Longest day of the year

Half six on Sunday morning hurts, but I can't get back to sleep again, so I'm stuck with it. Once more I'm forgoing breakfast having stuffed myself silly with Cuban food and apple pie the night before. I'm knackered and full and feeing in need of my own bed. Last night Jon was telling me of other, more manly/daft writers who do book tours of anywhere between five and nine weeks. And they don't just do the shops on their publicist's lists either, they hire cars and sign stock at every bloody shop they can find. I've only done three cities beginning with 'M' and I'm already longing for home. OK, so I did a ten day research trip in Iowa first, but even so...

Last night Jon wouldn't hear of me taking a taxi to the train station, so at ten he's already waiting outside the hotel. This time he lets me heft my own suitcase -- having tried it the day before and found it to weigh a sodding ton -- before taking me the four blocks to where an Amtrak train is going to whisk me from here to Chicago. At least I hope there's going to be whisking. Most of the station looks shut, but the laconic man behind the desk thing assures me I'll know when the train's about to leave, because people will star queuing up. And queue they do, starting at a randomly selected time and snaking all the way out the station doors, with me somewhere near the back, wondering if I'm actually going to get a seat, while someone's shaven monkey in a backpack peers at my beard and drools.

Amtrak trains are nothing like UK ones. You can check in your baggage for a start, which seems like a wonderful idea, until the laconic man's bucolic friend tells me I can just cart my heavy suitcase of doom onto the train myself and save a half hour wait here checking the thing in, and another half hour getting it again at the other end. What a great idea! So instead I drag my leather-clad lump of heaviness onboard and heave it up onto the rack above my head, praying it doesn't shear off the metal supports and come crashing down on my head halfway there. 'Bearded Idiot Killed By Falling Junk Food!'

The carriage is huge, full of big seats, and all of them are facing the wrong way. I like to see where I'm going, not where I've been. I know where I've been: I was there, remember? But it's too late to go hunting about for something the right way round, the train's about to depart, and besides, I've got a power socket for the laptop. I CAN DO SOME WRITING! Ha! So I do, pausing every now and then to gaze out of the window at the industrial wasteland to the south of Milwaukee.

According to Jen yesterday, before she made good her escape, the local government came up with a great wheeze: tax businesses on their inventory. So anything you have in stock can be taxed up to four times a year, whether you've sold it or not. Not surprisingly, this has caused a number of companies to bugger off somewhere more sensible.

The industrial no-man's-land gives way to patchy trees and then real ones, interspersed with little homes and the occasional scrap yard beneath the Midwestern American sun, as I write about a cold, rainy February in Aberdeen.

Chicago doesn't look like much from the train as we rumble in through the suburbs, and then we turn a corner and it's like something out of a movie: tall glass buildings, sparkle green and blue, sandstone and red steel bridges, a river with a bright white tour boat, red pennant fluttering in the breeze... The bloody view vanishes before I can dig the video camera out of my bag and switch the thing on. After that the view's poop again. And then we're there, everyone disembarking and sparking up cigarettes in defiance of the big 'NO SMOKING!' signs.

The taxi ride out to the Borders Books and Music in Oak Brook is... interesting. Mostly because my driver hasn't got a clue where we're going. He drives like a little old lady who's got a dodgy colostomy bag and a weak bladder. Even I did a better job than this on the freeway! When we finally get there the fare is more than I've got, so there's some protracted wrangling that eventually goes via an ATM and we wave a cheerful goodbye to each other with a limited number of fingers.

Borders is HUGE. I mean really big, like standing up close to an elephant that's just eaten a whole shed-load of books. And there, right at the front of the store is a big display plastered with DYING LIGHTs and a photo of my ugly mug. Poor book buyers. The lovely ladies in charge buy me a BBQ chicken sandwich and a bottle of water and offer to take my suitcase for me. Not wanting to be sued for herniating them, I accept the former and decline the latter, munching away in a little office out the back, signing stock and thinking about nicking a couple of their nice black Sharpie pens.

Two pm: There's a huge PA system set up facing an array of chairs with seven people in them. Hurrah! A tour record! By the time I'm fifteen minutes into 'Stuart's Rambling Nonsense' we're down to six as someone suddenly decides he's got something more fun to do, like empty his cat's litter tray, or staple his testicles to a photo of Michael Jackson. Which means he misses a world first as I become a performance poet! Hard to believe, I know, but I do a rendition of Skeleton Bob Goes To School, dragging a complete stranger -- Valerie -- up from the audience to interpret the words through the medium of interpretive dance*. That'll teach her not to do a runner earlier.

Afterwards there's nothing left to do, but sign the last of the stock, meet Michael Dymmoch, chat to Annie and David from Crimespree (there because Jon, Gawd bless 'im, has twisted their arms). Apparently they would have been at the Milwaukee reading that never was, but their son was getting married Saturday. A poor excuse, but I let them get away with is as they've offered to give me a lift to the airport.

Checking in is less of a disaster than before, but still disaster-ish. Eventually I get to the front of the queue to be told I'm being moved to an earlier flight, the one I'm meant to be taking is already running late (even though it's not meant to be here for another three hours) and if I take the one that leaves in forty minutes I won't have to worry about my connection back to Aberdeen. Hurrah! I had planned to do some writing before boarding, but an earlier flight is good, isn't it? Unfortunately my eyelash fluttering and winsomeness isn't up to the task of a free upgrade, but at least I can say I tried.

The flight is virtually empty and I get a whole row of three to myself: window, middle and aisle, mine all mine! No having to sit in someone else's armpit for the next seven hours! Hurrah once more! Think of all the writing I can get done... Only I'm too tired to work and too awake to sleep. I try the gin, wine, wine, brandy rout to slumber halfway across the Atlantic, but all I get is a headache watching The Wild and Dodgeball. There's three hours of my life I'll never get back, damn it.

By the time we land it's seven am and I'm feeling more than a little ropey. No sleep. No sleep at all... Urgh... And to make matters worse, in my addled state I've bought duty free on the plane: two litres of Smirnoff Blue for £18.00, not realising until I get to the an internal checkpoint that it's going to be classed as carry on luggage, even though I bought it on a BA flight. And you can't have liquid in carry on luggage. BASTARD. The nice man on the check-in desk advises me to heft my laptop out of the bag, stuff the bottles in their place and check it in. Otherwise there's bugger all chance the bottles are going to survive the 20 foot drop on the other end of the conveyor.

So clutching my laptop to my chest, camera hanging round my neck, sunglasses in my trouser pocket making it look like I'm VERY pleased to meet you, I slouch through security, again. The bags under my eyes are so big I'm surprised they don't make me check them in too, but the man on the metal detector doesn't even want to cop a feel, so I lurch off and settle in at gate 5 for my five hour wait.

I can tell I'm back in Britain again when my $43.00 turns into £18 and shrapnel, then someone charges me £7.50 for a sandwich with no filling and a pint of beer. Trust me on this: the Americans have a MUCH, MUCH better service industry than we do, and they're a damn sight nicer about it too.

By the time my flight finally gets called (delayed due to a technical fault at Birmingham -- isn't that just what you want to hear before you get on a plane? Yes, the flying machine you're about to clamber aboard had something wrong with it, but we've patched her up with Duck Tape and bogies! Long as nobody sneezes when we're airborne, we should all get back alive...) I'm drifting in and out like a light bulb in a horror movie. And still I can't sleep.

She Who Must Jump Up And Down And Squeal Excitedly is waiting for me at Aberdeen airport, ready for a huge hug and smooching. Christ it's good to be home. It's slightly less good when I learn that the boiler's still buggered, the phone isn't working, the clocks are all screwed and the lights in the lounge and kitchen have fused. You see, that's what happens when you leave someone from Fife in charge for nearly three weeks! So I wander about like a half-shut knife, fixing what I can and arranging for other people to fix what I can't.

I'm still awake when She Who Must Be Made Mince For Tea comes back from work, and we drink fizzy wine and chat as I cook, then we eat, and by the time midnight comes round it's half past forty two o'clock for my addled brain and knackered body. I fall into bed with the kitten at my feet and sleep like a large, bearded, overweight baby.

And to think, I get to be home for an entire day and a half before I have to head off to Edinburgh for the book festival! Ah it's all go...

* If you set the frame interval to one second it’s almost like being there! (with thanks to the lovely Annie Chernow for the photos)