Merchants in Houston - Chapter 9

Easter Greetings from a gloriously warm and sunny Bayou City!

Yes, April has busted out all over in Houston - fuchsias, azaleas, hibiscus, fire ant nests and cars inches deep in pine tree pollen. Spring is officially here with the hour change this Saturday (so we maintain our 6 hour time difference with the UK). It is 86 degrees and a cloudless azure sky at the time of writing (4.45 pm) and I've dragged myself away from the pool and the newly reactivated mozzies (3 bites to the neck) to slave over a hot computer. Actually the house is unnaturally quiet - Brian is doing something exterminatory in the front yard - cos we are "home alone" for really the first time since moving to Royal Crest Court. Daughter No. 3 was duly dispatched to the UK yesterday afternoon and is now reunited with her sisters in Brighton. Note the plural please. Following her 11th hour return from sunny California, The Bolter has decided to forsake the dark and gloomy Metropolis for "London by the Sea" and a summer term of supply teaching while Daughter Number 2 is combining office temping with 2 voluntary positions which may or may not lead to a change of career path. Daughter Number 3 returns to Middletown on 5th April to spend the rest of the month with Boyfriend Number 3. Typically, after weeks of not seeming to be getting very far on the Open Mic circuit, in the last 10 days she has been approached by 2 agencies (not record companies) keen to promote her music, offered a spot at the Anderson Fair, a prestigious Downtown singer/songwriter showcase and featured as a guest DJ on local radio. Some of these opportunities arose from our most recent visit to the legendary McGonigel's Mucky Duck which, although successful for our resident songstress proved to be one of the most surreal experiences of the live music scene in Houston to date. I do wish you could have been there to enjoy it with us and I hope I can give you a flavour of what went on.

As you may recall from an earlier instalment, The Mucky Duck is an Irish Pub tucked away in a secret Downtown backwater between Richmond and the 59 known only to the cognoscenti and a couple of insanely persistent ex pats. The interior is dim; walls lined with (mock) bookshelves and fishing prints while a large number of dark wood chairs and tables cluster round a corner stage. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly and the menu offers some really rather good old British nosh like fish n'chips, shepherd's pie, bread and butter pud and, of course, Guinness (providing you don't mind a 3" head), Newcastle Broon and (my favourite medicinal tipple) Harvey's Bristol Cream. Monday is Open Mic night, commencing at 8 o'clock and preceded by an hour or so of the very accomplished house band featuring the lugubrious John Thomas on vocals. The event is hosted by one Wade Wolverson (Buddy Holly glasse, Hawaiian shirt) who joins the band around 7 pm and whose arrival heralds the release of THE LIST. I really cannot over stress the importance of this event. From about 6.30 pm onwards a steadily increasing, motley crew (mainly male of a certain age) starts circling around Wade's sound desk awaiting their chance to sign up for 15 minutes of fame (or 3 songs, which ever is the shorter). If you're not amongst the first 8 to sign up you might as well throw in the towel or resign yourself to a very long night indeed and it is to Number 3's great credit that she has risen to this challenge on many occasions and, traffic permitting, rarely signed up outside the first 10. On this particular evening she had secured 6th position and, as we tucked in to sherry trifle and apple crumble, was able to give us the run down on those who would precede her. First up, Poetry Girl. Groans from Brian who has developed an almost pathological dislike of this poor creature ever since, on one of our early forays to the Duck, he mistook the sheet of paper she was jealously clutching to her non-existent bosom for THE LIST and lunged at her, company ballpoint at the ready, with unpleasant and embarrassing consequences to both parties. Actually, ever since this unfortunate incident (and I'm sure this is just a coincidence) she has elected to have her (same) 3 poems read for her by her ageing hippy boyfriend (unkempt beard, holy jumper, Jesus sandals) to politely nonplussed applause after which they walk out smugly hand in hand without deigning to listen to any other contributors. I have tried to like her poems, especially as one is about 2 cats, (on further reflection possibly a metaphor for sibling rivalry) but hey, what can I say? Some things don't improve with repetition. Act number 2 was, for a change, a lady, well female anyway by the name of Kathleen Lily- pretty name, shame about just about everything else. Suffice it to say that she came very close to replacing Poetry Girl as Brian's very favourite Mucky Duck "bete noire" and if she had been only a little less in tune and a little more raucous he would probably have overstepped the bounds of his visa by a very large margin indeed.

Next up: a husband and wife duo. She (Trudie) rotund, blond, Texan with flute; he (Marvin) lanky, dark, Norwegian with keyboard. Not the most promising combination but they started well enough with another original composition (a paean to Marcel from his adoring spouse) sung in Trudie's off key but not unattractive contralto. But you know that over-worked phrase about a false sense of security? Well now it was the turn of Elton ("Someone saved my life tonight") John to be dismembered but nothing (Nothing!) could have prepared us for their parting shot. Despite proudly informing us that, during his recent audition for "American Idol" he had been dared by Simon Cowell (no less) ever to open his mouth in public again, Marvin announced his intention to serenade us with a little Irish, or possibly Scottish, traditional song. Now what would you anticipate might be coming? "Danny Boy", perhaps, or, God forbid, Chris de Burgh or maybe "The Sky Boat Song" or a duet from the Stewart dynasty, Andy and Moira, of BBC TV's 1960's Hogmanay coverage or even a little something from the back catalogue of their secret love child, Rod? Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG! It was quite unbelievably that winsome little ditty which first issued from the tremulous lips of the very Welsh Mary Hopkin circa 1971, "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end......" You said it, Marvin! And on we go to a rather endearing little guy with a double barrelled name which now escapes me who, quite successfully I thought, mixed stand up comedy with a couple of cheery guitar tunes. In fact, so exhausted and befuddled was I by the night's offerings so far (and a couple more very necessary glasses of Eagle Creek) I even found myself laughing out loud at a joke involving a cat in a blender! At this point Wade bestirred himself from his customary Guinness-induced languor, readjusted his specs and rose majestically from the control tower to show our friend the red card, not so much as a sign of solidarity with the local feline population but in response to rather too much invocation of the "f" word, McGonigel's priding itself on being a "family establishment". But it's an ill wind and with the comedy routine cut short, it was time for the lovely ("You're looking very hot tonight") Miss Merchant Mark 3 And, even allowing for maternal bias, she was great, receiving tumultuous applause, many handshakes and pats on the back and even an anonymous billet-doux slipped into her guitar case, prompting the deathless response from Mine Host, "Oh, y'all should've been here last week; it was smokin'!" Exeunt Merchants stage left, weeping.

So what else is new? Daughter Number 3 and I had a great girls' day out last week. I get a real buzz out of driving Downtown here (but still wouldn't want to attempt it in London or even Birmingham) and have even come to terms with (most) of the freeways. Via the 249, Beltway 8, 290 and 610 Loop we drove along San Felipe Drive in upmarket River Oaks and into trendy Montrose, stopping at the Empire Café on Westheimer for an al fresco lunch and browse in the Flea markets then on to the Museum District and finally dinner with Brian at the River Café- one of the best meals we've ever had in Houston which is saying something. Sadly, despite besting my Beloved in a minor skirmish regarding the best route to aforementioned restaurant, I am currently forced to defer to my husband on all matters automotive and navigational as he is now the proud owner of a Texas driving licence (first attempt) and I have still to take my test, preferably before the end of the month. Trouble is, now that the Mountaineer and I have conquered the highways of Houston, my interest in learning at what age I can legally be left in charge of a motorised agricultural implement is minimal to say the least.

I am greatly enjoying my ESL teaching with new students, Tanya from Turkmenistan and Marta from El Salvador. Both are quite delightful although of very different temperaments, Marta being something of a clown and Tanya rather more reserved. Fortunately they get on very well with one another with only a little rivalry over who knows the most English and, thankfully, are very pleased to have me as their teacher, not least I suspect, because they feel they are getting the "real deal" ie a bona fide English woman and not a native Texan of whose mangled pronunciation of the English language they are, interestingly, both highly critical. They are also very intelligent and keep me on my toes. I initially understood Marta to have been a wedding planner in El Salvador but now it seems that was only a side line and she was actually a secondary school teacher and part-time university student while back in the USSR Tanya was an emergency pediatric (Am. spelling!) nurse. Many, many years ago, back in the Lower 6th at my North Eastern Alma Mater, I elected to study Russian to O level in one year. The reason for this is now lost in the mists of time but I think it had something to do with avoiding a dismal Wednesday afternoon trek to the Sport Centre at Wallsend for an indifferent game of badminton or similarly disagreeable activity. Had I realised then that there might have been even an outside chance of bumping into one Gordon Sumner Esq it might have been a different story! Anyway, my additional studies were not entirely wasted as I did manage to (barely) scrape a pass in the exam alongside Francis Kubrik, an inveterate swot with a Russian grandfather and therefore deemed to benefit from an unfair genetic advantage. Of course, I can now remember virtually nothing of the Russian language except the odd phrase which I couldn't resist trying out on Tanya (Hello, my name is Angela, thank you and goodbye!) with the unfortunate result that when stuck for an English word she now gives it me in Russian and sits back expectantly. My intuitive and improvisation skills have improved no end! However, I did spend time the other night with my ancient (and oh so small) Collins Russian Gem Dictionary and two pairs of specs (the second employed as a magnifying glass) trying to remember how to write "very good" on Tanya's homework (Yesterday I went shopping and I bought....). Improbably, my Cyrillic script seems to be rather better than my Roman and I got away with only one tiny correction while (inadvertently, you understand) misspelling two English words on the white board. T'was ever thus....

On Monday night our right hand neighbours kindly invited us to share their season tickets to The (Basketball) Game, Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves, at the Toyota Stadium. It was great fun; an electric atmosphere culminating in a victory for the Wolves by only one point in the final minute. This could definitely become my (spectator) sport of choice; lots of action, great characters (not least the Rocket's recent signing, 7' 6" Chinese Yao Ming) and excellent half time entertainment - incredibly fit, scantily clad Cheerleaders for Him and Clutch (the very cute half bear, half mouse Rockets' mascot who rides round the court on a uni cycle lobbing T shirts and other goodies into the crowd) for Me.

I have also been working hard to beautify the back yard - the first time I have been blinded by the sweat of my own brow or almost killed by a hanging basket the awkward watering of which caused me to fall backwards onto concrete, by some miracle missing the glass topped patio table, and rendering me the victim not only of acute shock and a severely bruised coccyx but also, in a rare role reversal, of an "I told you so" lecture from my concerned husband, who, having ascertained that I still had feeling in my nether regions, left me sprawled outside the back door while he returned to more pressing business ie the modification of our daughter's website.

And so on to Easter, not such a big deal holiday-wise here. I think the schools only have one day off but then they break up for three months in mid May. You could go to town on garden decorations if you were so inclined but we're not planning any motorised or illuminated Easter bunnies although I may add a few (artificial) eggs to my front door Springtime wreath. Of course we also have the "significant" double birthdays to look forward to which we plan to mark with "a bit of a do" at the house on the evening of Good Friday (wish you were here) followed by a week of R&R in Cancun. After almost 8 months in Memorial Northwest I admit I am looking forward to a change of scene (and hopefully the chance to swim with Dolphins for which I have been practising with the help of the ever obliging Polaris). Actually we could do worse than stay in our own back yard. The pool is beautiful if still a little bracing but, to the total incomprehension of Brian, who insists on making a pathetic song and dance about getting so much as his big toe wet, I just can't resist that childhood thrill of being the first person in an expanse of sparkling blue water. This is one aspect of our life in Houston of which I can safely say I don't think I will ever tire.

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