Monday, 17 May 2010

five : glass half full

I LOOK AT the guy holding my passport, he looks at me, I look at him, he looks at my passport and I think to myself that customs guys are a lot like assassins.

The job of a customs officer is to sit in a booth and, for queues and queues of people, look at their passports to determine if who their passport says they are is, in fact, who they actually are. And why's his job like mine?

It's a necessary part of humanity's existence but only complete psychos actually enjoy doing it.

“According to my girlfriend,” I say, “that picture of me looks like a young Harrison Ford.”

The guy, like all those in his profession, has no sense of humour. He gives me back my passport and looks past me to the next person in the queue.

“Welcome to the country,” somehow the words come from his mouth without him actually saying them. I take the cue and move along.

“Will you come on?” Emily says, picking up her hand luggage now that I've finally finished my effervescent exchange of witty repartee with the passport guy, “I want to get to the baggage claim before everyone else gets there and stands in front of the conveyor belt and blocks us off.”

“Have you ever considered,” I say, almost jogging to keep up with my impatient fiancée, “that it's that precise attitude that actually causes people to stand in front of the conveyor belt and block people off? If everyone actually stood behind the damn line like they're supposed to-”

“Look, if I don't do it, someone else will. Excuse me please.”

I dodge the frail granny that my sweet English maiden just barged past. I dodge several other people off our plane that natural selection says will not be at the front of the baggage claim herd.

I consider arguing some more. I consider mentioning that if you manage to actually get to the front of the crowd and find yourself literally kneeling on the baggage belt that your bag doesn't come down the chute any faster. That, in fact, you have to put up with people constantly pushing you out the way so they can grab their bags as they go past. I consider saying all this and more but then I remember, I don't actually give a shit about any of it. The only reason I feel like arguing with my fiancée is because I'm about to meet her parents again. And nothing puts me in a bad mood faster than that.

The first time I met the Colemans, the entire clan was out in force. It was Emily's great Uncle Arnold's birthday - I think he was about two hundred and something. It had been my first visit back to England in about three years. Six years if you don't count the trips where I killed someone.

Emily's parents live in a big, old converted farmhouse in the countryside on the outskirts of Nottingham, north end, in a nice little village called Epperstone. Very respectable. Filled with nice people, far as I can tell. So how that cantankerous old bastard and his harpy of a wife managed to make themselves a pillar of the community, I have no idea.

But I get ahead of myself.

The house and grounds were pretty impressive. Old, renovated main building with several smaller outhouses where guests usually stayed. Big, expansive spread of land that used to yield potatoes, apparently. Now it yielded a clay pigeon shooting range, a quad biking area, a couple swimming pools and a big-ass warehouse. According to Emily, her Dad was a self-made import/export magnate. (I ignored the fact that most people who described their occupation as import/export were actually criminals).

Apparently, he'd wanted to pass the business onto Emily. She was so interested in that idea that she became a lawyer and moved to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. With no other kids, what he was going to do with Guardian Shipping was anyone's guess. Leaving it to the grandkids is out of the question. Why? Because he'll never have any. Why?

I'll tell you why.

Because as soon as Fraser Coleman looked at me on that mild August evening nearly a year ago, and as 'Bob the Builder' played out of a stereo system that cost more than Bob made in a year, I knew he was never going to like me or any other man his daughter brought home. In fact, I got the distinct impression that he'd rather kill any boyfriend of Emily's rather than entertain the fact she'd actually had sex with them.

“Michael,” was all he said to me after Emily introduced us. All around us, various members of the Coleman tribe were talking, drinking, eating - one or two enterprising (drunk) individuals were even dancing.

“Good to meet you, sir,” I said, humble to the last.

“And what do you do for a crust, Michael?”

“I run an insurance company based out of Manhattan.”


“We do okay,” I shrugged lightly.

“Is this your first trip to England? I suppose you're finding everything rather smaller and less fattening than you're used to.”

“Actually, Dad, Mike's originally from England.”

“Oh, really?”

This is the stock response I always get from English people when they realise the yank they're talking to used to be normal like them. It's kind of like telling people your left arm is actually a prosthetic replacement for the one you lost in an industrial accident. They're surprised. Then shocked. Then, they kind of pity you.

“What made you go over there then?” Fraser jerked his head to his left, as if America was about six yards beyond the edge of the marquee.

“Dad, I'm sure Mike doesn't want to -”

“My folks died, so I was sent to live with my Uncle. Then he died. I ended up in care.”

“At least you had the good sense to avail yourself of the American welfare state rather than ours.”


“All I'm saying is they've got the money to spare. Over here, he'd have been shoved in with some family on a council estate and probably grown up to be a not very good car thief. On the other hand,” he said, taking a sip of his sherry, “at least he wouldn't have had to live in America. All swings and roundabouts, I suppose.”

“I can certainly say I didn't grow up to be a not very good car thief,” I cast a sidelong half-smile at a fuming Emily to re-assure her I wasn't offended by her father. He was clearly trying to get a rise out of me. Behind us, some guests wandered past trying to figure out, none too quietly, which one great Uncle Arnold actually was.

“You into football, Michael? Proper football, not American Football,” the wild Fraser ride took me in a new direction.

“I follow a couple teams, nothing too serious.”

“I suppose you're more into American Football.”

“We just call it Football.”

“Well we call it American Football. Best you do the same or else you'll end up confusing folk.”

“I'm actually not into it too much. Watched the Superbowl once.”

“Are you into any sport?”

“Not really.”

“A man should be into sport. I used to play rugby and football when I was young man. Trains the mind to be more competitive. Men who aren't into a sport, I can't really understand how they think.”

“Mike, tell Dad about the book you're reading at the moment,” Emily clearly didn't feel things were going too well. Our ace in the hole was supposed to be kept for when needed - it was apparently needed after less than two minutes.

“Oh? What are you reading, Michael?”

“He's reading 'The Invisible Man' aren't you?”

I nodded, a thin smile crossing my lips. I was reading it because Emily had told me it was her father's favourite book. Apparently, it'd give us stuff to talk about.

“Did you understand it?” he asked.

“I haven't finished it yet,” I said, not really sure I got what he was asking me.

“What have you made of it so far?”

“It's very interesting.”

“Got enough car chases and explosions for you? Kevin Bacon was born for the role, don't you think? Nothing like a Hollywood movie to piss all over a great piece of literary fiction.”

And now, I was being blamed for 'The Hollow Man'.

“This is a lovely house, Mr. Coleman,” I decided to try and take control of the ride myself, “It must be worth some serious money, what with house prices so inflated right now.”

“Well, seeing as I don't intend on selling it, I don't see how its value is particularly relevant.”


“I built Guardian Shipping up with my two hands, Michael. And this house is an expression of years of hard work. On top of that, my wife and daughter mean the world to me,” he put a protective arm around Emily, “An Englishman's home is his castle, have you heard that phrase?”

“Yes, sir, I have.”

“Well, this is my castle. And I'm very protective of it. People don't just wander in and automatically take their place at my table, they have to earn the right to do so.”

I decided that if he mentioned a 'circle of trust', I was going to shoot him right then and there.

“Enjoy the party, Michael. Excuse me while I catch up with my daughter. I don't really like the fact she lives in America but at least when she comes home, I get plenty of amusing stories. Glass half full and all that.”

As I watched Fraser Coleman wander away with Emily and, while talking to her, crack a smile for the first time, I suddenly realised we hadn't even so much as shook hands.

Six months later, Emily and I decided we were going to get married. We decided to fly back to England to tell Emily's parents in person. We decided we were going to have the wedding in their neck of the woods to make them feel more involved.

I decided I was going to start taking valium.

I suddenly realise I'm shoving my bags pretty hard into the trunk of the rental, a black BMW. I have to calm down. This wedding's going to be stressful enough without me letting myself get cranked up by Fraser Coleman, Lord and Master of Coleman Castle. I shut the trunk - sorry, the boot - and get into the driver's side.

“Are you sure you're alright to drive?” Emily asks, “Do you want me to?”

“No, I'm good, Em, really. Besides, I'd rather let your bloodlust die down to normal levels after the carnage you just left behind at that conveyor belt. Letting you loose on the good people of the M42 would probably see this country's first Road Rage Massacre.”

“Hey, don't worry about me,” she smiles, “If you let emotion rule you at baggage claim, you're asking for failure. That was business, pure and simple. It's already forgotten. As far as I'm concerned, that man's foot broke itself.”

It's moments like this that I'm thinking this woman's probably more on my wavelength than I realise. I reach for the gear stick but she takes my hand first. I look at her.

“It's going to go fine,” she smiles at me and I remember how much I love her. Then she's suddenly all serious, “You've got your valium, haven't you?”

“Get off me!”

I whip my hand away and we both laugh. I savour the laugh and hold onto the feeling because I know it's the last time I'll be doing it for the next seven days.

Ah well, I think to myself as we pull out of the rental car park and begin to negotiate our way out of Manchester Airport, I may be getting married this week, but at least I've got someone to kill.

Glass half full and all that.