Call Me Maybe (if the phone works)


Mon 23rd

Lisa “In my dream, my teeth had been replaced with bottles of sauce with 10 pences sandwiched in between. The necks of the bottles were implanted in the gum.”
Esther “Were they glass bottles?”
Lisa “No, they were squeezy ketchup bottles”

Tues 24th

It’s that time of the month again. No, not that time. It’s time to ring my Grandad. After 3 rings, he picks up. For a while, all I can hear is lush orchestral music. Am I on hold?

“Hell-o?” comes his sing-songy voice. “Wait a minute lad, I’ve just got to get up”
Silence.
A few muffled grunts.
“We’re up!”
“Hello Grandad, what was that music just then?”
“I feel asleep watching Countdown and when you woke me up it was something else. I don’t understand all these new TVs, what do all those letters mean? What’s a USB? What’s a HD?”
“HD is High Definition. It means your screen has more dots”
“But I’ve got enough dots, lad. Guess what, I’ve got a family of goldfinches living in my garden now”
“Oh really?”
“The long tailed tits like corn, the great tits have their own hanging basket, and the pigeons have a bit of everyone else’s food. The Goldfinches only eat those seeds, what are they called…yes that’s it, Ninja seeds…”

"Swallow my ninja seed"

Wed 25th

Lisa is an accidental technophobe. The arrangement of plug sockets and kaput devices in her house means that she has to make stark choices between creature comforts.

  1. She can either have the laptop on or the TV.
  2. If she plumps for the internet, her dongle (she doesn’t have a phoneline) only works in the bathroom and bedroom.
  3. If she has the TV on, she can’t have the lamp on, and her freeview set will only play a random selection of 4 channels at a time.

As a result, she isn’t into TV series and doesn’t know what’s happening online, but rather nibbles nervously from the edges of culture.

“You live in the Dark Ages. You may as well put straw everywhere and sleep on the floor,” says Esther, before adding “But you have got a washer-dryer.”

Luckily Lisa doesn’t have my urge to hoard. Every few days she has brutal purges that consign useful and important objects to the same fate as meaningless detritus. Her reasons for binning something are set in stone (and chained to the wall):

1. too dirty
2. can’t find anywhere to put it
3. more than one of them

Thurs 26th

Esther has an appointment to get on the waiting list for therapy. It’s taken nearly a year of waiting to go on the waiting list. She’s been waiting to wait. We grab a cab, and the camp cabbie helpfully offers a running commentary;

“So many caffs round here, all offering the same deals.”
We concur.
[Puts on old Yorkshire woman’s voice] “50p extra for tomato…
Ooh look at that new house, it’s a proper two-up, two-down. I bet some right diva’s going to live there, having soirees and that. Champagne, anyone!”

In between talking, he sings along to low music, but there are no words. And no melody. It sounds like really slow techno, and there’s nothing to sing along to so he just goes

“Boom, tish tish tish, boom”

I bumped into Dr Talpus, my old English Professor today. I tend to avoid him, because about two years ago I caused lots of fuss by begging to be let on an English Masters at the last minute, before spending three weeks nodding off while trying to read Virginia Woolf and finally quitting before I had to pay any money. Now whenever I see any English tutors, I duck my head and try to act humbled.
Dr Talpus, rotund and bespectacled, lifted the outer-estuaries of his mouth in a smile both friendly and obsequious.

“How are you getting on? Still doing the old..” the expansive pause allowing a suggestion that he remembered what he had forgotten
“Yes, yes. And you?”
“Still working, for as long as I have a job.”

After each sentence, he would utter an inadvertant whistle as he sucked the air back in, as if he wanted to recall his words lest they be ill-considered. Despite his palpable discomfort, Dr Talpus has the gift of leaving the listener at ease.

After this brief exchange I think I can now frequent the 6th floor cafe where the humanities tutors lurk, with my head held, if not high, then politely perpendicular.

Fri 27th

I’m meant to be back at work in ten minutes but I find myself in Primark changing room with 11 things to try on. I’ve come to the conclusion that mirrors warp time. This is my theory:

When you look into mirrors, the world is doubled and so the time is halved.

If there were no reflective surfaces in the world, time would lull and meander rather than evaporate like sweat. This is what I will say to my student if I ever get back to work.

"Suicide by Mirror"

I read that we are programmed to utter a finite amount of heartbeats and so I guess if we spend our lives out of breath or high we’ll use them up too quickly. It’s the metronome that ticks away our future.

Oh dammit, I’m really late now, I’m going to have to spend some of my future by running back.

Sat 28th

This diet isn’t working. I find myself gutting a cherry scone and smearing its entrails with butter. My body is becoming a trunk, with no discernable waist. Diets come and go like fair-weather friends, never lingering when things go awry.

Meanwhile, Lisa has become a Dukan disciplinarian. It’s created by pop’s Simian Mobile Disco, and follows the stages of ATTACK, DECAY, SUSTAIN and RELEASE.

Attack– just eat meat
Decay– as your minor organs fail, the weight just falls off
Sustain– this is the hardest bit. You better not be eating any of that hospital food!
Release– finally, you are freed from this mortal coil and its calories and photoshop perfection.

"Yummy"

I have made a secret vow never to follow this diet because (a) Lisa eats bowls of cold oatbran gruel for breakfast and (b) her weekly highlight is “vegetable day”: her five-a-day has become a one-a-week (even fruit is verboten).

“Bananas are the worst” she says as I tuck into one.
“Bananas are fucking fruit!” I squeal, exasperated.

For God’s sake, ‘they’ tell you to eat crappy fruit instead of delicious processed cakes, and then ‘they’ tell you that all the fruit that tastes half decent is out of bounds because it’s too sugary. Well fuck you ‘them’ and fuck you body, I never asked for you, I’m a prisoner inside your lumbering frame.

So instead, my new diet is the exact opposite of Lisa’s and involves eating muffins, bagels and cookies with post-apocalyptic desperation.

Ah the delights of Saturday TV. It’s time for Koko Pop with Jameela Jamil trying to glamour the camera like a rubbish vampire instead of presenting. My ex-wife Marina is on in a babydoll dress with an Antoinette heart, singing about the reason she dumped me (she wouldn’t let me eat cake). No-one realises but I’m the Primadonna not her.

“’Koko Pop’? Must be for kids”

“No it’s not” I say in an offended tone, “it’s a proper programme…”

but as I talk I remember that all the audience members were barely teenagers and it’s named after the most childish of cereals. She’s got me. I’m a manchild, a mannish boy, an age imposter.

Anyone watching my face during the programme would have seen awe, wonder and glee play across it; this very concoction is the essence of childhood.

Marina walked out into the crowd and I swooned, and she turned and walked back to pick up a toy dog and I grinned like a fool; anything she does which isn’t in the script (though of course it is in the script to not be in the script) makes me ticklish with pleasure. And then Carly Rae Jepson actually touched people’s hands as she bounced around in her anodyne innocence. Imagine being them! A fix of nouveau Fame through the fingertips like 0:12 on this:

Right, I simply must go now; it’s time for Elevenses.

Zombies v Real Anger


Tues 17th April

 Lisa: “I couldn’t sleep coz I had a migraine, hurty boobs and real anger”

“Real anger?”

“Yes.”

No further explanation was offered. But a can of worms was offered round.

“I told Dom I had to be bathed in warm milk, fed chocolate and put to bed. He fetched me a fat free yogurt and left me to go upstairs to bed.”

The real anger became evident as the day wore on. Lisa’s world had drained of all fun, and she was in danger of being sent home to bed with no tea, if only we could find a lion tamer. Even the inanimate internet was to blame, as she shouted at the laptop screen;

“I’ll kill you unless you show me some dancing dogs.”

This has the same impotent power as my granddad shouting “I’ll set the dogs on you” down the microscopic phoneline to nuisance callers.

 Wed 18th

I may have scared the newsagent. There are many times when a dry sense of humour can get you in trouble.

“I thnk I have won a bit on this lottery ticket”

He takes it off me, scans it in. His eyebrows raise

“A little?! You’ve won nine hundred and sixty…”

The seconds stretch on interminably. My legs start to wobble.

“…pence” he finishes off, looking up and flashing me a cheeky smile.

“You bastard!” I say.

Next day, I see him on the street on my way to work. I had not planned for this, so my words are unprepared;

“I’ll get you back for that, by the way!” I stutter as he passes.

“For what?” he says with apprehension

“The lottery ticket”

“Oh” he replies, walking past hastily and trying to laugh.

Oh no, what have I started? My dry delivery and social awk. have made it sound like a cold blooded threat. I better avoid him for a while.

Ah well, as long as I act naturally next time, it’ll all be forgotten.

The next time I see him, he is safe behind his counter. As I make my exit, he calls me back.

“I’m pretty hard to get back, you know” he warns. Finally, the ball is in his court. I can stop now and he won’t be scared of me.

“That sounds like a challenge..” I reply.

Me and my big mouth!

Wed 18th

Went to a nutrition fair in the university union today, ostensibly to support one of my students who was involved, but really to get a free lunch.

There really is no such thing though, because as I approached each morsel-laden stall, I realized that I would have to feign interest as I talk to the student stall-holders for a minimum of 5 minutes before asking to sample their goods.

Damn social etiquette, I want my lunch!

One stall was manned (literally) by two Greek gods, whose treacle skin burst steroidally out of their skinnyfit tshirts. Of course, when they talked it became clear that they were plebs, but for a while, these twin pillars of genetic perfection stood, arms crossed, surveyjng a world that was theirs for the taking.

My first impulse was to run to the  flawed prettiness of next stall’s two girls. Herein lies the essential difference between viewing beautiful boys and beautiful girls: pain.  In the case of boys, my narcissism is reflected back painfully into my face, but with girls the experience of objectifying is a warm and fuzzy (like wielding a mauve lightsabre, or a soft focus semi-erection). The key here is power: better looking boys confiscate it; pretty girls seem to offer it on a plate.

Anyway, my retreat to the next stall meant that for 5 minutes I listened attentively about the miracle that is pomegranate smoothies, during which I waited for an inch of purple sludge to make its way along the complementary cup to my mouth.

The next stall along had made high fibre cakes into the shape of poo and heaped them in a potty. While this would have put most people off, my love of cake had me shovelling the dense turd in and complimenting the chefs as dark matter cascaded from my mouth.

This appetiser was followed by a taster of kangaroo meat and a catch up with the student, whose autism means that life is essentially a re-enactment of slapstick films.

As we shook hands, he went

“BZZZZZ”

and cackled to himself.

His other favourite is

“MNMNMNMNMNMNMN”

in the vicinity of computers like Buck Rogers’ robot:

Oh to have such simple, retro pleasures.

Sat 21st

Esther’s grumpiness has reached an all time high. My silent prayers are no longer enough: It’s time to defer to a power higher than god- the maxillofacial doctor at the Royal Hallamshire.

We take the lift to floor I, where the doctor promised we would be at the front of the queue, only to find a bench full of casualties each twisted in their own form of agony. One guy is doubled over, cradling his head on a bloody tracksuit top; another is wheelchair-bound with lips so fat they droop under their own weight, and an accusatory leg he can’t bend at the knee. Next to us is a girl with pink hair whose unreadable expression leads me to the conclusion that she’s had a stroke. She should take up poker.

Esther’s painkillers are about to run out.

“Better not take anymore” I reason, “He needs to know how much pain your in. Plus I’m sure he’ll give you some kickass new ones that you can have straight away.”

Her lip wobbles as she agrees. At the dim distant end of the corridor, a figure with long dark hair and blue dressing gown is zigzagging aimlessly this way. Esther peeks past me at her, then flattens herself against the wall in terror. The Ring has a lot to answer for.

From the other side ambles an old man with deep gouges across one side of his face.

“He must have stroked his cat the wrong way” I say.

This is not entirely far-fetched: Linda’s dopey countenance will transform into a wildcat’s snarl if you stroke her in the wrong place. “Back and not the sides” is Esther’s smug motto whenever  I stroke her and Linda’s tail starts ominously to lash from side to side.

In the ward opposite our bench there’s a twenty-something guy whose scalp has been stitched back on with huge Frankenstein zigzags. His friends keep rushing out to tell the nurse that “his head is leaking.”

As the pain takes hold, Esther’s legs shudder and her sharp intakes of breath get more frequent. I bury my head in World War Z.

Finally, after 4 hours, the 12 year old doctor calls Esther and I in. Esther’s social phobia tends to make her get a bit tongue tied and understate how bad she’s feeling, so I keep adding the things she’s been moaning in my ear about.

“Stop it!” she says when he leaves the room.

“What?”

“You’re embarrassing me! Stop talking for me!”

“Fine!”

You can bet that we’ll get home and once we’re alone she will let rip about how much it hurts. I haven’t seen Grizzly Man but I can guess how that guy felt. After all this time, he just gives her some antibiotics and puts a dressing on her tooth-hole.

“This is going to hurt a bit, and it looks like horse-hair” the doctor says cheerily.

“That’s good, you like horses” I say, equally cheerily.

Esther just glares.

As we wait for her prescription, I dare to ask for a pain update.

“Imagine if this room was full of mints and they were left to rot for a hundred years into a nugget the size of a pea. That’s what this dressing tastes like” she says.

Yummy.

Esther’s Face-ache; My Ball-ache


Wednesday 11th April:

Day 2 of Esther’s Face-ache.
Persistent moaning every 3 hours when her painkillers wear off.

Dream

Part 1: I suddenly realize that Esther and Lisa are Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. Esther is the twisted intellectual and Lisa is the frustrated punk. What does that make me? Neil?

Part 2: Kate Middleton decided to take me (me!) as her lover. It was all a bit touch and go, but finally we got our opportunity to consummate. Wills was playing polo on the big field at the bottom of the hill, and I slipped in through the tradesman’s entrance (ooer missus etc) of her mansion at the top of the hill. It was all building up to me getting to see her porcelain hockey-stick body, silhouetted in the dusty afternoon sunshine as it scorched between her royal blue curtains, but then Harry rocked up in his convertible with three ‘fast ladies” (as my nana would have called them), and I had to scarper.

Thursday 12th April

Day 3 of Esther’s Face-ache.
The doctor gives her codeine, with the instruction to only take at nighttime. We go to bed early.

On our way back from Lisa’s house, we came across a bearded loon in his pyjamas, outside the chippy. He was on the phone and was staring with guru intensity into the middle distance, saying something very loudly and sternly. As we passed into hearing distance (10 metres either side of him), we hear a snippet (intoned in with the gravity of an LSE team member on a 70s episode of University Challenge);

“Character assassination is a form of psychological torture. [Pause]. If you consider the thought experiments of the 1930s as a basis, you will find that what you did fits in perfectly…”

Fear of being subjected to his piercing gaze made us scurry past, and that was all that we caught. Lord knows who was on the other end of the line. The talking clock perhaps?

Saturday 14th April

Day 5 of Esther’s Face-ache.
No-one is safe.

Esther’s insatiable channel flicking has paused on T4. There’s a music show on. And she’s letting it play. Is there something wrong with her? There is a blanket no music policy in our house because it ‘makes her too excited’, ergo excitement is bad. The problem with this is that I am 70% puppy, and tend to get frisky when it comes to pop culture. I am a bad doggy.

“The amazing, talented Labrinth” Jameela announces
His song opens with excessive vocoder. 3 seconds in, and Esther casts her judgement.
“Can’t sing then”
“I’m not leaving Paris without a French kiss,” he sings
“I’m not leaving Rotherham without a black eye” I deadpan
“That’s funny,” says Esther
“Hmmf” I say, used to her caustic put-downs.
“No I was being serious” she says grumpily, “I hate the way no-one can tell if I’m being sarcastic or not. It’s a curse”.
The channel has been exited and it’s back to News 24, Esther’s default background noise.
“What do you want to do today?” I ask cheerily. My mistake.
“Stay in bed. Not walk the dog. End up drowning in depression” she bites back
“Oh no” I say with perfectly timed tenderness.
“Well if I stay in all day that’s how I’ll feel. And if I go out I’ll feel like that too”

End of convo, clearly.

During this exchange, Linda has clambered on me, her daddy/slave, and is kneading my belly and purring.

“Oh purr purr purr. What are you so bloody happy about?” she turns on the cat. “Ooh, I get my food, I get my strokes, I get to sleep all day. You’re just a bloody pleb.”
(Relenting a little) “Good job you’re soft or else you’d be out.”

As I write this down, she pipes up again.

“What the bloody hell are you writing now? More blog I spose…!”

I think it best not to respond, but the game is up and she clams up. Note to self: I will not profit from her misery.

Later, we watch Drive. Apparently, Lisa refused to watch it because she convinced herself that Ryan Gosling has H from Steps. It makes me want to shave my beard off and learn to drive. But then I remember that I look like a lesbian (Justin Bieber has the same problem) with no facial hair, and I can’t even ride a bike.

Sunday 15th April

Day 2 of Esther’s Face-ache.
I’m temporarily safe because Lisa is staying over. I’ll get my just desserts later, no doubt.

I get Esther to pass me the Rowntrees Randoms.
Last time I looked, the packet was half full. Now there are 3 lonely sweets glued to the bottom of the plastic.

“Where have they all gone?”
“Dunno” says Esther, all butter wouldn’t melt.
“When you say that with your face all swollen it looks like your cheek is stuffed with sweets,” says Lisa
“They’re not random anymore are they?” I add accusingly (and rhetorically) “They’re all green!” Green is after all statistically everyone’s least favourite flavour, the tangy tart of the pack.

In other news, Esther catches me using the microwave as a TV. I am ‘cooking’ (microwaving readymeals that don’t require chewing) and I am so bored. It has been 5 minutes since I put my laptop down to come downstairs and already I am getting pop culture withdrawal symptoms.
So I put the microwave on with nothing in it and begin to chatter away

“Ooh let’s see what’s on TV shall we?”
I am bending over, staring into the amber box when Esther comes in.
“What the hell are you doing?” comes a voice from behind me, her autoresponse when I am caught acting oddly (when am I not, dear reader?).
“Just watching TV” I reply innocently.

Me, Myself and Many Others


I don’t know how it is with you, but often when we are getting ready for bed, I strike up a conversation with one of the weirdos in my head.

“That’s just so typical for a namby-pamby white boy!”

“I’m like this usually am I?”

“That’s what typical means you dickwad”

At this point Esther interjects

“What the hell are you doing? Stop being horrible to yourself!”

“I wasn’t being horrible to my self, I was being horrible to him”

“Who’s he?”

“He’s…someone in my head. I was just telling him he’s talking tautologies”

“Well, I can’t see any other namby-pamby white boys in here” she reasons, ” so you must be talking to yourself.

I open and close my mouth, but I can’t explain the complex social world of my imagination. So she continues;

“You make the world seem darker when you express your mental illness like this. It’s already dark enough”

Oops.

In other news, Lisa has just given her tiny cottage a Spring clean and found some unopened Christmas presents from her sister.

And Tobias and I went to a life-drawing class in Manchester that promised sleazy rock n roll with a model who looked and sounded like Joan Jett.

What actually happened was there was a chubby girl in an ill-fitting bodycon dress and too-small bikini top who stood around holding a guitar (badly) and trying to look moody (even worsely). And then some bloke came on and played punk songs on a Ukelele, which could have been good but he looked like Kevin McCloud and sounded like Billy “shoutyman” Bragg, who I despise (Where’s the pop? Where’s the camp?).

So, we skipped out early and met up with George, who refused to subject himself to the embarrassment of drawing in public, and instead who’d been sat happily eating a burger in a bar round the corner. Until that is, he’d made the fatal mistake of nipping to the loo, and some people had stolen his seat even though his half eaten burger and pint were still there. We are obvs not used to big city life, having come from soft-lad provincial Sheffield.

“They’d already started eating so I didn’t want to cause a fuss” he explained.

Bless

“It’s the big city, boys” Tobias chimed in, with a maniacal glean in his eye.

Indeed it is. I once saw a woman chased down the street by a driver enraged when she had tapped the boot with her hand because he had stopped in the middle of a pelican crossing. He ran from the car, yelling “drive round the corner” to his girlfriend, who was obvs practised at this and leaped into the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, the offending woman was cornered and cowered under a staccato dance of almost-blows as the man spent his anger.

I resolved there and then to desist my car-tapping ways.

Lastly, Esther has had her wisdom tooth out. The anaesthetic didn’t take so they had to jab the needle in two, three, four times before giving up and just yanking the thing out. This was a day ago and she has swollen up so much now that if you catch her from the wrong side, she looks like a gorilla. She will only eat liquid food, apart from soup.

“Eating soup is like drowning in food. Food shouldn’t be liquid, it’s disgusting. Apart from chocolate mousses.”

So far, she has eaten chocolate mousses, jelly and fish pie. She’s just bought some marshmallows but she can’t open her mouth wide enough to fit them in, so her moans have become more frequent. Eventually she fell asleep, but her snores are amplified by the swelling into deep cave rumbles.

At least I can’t hear the cat snorting coke anymore.

Hong Kong V: Re-Re-wind


Saturday 10th March

“The train to Shanghai will be leaving in no time,”

announces the station tannoy in perfect Chinglish. Despite my raging hangover, I fall about laughing with Bruce at the beautiful butchery Chinese people make of English grammar. But there’s simply no time.

Fifteen carriages of sleek chrome arrive and we find a seat. Within minutes, a speedometer tells me we are travelling at 300 km/hour, but this is clearly a lie as the landscape of warehouses and squat shacks is passing by in a dreamy meander. And yet, 45 minutes later we have travelled the epic 120 miles to the largest city in the world.

"A stable worthy of Party Horse"

A 4 Star hotel in the megatropolis? Don’t mind if I do! It is the poshest hotel I’ve ever been in; there’s a grand piano in the reception; the room has a chaise long, and there’s a giant gold bull outside.
China can be summed up by two sights on the way to the hotel.
In the subway, we came across new recruits going through their pledge of allegiance. Although just lowly train drivers or ticket inspectors, they had the seriousness of high-ranking officers responsible for the upkeep of their nation. I was scared I was going have my camera confiscated.

"I hereby promise to be punctual on pain of death"

We also saw the goldest car in the world on our taxi ride to the hotel. It’s like the Communist obsession with public displays of power and devotion has been combined with capitalist greed to create a super-society of gloriously tasteless moneymakers.

"The Shanghai makeover"

Gold cars make sense when you consider that the currency on Mainland China is the Renminbi, which comes out sounding like R’n’B. I like the idea of paying in black pop. 50 J-Los? 75 R Kelly’s? Too pricey! (And then to add to the illusion, Harvey and I ‘Cruz’ through a town called Tai O on Lamau Island. Taio Cruz, geddit!)

BreeDee’s double bed is sumptuous, but there’s been a mistake and the extra beautiful bed they ordered for me is missing; Fifteen minutes later a creaky foldout single bed arrives. Luxury.

"I need to get me some bling"

Tonight’s schedule involves Paranormal Activity 2 and a meal out, and my bed faces the hotel door and it’s mini hallway of shadowy cabinets and mirrors.

I am going to have to rearrange the furniture to keep the demons out.
If I can use the chaise long to block my view of the door, I can put the bed sideways so that it faces BreeDee’s. My childhood obsession with Three Billy Goats Gruff is proving useful- I can direct the monster to two far more juicy bodies if necessary.

“What are you doing?” asks Bruce
“Oh, just a little feng shui” I reply innocently
“Really?”
“No. I’m scared.”

When I am satisfied that I have protected myself as much as possible, we head out to the Bund, the waterfront where giant buildings glow with 100 foot screens.

"Retro Spiritual Gesture"

In a side street, we find The Best Shop in the World™. It’s a kitsch goldmine of useless crap at bargain prices. It is here that I find the best thing I have ever read; the blurb written on a pack of girlie cards that is so lost in translation it blows my tiny mind. There are NO typos in this:

“They are young (mostly just turned 20 years old), tender was drawn like a pinch of water; their ignorance (at least seemingly ignorant), the eyes, not too much sophistication; their beauty, like the upside down like a summer rose beings; their fear, even a little dress still confident of exposure. They are so invincible youth, smile blossoming, not to mention a man, and she can not help but read and reread.
Not every man is willing to prison high above the intellectual Mature, nor patience to listen to all young women crooning shallow art songs, stepmother face, office facial, all sidelined.
The greatest feature of the contemporary human will, just do not like to live so hard, because life itself was tired. In fact, although the generation of soft mode does not seem so “mainstream”, all the women around me also admitted that, I hope he can grow into (or at least turned it into an … …) Angelababy it, of course, no one would mind their own to keep forever faces of the children! Yes, youth is always an turbulent forces do not want to admit is not OK. Soft-mode wave struck, is irresistible.”

After reading it and re-reading it, Bruce and I cry with laughter so hard that pity and then concern flashed across the faces of the shop assistants.

“Stepmother face” repeats Bruce at regular intervals, and we fall about, while DeeDee looks on in frustration. Bloody children!
“Office facial- all sidelined,” the surreal sequence of images conjured up to sell pictured of girls in underwear is astonishing.
Almost unable to take any more surrealism, Bruce then found a cigarette case with Osama Bin Laden looking wistfully above the Twin Towers. Emblazoned across the middle of this folk-hero style design was the slogan;

IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING

With shaky hands I bought these contraband and downright weird goods. They are so wrong they ought not to exist. Who made them? What twisted translator was paid for their services? The mind boggles.

Which it also did when we came across a Mr Bean theme café.
“Oh they have them all over China” says Bruce nonchalantly,
“They love him
“WTF!?” I’m sorry, but of all the things to export from British culture, they choose this? Even out of all Rowan Atkinson’s output, this a poor choice. But then I realise that Mr Bean never actually speaks, he just dithers and mumbles like a confused otter. You don’t need to understand English to understand him. Laughing at him is a different matter; why not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd who are actually funny? Lost in translation again I guess.

"Really?"

There are street BBQs everywhere in China. We pick one near the Indie Club we are trying to find. As I eat the lamb and spiced bread, a gaggle of drunk teenagers run past. Unlike British yoofs, they giggle and play like dyspraxic children.

A teen lesbian couple walk past, one in pyjamas, the other in a floor length coat. They are so cool and cute and fascinating that I want to run away with them, but I am about 2 feet taller and 2 times as old and not cute at all so it would never work out. Oh well; I sneak into a shop and take a crafty photo.

"I Love You"

The Indie Club is packed with Westerners and here we encounter our first bad vibes; a tank topped nonce struts around and tries to provoke Bruce. I get a funny feeling, and then realise it’s that feeling of fight or flight I have all the time back in Sheffield, when you have to prepare yourself for some act of violence before it is acted out on you. For all their blatant curiosity, Chinese people have never felt like threats to my safety.

“This is why I never want to live in the UK again” spits Bruce, “What’s the point of feeling like this all the time?”

We head back to the hotel feeling homesick and also relieved that we’re not at home. As DeeDee unlocks the door, I see a bellboy walking slowly down the corridor towards us and feel rising panic that perhaps he is a ghost and we must get in before he catches up; at this moment, DeeDee gasps with horror at what she sees in our room. I cry out, certain that my careful arrangement will have been moved around by malevolent Feng Shui spirits.
DeeDee laughs like an evil genius and I realise I have fallen for her tricks. Which are far from over.
As I brush my teeth, she creeps to the glass partition and is staring up at me with the terrifying look of a ghoul when I turn round.
So it’s no wonder then when I lie there staring into the dark instead of sleeping. As BreeDee’s breathing slows and they embark up the soft foothills of sleep, I wake them up by saying;

“I’m scared”

like a little child to his parents. They laugh at me but I want my mummy!

“I’m going to get into your bed if you scare me anymore” I warn.

Whatever creepy plans DeeDee had are quickly postponed for another night.

Sunday 11th March

"Indie where are you?"

Shanghai’s Old Town looks the same as it did in Indiana Jones’ day. Unfortunately as he is fictional, so is Club Obi Wan, and the cute 40s facades are now inhabited by cheapo souvenir shops.
After a hard morning’s shopping, we brunch with international go-getters Edie and Toto, who work for a high spec fashion magazine.

“Let’s set up a creative agency,” declares Toto, his enthusiasm swelling to fill the room. “We will have Party Horse as house band, and Edie as stylist”
“And me too!” I bluster in, “I’m a writer…even though I’ll be 10,000 miles away, I can still be a part of it…”
You can’t take me anywhere. As we rush to catch our train, I am still giddy from the sheer ambition of a room full of Edies and BreeDees.
“Let’s call ourselves the Shanghai Flyers” I muse. We can get satin baseball jackets with our logo on the back like the Pink Ladies of pan-cultural enterprise.

As always, my daydreams come at the expense of real problems. The alleged 15 min taxi drive back to the station takes 45 mins, and we miss our train.
Chinese people are the biggest queuers in the world. They are also the biggest queue jumpers. The lines I saw at the train station ticket offices filled me with horror and reminded me of rationing scenes from war photographs. After enduring 30 minutes in one queue, watching brazen chancers edge down to the front and butt in with little resistance, we are told that we are in the wrong queue to change our ticket.

“Right” says Bruce conspiratorially, “We’re not going to let anyone push in this time, ok?”

We make a pact.

We glare around us, daring someone to do it. An old gentleman squeezes down to the front, but is refused entry. He spits a massive globule of phlegm on the marble floor and stalks away. We pump the air in triumph.
Another guy edges forward.

DeeDee looms over him and prods his shoulder. He looks around in self-righteousness as she points behind her at the queue. Unfortunately, it turns out he is with someone in the queue. As we reach the front, another chap comes and leans over the counter, talking over DeeDee to the cashier. We shove ourselves in the way but he continues to talk through the mic.

“Put your hand over the speaker!” I say with a flash of moral indignation, and Bruce obliges. The gent is not even put off then. He continues to gesture and talk through the glass. Finally, DeeDee has our tickets and we leave him to his own devices. Fail!

“Right, when we get to the taxi queue in Hangzhou, we are going straight to the front” says Bruce, his dander up.

And we do. With fake nonchalance, we push to the front, but I am bringing up the rear and can feel daggers in my back. I am too scared to look round, but finally we have a cab and we are running and jumping into it and speeding back home.

Hangzhou is many things all rolled into one; innocent and yet brutal; cute but grotesque; principled yet dog-eat-dog.
On my last night, we visited AJ in his club. It’s a renovated warehouse with a cargo-rail in the middle that bands play on. He was skyping his girlf when we came in, she is studying in London and had dumped him for 4 days during which the extent of his rebellion was to scrawl “No Girlfriend” over a cutout of semi-naked fashion models. How sweet.

"Softcore defiance in a no-porn country"

The toilets had urinals made of old pipes. Amazing, but impractical as it looked and smelt like there was no way to flush the wee away. How nasty.

"A pipe-pissing son of a gun"

While Claudia, DeeDee and AJ taxied it to the restaurant, Bruce and I took a white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride through the city streets. We were all dog-tired which made the surreal meal that followed even harder to comprehend. Here again, you are expected to cook your won food, and I had the humiliation of asking for a special ‘not’ hot-pot to cook my food in. Yes, yes, I’m a wuss.

The problem with this cooking was that all the food shrivelled into nothingness after a few mins in the broth, so when you tried to get it out there was nothing really to get.

As we tweezered AJ’s eel tails into the pot with chopsticks one came to life, writhing in its dish and making me, DeeDee and Claudia scream like girls. Luckily, they were girls. We never really recovered from this horror, and soon after retired to bed.

And finally, a decent night’s sleep under the watchful eye of Popo who seems to have grown used to the smelly giant on the airbed.

Monday 12th March

Up at 6am to catch the 08.00 plane back to Hong Kong. I meet Harvey at Starbucks again in the airport; this reviled coffee shop has become my one stable point of reference in an unfamiliar world.

After 5 days in Hangzhou, I have finally mastered the right way to say ‘Goodbye’ in Mandarin, only to realise that no-one understands me because they all speak Cantonese in the Hong Kong. Typical.

Today Harvey is showing me around Lantau Island, where the airport is situated. We bus it to the Big Buddha at Po Lin, and order coffee from a woman in a swastika apron (yes I know it’s reversed and means Good Luck over here, but it’s still shocking!).

"'You'll get what you're given' is our motto"

“Go To Big Buddha” orders a sign, alright, we’re trying but there’s 100 steps up there and it’s so smoggy you can hardly see the damn thing.

"He's behind you!"

There are wild water buffalo here (“Don’t forget to enjoy their presence!” a sign encourages. Their presence! Almost right, but so wrong…)

"I'm sacred; you're profane"

and incense sticks the size of me;

"I am incensed at the price! (Groan)"

And a sign that says I’m a long, long way from home!”

"Eek!"

Get me out of here!

"Where's Wally #2"

Then on to a small coastal town, where cats queue in the post office;

"First Class to Katmandu"

and chrome shacks look out like retro jewellery over the South China Sea, and a market sells freeze-dried aliens

"America chases aliens; China eats them"

I am knackered, but Harvey is an inhuman freak who runs marathons and sails Dragonboats and rips apart puny humans like me with his bare hands. His tales invariable involve a ridiculous situation that he “somehow” ended up in; being half sucked into bogs, being chased by warthogs, wearing a purple wig and wolf mask to Cambridge University lectures. For a genius, Harvey is a damn fool.
We walk across a mangrovey beach where stands a lonely art deco lifeguard station, where a Poirot-era Baywatch could be filmed (slo-mo longjohns)

"No real emergencies please, we get dizzy running down to the beach"

Round a deserted fishing port, ending up in a Turkish restaurant where a stroppy longhaired teenager seethes as his dad chats away to another barrel-chested ex pat. Harvey the alcoholic is plying me with beer again, and I am dog-tired, tired of the constant stimulus and adrenaline of being somewhere utterly unfamiliar.

Tuesday 13th March: 00:35am

The flight home is uneventful; I watch Submarine and Warrior because Esther will never let me watch them at home; I have the luxury of a whole row to myself on Emirates Airbus no. 2 and lie down full length for a nap the duration of Eastern Europe.

The rest is sketchy; all I remember is an obtuse Manchester Airport train bloke making me pay for a ticket to Piccadilly.

“I’ve got a ticket for Manchester Stations. Surely Manchester Airport is a Manchester Station (you big damn fool)?”
“No sir, we’re in Cheshire”

Stomp, stomp back to the ticket booth, finally the fatty lets me past.

And finally back in Lisa’s house, Esther sobs noisily on my shoulder for a full minute while I look on with the emotional range of a zombie. I need to sleep until I’m in the right timezone.