Friday, 30 August 2013

Disorientation Week

I’m waiting for my cappuccino in the Brochstein Pavilion. Brock-steen. The menu advertises various American mysteries, such as sliders, heros and root beer. The air conditioning is set to Siberian winter.
‘Latte,’ barks the barista. Somebody scurries forward and swipes it off the counter, before retreating into a corner, in order to consume it at a safe distance from predators.
There is another girl ahead of me, waiting for an order. She’s wearing baggy denim shorts, practical rubber sandals and a striped t-shirt. Her thin blonde hair is coiled on top of her head in a neat topknot. There are goosebumps on her pale arms.
On the sound system, a warbly soprano with bad Italian diction sings a familiar melody. She is accompanied by some nebulous string-orchestra sounds, punctuated by intermittent episodes of classical guitar-twangling. The occasional clave plinks. There are no hooks, or countermelodies, or clarity of any kind. But I do know the melody.
It’s Whitney Houston’s ‘And I Will Always Love You’. In Italian.
Your favourite popular hits, as you’ve never heard them before. Perfect for relaxing at home. Add a touch of class to your dinner parties, or ‘soirees’, as they say in Paris, France.
Slight swell. Pause. The soprano heaves. Key change. Still no cappuccino.
I rub my forearms for warmth, glance at my watch. Here comes the octave leap. I clench involuntarily. The soprano hoots gamely.
‘Americano.’ The blonde girl leaves.
The General MIDI accompaniment hovers at a fermata, and the singer navigates the final flourish carefully. She sings the melisma as a set of exact semiquavers, before landing squarely on the tonic, like a matron lowering herself into a chair. The strings squelch their way to an unimpressive final cadence. There is a brief moment of silence.
‘Cappuccino’, shouts the barista. I grab it and make for the exit. The strings groan into life again behind me; the singer gives an introductory moo. I close the door firmly.
I take a seat on the patio outside. The heat makes my throat constrict. The air settles on my skin like a wet cloth.
The door is flung open again. An orientation guide crashes onto the patio, roaring at his frightened charges, who follow him mutely. They arrange themselves into a clump around him, avoiding eye contact.
He is short, square, blocky, with a lanyard around his neck. He stands with his feet shoulder-width apart, his head held slightly back. Barrel-chested. His face bears the scars of recent teenage acne.
‘The coffee here is very expensive,’ he yells. He drags the ‘very’ out for at least two seconds, widening his eyes. Inside the glass, the staff glare at him from behind the counter. I look dolefully at my cup. ‘But the sandwiches are awesome,’ he adds, inserting a glottal stop before ‘awesome’ for emphasis. He pinches his thumb and forefinger together, hand close to his lips.
The final orientee to exit the pavilion closes the door after him. ‘Yeah, now that we’re outside,’ he bellows, ‘I can tell you that there are better places on campus for coffee.’ One of the baristas, inside the glass, rolls her eyes.
He’s backing onto the lawn.
‘Welcome to the second academic quad. By the way, squirrel!’ He points at a squirrel on the grass. It looks up, alarmed.
Somebody giggles. A middle-aged woman with a greying bob starts visibly. She looks at the squirrel, looks back at the guide. She frowns, confused.
‘Squirrels are awesome, right?’ He looks around the group. Nobody responds.
‘So anyways, this is the second academic quad, and it’s got some cool sculptures and stuff’ – he pronounces it ‘sculptors’ – ‘cos every so often an artist comes and goes, wow,’ – he throws his arms out wide – ‘it’s so pretty, I wanna build you, like, a thing,’ – the word ‘thing’ gets an audible capital T – ‘so Rice goes, cool, knock yourself out, and they build stuff, and it’s awesome, and that one over there is meant to be some kind of study area I guess, it’s like two seats facing each other, except it’s abstract and stuff, but I’ve never seen anybody study there, and I’ve been here a long time, like two years, so I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but I guess maybe they’re just not very comfortable, since it’s art an’ all, but anyways…’
As he holds forth, he’s leading them across the lawn, walking backwards, beckoning, as though luring them into a trap. His charges shuffle reluctantly towards his retreating form.
By now, my computer keyboard is hot to the touch. The fan roars into life. My shirt is already beginning to stick to me. I retreat into the café. I consider whether it’s worth sitting down, or if I should get back to work.
Il Divo take a deep collective breath before launching into the shirt-button-popping, vein-engorging Italian-ised climax of ‘My Heart Will Go On.’

The library it is.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

The cockroach


It darts out from behind the draining rack, waving its antennae lazily. A dirt-brown invader, an aberration, a hideous blemish on the white surface. It crouches in the middle of the worktop, facing me with its blind, truncated, pincered front.

I can’t move. My throat constricts. My skin crawls. I swallow a wave of nausea.
It can’t be a cockroach. It can’t be. It’s bigger than my thumb.
Oh Jesus.

It lifts a leg, puts it down again. Suddenly, horribly, it clatters up onto the tiled wall, clackclackclackclack, vanishes behind the shelves. I hear a faint crunching sound. It’s eating something. I think I’m going to be sick.

I’m still rooted to the spot. I can’t see it now. But it’s getting closer and closer to the larder. I picture it crawling over my apples, burrowing into my porridge oats. Tracking the dregs of whatever cesspit it calls home across my fresh tomatoes.

I know that something must be done. And I have to be the one to do it.

I dive for the cupboard under the sink, scan the arsenal. I grab a can of Raid. It trembles in my fist. Here we go.

It skitters down the wall again. OhChristit’shorriblegetitawayfromme. I extend the can towards it, every muscle in my body clamouring for a hasty retreat. What are you doing, run away, run AWAY. I’ve stopped breathing.

I squeeze my eyes shut, and I spray, almost driving the button into the canister with the force.
But it’s too late. I missed. It’s gone.

It’s in amongst the dishes on the draining board now. The clean dishes. I was going to eat my cereal out of that bowl.

Crunch. Oh Jesus.

Here it comes, out from under the tray, skittering on its hideous little legs. I spray it, bullseye this time, yes, yes, die you bastard, DIE.

The cockroach skates blithely, elegantly, through the pool of Raid. It leaps onto the tiled wall in a feat of super-cockroach agility.

What manner of creature is this? That a faceful of poison doesn’t even check its many-legged step? Can it even be killed?

They say they’ll outlive us all. These vile survivors of prehistoric deserts will forge, invincible, through the furnaces of any future hell, watching with their eyeless faces as humankind perishes, screaming, in the flames. Sparks will glance off their armoured phalanxes; they will ford the Styx itself. Nothing else will survive.

What manner of land have I stumbled into? Where such hellbeasts as this roam unchecked across countertops, in larders? It jumps off the wall again, crouches on the counter. It knows that it has won.

Not this time.

I lunge for the kitchen paper, rip off a sheet, wrap my hand in it and bring a thunderous fist, a mighty and terrible fist, down on its cringing form. Crunch, squish, BAM. And again. BAM.

An antenna spasms feebly, a leg jerks. And then all is still.

Your move, Texas.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The casino bar

The bar is empty when we get there, lit with blue lights and technicolour slot machines. Huge TV screens show identical silhouettes of a dancing naked woman (is she definitely naked, or does she have underwear on? Ah no, she's naked all right I'd say. Sure look at her. Ah there's definitely no knickers there), against a block colour background. Every so often the scene changes, to another naked silhouette, this figure gyrating enthusiastically with an electric guitar.

The guitar isn't plugged in, though, I observe. There's no silhouette of a lead. Unfortunately there is no way the naked woman is actually playing, I inform the others. They nod sagely.

You can't see someone's face, in a silhouette.

The barmaid wears a tiny sequined mini-skirt and a bondage-style leather bustier, with studs on the cups. The back of it is mostly straps. A lot of evenly-tanned skin is on display. It's 'ladies' night', so we each get a rose, handed to us by another scantily-clad barmaid. Our drinks are half-price. The men in the group are indignant.

It is poor recompense for the ongoing mass exploitation of my gender, I explain, as I consider the cocktail menu.

We pose for a photograph with our roses, brandishing them like swords, grimacing. Somebody breaks theirs in two. I shove mine into the back pocket of my jeans. It sticks up behind me like an antenna.

We ask the DJ to turn up the music. He looks at us, looks at the empty dance floor, weighs up the odds that we will attract punters. Considers my antenna rose. He doesn't turn up the music.

We go back to the bar. There are games machines built into the counter, flatscreen panels with a credit card swiper at the side. I press some buttons experimentally, waiting to be served. Most of the men in our group sit with their backs to the animations. They keep their eyes firmly on the counter as they order their drinks. What's with the studs on her boobs, somebody mutters.

The girls scrutinise the animated silhouette closely for anatomical accuracy, make crude jokes, giggle uneasily.

I'm still waiting. The barmaid laughs with a male punter. Eventually she turns to me, her studded bosom still pointed at the men, like cannon on a warship. The smile evaporates. 'What can I get ya', she states. I hesitate. She takes a step back, time is money, whaddya want. I hurriedly order a margarita, immediately wish I'd got a martini, say nothing. She slaps it down in front of me without a word, takes my money.

I wonder if my fist will fit into the tip jar. It's not that far to the door.

Later, I signal to her for a glass of water. She ignores me. I wave. She glares at me, waves her hand at me. Her fingernails have elaborate designs stencilled on them, with some kind of black and gold stripe drawn between the quick and the white. It looks like her nails are dirty. 'I know you want a drink, but there's a line,' she says. Gathers some glasses together, bashes them about. 'I have to serve all these people over here.' She gestures at the two men at the other side of the bar, who are at that moment deep in conversation. 'It's no good yelling at me.'

She turns away from me, her glittering rump an emphatic full stop.

The girls waiting to be served spin on their barstools to face me, open-mouthed with indignant delight. 'You didn't even say anything!' They withdraw from the bar, put their wallets back in their bags. We engage in some collective harrumphing, stomping righteously in a pack as far as the door. We gesticulate angrily with our roses. Where does she get off. There's just no excuse for that kind of rudeness. What a massive tart.

The drinks are half price, though, somebody reasons.

We slink back in.

Monday, 19 August 2013

An August night in Reno

The wedding chapel isn't doing much business tonight. Arch of Reno. The neon flickers. Inside, the office is strip-lit. A middle-aged man in a shirt and tie sits behind a desk, his palms flat on the surface. Motionless. A wedding portrait sits on his desk. On the wall, a prominent sign: 'No food or drink'. The glass doors are patterned with peeling heart transfers. Portraits of satisfied customers are arrayed in the display window, in black and white, some with WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE emblazoned across them in Wild West typeface. A tux is displayed for rent. 'Se habla Espanol'. A large graphic of a gold trophy sits over the door. 'Best of Nevada 2003', it says, right beside the sign for the Reno Tattoo Company. This will last forever. 

Plastic sandwich boards outside advertise special offers. 

I turn back towards the hotel. I fall into step with a man pushing a pram. He's got a wide-brimmed baseball hat on, some scrappy facial hair, pale skin. Howya doin', he says. He's young. A battery-operated stereo is nestled amidst the toys and blankets in the tray of the pram. It's blasting generic American rock. I don't recognise the band. 

We make our way across an empty car park, trailing tinny distorted guitars in our wake, skirting around a roller derby practice session. We are eyed by lycra-clad middle-aged women with neon headbands. Some are striped with war-paint.

A pink-clad one-year-old sits bolt upright in the pram, chubby hands on the bumper. Wide blue eyes, fixed on the road ahead. She turns around to look at me. I wave. She doesn't respond. I make a face. The blue eyes blink. There's a drum fill, synthesized strings come in for the chorus. The high frequencies crackle. He drums his fingers on the handle of the pram. 

'Is this your daughter?' 
'Sure is, ma'am.' 
I ask how old she is. She's one, he tells me. I wave again. No response. 
He laughs, apologetically. 'Yeah, she's got that dead stare. Sometimes she smiles, y'know, but mostly she just stares at ya.' 

She's very sweet, I say. He thanks me.

'You have a nice evening, now.' Same to you, I say, turning into the foyer of my hotel. Good night now. They continue down the street, their raucous clamour fading. The child swivels and leans out of the buggy to keep her cool blue gaze on me. I look over my shoulder.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Sky Mall

A vast array of potentially life-altering products is available for purchase on this very flight. We must be the luckiest bunch of people currently hurtling across the Atlantic in an overheated tin can. A singing toothbrush, which would play my favourite Justin Bieber hits as I brush, could be mine for a mere $14.99. It is part of the advertised collection of 'life-compatible electronics, designed to help you get things done!' All my other electronics are life-incompatible, I suddenly fear. I wonder if I have any headroom on my credit card.

The next page offers a selection of products that promise to maximise wellness. Well of course I am eager to boost my wellness by whatever means possible. Do they take me for some kind of fool? Perhaps I ought to equip myself with a handy device, designed to check for cardiac arrhythmias as I engage in strenuous activity 'on the golf course, while shopping or in front of TV'. Or I could expand the life expectancy of my dress shirt, by purchasing one with a detachable Velcro collar. It looks very smart indeed on the handsome model, who is holding his blazer by the hook at the collar, so that it is draped casually over his shoulder. He gazes sternly at the camera. A special spread of pain relievers features pictures of supine men in suits, smiling blissfully as they are pummelled and kneaded by an assortment of ergonomic plastic goods.

A beauty cream proclaims radical innovation in age-defence through the use of stem cells. Closer examination reveals the cells in question to be extracted from the stems of unspecified plants. I can't see any differences between the before and after pictures, close-ups of a woman's face. I peer closer. The after picture seems to hint at the beginnings of a moustache.

I want to read more about the stylish limited edition Coke-bottle cooler, which turns the classic Coca Cola bottle into a unique personal fridge, but a previous passenger has torn the advert out.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Baseball, blasphemy and bilious businessmen

Boarded. Tiny plane, drop-down movies in the aisle. I'm sitting next to the nun. She knows my grandmother's cousin. They're in the same order in Texas.

'Sure isn't it a small world, sister. A small world.' We shake our heads, marvelling at the smallness of the world. 'Oh, 'tis. Isn't it just. A small world.'

She's brusque. An Irish accent just about discernible under the acquired twang. Sentences are delivered in rapid fire. She'd have done well on Blackboard Jungle.

She realises she's in the wrong seat. 'I should be in in 16A.' And she's gone, like a smell of gas, bolting down the aisle without a backward glance. No, she doesn't need my help with her bags.

'Bye now, sister.' No response.

I acquaint myself with the location of my flotation device.

On the in-flight movie, American characters are saying American things, like 'bottom of the fourth', 'with all doo respect' and 'so help me God'. A baseball player gesticulates at his codpiece. Jackie hits a home run. A string orchestra erupts in soaring jubilation. Jackie nods at his coach, once, in close-up. His coach, on the distant sidelines, nods minimally in response. But really, I don't think they can actually see each other's faces. Jackie is very far away from the coach. I suppose it must have been coincidence that they both nodded at the same time, or something.

The occasional expletive is ridden over roughshod by a voiceover bleating a more acceptable alternative.
'You miserable son of a BIGOT.'
'I kicked that sucker right in the GRASS.'

My companion on the left, a businessman from Limerick who lives in Dublin (I'm still from Limerick though, I won't be supporting Dublin in the hurling or anything, Jesus no, not a chance), is pale under his tan. He was at his brother's wedding at the weekend. He spent last night in the pub, having a barbecue and a sing-song. Not feeling the best now, getting on the plane, he says, throwing his eyes up to heaven. Sure it has to be done, I say. Yerra yeah.

Was it a good sing-song? Ah it was, yeah. All my sisters play. Sure they're fierce talented altogether. Used to play myself, he says, piano and button-accordion. The cornet for a while, as well. That's a yoke a bit like a trumpet.

I say I play a bit too, bit of piano. Doing a PhD in music now. Is that so, he says. Fair play. I did music for the Leaving Cert myself. Is that right, I say. Fair play.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Paging passenger Judge

A live concertina and harp duo launches merrily into diddly-eye in Shannon airport, to cast a magical spell of Celtic charm over the departing tourists. Sallow middle-aged men in IRELAND t-shirts glance over their shoulders, impassive. They turn back to the bar, where they're sinking a last pint of Guinness before departure. It is 9am.

There is a little cardiganed woman with a slightly flattened grey perm sitting next to me, reading a prayer book. It has a gold embossed chalice on the front. She's holding the book in two hands, thumbs at the seams. Her lips are moving as she reads. A perfect image of Catholic Ireland.

A bit too perfect. I suspect she might be a tourist board plant.

The diddly-eyers have handed over to a fiddle, flute and piano. The pianist is oom-pahing energetically as the soloists skitter unsteadily through a set of reels. Bar lengths are being squeezed like accordions, beats skipped. Some fairly idiosyncratic harmonisations are emerging in the melée. He bashes out a panicked sequence of descending major triads, in an unrepentant cascade of parallel fifths. He probably thinks nobody noticed.


'Would passenger, eh, Mindy, Sha-ra-pi-ro’ - slight pause, ruffled papers, was that right PJ? Jaysus, what kind of a name is that at all? - 'please return to passenger screening.'

Why is it that American tourists are so instantly recognisable? Especially considering their ethnic diversity. Their sallow skin, maybe. Something about their posture. The moustaches and neck chains. The headwear; Irish people don't tend to wear hats. There are baseball hats, and even wide-brimmed wax hats on display here. The sensible shoes. The high-waisted jeans. The baggy shorts, the LL Bean rucksacks.

I suppose it's not so surprising after all.

'Passenger Sharapiro to passenger screening, please.' No hesitation this time. In a booth somewhere, PJ shakes his head in silent admiration. Sure we're after getting fierce cosmopolitan altogether here in Shannon.

I feel an odd desire to try to make sure the tourists enjoyed their holiday. Tug my forelock. Give them all a hug. Did you have a nice time, did you? and were they nice to you now? And did you get any souvenirs? Here, have one of my shoes.

A nun is waiting to board, four-square, indomitable. She has a sensible hold-all and a battered black handbag. Socks pulled up halfway up her nylon-sheathed calves. A cylindrical skirt. She stares resolutely into the distance, half-moon glasses hanging lopsidedly from a lanyard around her neck. The obligatory pair of standard-issue nun Eccos.

They must come as part of the uniform, like in the army. They probably make them clean them with toothbrushes, line up for inspection in the morning. The chief nun runs a gloved finger over the proffered runners, holds it up to the light. A pregnant pause. You call that clean? Ten decades of the rosary and five Hail Marys. On your knuckles.

Impossible to tell if she's Irish or American. Hard to tell with nuns anyway. An inscrutable bunch.

I always think it will be a safe flight when there's a nun on board. I will affix myself to her like a limpet if things get rough. I'll wrap my arms around her waist, eschewing the flotation device, burbling half-remembered prayers. Pray, sister, for Jaysus' sake!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

How do you pack for a year?

I must have already spent at least half an hour holding the hat, turning it over in my hands. Weighing it experimentally. Trying it on, taking it off. I can't imagine a winter's night without it.

But winter doesn't really happen in Houston.

Or so I'm told. I've never actually been myself. It's hearsay. What if they've been exaggerating? Maybe Texans just don't feel the cold like Irish people do. Or what if this winter is some kind of freak meteorological event? I imagine mercury plummeting, windows being slammed shut, news anchors shaking their heads. Windblown reporters shout into microphones, gesticulating at scenes of Arctic desolation. I cut a lonely figure, battling my way through slanting rain to the library, leaning into the gusts of wind. I clutch my collar with reddened fingers, hair plastered to my face. Cursing the decision to leave my beloved hat behind.

And what difference will it make, anyway? It's not very big; it takes up hardly any room. I could easily wedge it into a corner of the suitcase, just to be on the safe side. My cashmere scarf is fairly tidy too, the one I got in that market in Hammersmith. I love that scarf. And I might as well try to squeeze my tall black leather boots in there too. They're a cornerstone of my winter wardrobe. I couldn't possibly imagine a year without those.

Damn it, all my favourite garments are winter clothes. I won't even look like me, if I don't take them. No way am I leaving the best bits of my wardrobe behind.

But I still haven't packed any books. And I forgot about my leather jacket. It's surprisingly bulky. I spot my runners, concealed beneath a towel by the foot of the bed. I thought I had already packed those. I curse, silently. The boots come out. The scarf, too. I fold it carefully, place it back in my wardrobe.

But the hat...

How do you pack for a year?