Thursday, 25 August 2011

Benidorm (Featuring An Idiot From Thatto Heath)

"What time is it, Stephen?"

"Quarter to nine."

Sunday. Breakfast is on between 7.00 and 10.00 so as we drag our weary, slightly hung over arses out of bed we reckon we have just over an hour to get some food down us before heading to the beach.

Except we don't. At some point while I am in the bathroom (having carefully closed the door so that it might have half a chance of re-opening) the realisation hits me that I have forgotten to put the clock forward on my mobile phone. It was certainly 8.45 in Manchester, but here in Benidrom it was most definitely 9.45. Despite my extra care with the door, we have missed breakfast.

So, the beach it is. A day before the flight, and remembering that the plan while here was to do as much of nothing as possible, I spent an unreasonable amount of money in the Waterstones in Liverpool. Usually I can just wave a gift card around in the likes of Waterstones and WH Smiths. So predictably dull am I that if ever anyone bothers to ask what I might like for a birthday or for Christmas, there is a 90-odd% chance that I will suggest a voucher for a book store. That's not a hint. Nothing I say is a hint, unless you're going to do it.

Anyway somehow I was as good as voucher-less (there was actually about £3-something on my last Waterstones card) when I bought ANOTHER Grisham novel, YET ANOTHER Bill Bryson tome, and one by an author entirely new to me called Jeremy Dyson. I'm trying to broaden my horizons. Or something. I remember wondering how I could have arrived at the point where I needed actual English currency to obtain books in Waterstones, and then I looked into my wallet and found a gift card for HMV that had been there for over a year, and one for Gamestation which may very well pre-date the original version of the Atari.

So where were we? The beach. I'm not good with sand or water so what am I doing here? Correction. The wheelchair is not good with sand or water so what is it doing here? I'm stuck with it, but fortunately there is enough of a wooden ramp to help me get within jumping distance of a pair of loungers and a parasol. Beaches all seem to have those ramps with grooves in which jolt you each time a wheel hits one. I don't know whether it is meant to slow you down so that you don't mow down a passing toddler, but whatever the reason it makes it more awkward. Awkward is the beach's middle name.

We pay 12 Euros for the privilege of lounging around all day in that spot. An old man who knows almost no English other than to ask for money (my Dad used to say that about me and my sister) walks by and collects a small fortune. It's quite busy here, but thankfully everyone seems to have the same idea as us (i.e. to do nothing except maybe read) so we are not disturbed until one of the old man's colleagues, similarly challenged with her English, walks by to check that we have indeed purchased tickets enabling us to do nothing.

Somewhere in the middle of Bryson's first chapter a drinks vendor wanders by. His English is slightly better than that of the man selling loungers and parasols. Aswell as asking you for money, the drinks vendor knows how to shout the names of beverages at you very loudly;

"Coca-Cola, lemon (suspiciously pronounced limon but we'll let him have it), Fanta, beer!" he booms at regular intervals, scouring the beach for someone who might be interested. There is a huge supermarket not two minutes walk from where we are yet he does a roaring trade. Such is the nature of people, they will pay more for their drinks if it means they can have them brought to them by loud, pushy blokes rather than have to cross the street just off the beach.

One particular set of customers are winding our drinks vendor up somehow. They've asked for something that our man hasn't got and it's prompted a bit of a tantrum. He storms off to get the right drink for his bemused customers and as he goes about completing the transaction, he begins throwing items of his belonging to different parts of the beach. One such missile gives a fright to a pair of sunbathing girls nearby, while another lands on the lounger of his customers as he fannies around in his bag, probably looking for the requisite change. The woman buying the drink is not put off by this. There is no way that she is walking the two minutes over the road don't forget, so she calmly picks up his discarded goods and hands them back to him. He walks on grumpily.

In terms of causing a disturbance he's nothing compared to the vendor we encountered on the beach in Alcudia. Every day the same chubby, middle-aged lady would patrol the area trying to sell her liquid refreshment in the same aggressive manner. And her English was worse;

"Melon and melon and melon and a melon and Co-Co!" she would bellow, which we presumed to mean she had some Coke somewhere on her person which might be for sale. We dared not ask. This was a very scary woman. I swear one afternoon I had drifted off to sleep (nursing another hangover, no doubt) and her overly-enthusiastic brand of salesmanship actually woke me up. We lay at different parts of the beach on different days, but there was no escape from her town cryer act.

Back in Benidorm it is time for lunch. Having missed breakfast this is the first chance we get to visit our restaurant. We're full board and at a fairly hefty price too I might add, so it would be nice if there were something palatable on offer. Even better if the service was something approaching acceptable. We wait to be seated and are greeted by a short, balding man we assume to be the manager. Head waiter at least. There is something slightly sinister about him. He reminds Emma of an actor she has seen in films playing eastern European characters. I can confirm that he does. Google Peter Stormare and you will get some idea of what greeted us every meal time.

Lunch is more cheese and ham related products and while Emma has gone back to the buffet for something or other I notice our movie villain head waiter has a slight quirk upon greeting some of his dining guests. A couple walk in and he smiles at them happily, turns to the gentleman and says;

'Ello sirrrrrrrr'

.......before switching his gaze and coming out with the quite brilliantly inappropriate....

"Ello lovvvvvv"

He's calling him 'sir' and her 'love'. What's more he is doing it in a such a way that the botched pronounciation only accentuates the faux pas. Or whatever the Spanish is. I have no idea which customer service courses he has been on. Later that day, one of the waitresses manages to top up Emma's glass of Diet Coke with half a glass of regular Coke. She hasn't even asked for a top-up. In fact, she has declined the offer.

Back at the hotel bar in the evening the live music is getting worse. Comparisons to Raw Sex are entirely superflous at this point but that is as best a description I can offer you of the type of entertainment on offer. A very old man bashes away at his organ (oh, really) while half a handful of people scarcely notice. The white-haired grape-face from last night is back again and he has managed to age even more. Again we don't stay long.

The only new bar we visit thereafter is the Western Saloon. My sister had told me that she and her friends had had a 'riot' in there when she last visited Benidorm. That may be an unfortunate term at the moment but that is exactly the one she used before the residents of Tottenham decided to start tearing their neigbourhood apart. Perhaps she is something of a prophet. Anyway, for 'riot' read Irish duo performing the kind of patriotic ditties that one needs to be highly innebriated to enjoy. One of the men consumes a ridiculous amount of lager throughout his performance without really showing any ill effects. It's quite phenomenal.

Aware that they have utterly screwed up the theme by inviting this dubious pair to their establishment, the Western Saloon staff make a bit of an effort by dressing up as cowgirls. Now this is mildly diverting to me but there is no wheelchair access to the bar and so, another ludicroulsy large vodka or two later, we are on our way again. Back to the same old karaoke bars from last night, avoiding Uncle Kracker and trying instead to add to my repertoire.

There's time yet.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Benidorm (No, Not The TV Show)

By the time we check in to Hotel Riviera we have missed lunch. We're full board, but lunch is only on till 3.00 and we're not going to make it. So the plan is to get in, get a quick change and freshen up, then go out and find somewhere to eat while sizing up some of the local entertainment.

Standing between us and our first proper meal of the last 20-odd hours is the fact that I am stuck in the bathroom. It has a sliding door which I am sure is supposed to make access easier, but I have pulled it too far over and it has become separated from it's runners at the bottom. I don't realise this until I am ready to come out, and so I at least have the consolation of being in a fit state of dress during my ordeal.

And ordeal it is. Emma's not Bob The Builder, so she can't fix it. She has to tell the staff at reception that I have managed to get myself stuck in the bathroom. It's like a scene from 'One Foot In The Grave' that doesn't make the editor's final cut. A few minutes of contemplating spending my week in a small but reasonably well adapted bathroom pass by before the hotel's handy-man is knocking on the front door;

'Hola.' I hear him say, gruffly as he enters the room.

He begins tugging at the top of the door in what passes as an attempt to assess the problem. Predictably it doesn't budge. He mumbles something in Spanish, probably aimed in the direction of Emma since there is a whacking great door between the two of us. His voice is raised at the end as if he is asking a question, and the fact that she has no clue what he has just asked or how to answer it does not deter him. He continues to chunner on in Spanish as if we understand him perfectly. Soon, he is answering his own questions, nodding and saying 'si' to himself after every misunderstood utterance.

Finally, after several minutes of pushing, shoving and banging he identifies the problem. Mercifully, he is able to re-attach the door to it's runners quite quickly after this, and it is not long before I am released from my temporary confinement. For the first time I lay eyes on him and I am quite taken aback by the sheer magnitude of his moustache. It hangs for miles either side of his face. It's like something from a cartoon;

'Hola.' he offers as I sheepishly roll out into the main bedroom. I nod a hopeful nod of grattitude, but any real expression of my thanks for his efforts is clearly going to be eaten alive by the language barrier. So that's it. He leaves, but just as we are about to leave the hotel and get a now rather delayed lunch, the receptionist calls the room to say that he will have to come back for something not quite specified. We wait a few more minutes but he does not return. A few more, still nothing. Perhaps he is tending to that enormous moustache. Or freeing some other idiot biff from his bathroom.

And so we walk for a few minutes, around the corner from our hotel. It is noticable that there are a number of bars closed. Some have signs outside proclaiming that Saturday is their day off and I remember thinking that, as close to British pub culture as this place so obviously is, closing bars on a Saturday would never work at home. Well I say culture. It's not really. Benidorm is a place so utterly devoid of it's own culture that it has to be seen to be believed. It's a slice of Britain, most likely Blackpool, picked up and plonked into a hot climate. Though they are closed on Saturdays, it is telling that some of these bars are actively advertising the fact that they show Eastenders and Coronation Street on their big screens through the week.

Lunch is a simple cheese and ham toastie affair in a place called 'Beefy's'. The girl serving there possibly knows no English. She's exceptionally quiet and seems utterly indifferent to our presence. There is one other couple in here. If Benidorm has a reputation for being rowdy and loud then they didn't mean this place. We tip her a Euro or two in the hope that she might smile.

Opposite Hotel Riviera is a place called Uncle Ped's. This dubiously named establishment really should attract more custom than it does, given that one can buy a bottle of Budweiser here for 1 Euro. That's less than 90p which, for those of you unfamiliar with the price of alcohol, is what is known as 'bloody cheap'. It is here that we start our first evening in Benidorm. The aim is exploration so we won't have to hang around here for long, despite the fabulously cheap beer. There's more evidence of Benidorm's Britishness, with screens lined along the walls showing pre-season football friendlies involving Liverpool and Arsenal. The other customers are mostly young families. Something to be avoided.

As we leave Uncle Ped's we notice that there is some live music on back at Hotel Riviera. Remembering our enjoyment of the wonderfully tacky live acts on show in Alcudia all those years ago, I suggest to Emma that we call back in for one drink and take in what Brian Potter might refer to as 'the turn'. We sit down at a table in the nice outdoor bar I noticed on the way in, and the waitress brings our drinks. She pours half a bottle of vodka into my glass and offers me a barely visible amount of orange juice with which to dilute my lethal tipple. The first three or four sips are barely palatable. They are pure vodka, strong enough to kill a herd of rhinos. It is only after that fourth or fifth go that I am able to squeeze enough of the orange juice into my glass to adequately take the sting out of the thing.

Two long-haired, probably local men are playing in a makeshift performance area. I would hesitate to call it a stage. In fact, I would hesitate, think about it twice more and finally decide that it is not a stage. Among the hits they belt out are The Police's infamous 'Every Breath You Take'. The singer is certainly taking the Sting out of this, but puts the top hat on it by playing the Black Eyed Peas' 'I Gotta Feeling' where the instrumental should be. Even P-Diddy didn't screw this song up this badly, and yet it is greatly entertaining. We love this sort of crap.

A man sitting opposite catches my eye. Not like that. But I can't help but notice him. He must be in his 70's, and he has a mop of bright white hair shaped into the most outrageous mullet. It's the kind of hairstyle that only the Gerry Francises of this world truly believe they can get away with. Emma calls it wretched, and it really is. His skin, wrinkled to within an inch of it's life, is dark purple, possibly as a result of too much sunshine. He looks like a black grape, and for some reason I can't stop looking at him. Like he's a car accident.

The 'turn' plays on, but when the vodka is gone we walk on in the general direction of all the noise. We end up in a bar called 'Morgan's', in which there is another 'turn' in full swing. This lot are a Queen tribute band, and they are quite a draw. There are no seats in the house, so we order our rhino-strength vodkas and find a seat outside. Helpfully, there is a screen above the outdoor bar showing the entertainment. They call themselves One Vision after the old Queen number, and consist of three men and a woman. I'm being picky when I point out that I can't ever remember a woman being in Queen, but 'Emma-Louise' certainly adds something. She's dressed more like a vampire than a member of Queen, but she can certainly belt out a tune. Though 'We Are The Champions' is cut criminally short to my mind.

Soon they are replaced by a trio calling themselves Joyful Joyful, and their 'thing' is to rattle of numbers from the Sister Act soundtracks. This really isn't my 'thing', and I'm distracted by a man trying to sell flowers. One man has already bought flowers somewhere else, and tries to sell them back to the flower salesman here. His female companion just laughs, and I'm blown away by such romanticism. Nevertheless I decline the offer when he gets to our table. If I know Emma she can think of nothing less romantic than me buying her flowers from a pushy chancer in a tacky European bar.

And so to our last stop, The Last Stop. This is the sort of bar that I was promised I would see so much of and enjoy so much. More vodka kicks off the Karaoke Tourettes and before you can say 'Uncle Kracker is a one-hit wonder but doesn't half go down well when people realise they remember it' I'm up there, belting out my country/pop party piece. Emma makes a remark about how I always sing the same songs and I make a drunken promise never to sing the same song twice while we're here.

When I am not on stage there is much else to baulk at. A 10-year-old girl belts out a torrid version of Lady Gaga's 'Poker Face'. Now call me old fashioned but I think there is something inherently wrong with a girl that age singing about getting people hard and showing what they've got but it doesn't seem to bother the adults responsible for her. They're egging her on and taking photographs despite the risque lyricism. I start hoping that they haven't noticed how inappropriate this song really is because I dread to think that they know and have just let her get on with it regardless.

A man called Paul sings with an older lady called Norma. They offer us the most tuneless version of 'I Got You Babe' I have ever heard, and to make matters worse he adjusts something on the inside of his shorts in the middle of his performance. I'm assuming that Norma is his mum. She pretends she hasn't noticed which is probably best for everyone. Other 'highlights' include Scouting For Girls' 'She's So Lovely' performed in the style of Joe Pasquale, and a Scottish folk version of Status Quo's 'The Wanderer'.

And this is it. This really is Benidorm.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Benidorm - The Journey

Well it must be at least two months since I went on some berserk travelling escapade, so thank God for the sake of this column that Emma and I spent a week in Benidorm recently.

The idea was to do nothing. As exciting and as much fun as it was the American trip was hectic and hard work at times. We needed to get away to somewhere where we could just lounge around a lot, where it would not be possible to run out of petrol on the freeway or get hopelessly lost on the local transportation. While this may not seem like fertile ground for what is fast claiming to be a travel journal, it is surprising how much can happen when you are doing nothing.

Our flight was Saturday morning, August 6, but the adventure begins a day earlier. For both Las Vegas and last year's Florida expedition we had used possibly the only wheelchair accessible mini-bus in the western world to get to the airport. Believing we were playing it safe we had booked it again this time, but receive a phone call late on Friday afternoon informing us that our booking is cancelled. The lift on the bus isn't working. Oh, and sorry, and all that.

All of which means that Emma will have to drive us to the airport. Now this is not a particularly great inconvenience to her as far as the outward journey is concerned, but it means that she will have to be a little careful about how much she drinks on the final evening. Our flight home is the following Saturday at 11.45am, meaning she will have to be fit to drive home from Manchester by about 3.00 in the afternoon. This may not seem like such a big ask, but she has previous in this field.

In 2004 we went to Alcudia in Majorca for a week. On the last night there we decided to go out with a bit of a bang. It was a place with several 'social attractions', and the long and the short of it is that we were still in one such establishment at gone 4.00 in the morning. We had to be up by 6.45 to get on the coach to the airport. At a certain point I decided that enough was enough but Emma steadfastly refused to come home. She was well past the point at which sensible communication was possible and so, in one of the less intelligent of my drunken moments (and there are MANY to choose from), I left her there.

When I woke up in the bed alone at 6.45am with the alarm blaring away you can imagine my anxiety. What I had forgotten was that our room was split into two separate parts, and to my relief I found her in the other side flat on her face, completely dead to the world. Thankfully, what with all the arsing around that surrounds air travel, she did not have to drive us home until much later in that day but nevertheless, that journey was 'interesting'. The memory is still clear enough that I'm quite certain she will never make that mistake again. She wouldn't have had to worry about it but for a broken lift, but then this is us and our travels so it was always going to happen.

So she drives. Thankfully you can arrange this sort of thing online these days so it is fairly simple, right up until the point when the machine fails to register my debit card. Thus the car park barrier is not inclined to raise at this point, and somewhere along the line Emma pushes the wrong button and ends up having a parking ticket spewed out at her. We might have ended up having to pay for the parking twice had we not spoken to another silly machine to explain the mix-up and quote our booking reference number. It would be fine, the voice said. Right.

An example of my infamy is waiting for me in the queue for checking-in. I bump into someone I used to go to college with about 15 years ago. He is with his wife, someone else I used to know because she worked in a pub I used to go in about eight years ago. I have a friend who relentlessly tried to get off with her every week for about two years. I don't think he ever achieved it, sadly. I never knew that she and my former college friend were together and I remember thinking that the world is smaller than I had imagined. They have one, maybe two little people in tow and a conversation about the last 15 years is crammed into about 20 seconds until it is our turn to check-in.

The flight is going to be delayed. We are hit with this bombshell even before we have a chance to lug the suitcases on to the conveyer belt. Instead of leaving at 7.00am we will be leaving at 9.00am. It is now around 4.20am and suddenly, Benidorm seems a long way away. We go through the usual charade of the check-in girl asking Emma stupid questions about whether I can walk (she never bothers to ask if I can speak for myself, they never do), and go off to find something to do for the next three and a half hours before the revised boarding time.

Having not had much sleep we decide to go for a much-needed brew first. Though the tea is expensive they try to sweeten you by offering you free refills so long as you keep your cup. That probably proves cost effective for them on the whole, but given the amount of time we spend sitting around in airports they might just have picked the wrong mark in the pair of us. Welcome though a very early morning brew is, it is not long before I declare the holiday officially open by going for a pint of lager. The thought crosses my mind that 5.50am (which it is by now) is a tad too early to be consuming alcohol but I've never been one for conformity. We find a seat in the obligatory overly expensive airport bar and go about the difficult business of passing the time.

Maybe it is something about drinking at that time of the morning that brings out the very strange in people but Emma has the misfortune of standing next to one of those people who talks to you as if he has known you all his life despite having never met you. He also assumes that you know all of his friends and family by name and can therefore put any rantings he might have to impart on you about them into perfect context;

"I was just saying to Carol!......" he begins

Who? Never mind.

"No, I mean, I was just saying to Carol about them two women behind us, if I ever get like them you can shoot me."

Turns out that the two in question had been bitching about something or other and Man At Bar had obviously found them a little too intolerant for his tastes. He goes on to order Carol a glass of wine and when asked what size glass he might require, replies;

"Ooh, large one I think. Doesn't matter, Carol's paying!"

Good old Carol. Finally Emma manages to escape Man At Bar but it doesn't help that when she attempts to pay for the drinks (no, it's my money I'm just lazy and have trouble seeing over bars from this height) she is met with a classic 'computer says no' moment. The girl has to swipe a card and type a pin number or some such arsewash just to get the till working, but when she does so it refuses to co-operate. 'Till Closed', it tells her. Computer says no. Man At Bar talks more about Carol.

Emma leaves me to pay a visit and then an even more terrifying demonstration of my infamy ensues. Emma hates this about me (among other things, probably) but it is fair to say that we can't go anywhere without someone knowing me or at least thinking they know me. I'm expected to remember them all and to my shame I hardly ever do. But they have an unfair advantage in that I have a distinctive feature, shall we say. Quite often, however, I am not the man they think I am and it turns out that in fact that they have just seen some random bloke in a wheelchair and decided that I am him. Either way, we spent an inordinate amount of time on nights out and such like being delayed because I am having pointless conversations with people I may or may not know.

As I said she is elsewhere so she misses this one, and we're not really going anywhere anyway. The terrifying thing is that the person approaching me is carrying an enormous machine gun. Two armed police officers are patrolling the area and as they walk towards me one of them approaches me, quite matter of factly, and asks me if I live in St.Helens. I look at the size of his gun (stop it) and decide that I don't really feel I can say no. I would have agreed to almost anything. I feel like Lieutenant George when he was asked for his hand in marriage by General Melchet.

He tells me that he has seen me 'in town'. I find this worrying because anyone who has only ever seen me 'in town' will no doubt be convinced that I am an alcoholic manic depressive prone to sporadic outbursts of unnecessary aggression. This is not the sort of impression one would wish to give to a police officer carrying an offensive weapon. There isn't time to explain, however, that I am not like that all the time (shut up, I'm not) and so instead we just discuss the fact that he lives in Wigan now, but is also from St.Helens. I decide against offering him my sympathies for his current choice of residence.

Emma returns from the ladies and conveys an amusing tale about how she has to wee standing up. My view is that she should be grateful for the ability to do so, but she's not happy because not only is the toilet seat noticably absent, but the door won't lock either. A few pints later we are on the plane. It doesn't seem all that long since we arrived, because beer will do that for you. It makes time go quicker. Another pint and it might very well have been time to come home.

The flight itself is uneventful until we land. At which point we notice that water is dripping from the ceiling above our seats. Forced so sit there and wait until they have retrieved my chair from the hold there is very little we can do about it except vigilantly avoid the occasional heavy drops. Laughably, we are 'assisted' by an announcement advising us that 'passengers requiring wheelchair assistance should remain seated'. Really? What else are we likely to do? I'm so glad you told me that because now I won't have to go crawling down the aisle like some demented Orang-Utan!

Much fannying about on the internet had led us to a company who had the decency to offer accessible airport transfers. Unlike the mini-bus company on this side, they are true to their word. A short, middle-aged man holds a sign with Emma's name on it. As we pass through Arrivals, past the crowd of people waiting to pick up passengers, I notice a woman holding a sign that simply says 'BALD MAN'. There's a moment when I think she might be referring to me but there's no time to consider it any further. Our driver is lugging our suitcases through the crowds and he is not stopping for anyone. He leads us past a huge queue of people waiting for the lift and we are left with no choice but to follow. He's single-minded. He's got his passengers and he's buggered if he is going to let anyone get in the way of him finishing the job off.

Close to Benidorm, he drives us through a very narrow road which looks like it belongs in the middle of nowhere. I am thinking there can't possibly be anything even resembling a holiday resort anywhere near this shady, dusty road. Later, Emma tells me that she thought he might be taking us somewhere quiet so he could murder us without fear of being seen. However, we reach the other end of the road and suddenly there are bars and hotels and holiday-type things to be seen. Given the bad press Benidorm gets I am pleasantly surprised. This is exactly the sort of place that one could spend a week in doing absolutely nothing.

He drops us off at Hotel Riviera, newly refurbished and looking rather nice actually. Nothing flash, but certainly acceptable in comparison to some of the places we have stayed in on our relentless journey around the world. It's unbelievably, searingly hot as we move up the driveway to the main entrance to check-in. There's a nice outdoor bar area that I make a note to make excessive use of during our stay. It's about 3.00pm local time. Must be time for a pint.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The Wasp

I'm not meant to be here. I'm not meant to be anywhere. If anyone asks, you ain't seen me, right? I just had to share this with you.

I've just had another of those 'why do I bother?' days. Increasingly these days, I am starting to feel like the wasp who flies headlong into what he thinks is an open window, only to slam into the glass at high speed. Unlike the wasp, I never end up splattered, just a little dazed. In time, usually within a few days, I have forgotten all about the slam into the glass and I come back for another go. Always with the same result. What follows is another such example.

Two days ago Emma took the car to the Renault dealership on Sherdley Road for it's MOT. I never gave this a second thought until she informed me that not only had the car FAILED it's MOT, but that it would cost £450 to make it roadworthy again. She's driving down to Buckinghamshire to see her family at the weekend so she has to have the car. No choice. She doesn't have the money, so I pay.

All well and good. Except that within a day those nice people at Renault are back on the phone to Emma to let her know that actually, there is something else wrong with the car and's going to cost £511 for the car to be roadworthy again. And seven pence. Having just forked out over a grand for our holiday in Benidorm (yes, there will be blogs when I can summon the life force) an additional £511 (and seven pence) is nobody's idea of a fun spending spree. Yet still, I puff out my cheeks and reason that since I am fortunate enough to be able to afford it at the moment I will write a cheque or wave a debit card and just neglect to look at my bank balance until the next pay day arrives.

So this morning we go together to pick up the car. Only we don't. They hand us the keys, deliver the usual speed-waffle about what they have 'had' to do to it to bring it back to life, and send us on our way £511 (and seven pence) lighter. Some spark has parked it too close to a railed fence that runs along the back of the car park so Emma has to roll it forward in order to get my chair into the boot. She does this without too much fuss, but when it comes to turning the ignition key a second time to actually get the thing started, it's having none of it. There's no sound, no lights are coming on, nothing. Now, I'm no Charlene Mitchell (come on boys, you remember?), but I'd say that means it's buggered.

So, not only have they charged us an outrageous fortune (and not of the kind Shakespeare wrote) but they have handed the car back to us in a worse state than it was when we took it in on Monday. Late for work and losing flexi rapidly I storm back into the office, positively seething. I haven't been this angry since.....ooh.....four days previously when the staff at Manchester Airport tried to explain to me why my wheelchair was at baggage reclaim (it's a whole other blog, that one).

"How is it possible for you to charge me £500 and give the car back to us in a worse state then when it came in?" I demand to know of the Customer Relations Assistant Manager or some such garbled job-title faeces.

"Sir, we don't actually check the battery during an MOT" he replies.

I'm as stunned as any forgetful wasp can be at this point;

"Don't you think you should check it for that amount of money?" I am about to ask, before Emma, usually the one to kick off first if there is any complaining to be done, calmly strolls in and asks the Customer Relations Assistant Arsehole what might be going on.

"Battery is flat." I say. I've gone a bit John Cleese by now and follow up with;

"And they are going to charge us EVEN MORE than the £500 we have already paid!"

"Sir, nobody is saying we are going to charge you again but if there is a problem with the battery then it will be chargeable."

Come again? You're not saying you are going to charge me but it will be chargeable? Do you mean chargeable as in you will be able to re-charge the battery and get the fucking thing working again? Or do you mean chargeable as in you get your grubby hands on ANOTHER extortionate amount of money that your dimwit mechanics have not come even remotely close to earning?

Undecided what he means, I just spout;

"Shut up, you and I both know we are going to pay extra for this so don't take the piss out of me."

"Sir, I'm not I....."

Emma leads me away, and they offer to take us to work. I won't stay in the car with them for the whole of a ride to Liverpool because I am far beyond the signpost marked 'fuming'. So they drop us off at the train station and I try to forget about it.

And I do, until the cakes are mentioned. There is something of a tradition in work for buying cakes. There has to be some semblance of an occasion to mark, but it need not be a very important or prominent one. My coming back to work from my holidays is reason enough. So yesterday I said I would get the cakes in.

However, having turned up an hour and a half late for work because of the aforementioned car shenanigans it slips my mind. By the time I am reminded of it, close to lunchtime, I don't have the time to go out and get them. You see I've made a mistake and I'm busy fixing it. Not a grave error, but one on the scale of...say.... a forgetful wasp flying into a pane of glass. Either way it is something that needs fixing because otherwise I dwell on it. And you know what happens when I dwell on things? I start blogging.

By mid-afternoon every other piece of office banter (and one or two Facebook posts) are about how I promised everyone cakes and failed miserably to deliver. Deepening my predicament here is the fact that I have left my ruck-sack in the stricken, flat-batteried, £500-to-fix car so I have nothing to carry said cakes in anyway. A couple of my colleagues kindly volunteer but by then it is mid-afternoon and once I have fumbled through the 257 20p pieces in my wallet to scrape together enough cash for the cakes (it's all gone on that fucking car) it's getting a bit late. Sure enough, my colleagues return without cakes because there are none at such a ridiculous hour of the day.

Why do I bother? Wasp. I will try again soon. I promised.

So then I'm stuck on the train between Prescot and Eccleston Park. Apparently some 'vandals' (do people still use that word? do 'vandals' go 'courting'?) have stolen the signals. I have had to get the later train anyway because I've worked longer hours to get everything sorted in the wake of my incompetence (I'm off tomorrow and Friday), so it's after 6.30pm when we eventually pull into Thatto Heath station.

When I do the guard asks if he can help me off the train, but he gestures as if to do so without the aid of a ramp. I think he was just going to try to pull me off (please) and hope that I did not become separated from my wheelchair (which as you may have guessed by now was successfully reclaimed from fecking baggage reclaim the other day). I ask him to look for a ramp, but my problems don't end there.

He places the ramp between the train and the platform, but puts his foot right in the middle of the thing. As I approach the part of the ramp where his foot is still placed I ask him to move it while I roll down the ramp. What does he do instead? He reaches forward and tries to pull me forwards by the shoulders toward the platform. Clearly he agrees with the Manchester Airport staff in their view that I have no real need to be seated in my wheelchair while I am moving.

The chair tips slightly to one-side, then the lean becomes more pronounced until it's Dukes Of Hazard stuff, rolling sideways down the flimsy ramp, back wheels in the air, guard looking frightened and flapping away unhelpfully all the while. Eventually, and I still don't know how, all four wheels find the platform and my arse is still in the vicinity of my seat.

And this is not untypical of the type of treatment I get from railway staff in Merseyside. Why do I bother?

Cos I'm a forgetful wasp, is why, and do you know what? I'll be back for another go soon.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Las Vegas: The Last Stand

As I write this it is August 2, some 66 days after our last full day in America. I didn't quite expect it to take this long to transfer the events of our rip-roaring road trip to the web, but I knew that the full story was still going to be something approaching epic.

So, it's the final day of our travels across the western United States. We have plans to see The Script at Mandalay Bay this evening, but are hungover enough to laze around in the hotel room till gone 11 this morning. We finally surface and start looking for somewhere to watch the Champions League final. It kicks off at 11.45am local time so there isn't long. Hennessy's, an Irish bar on the corner of Fremont, seems a reasonable place to start. It's not. It's pretty close to empty, and a rather too laid back man informs us that since the game is being shown on the FOX network, it won't be on in their bar. They can't afford it, clearly. Damn you Rupert, your influence is everywhere.

With all other avenues seemingly closed at this point and with so little time left, we settle on the sports book at The Golden Nugget. It's just next door to our hotel, where I had already paid a visit to the sports book and placed a $10 bet on the game. I needed the scores to be level at half-time, but Barcelona to be winning by full-time. It was 7/2, which for the maths geniuses out there among you is 3 and a half to 1. Still confused? You're such a girl. Basically, if both of those outcomes were to materialise I would win three and a half times my stake (that's the $10). So, $35 in other words.

Well, you need something to make watching Manchester United play in a Champions League final bearable. There's not enough time now to fully do justice to even an attempt at describing my contempt for Manchester United so I won't try. Besides, there is already too much football talk in this column and it's about a holiday in Las Vegas after all.

We are left with little option seating-wise (I was shrewd enough to bring my own), and find ourselves perched in front of a row of small screens. Most of these are positioned somewhere in the sky and all but one are showing baseball. There is always baseball going on somewhere in America, it seems, and in a Las Vegas hotel sports book there is always going to be at least 27 televisions showing whatever baseball happens to be going on.

We are near to a bar area (good news) which also serves food. I approach the bar and, since we have not had any breakfast and it is getting pretty close to lunchtime, we decide to order chips. Fries. Whatever. Unfortunately there is only one man serving and he seems doggedly determined not to notice that I exist (bad news). So desperate is he to avoid me that at one point I rack my brains to try and remember whether I might have got drunk and asked him out at some point last night. If I did I have really bad taste. Not only is he not my type, he's just downright rude and ignorant. Poor effort.

We are very close to kick-off when he finally acknowledges my existence and I am able to place my order. Instead of giving me a ticket with a number on it he asks my name. He's the one being a bit too forward now, if you ask me, but I want my chips and I want to watch United lose so I tell him. He asks me to go back to my seat (I'm in my seat you speccy knob!) and wait until he calls my name. I expect very little. I wait.

In the meantime a large group of men wearing either Manchester United or Barcelona shirts have entered the bar and somehow managed to blag the best seats in the house by the larger screens. It's the US sports book equivalent of towels on loungers I suspect. They must know the people who had been sat there previously. Anyway, despite their differing loyalties they seem to be getting on famously. There is no anymosity but then why should there be? How much can a group of men from America care anyway about the fortunes of one team from the north west of England and another from the Catalan region of Spain?

When the action starts they start whooping. They shout wholly inappropriate things like 'yeah, go Barcelona!' or 'whoooo, yeah Rooney baby!' and it reminds me of my shame at actually attending an NFL match or two at Wembley. This is how the American armchair viewer must feel when he sees the New York Giants going up against the Miami Dolphins in London. Large groups of people who can have absolutely no strong feelings either way about either team getting themselves all in a lather about a game they have a rudimentary knowledge of at best. All very undignified.

Barca score first, which means I need United to score by half-time to stand any chance with my bet. They do, and it's Rooney Baby. Or someone. I have never before even half-celebrated a goal by that granny-grabbing little wiener unless he's scored it while playing for England. Even then I begrudge it a little. But money and the kudos of being right are at stake here, so I allow myself to crack half a smile. Either that or the chips which have now finally arrived have given me a bit of wind.

The second half is a Barca masterclass, all of which I can enjoy without even a shred of guilt. The whooping is decidedly one-sided by now and one middle aged woman who you'd think might know better actually leaves in a full on strop when Barcelona's third goal goes in. The whistle goes, I'm $35 dollars better off (plus my stake, you remember the $10?) and I won't have to listen to any of my United supporting friends crowing about being European champions when I get back home tomorrow night. It's a win-win.

The afternoon is spent trying and failing to spend my winnings in the casinos on the strip. We need to get to Mandalay Bay by 6.30 and it is the very last stop on the journey. Rather than head straight there we had decided to get off half way down again and take in some liquid refreshment. Inevitably we would end up where we needed to be. What we had not reckoned with is the endless amounts of stupidly laid out walk-ways, lifts and unfathomable crossings which litter the bottom end of the strip. It took us the best part of an hour to walk the last part of the journey and in that time we did not have even a moment to take in another fabulously refreshing vodka and orange.

Finally we arrive at Mandalay Bay and join the queue. There is another wheelchair user waiting with us and when the usher arrives he takes us both through a side door, down a passageway towards a lift. The lady must have been listening to me and Emma talking along the way because she interrupts us with;

"Oh excuse me, I'm sorry, but are you guys from England?"

"Yes." I answer.

"Oh that's so cool, I was just saying to my girlfriend here that I have another girlfriend who lives in England."

She delivers this news as if living in England is the most revolutionary thing a person could do, and that the chances of an American actually achieving it are roughly the same as that of being killed by a slice of cake;

"Oh really." I say, trying not to sound too much like I am humouring her;



I am not a religious man as you know but I will swear on whatever you would like me to that this is the actual answer she gave me. To have the myth confirmed that there are Americans out there who think Wales is in England is just the most fabulously satisfying yet somehow depressing and annoying turn of events.

"Wales is not really in England though, is it?" I point out.

"No? Oh, I'm sorry." she says.

"It's ok. I'll let you off but I am not sure the Welsh would."

She is led to a row that is fairly central to the stage but I'm not so lucky. We are a long, long, long way up in the clouds in the House Of Blues and Emma and I are asked to keep moving and eventually arrive in what can only be described as a rather crappy location at the side of the stage. There is a particularly amorous young couple sat next to us and I remember wondering what their disabilities might be. No signs of any wheelchairs, canes, sticks, not even a good old fashioned limp in the brief moments they are detached from each other. Sex addiction is my best guess.

There is a perfectly pleasant warm-up act playing on stage. I can mostly only see the top of his head but he strums his acoustic guitar expertly and sings songs about love and angst of the type only a melancholy lunatic such as myself could endure, never mind enjoy. But I like him. Deal with it. I can't remember his name, but I like him. I can't remember the name of everyone I have ever liked. Can you? Honestly?

Somewhere in the middle of his set I get the munchies and head to the small kiosk at the end of the row of seating. I'm used to either salty or sweet popcorn but in the absence of either at this unique little location I settle on cheesy popcorn. Think Wotsits with an extra 'this is going to make you sick' kick. Emma tries them but declines any other offer I make for her to help me with the huge, cone-shaped bag. Half of it will be picked up by the cleaners when we leave our hotel room tomorrow afternoon.

And so to The Script. For the uninitiated they are a fairly successful Irish band who sing songs about love and angst. Right up my street then. Actually, they are and always were Emma's choice but there is much to enjoy with the likes of 'The Man Who Can't Be Moved', 'Falling To Pieces', 'For The First Time' and the agonisingly brilliant 'I'm Yours' belted out at volumes loud enough for you not to hear the whooping from the crowd. Maybe they were Manchester United fans and just didn't have the stomach for it.

The Script's guitarist, rather than it's singer, does most of the talking in between numbers and at a certain point he begins to annoy me. He's warming to his task as guitarist/compere and I'm sure at one point he is convinced that he is Ardal O'Hanlon. He's not. He's not even Frank Carson. Stick to the music, son, and you'll go far. Well, you have already got to Las Vegas, which isn't exactly round the corner from Dublin, now is it?

The singer's role, other than singing, is mostly to strut around stage as if he would eat himself were he made of chocolate. Or even liquorice. He's too vain for my tastes but Emma seems taken with him. I'm not the jealous type so I don't make an issue of it. Besides, it would be a little rich to pick a fight about that now when I'm fully aware that I'll be at some English venue screaming and crying like a bitch next time Joss tours the UK.

Anyway, it's our last night and there is no way in the world we are falling out tonight.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Fremont Street

By the time we had got back to the Fitzgerald from the Hoover Dam it hardly seemed worthwhile heading back out to the strip. As useful as it was, the Deuce had become something of an ordeal. It took over half an hour to get even half way down the strip, and it was usually time spent trying to avoid getting into too deep a conversation with a local drunk while wedged in the middle of large groups of impatient gamblers.

So, we decided to stay on Fremont Street. The best way to describe Fremont Street is that it is like a smaller version of Las Vegas Boulevard. It likes to be referred to as the Fremont Experience, but is basically a few long streets lined with casinos, bars and maybe the odd (ahem) gentleman's club. Like the strip it has street entertainers and people in fancy dress whose real purpose always manages to escape me. Is it enough that someone hangs around on the corner of a street dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow? Is that classed as entertainment? I can hear you shouting 'yes'. Whatever, it catches the eye whether you like it or not. More on which later.

The centre-piece of the Fremont Experience is the huge Viva Vision canopy. This covers the pedestrianised streets (this must be the only place in America where nobody drives) and is roughly around the length of five football pitches. A quick glance upwards and you will bear witness to some pretty impressive light shows which are projected on to the underside of the top of the canopy. Currently showing is a tribute to Queen, with 'We Will Rock You' blasting out at a billion decibels followed by 'Don't Stop Me Now' while couples everywhere have the obligatory argument about whether it is actually called 'Mr Farenheit. Who knows? Probably not even Freddie. No point asking him anyhow.

Similarly unable to speak for himself is Jim Morrison, former front-man of The Doors and fully paid-up member of the 27-club which someone completely invented last week after the untimely death of Amy Winehouse. She was 27. Who knew? 'Break On Through (To The Other Side)', 'People Are Strange' and of course 'Light My Fire' all get an airing during the next, Doors-related illuminated spectacular. That might be more your thing than Freddie's mob, but personally I can't find it in me to idolise a man most notable for exposing his penis on stage and simulating oral sex on his guitarist. If I did that I'd be arrested. Assuming anybody noticed.

Now, I am nearer to death than either you or I are comfortable with, so at this point I should tell you that drinking beer in the casinos had been making me terribly sick. I'd have one or two, and then feel like I had something stuck in my throat. Please. So, I would begin to cough and.....well......before you would know it I'd be struggling to breathe. I'd rush to the 'restrooms' and begin wretching up half a pint of what Rik Mayall once famously referred to as green globules. It's an entirely nasty business which happens to me every few months or so and is no doubt an indication of the impending death of my kidneys. Are you worried yet? Me neither.

Anyway, like an addict who values the brief high over his long term preservation I had been enduring this problem for days. But enough had become enough, so what do you do? You switch to vodka and orange, is what. This may not seem like the most medically sound suggestion for overcoming such a problem, but I'm on my holidays in Las Vegas. I might never be here again and it works for me. Besides, they tasted glorious and reminded me of my younger days spent racing to oblivion with Mr Reid. I didn't always win the race.

Emma and I gamble away very little of our money in the name of cheap shorts in such esteemed establishments as The Golden Nugget, The Four Queens, Binions and Main Street and get predictably and tongue-twistingly messy. That's drunk. Lest there be any doubt.

We go back outside and take a walk down the length of Fremont Street and it's big white, light-show-displaying canopy. There's a woman dressed as a pirate. She's not Jack Sparrow. I know this because she has breasts and she has them exposed. A brief double-take ensues and then a glance to Emma to see if she's noticed. She has and she just laughs it off. I decide to stick rather than push my luck as we go past the gentleman's club next door to Binions.

Instead we spend a pleasant while watching people in comedy fake pink mullets belting out rock songs by Roxette or Guns'n'Roses. I genuinely can't remember which. Both, I'd reckon. I can tell the difference but the pink mullets cloud everything. The last time I saw a fake barnet like that it was attached to the head of the in this case aptly named Pink (P!nk for afficionados and fecking nerds) as she writhed around some pole in some showy, musically deceased manner. That show got much better though. Fabulous Janice Joplin tribute set.

I digress. Some of the other people watching have been here long enough to go through several cans of lager which they have rather untidily discarded. I remember thinking that any longer than half an hour watching some of these bands would send me over the edge, but then if you ask the people gathered here they might not necessarily recommend spending three hours in a casino playing electronic poker so that you can get cheap vodka. It takes all sorts. In any case, any decent lawyer could argue successfully that I am already over the edge. It is just me or does this blog seem a little erratic by normal standards? I can't be arsed to edit it, frankly, so screw you.

We eventually arrive at a pizza place that doesn't have any pizzas, and so trot all the way back to a more expensive place just outside the Fitzgerald where the evening began. Lights, vodka, spew, pink mullets and all......