the universe, so we petted them a little longer, then returned them and replaced the roof of their temporary accommodation.

Next day they were gone, but Donna noticed that I was looking over. 'Did you see the kittens?' she asked.

'Yes, we saw them yesterday. I guess you weren't home.'

'They been in there a few weeks. Lord knows where she's taken them. They were the cutest thing!'

'Yes, they were.'

A couple of days passed and, as I was washing dishes, a commotion drew me out into the garden, barking and snarling, a horrifying sound so close to the house when neither of our immediate neighbours have dogs. I ran out into the back garden. Shooty the drug dealer's two kid-killing dogs had once again escaped the confines of his own back garden and were now in Frasier's yard. They were going wild on the other side of the chain link fence, trying to get at something. They wanted to kill something. I'd never seen them jump our fence, and guessed they would have found it difficult with all the intervening wilderness, hackberry shoots and the like. I went closer.

Two of the kittens were hidden in the undergrowth, mewling and hissing in a pathetic attempt to scare off their gargantuan attackers. They were on the same side of the fence as the dogs. Only a rock hard tree stump forming a cage of truncated branches kept them safe.

I saw red. Here was a metaphor for all that was wrong with the world, helpless creatures about to meet a grisly end because our local shithead can't keep the violent killing machines he barely cares for in his own fucking yard. In that moment I could have destroyed both  dogs with just my bare hands. I ground my hands into the dirt at the lower end of the fence, underneath into Frasier's yard, and grabbed the two kittens. They hissed and scratched me, or tried.

'Fuck off,' I screamed at the kid-killing dogs with such raw fury that my throat hurt. They barked for a while, but deprived of anything helpless they might destroy, lost interest after another couple of minutes.



I temporarily housed the kittens in a cardboard box lined with a towel, and with a bowl of water. I called my wife at work.

'Emerald will be around somewhere,' she told me. 'You should just give them back when you see her.'

'You're sure about this?'

'Yes.'

'I've picked them up. She'll be able to smell me.'

'She won't be bothered. She'll just be happy to have them back. Did you say you only have two of them.'

'Yes.'

Neither of us wanted to think about what could have happened to the third kitten.

I waited.

The kittens hissed at me, which was quite entertaining, but seemed unharmed. At length I noticed Emerald watching from the side of the house. She looked pissed off, but then she always looked pissed off. That was how her face was. I set the kittens out on the grass and backed away to watch from a safe distance. She trotted over, picked one up in her mouth, and carried him off, coming back for his brother a moment later. I guessed it was going to be okay.

Weeks passed and we began to see them around, marching in a little line across the garden, tails aloft, or Emerald supervising as her kids swarmed up and down the trunk of the pecan tree. Occasionally we got close enough to pick them up, which they seemed to tolerate, but mostly we left them to it. Sometimes we'd see Emerald finish off a bowl of cat food in the porch, with two tiny black faces watching her from around the edge of the door, coming no closer because they could see that we were there.




They became bolder over time, and grew bigger. One was  turning into a fluffball, with a chocolate complexion which seemed almost red under a certain light, so Bess named him Jack in oblique reference to Jack Ruby, because rubies are red. His shorter-haired brother became Tony because we'd been watching The Sopranos. We couldn't really get close to Tony, but on the other hand he didn't quite seem afraid of us, although Jack still ran up into the walnut tree every time one of us came near.

Eventually Tony plucked up the courage to enter our house in search of food.

'He wants to be our cat!' Bess squealed happily, and it seemed like he really did.

'We already have about four-hundred,' I pointed out, exaggerating but not by much.

Tony vanished into the kitchen and was using the litter tray, like a workman whom you employ to fix your roof coming in to use the lavatory. The line between what we might describe as our cats and cats we just happen to feed was becoming intangible, and Tony became a part of the family, or at least a welcome relative.



Apparently he told his brother, because the previously timid Jack transformed overnight into the world's friendliest cat. We noticed also that he had tufts of fur between his paws, like a Maine Coon. We remembered how often we'd seen Emerald hanging out with SOF and realised that Jack was therefore almost certainly Fluffy's grandson. Unfortunately the two of them didn't get on, necessitating frequent incidents of my scooping Jack up and taking him outside to safety, away from grumpy old Granddad; following which he seemed to have decided I was his daddy. Wide green eyes full of admiration may have been just anthropomorphic thinking on my part, but on the other hand, he'd occasionally reach up and take hold of my hand between his two front paws whilst giving me that look, as though beseeching me to help drive the bandits away from his village. Bess occasionally referred to him as Jacques, and so he became our French cat.

Meanwhile, Emerald was pregnant again, a black silky pumpkin  waddling onto the porch to finish off another bowl. We vowed to catch her and get her fixed once this new lot were born.

The new kittens were sighted, with Jack and Tony now nearly fully grown, our back garden swam with black cats. We watched the new kittens grow, and occasionally managed to hold them so as to acclimate them to human company. As with Jack and Tony, they weren't really our cats as such, but my wife nevertheless named them Enoch and Jessie after characters in Boardwalk Empire and Breaking Bad. We'd had a Pekingese called Enoch when I was a kid, so I thought my wife had made a good choice. The first Enoch had been small, black and apparently named after racist Conservative politician Enoch Powell, which I believe was something to do with my dad's sense of humour.

Enoch, like Tony before him, wasn't backwards in coming forwards. He wanted to be our cat, and we let him because we couldn't say no. He had us at a disadvantage. He had the softest, darkest fur, the sweetest nature, and the loudest meow of any cat we'd ever encountered, and it didn't take too long to work out that his dad was almost certainly Mr. Kirby, one of our feral friends distinguished by a peculiar hooting meow. Enoch would stroll in, meowing loudly, and it sounded almost like singing, someone playing saxophone or guitar solos with heavy use of wah pedal.

'What is it, Enoch?' we asked. 'What do you want?

'Waaaeeooohhwwwaaahhheeaahhhooo,' and he'd wander off down the hall as though looking for something. Then he'd come back and take up residence on a lap, purring like a tiny motorbike. Scratch the back of his neck and he'd tip his head back and it would seem as though he was grinning. Sometimes I did this and I'd whisper Bob 'Oskins to him, because that was who he reminded me of, and he seemed to like it. We began to refer to him as our perfect cat, because he was wonderful.

Enoch was about a year old when Jessie, his brother, was hit by a car. Jessie had remained feral and unapproachable but it was still a sad day. Then Emerald was suddenly pregnant again and still unfixed, and our golden age of black cats came to an end. They disappeared one by one, excepting a cat we think is probably Tony but who keeps his distance these days. We suspect the third pregnancy was probably too much for Emerald, and we still have no idea what became of Jack or Enoch. Their stories may have had some unfortunate end, but given our neighbourhood, it seems just as likely that someone took them in. So that's what we tell ourselves.


My journey once again interrupted by our French cat.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Birthday Boy


It's taken a while, but I finally seem to have achieved some kind of communicative syncretism with the child, the fruit of my wife's previous marriage, my stepson. He was six and puzzling when I first showed up, although even then it was already clear that his sense of humour lay at a healthy tangent to that of everyone else in the universe. All that he lacked was the means by which to communicate it. Here's the first joke he ever told me, one of his own compositions:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Cheese.
Cheese who?
Cheesy.

The joke had the cadence of something proposed by one who has not yet grasped what humour is or how a joke is supposed to work, but as time has passed I've come to realise that Junior knew exactly what he was doing. It's an unfunny joke, specifically a joke which relies upon defying audience expectation of the punchline making sense or being conventionally amusing. I too went through an unfunny joke phase, as did a number of my friends at school, the apotheosis of which would probably have been the block of wood joke cycle pioneered by Jason Roberts.

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because he was glued to the block of wood.

You probably had to be there. We were about fourteen, so it could be argued that Junior has been ahead of the developmental curve in this respect.

The timeshare jokes started a couple of years ago, beginning with him asking friends, relatives, and occasionally random strangers whether they would like to buy a timeshare. None of us really found it particularly entertaining, which is probably what made it funny for him, so he continued. In fact he really hammered that thing into the ground, so much so that it eventually became funny. My wife paid for and built him a sarcastic website for his last birthday. Subsequent gift-giving occasions have further furnished him with timeshare-themed business cards and custom printed promotional pens which he gives out to other kids whilst savouring their utter confusion. My biggest fear was once that I might be stepfather to some drooling games-addict man-child who can name four-thousand different species of Pokémon but never quite got the hang of wiping his own arse; but happily it turns out that I'm stepfather to Chris Morris. My adopted child is a living Swiftian satire on late capitalism.

Now it's his fourteenth birthday. It's morning and my wife is headed off, first to collect the boy from his father's house and convey him to zoo camp, and then to work.

'Wait!' I say. I'm washing dishes. I pull the plastic lid of a Land O'Lakes butter carton from the water, swipe it clean, dry it off and hand it to her.

'Here. Give him this and tell him happy birthday from me.'

'He'll be thrilled,' my wife chuckles.

I haven't bought him anything because it's difficult to buy for him, so many of his interests being in non-corporeal things inhabiting screens of one kind or another; which leaves us just with the thoughts which supposedly count. The thoughts which count for me are that I've bought him nearly everything he's eaten under this roof for the last six years, and kept his room clean, and that he's surrounded by relatives forever throwing money at him, so he gets a butter lid and he'll be glad of it. I have a hunch that this kind of useless gift will appeal to his sense of humour, and it's given as an homage to the relatives of my friend Carl, specifically his grandfather and sister. The two of them never saw eye to eye and would present each other with cheap passive-aggressive gifts at Christmas, a newspaper one year, a packet of crisps the next.

We formally celebrate the boy's birthday in the evening with a meal at Magic Time Machine, a themed restaurant. The theme is vague, depending upon who the waiters and waitresses feel like impersonating from the worlds of film, television, comic books, showbusiness, or whatever else the dressing-up box has coughed up. They're mostly pretty good, staying in ludicrously exaggerated character as Jack Sparrow, Batman, or Lara Croft whilst taking our order; and best of all, it's mostly amateurish, enthusiastic, and aware of its own absurdity as opposed to slick and corporate, more Rocky Horror than Magic Kingdom. I guess the waiters and waitresses get to pick which character they play based on how well they feel able to pull off a convincing Spiderman or Marge Simpson or whoever. This means that our own table is attended by Miranda.

Miranda wears a striped shirt, too much lipstick, baggy pants with the message haters back off inscribed on the ass, and we haven't heard of her either.

'I have a series on Netflix,' she explains in a weird voice, patently an impersonation of someone none of us recognise. 'You should really watch it.'

I suppose this at least means that should I ever apply for work at Magic Time Machine, I'll be free to bypass Robocop or Shrek or whoever and just go with what I know best, waiting tables as a former ruler of Tenochtitlan in the Valley of Mexico. The hardest thing to decide will be whether I'm Itzcoatl (1427-1440) or Ahuizotl (1486-1502). I never could decide which of those guys I liked the more. Anyway, it will be hilarious, I promise.

Junior, so it turns out, is very happy with the butter lid I gave him. He's been showing it to all the other kids at zoo camp, incurring their admiration and jealousy.

His father is with us, aided by a walking frame following major surgery just yesterday; and also Jay and Courtlandt, respectively our boy's uncle and cousin. Miranda crams us all into a corner where the edge of the table intrudes upon the bellies of at least four of us, this being Texas and all. I complain so she moves us to another table, still twittering away in bewildering fashion and delivering catchphrases none of us have heard before.

There's Byron, one day after surgery and all on the day of his own father passing; so two of our group have lost their dad, and two have lost their grandfather, and the occasion is strange and a little subdued.

Junior opens presents as we wait for drinks to arrive. As well as the butter lid, he also receives a Swiss army spade from his father, a high-tech shovel which can be disassembled and repurposed for all manner of esoteric survivalist requirements. He plays with the shovel for a while, taking it apart, showing us the blade, the components one might use to start a fire and so on.

We pass around his birthday cards and read them.

One is from his grandfather, no longer with us.

It tears my heart out, just for a moment, seeing the signature.

Happy birthday, kiddo - your Granddad's dead, I think.

Drinks come, iced tea, beer, and something green with waves of dry ice frothing over the brim for Junior, all part of the service at Magic Time Machine. A minute later, he accidentally knocks it over whilst demonstrating some function of the Swiss army spade.

Courtlandt grabs the butter lid and uses it to scoop frothing liquid across the table into the now empty glass.

'See! I told you it had a use!'

We all agree what a great present the butter lid has been as Miranda brings us another green drink with dry ice.

We eat. Jay and I discuss our favourite Police albums. He likes Synchronicity, but I prefer Zenyatta Mondatta.

Everyone is a little subdued. It's impossible to imagine what must be going through the heads of the two boys. I still remember how hard the death of my own grandfather hit me at roughly their age.

Miranda fetches a to go box so I can take the leftover fries and make chip butties with them. She draws a pair of pants with haters back off written across the seat on the polystyrene box, then a pair of lips and an arrow pointing to the name Netflix, so we'll be able to find out about the character she's been playing and decide whether it's funny or not.

Next morning, Junior screws his Swiss army spade together and announces that he'll be taking it with him to zoo camp.

'Are you sure?' I ask, sharing a quizzical glance with my wife. 'I mean with great power comes great responsibility, and you know that thing cost your father a lot...'

He whisks out the butter lid, flashing it at me like a cop showing his badge.

'Well, all right then,' I say. 'I guess you know what you're doing,' and I'm secretly impressed, perhaps even proud.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Schot


It was one of those grand houses which people always associate with the south, all columns and verandas - not actually the former residence of a plantation owner, but rather the place where the slaves of the guy in the next mansion along had once lived. On the other hand, it was just the two of them - no servants or anything - so that was something; and they seemed like regular folks as they invited us in. I've spent time in the company of the absurdly rich, but usually as a guest who has paid an entrance fee, or as a manual worker who is being paid to do a job of some description; so ordinarily this might have worried me, but I had other things to think about. I was English and exotic, and these people had no real reason to like me. They might even have seen me as some sort of cuckoo, ousting Byron, their son, from his familial nest.

Thankfully life is never so obvious or predictable.

Schot was in his eighties but he got around okay. He was a little gaunt and moved slowly, and might most generously be described as a man who enjoyed a tipple. He never seemed drunk, but then he never really seemed conspicuously sober either. If he was as sozzled as he probably was, it was an amiable, gentle sort of drunk, a man slowly embalming himself in preparation for immortality.

He'd been ill on many occasions, and never anything casual or which might be set right with aspirin and a spot of bed rest, but each time he came back. We'd all begun to assume he would live forever.

His voice was warm and low, full of creases and character in a way which reminded me of William Burroughs. 'Can I get you something to drink, Lawrence?'

'I'm fine, thanks.'

'Scotch and soda, whiskey, I have some good malts...'

'No honestly. I'm okay.'

'Gin, bourbon, maybe some rum...'

'It's a bit early for me.' I tried not to laugh, then wondered if the comment might be taken as an insult given that I had no idea what time of day Schot might regard as sufficiently civilised for a first drink. 'I'm fine, really.'

'We have beer, or maybe a glass of wine...' He went on through the list, seemingly convinced that my temperance must be an illusion fostered only by his having thus far failed to identify my preferred tipple.

We escaped and made it to the swimming pool at the rear of the house, which was part of the reason why we'd been invited over. We splashed around as Schot and Minnie sat at the side on loungers.

I got out a couple of times, and on each occasion Schot resumed his enquiry, determined to get me that drink just as soon as he'd figured it out what it was.

'Tequila, maybe a liqueur...'

We saw them again from time to time, usually at Byron's house for one of his barbecue nights. I saw them less than did my wife, I suppose being the more remote relative, genetically speaking. It wasn't so much that I had a reason to avoid them, but their world seemed complicated. It was a place I didn't understand.

The last time I saw Schot was in the hospital, at his bedside. He had gone in with pneumonia. Aside from the location and the presence of a few tubes and drips, he seemed the same as ever. We knew he'd be out in a few days.

Not having seen either Schot or Minnie in a couple of months, I felt briefly warmed in their presence. These were people with whom I really didn't have much in common, but it was impossible to dislike either of them. These were, I suppose, real-life oil millionaires, and that's where Dallas and everyone else gets it wrong.

You mean like Trump?, my father chuckled as I tried to describe them over a transatlantic telephone connection.

'Not even slightly,' I told him. 'These people have some class.'

But it's Texas and it's the south so everyone has these ideas, and they're nearly always wrong. I seem to recall Schot having some guy ejected from his home for an off the cuff racist comment; and Barbara Jean, his own late sister, was an out lesbian with a long term partner and not particularly concerned with pretending otherwise; but no-one is ever going to break the box office with tales of the tolerant, liberal south.

The last time I saw Schot was in hospital on the Sunday, and on Wednesday I heard that he had died. Somehow it was unexpected, and it took the wind out of everyone's sails, and all I can really say that's of any use is that I feel privileged to have known the guy, even just briefly.

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.