Back in the present tense, or tense present. I am being driven along the sand-fringed road toward the golfing estate, and Ray is harping on in my ear about how we must 'support the troops'.
"I'm not saying that you have to support the ideas behind the government decisions, but when they tell us to go to war, then it's the ordinary troops who must do our dirty work and die for us if necessary. You may not agree with the policy, but you damn well have to support the troops."
20 years on, this advice has never been more true. There have never been so many catastrophic acts of aggression directed toward so many innocent people since the Vietnam war. With the benefit of hindsight, all those politicians should - maybe - have allowed the troops to follow Saddam back over the bridge and into Iraq, then blown his brains out where he stood, before his psychopathic sons grew into the monsters they became.
I begin to suggest to Ray that I really do not need this sort of lecture from him, as I met many Vietnam vets in the 70s who had been spat upon and reviled because they were - even in civilian clothes - easily identifiable as such. They were young men of a certain age who had lost arms and legs, or had visible wounds to their faces, and they came home to less than a hero's welcome. Of course it is easy for a Brit like me to be righteous like this, because 1968 the is only year in written history that Britain has not been involved in some sort of armed conflict somewhere in the world, and mine was the first generation not to be conscripted since the First World War. Then I remember the collective guilt about that, being suffered by his own generation of Americans.
"Yes," I say, "it is important that we support the troops", and I think I mean it more than he does.
We pull up to the gates of the concentration-camp which is home to all the wealthy golfers, and Ray flashes his pass, even though the two elderly men in the booth know him by sight. We trundle slowly between the manicured greens at a steady 15 miles per hour, stopping to allow an electric buggy containing a couple of obese 16 year old boys to cut across the tarmac. We are legally obliged to give way to them, on pain of exclusion.
As they trundle over our path, the two fat kids give a two-fingered 'victory' salute and shout, "Support the Troops!"
What the fuck do they know about troops, or any other support than the financial sort they receive from their parents every month? Ray waves and gives a cheery salute back to them.
At the half built house, the owner was waiting for me, and proudly showed me the remote control gas fire which had been installed at the foot of the huge stone surround. He stood as far away as possible, pointed a gadget toward the metal basket and pressed a button. The basket burst into life with large, real, cheery flames that would have looked good in the hearth of an old British pub in the middle of the winter, except that it was 85 degrees heat outside.
I know that 17 separate air-conditioning systems had already been installed in this place, and I began to wonder if he was about to install a similar amount of heating ones too, just to take the edge off the chill. He smiled proudly, and explained that it was really just for 'show'.
"Now", he asked, looking at the enormous, decrepit edifice, "when are you going to do the repairs?"
I looked to see if he was serious, then explained that I was booked to fly home in a couple of days (he should know, he booked the budget ticket), and that there was no time to carry out any repairs at all. He stared at me, and I thought he was about to have a heart-attack, then he composed himself and begged to be excused for a second. I could see him in the porch, having a frantic conversation with his wife, who then looked as though she was about to have a similar attack. She came storming over to me, and began to have the longest chat since I had arrived, about 3 weeks ago. I ought to mention at this point, that she was a dead-ringer for Hillary Clinton, including the tight-arsed hair-do. She began with a menacing, hissing whisper:
"My husband tells me that you are refusing to carry out your side of the deal and do all the repairs on this surround. Is this correct?"
I said that I never had agreed to carry out any repairs, and besides, how could I, given the time-frame? This didn't please her, and she began to shout like the spoilt brat she was.
"Just you listen to me. You are going to stay here until that fire surround looks as good as you said it would, no matter how long it takes - DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME???"
I gently laughed (like I said, I didn't give a fuck) and told her not to be so stupid. I also reminded her that if they had spent a few extra bucks by sending me to Paris, then they wouldn't have this turkey hanging around their new pad now. She looked like she was going to blow a gasket, then stormed off to her husband for a frantic conversation. I carried on with the final touches in building the damn thing, smiling to myself and looking at the terrified contractors around me, whilst giving them the occasional wink.
Eventually, the husband came over, having composed himself.
"Listen, Tom. We would like to take you out for a meal tonight in a nice Chinese restaurant we know. Shall I pick you up around 7.00 o'clock?"
This was going to be really interesting. I was genuinely looking forward to this show-down!
to be continued