Bernie II – A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

robot-dog

Bernie II

A Dimension Scales Christmas Tale.

By Garry Abbott.

 

‘Frisky little thing, isn’t he?’

The little Yorkshire Terrier was jumping up again at the bars of the cage, his bright green eyes shining under a fringe of curly snow white fur and his tongue flicking in and out of his dark mouth as he panted excitedly.

‘That’s up to you,’ said the engineer, sensing a sale. ‘I can adjust his docility settings if you like? Most people do, eventually.’

‘No that’s okay’ Gareth said quickly before the engineer could fish his spanner out from his tattered leather utility belt. ‘I like him just the way he is. He reminds me of my old dog Bernie, before the, you know, the thing.’

The engineer understood. His whole trade had grown from the thing that happened that one time. The thing with the animals. No one liked to talk about or remember it anymore, that’s why they only called it the thing. It was mostly unavoidable for the engineer though, having made a roaring trade from creating realistic robot pets to replace those that were lost.

‘You want me to leave him as he is then? The default is the most accurate representation of this particular breed’s average behaviour and temperament. You can always tweak it later on, it comes with all the instructions and even a little screwdriver’ the engineer said, waving his own rather large screwdriver at Gareth.

Gareth chewed on his lip. The engineer was a good salesman, with talk of settings and accessories before he’d even said he wanted it. But it was, after all, what he had come here for.

‘Just as he is please. Yes.’

***

Gareth named his new dog ‘Bernie II’ and chose to walk him home, declining the engineer’s offer to have him safely packaged in a foam lined storage crate and drone-dropped the next morning. He even fitted him with a collar and lead, ignoring the funny looks he got from passers by, some of which were being followed obediently and unleashed by their own mechanical companions. Unlike those fashionably placid automaton, Bernie II pulled at the lead, yapped at anything and everything, and even stopped a few times to eject water vapours on the occasional lamppost.

Back at home Gareth managed to dig out the old blankets and cushions that had been stashed in the loft behind the boxes that held all the Christmas decorations. It was Christmas that had made him think about going down to see the engineer in the first place. He had stood there, last December, half up the step ladder, wresting with the awkwardly stacked and sagging boxes, baubles bouncing off his head and tinsel getting up his nose, when suddenly a box pulled free and a cascade of junk came streaming after it, including a chewed up plastic food bowl that rattled to a halt on the landing below.

Almost a year to the day, he now held the same bowl in his hands and used his little screwdriver to scratch the roman numerals ‘II’ next to the embossed ‘Bernie’ that was written across the side. He set it down and filled it with the food the engineer had given him. It looked and smelled just like real dog food, and for the most part it was very similar. It had just a few extra ingredients thrown in designed to make Bernie’s digestive battery converter sparkle with energy, and keep his replaceable teeth nice and white.

As soon as he had filled the bowl and tapped the fork on the edge, little Bernie II came bounding over and began to chomp away greedily at the slimy contents. As Gareth watched Bernie II gorge himself, he heard the key turning in the lock of the front door. His wife was home.

‘What a day!’ he heard her say as he quickly shot up, closed the door to the kitchen behind him, and kicked the dog cushion out of sight behind the armchair.

As always Tina walked in to the living room dressed in her long cream coat and black scarf, dropped her handbag on the sofa, and threw her keys on the pine coffee table with a loud scratchy clatter.

‘How was your day?’ she asked as she carefully plucked the fingers of her burgundy gloves away one at a time. ‘Mine was awful. The printer wasn’t working, so no one could print any paperclips to hold all the papers together.’

‘That sounds annoying’ Gareth said with a half grimace. ‘I’ve had quite an eventful day.’

He smiled and waited for Tina to ask him what had happened, but instead she flung her gloves on top of her keys and headed past him into the kitchen before he had chance to stop her.

‘What is that!’ she yelped, amidst a chorus of even higher pitched yips from Bernie II. He had made straight for her and was attempting something biologically impossible with her shins, even if he had been a real dog.

‘That’s what I was trying to tell you’ Gareth extracted Bernie who was panting and grinning wildly. ‘I did it. I got one. Like I said. He’s a bit lively, but then, so was the other Bernie, you know, the real one.’

Tina comprehended the drooling fur ball in her husbands hands with thinly veiled disgust.

‘So what’s this one called?’ she sneered, holding her hands close to her as if the dog may bite them off at any moment.

‘Bernie II. Do you like him?’

‘Well you can sort that leg humping business out for a start’ was all Tina said before turning away and heading upstairs to get changed.

There was no point in arguing, Gareth knew, not after such an unplanned and frankly unflattering introduction. So instead he got out his little screwdriver and removed the panel behind Bernie’s neck. Before long he found how to turn the dog’s sexuality setting to ‘neutered’ and put him back together again. Gareth thought that was fair enough, the original Bernie had been ‘done’ after all, so nothing had really changed.

***

That evening, Gareth, Tina and Bernie II settled down together on the sofa to watch an old film on the flat screen. It was some farce about a mad scientist who accidentally blew up reality, and at their feet, little Bernie II lay rolled up with his eyes closed, gently wheezing with each breath.

‘He’s sleeping’ whispered Tina, craning over her drawn up legs to look down at the little bundle on the floor.

‘I know. Isn’t he sweet?’

Gareth was happy to see Tina smiling at the sight. Since that afternoon she had paid little attention to the new addition to the household, save to step over him when he got in the way.

Next Bernie started to twitch his eye lids and paws and make little whimpering sounds as he did so.

‘Chasing rabbits’ Gareth suggested, quietly.

‘Or running through…’ Tina stopped before she could finish the sentence, interrupted by what sounded like someone letting a little air out of a tightly filled balloon. ‘What was that?’

It didn’t take long before they knew exactly what that was. The smell of digested dog food mixed with battery fluid filled the room in a near an instant, and Tina’s smile soon was soon replaced by a look of shock and a wrinkled nose.

‘Good God that’s awful!’ she spat, as if the miasma had gotten into her taste buds. ‘Tell me you can switch that off?’

‘It’ll pass’ Gareth waved away her protestation, much as he waved away the dreadful odour, which was gradually diminishing.

‘I don’t care if it does!’ snapped Tina. ‘I don’t want to smell that ever again!’

Gareth went to laugh, but caught the seriousness in her eyes before he did. Instead he tried gentle persuasion.

‘But my darling, if I switch that off,’ Gareth found himself still whispering, as if Bernie may hear and take offence, ‘instead of feeding him to recharge his battery I would have to plug him in to the mains. The manual said that the, exhaust, was normal and necessary, just like a real dog.’

Tina on the other hand spoke quite loud and clearly in response.

‘But you only get the exhaust if you choose to feed him rather than plug him in?’

Gareth nodded.

‘Then plug him in. He stinks. And it will save money on food’ Tina said in a fashion that would brook no argument. She stared at Gareth until he understood that she also meant right now.

So Gareth took the sleeping Bernie out from the room in his arms, got out his little screwdriver, opened his control panel and found the ‘void’ button, being sure to hold him over a plastic bag in the back porch before he pressed it. The remnants of the digested food drained out of the system, along with a smell so foul it nearly knocked Gareth out, which made him think that maybe it was for the best to switch off the feeding mechanism. Not all dogs were smelly. The original Bernie was a little stinky, but it was hardly his best feature. He would miss the routine of feeding his new little friend and seeing him wag his tail and paw for attention when he wanted a meal, but there was still all the other stuff, all the good stuff.

***

That night Gareth decided not to plug Bernie II in as his battery was still full from the food and he didn’t want the little fellow to be restricted to just a few feet from the power point. Besides, it had always made him feel that little bit safer when he knew there was a dog downstairs, ready to bark at the first sign of an intruder.

Tina insisted that Bernie stayed downstairs, however, but Gareth didn’t mind that. When he was growing up they had never allowed the pets to come upstairs into the bedrooms, so it felt reasonable enough. He would be lying though to say it hadn’t pained him to see little Bernie’s sad eyes as they told him to wait and then closed the door on him.

It was about two in the morning when he first started to howl.

Gareth sprang out of bed. ‘I’ll go’ he said, as if there had been another option. Tina grunted and rolled over, pulling the sheets up to her ears.

When Gareth went into the living room he found Bernie sitting on his back legs in the glow of the moonlight that cast a thin monolith across the carpet.  The room was flickering with the shadows of branches dancing in the windy night. Immediately Bernie ran up and jumped into Gareth’s lap as he knelt down to pat him. He was panting so manically that Gareth was almost worried he would pant himself inside out.

Gareth tried to sooth him, and for a while Bernie at least stopped howling, even if he did still twitch and slobber. But every time Gareth tried to settle him back down and close the door, the howling began anew.

Eventually Gareth found himself stood in the doorway of the bedroom, fiddling awkwardly with the hem of his nightshirt and wondering if Tina had actually managed to get back to sleep yet.

‘What?’ she eventually murmured, without turning from her pillow.

‘He doesn’t like being alone when the wind is blowing. Can he sleep up here?’

‘No’ said Tina abruptly.

‘Then I don’t know what to do’ Gareth pleaded.

‘Turn. Him. Off!’ Tina shouted into her pillow.

‘But I don’t want to turn him off. What if there’s a burglar?’ he said, cautiously.

‘Then he can bloody well take him! Turn it off. Turn it off. TURN IT OFF!!!’ she screamed once more, this time without the pillow, her voice joining the howl of Bernie from downstairs.

Gareth actually jumped with shock at her anger. He decided in an instant that he would do as she said, at least for tonight. He thought that maybe he could train Bernie II not to howl at the wind eventually, but that for now it was better just to put him on mute.

It didn’t take long to find the volume controls once he had opened the control hatch with his little screwdriver. Bernie still yapped and panted, but now he did it in total silence, which had rather an eerie and unsettling effect on Gareth, as if it was he who had gone deaf.

But there was still a problem. Every time Gareth left the room to go back upstairs, Bernie would jump and scratch at the door. He was probably doing it before, but all they could hear was the howling. Now all they could hear was the scratching, and it was one of those sounds that the ear latches onto and makes louder and more distracting with every second that passes until you just can’t take it anymore.

Gareth tried to ignore it, but he couldn’t ignore the tossing and turning of Tina in the bed besides him. He opened his eyes briefly to see if she was just dreaming and chasing rabbits, as it were, but her eyes were very much open.

‘Are you okay?’ he asked.

Tina slowly tilted her head to meet her husband’s eyes and said calmly, and steadily:

‘No. I’m not okay. And if you don’t sort that thing out right now, not only will I smash it into tiny, weenie little pieces and give it to the rag and bone man, I will also be staying at my Mother’s until I can find a man who has more going for him in life than A DEFECTIVE ROBOT DOG!’

Taking the hint, Gareth got up and powered down Bernie II completely and placed him on his predecessors old cushion. Gareth told himself that it was okay, and that Bernie II was just sleeping like a normal, real dog. Just like back in the days before the thing that had stopped people ever having normal, real pets ever again.

But it wasn’t okay, not really, and that night Gareth went to bed more depressed than he had been for a long, long time.

***

When the morning came the wind had settled down and Gareth had almost forgotten the trials of the previous night. That was until he came downstairs in his dressing gown to find Tina as usual nursing a cup of hot coffee, and the still  deactivated Bernie dumped on the table with his lead and open bag of food stacked unceremoniously on top of him.

‘What’s this?’ Gareth asked while blinking the sleep from his eyes.

Tina had barely managed to cover up the ever increasing semi circles under her eyes, even with a heavy foundation, but still she seemed calm and poised for work. She was dressed in her black skirt, striped shirt and long cream jacket with her burgundy gloves peeking out from the pocket.

‘You’ve got nothing else to do today have you? So you may as well take it back, see if you can get your money back.’

Gareth squinted back at her.

‘By it, I take it you mean Bernie II?’

Tina nodded.

‘Why would I do that?’

Tina lost her demeanour.

‘Because it’s useless junk!’ she whipped back at him, slamming down her coffee so hard a small tidal wave leapt out from the cup and onto Bernie’s tail.

‘Watch out!’ cried Gareth as he looked around fruitlessly for a tissue and then began to wipe up the hot steaming fluid with his sleeve.

Tina watched him as he fussed and fawned over the innate piece of metal covered in synthetic fur.

‘Pathetic’ she said, shaking her head. ‘What’s the point of him?’

Gareth drew a deep breath and turned his head away from her for a moment before standing up to his full height, which when he didn’t slouch, was imposingly greater than hers.

‘The point, if you had any inkling of such things, was to try and feel like I used to back when the real Bernie was alive, back when all the pets were still alive.’

‘But it wasn’t alive, and now it doesn’t even bark, or eat, or move for that matter.’ Tina waved a dismissive hand at the lump before her.

‘Only because you told me to switch him off, piece by piece! The whole idea was to believe in him, faults and all. Real dogs made mess. Real dogs were noisy, and Real dogs sometimes smelled bad!’

Graham found himself red in the face and shouting at his wife only a few centimetres from hers unconcerned smirk.

‘And real wives,’ she said with a wicked pout, ‘tell their husbands when they are being pathetic!

Graham couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t make her see. He could never make her see. He realised that now, and knew what had to be done as he reached his hands around her throat.

‘What are you doing?’ she whimpered as his grip tightened.

‘Maybe you’re right’ he said gently to her as she struggled against the force of his hands. ‘Maybe there is no point in trying to make something that’s fake ever feel real.’

And with that he twisted his hands sharply, removed the panel from the back of his wife’s neck, and went to fetch his little screwdriver.

THE END.

 

Admin Cat! Baby Steps. VIDEO!

Admin Cat Face

A very special Admin Cat for you all. It is called ‘Baby Steps’ for more than one reason: I wanted to see if I could ‘do’ a little animation relatively quickly, and here it is. It’s hardly Disney, but it’s a start. There may be more to come, but I will also do some still cartoons eventually. So far 2015 isn’t giving me much time. But for now, sit back, relax and WATCH ADMIN CAT!

Why not visit the ADMIN CAT SHOP ?

Also, if you enjoy Admin Cat and my blog, please consider taking a look at my eBook ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ – the link is on the sidebar to view it on Amazon. It’s on LIMITED OFFER at £0.77 ($0.99)  and your purchase would help me to maintain this blog and write my next novel! I think you will enjoy it, others have! Thank you.

For more cartoons click on ADMIN CAT from the category menu on the right hand side. Please feel free to share this anywhere you like, but please use the page URL and not just the picture! Thanks!

 

Admin Cat! Christmas Special!

Admin Cat Face

This weeks Christmas Special ADMIN CAT! 24/12/2014 #60 – Why not visit the ADMIN CAT SHOP ?

Also, if you enjoy Admin Cat and my blog, please consider taking a look at my eBook ‘The Dimension Scales and Other Stories’ – the link is on the sidebar to view it on Amazon. It’s on LIMITED OFFER at £0.77 ($0.99)  and your purchase would help me to maintain this blog and write my next novel! I think you will enjoy it, others have! Thank you.

ADMIN CAT Christmas 2014 copy

For more cartoons click on ADMIN CAT from the category menu on the right hand side. Please feel free to share this anywhere you like, but please use the page URL and not just the picture! Thanks!

 

Visions of Solanaceae – Horror story.

Here’s a bonus blog for you. Definitely my last of 2013. A horror story inspired by my own experiences and spooky Christmas dramas.

Not really done scary before, so it’s a bit of a try-out. I hope you enjoy it – in a scary kind of way. (Let me know if you do!)

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Garry

sleep-paralysis

Visions of Solanaceae

By Garry Abbott

I dream of waking nightmares, for in the waking world the roads lead somewhere. There are rules. It is solid. Not so in the nightmare lived behind closed eye lids. Walls are shadows that change around you, the roads are roundabouts with no exits. Even the air can take terrible form.

How do you explain to others that your life is in peril, when that peril exists only inside of yourself and they cannot see?

‘They are just nightmares’ says the doctor. ‘Intense maybe, but still nothing more than bad dreams. Do you wake from them?’

I wake from them often, I tell him, usually to a strangled utterance as the spectre fades, burned for a moment in my retina against this or that texture: a wardrobe, a dressing gown, a bookcase. The logic of breath fills my lungs and I gasp into physics, the texture returning to inanimate safety but the nightmare waiting for me in that other place.

‘So you don’t want to go back to sleep after such an episode?’

The doctor starts tapping into his green and black screen before I even answer.

‘The biggest danger for you Mr Wilkes, is sleep loss. It is likely you are sleeping light and may be experiencing sleep apnoea – problems with your breathing – that your mind is interpreting as nightmares in order to wake you up. It is not unusual for people to stop breathing all together with this condition and wake gasping for air.’

He prescribes me sleeping tablets and a spray to help me breathe easy. A two pronged attack. One will keep the air flowing, the other will keep me from waking and, therefore, remembering my dreams throughout the night: good or bad.

That night I sit motionless on the sofa, trying to sense the artificial drowsiness as the light from the mute television highlights edges in the room. I sniff and a remnant of the bitter concoction trapped in my sinuses runs down the back of my throat. I feel tubes rather than trickles of air being pulled into me. I rest my eyes to encourage the drugs. Not here, I think – I must make it to bed. But it is too late. The faint sounds of heavy traffic on a distant road grow loud. I fancy I can tell the size and speed of each engine as they push air all the way to my ears, to my focussed mind. But they become quiet again, and for a moment I think the traffic is dying down, or I am moving farther away. Yes, that’s it. I am moving away, through a tunnel.

I wake sometime later to the flashing colours of some confusing programme on the set. Red and yellow stars flicker and contorted faces pop up on the screen. I heave myself up and stumble across the room. I run my fingers around the smooth edges of the television until I feel a click and the invasive images cease. Now the streetlights and the moon compete for illumination. They must have always been here, hidden beneath. My eyes adjust enough to pick a path to the door. My head is as heavy as it has ever been and I stand insecurely between the two worlds as if one long blink could send me back and crashing to unconsciousness. Paintings and photographs suspended on walls tip and sway under my groping hands as I guide myself through narrow eyelids to the hallway and then crawl ape-like up the stairs, through the open door of my bedroom, and slide head-first under the covers. I have made it, and I allow my eyes to close. Briefly I fear the moment to sleep has passed before my head seems to fall through the pillow and I feel it no more.

Later I again wake from black timelessness and my feet are heavy as if the drowsiness has crawled down my body to my very toes. I try to lift them but they do not respond. My eyes are still closed and I hope to shake off this waking interruption quickly so I can return to the void, but the lack of sensation concerns me. I fancy I may have crept under a pile of heavy clothes and cut off my circulation. I can’t remember if my bed was made or my bedroom tidy when I came up here. I resolve to push away whatever it is and let the blood return. I try to bend forwards, I cannot. Maybe something has fallen on me? I try to reach up with my arms but find that only my fingers twitch. With reluctant urgency my eyes open. I see nothing at all, my senses for the moment ignoring the dim light I know must be there. I focus hard on the space above my torso. In my peripheral vision the moonlight begins to paint faint blue diamonds through curtains and across walls, but above me remains dark, and then the dark moves.

There is an absent mass atop me. It is not so much a form, though a rough protuberance from the dark shroud resembles that of a head with no neck. The weight is now crushing my chest and working its way over my body to my mouth, which struggles to open or summon air. The heavy shadow is inches away from my face, though somehow its presence is wrapped all around and pierces through me. I try to scream for help with my little remaining strength of body and will. At first nothing happens, my voice is trapped and strangled, then gradually it fades in. Although I feel the vibration from my throat, I hear my voice from another place, growing to a shrieking cacophony. I close my eyes and jolt forwards.

I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The loud shriek I could hear had presumably been mine, but I find myself only incomprehensibly muttering as my senses return. The room is still lit by the television that shows images of hillsides. Besides me, on the coffee table, the discarded packaging of the sleeping tablets lay next to a drained glass of water. The spray is there also, but upon inspection I find it still sealed. I never used it; the tablets were stronger than I had accounted for and my intended actions must have formed my dreams as I unexpectedly slipped away.

To be sure of my senses I switch on the light and a familiar clarity resumes. I snap open the lid of the spray and treat myself before switching off the television with the remote. I remember at this point that there is no ‘off’ switch to be found on the unit itself. No matter how devious dreams can be there are always clues to be found. I carve myself a route of light to bed, being sure to switch on the next before the last is terminated. In this way I come to the top of the stairs and reach in through my bedroom door to flick the switch as my other hand rests on the landing light, ready to make the exchange. I press them simultaneously and something pops and fizzles. All lights go out.

The trip switches are in the basement. I don’t want to go down there. I am just a step away from sleep. I step into the dark bedroom.

It takes my eyes sometime to adjust, but adjust they do, and I marvel at how well rendered my dream of this place was before. The same tone of moonlight makes the same triangles on the same walls. The same shadows draw divisions. The bed is not made properly, and it even seems that under the sheets, the discarded clothes that I had suspected trapped me before are actually there. I reach under to extract them but my hand freezes as it meets the cold touch of a human foot. Someone is asleep in my bed.

I am suddenly and uncontrollably flooded with rage at this intruder in my real world. Without thought I crouch upon the shape under my duvet, pressing my legs against its legs and my hands around the wrists so that it cannot move. The person below the covers stirs and tries to fight the pressure. I move my knees up to its chest and I feel the ridges of ribs through the sheets. It gurgles pathetically in its throat and twitches below me. I catch the glint of a reddened eye through a slowly opening lid: the wretch is terrified. Somehow I feel I can take away its breath without the need to smother. I inhale deeply, the stimulated and widened arches of my nasal passages taking in vast swathes of air, of life, away from the room and the creature below me. All the thing can do is exhale desperately and I am there to draw the terror out, to never let it ever breathe again.

I am there, and I am here. I lean down and look closely into the diminishing eyes. They are mine. The last of the air shrieks out from my crushed self and I jolt forwards into nothing.

When I awake I find myself still on the sofa, not in bed at all. The room is lit by the glow of the mute television which shows images of nightshades. I hear noises from upstairs.

THE END.

Combat Trousers

Image

Today I want to talk about fashion. Oh if you could see me now, you’d know just how unqualified I am to do such a thing. “Why is a bearded unkempt white man in his thirties who’s wearing a generic jean and jumper combo talking to us about fashion?” you would all collectively say… but I’m going to anyway, as it wasn’t always like this.

This week I’ve finally got around to sorting out all the old toys and documents at my Mother’s house that have been stored there ever since my Brother and I left home. Stuffed into cupboards and the attic, Mum has been on at me for years to do this, and finally, out of the goodness of my heart (and the approach of Christmas without any paid work)  I’ve decided to eBay the lot.

Well, not the lot, obviously. Part of the problem with attempting this task (as I’ve done in the past) is the nostalgia. It’s like a barrage of memories, hitting you repeatedly in the mind. For example, I found an old picture of me from the late 90s and whether I liked it or not, memories flooded back about that time in my life, my hopes and dreams, my  loves won and lost, and my combat trousers.

Yes, combat trousers, the fashion item reserved for IT technicians and me when I was 17. I’m not sure exactly what it is that qualifies them as ‘combat’ trousers. Certainly they resemble the style of regular army trousers (not territorial army trousers, oh no, they are completely different), but by the token of not actually being worn by someone in the actual army, can they really be referred to as ‘combat’ trousers?

I mean, they’re not like guns for example, with their own latent destructive force no matter who wields them. Even in untrained hands a gun is dangerous, perhaps more dangerous. Combat trousers however are no more deadly on the legs of a trained soldier than they are on the legs of a trained Sandwich artist.

Unless that is, all it takes for something to be classified as ‘combat ready’ is the addition of multiple buttoned pockets, several unnecessary tightening straps, and being a shade of green, in which case most subscribers of Country Life must be heading to war each time they go out for a ramble.

Or maybe I’m mistaken? Maybe they do have a latent destructive force in and of themselves that I’m not aware of? For all the years I wore them, maybe I just never stumbled on the right combination to unlock the devastating forces trapped within? Yes I said it, the devastating forces trapped within my trousers.

Perhaps, who knows, the zip down, left pocket inverted, shin pockets closed from left to right and ankle straps simultaneously clicked together and BOOM!.. They’ve turned in to a bazooka. Brilliant! Or instead, zip up, top button undone, all pockets open and the inner back pocket sealed and POW!.. They become a tank. Or better still, zip down, top button undone, pulled down to ankles and KAPOW!.. Inhumane treatment of prisoners of war during an illegal invasion.

There’s another possibility though. What if the ‘combat’ label of these trousers does not relate to human affairs at all, and actually stems from some ancient trouser civil war, when a previously peaceful and pacifistic group of trousers had an argument with some denim? The introduction of seemingly extraneous pockets and straps eventually ostracising the new breed of trousers from their kin, leading them to be shunned and mistrusted by the likes of the corduroy and the tracksuit? They had no choice but to fight for their place on the mannequin of life, and having succeeded in their vengeful and bloody liberation, they forever now carry the legend of ‘combat’ with them?

I might be over speculating. But clothes can and do carry with them anxieties, otherwise we wouldn’t have a fashion industry designed to magnify those anxieties and sell us the tailored antidotes. Nowadays for instance, I sometimes wear one of those old-style German army shirts when I perform on stage with my band, but even that causes me trouble.

I stand there, singing into the microphone, playing my guitar, wearing my long green, shoulder strapped shirt with a small German flag stitched to the upper arm, and being blonde haired and blue eyed, I think to myself ‘I wonder if anyone here thinks I’m German?’. Then I dismiss that thought, as I launch into another powerful verse of socially astute lyrical rampage, I dismiss that thought thinking, ‘well I’m not talking or singing with a German accent’ and carry on. But then, as my band reaches the intricate, driving, catchy yet subversive and melodically enlightening middle eight of our latest masterpiece, I think, ‘but that makes it worse, maybe they think I’m a German with a back-story? Maybe they think I’m half German?’

As we launch into our rousing finale, I start to wonder, ‘but what if they’re also thinking that if I’m simply half German, they should have detected but the slightest hint of an accent from the influence of my German parent? So, maybe, they think, he’s the love child of an absentee German father whom he has never met, and his abandonment issues and desire to reconnect with his German background, despite the pleas of his Mother (who holds some dark secret no doubt), are reflected in his choice of attire and attitudes to life? Putting himself on stage, wearing a German jacket, without a discernible German accent, as if to say… I am searching for my German-ness! I want to reconnect with my mainland heritage! Help me! Help me!’.

So I’m thinking all this as we finish taking our audience through a half hour of musical arousal, leaving an indelible memory of a unique yet ultimately marketable blend of rock-punk, foot-tapping commentary on modern life, and I exit the stage. There, waiting for me, is a beautiful, starry eyed girl. She flicks her hair teasingly over her shoulder, strokes the tricolour flag on my shirt softly and smiles before asking me, “Are you German?”, to which I reply, “No. I bought it in a charity shop.”  And she leaves, which is fine, because I’m not single anyway or a character from a sit-com who feels they have to weave an increasingly complex web of lies in order to try and impress a series of flaky and mono-dimensional potential mates. My imagined German past remains just that and my clothes anxiety is dissipated by the brutal realism that the three people my band just played to are only there due to a contractual obligation with the establishment we just performed in.

But then, there was a time when I was single and something similar happened. It was at a festival. I was wearing a red t-shirt with a yellow star in the middle. A gorgeous girl walked over to me, randomly out of the crowd, twiddled her beaded hair in her fingers, looked up at me with big brown eyes, pointed to my t-shirt and asked, “Have you been to Vietnam?”, and I looked back at her, held her in my gaze, and with a knowing smile I said, “No. I bought it from a charity shop”. She quickly walked away back into the crowd. And you know why? Because I’m not a sit-com character with truth issues willing to propel myself into inextricable depths of deceit in order to obtain sex, employment or perpetuate an amusing situation in such an obvious and formulaic way that would interest the commissioners of BBC3 or apparently any other independent production houses.

But then, as I lost sight of the girl in the massive crowd, I found high ground, inverted my right pocket, strapped in my left ankle strap, unzipped my fly and POW!.. My combat trousers turned into a powerful set of binoculars, and I was able to locate the girl with the beads in her hair, and explain to her that although I hadn’t been to Vietnam, I was the love child of an absentee German father, but was wearing the wrong shirt. She felt sympathy for me, and we talked for hours under the moonlight, and if it hadn’t have been for the fact that I was now wearing no trousers, and my tale of German abandonment jarred with my pointless Vietnam referencing t-shirt, I may even have got somewhere. But I didn’t. Because in the end, I found, I was a character in a sit-com, and characters in sit-coms rarely get what they want, trapped forever in farcical and descending spirals of dishonesty, destined to live episodically from one half hourly predictable outcome to the next.

And then, the credits rolled, and that was my story about fashion.

Pride and realism do not have to be mutually exclusive.

This week my home town, Stoke-on-Trent, had the rather dubious honour of sliding in at number 10 in  a poll of the countries ‘crap towns’ – as voted for, well it seems, as voted for by the whims of the misguided writers.

I say this because, I know that Stoke-on-Trent has its problems, like all the other locations mentioned, but it also has its positives, its aspirations, and what else? Oh yeah, it’s full of actual real, living people who rely on the image of the town to attract business investment, create jobs, and so enable them to earn a living. (over half a million people, swept aside in one picture of one part of Hanley, one small part of a bigger whole)

So when these writers talk about towns, I’m sure they purely mean the bricks & mortar, the traffic planning, the lack of services and the economic outlook. I’m sure they intend those of us who live there to pick up the book and laugh heartily to ourselves as we agree, “Oh yes! This is so true! I do live in a crap town! If only it wasn’t so crap, but look at just how crap it is! Thanks Mr Author living in Oxford for your portrayal of my home to the rest of the country – thus further entrenching the idea in people’s minds that where I live, where my family and friends live, work and love, is just crap! We must be idiots to live here, mustn’t we?”

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but then, I have a peer group of people who’ve not only carved out their livings from Stoke-on-Trent, but are actively trying to make the place better through their work. It’s not easy, the easy thing would be for us to all move away and forget where we come from, and never mention it again, but we don’t. Even those I know who have left the area, have strong roots here, return here, support each other and have love for the place. So this book just smacks of pissy negativity that really doesn’t help anyone (other than the authors to make a few coins).

It’s not even like we don’t know that elements of Stoke leave a little to be desired, but then, we live here, so I think it’s okay really for us to say that. I will happily discuss how I think the 6 towns (do the writers know that Stoke in actually six towns?) are not working as a connected whole, and how the City itself seems to be getting surrounded by business parks, resembling a small village of indomitable Stokies, surrounded by the forces of Tesco. I understand that we have been beset by council failings, corruption, starved funding from the South (which makes books like this from Oxford writers even more bitter), closed shops and over-grown brown spaces.  We have some bad areas and some bad people. But this is not it! This is, just like everywhere in the world, something we are trying to resolve, trying to overcome, against the odds of a central government who seeks to starve out opposition politics by slashing funding. Christ, at one point they even wanted to dump London’s poor on us!

So, I imagine the natural response from the writers of this book, this ‘poll’, would be that it is ‘just a bit of fun’, and we can’t deny them that in a world of free speech. It’s just a shame that some people, given the freedom afforded to us from thousands of years of human evolution, the rise and fall of civilizations, at the very pinnacle of human existence and understanding, choose to use that honour to go round slagging off other people’s towns for a quick profit. You’d just think they might have something better to do with their time, talent and obvious connections in the media.

Hark at me! Trying to appeal for positivity in the world. How very droll. I re-read this and I can almost feel the sniggers should the authors of the poll stumble upon this humble blog. My reaction will have justified their tease. But you know, if you don’t stick up for your own town, who will?!  Who knows, maybe the writers are actually really clever social scientists, using this publication as a rallying call for the areas represented to rise to the challenge – maybe I am falling into their devious, yet ultimately positive, trap? I don’t think so somehow, but then, if it has that affect, then who cares if they intended it?

It shouldn’t matter though, I hardly think “Top ten crap towns” will go down in history as one of the literary greats, rather something someone else buys you for Christmas and you half-read while having a shit, basically. Aim high guys. Aim high! Thanks for the publicity.