Enter the hipster zombie. Ironically.


Preview of the first chapter of “ZA Virus”

Hilton lurched out of the Long Street alley, into the golden light of a perfect Cape Town autumn evening.  The sun just down behind Signal Hill; hardly any wind, just a touch of chill to the air – a magic time, lifting the spirits of everyone around.

Except Hilton.  His understated plaid shirt was caked in blood and vomit, the buttons largely undone.  His burgundy chinos were ripped, his Green Cross sandals filthy and stained.  His eyes were so bloodshot it was hard to make out any white, his neat goatee had unidentifiable lumps in it.  All he could see was the light; all he could think of was to go towards it.

Behind him, the carcass of the dog and the still-twitching body of the vagrant were near-invisible in the alley, behind the wheelie bins.  The virus still in them was dying now, as their cells slowly switched themselves off.  Even if it had been sentient enough to care, that was no problem.

It had a new host now.



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Whatever, Jo’burg, whatever…B-)

Gus Silber shared on Twitter today an

“Amusingly seething anti-CT rant by fed-up Joburger”.

This is imaginatively entitled “Go F**k Yourself, Cape Town“, and consists largely of a defensive set of reactions by one Jade Mitchell against a series of straw men, such as claiming people from Cape Town say things like:

“It’s so dirty, and busy, and trafficky and unsafe.”

Which it is, of course.  Not to mention severely pot-holed, with no working traffic lights.  And with defences for the average suburban home that make American bases in Afghanistan look like kids’ playgrounds.

But this is by the bye.  For Ms Mitchell makes a series of statements about or from Jo’burg designed to diss Cape Town – which any respectable denizen of these parts cannot allow to go unchallenged.  So, seriatim:

1. Capetonians are cliquey

Well, yes??  Otherwise they’d have to talk to people they don’t know!  I mean, I’ve been here 40 years, and Capetonians still don’t speak to me.

Including, it seems, my own children – who were born here.  But that’s OK, because we just befriend Namibians, Zimbabweans, and the occasional Gautengi.

2. Your business comes from Johannesburg

Obviously: one does try to keep the commercial areas separate from the areas where one lives, after all.

3. Cape Town salaries are lower, Cape Town expenses are higher

Let’s phrase this another way: you need danger pay to live in Jo’burg, and there’s more to do here.  Like drinking good wine you didn’t have to buy in Checkers.

4. We pay for you

“We”?  You mean the 9+ million people in Greater Johannesburg?  I should HOPE you contribute more to the GDP – but just 10% more doesn’t cut it, if you have 3x more people than we do…you see, we educated people down here innie Kaap!

5. Cape Town is not crime-free

Granted: it’s been the murder capital of SA for about the last 300 years, after all.  And ANYONE who walks

“…around the CBD at three in the morning, drunk on expensive craft beer and dressed like the bass player from an Indie-funk band”

DESERVES a sound thrashing, let alone relief from too much ill-spent money*.

*Which doesn’t happen in Cape Town, of course.

6. The DA is not infallible

Sure!  But I refer you back to potholes.  And working traffic lights.

7. Most of you don’t live anywhere near the beach

True, true…but if by “don’t live anywhere near” you mean “not within a half-hour’s drive”, then NOT true. Whereas you lot need “6 hours in a Chevrolet”, to quote Jeremy whatsit, to get even close#.  And that’s to Durban – and who wants to go there??

Then, of course, we have the winelands: lots and lots of winelands. The Mountain.  And other mountains – real ones, not man-made ones full of cyanide.

#And we do NOT count the Randburg Waterfront as an actual Waterfront.

8. Cape Town doesn’t have a high speed train

Yes.  And?  We also don’t pay R200+ to go one stop away from the airport on one, either.  And the high-speed taxis that can take you to anywhere in Cape Town more than make up for it.

9. When the Zombie Apocalypse comes, you are going to be so fucked

Ah, now, this is where you are SERIOUSLY wrong.  Consider point 5, above: I would seriously doubt the viability of any zombie horde in Cape Town, for a few very simple reasons.  These being the Junky Funky Kids, the Hard Livings, the 26s – 28s, and all of their ilk: I would seriously doubt whether any zombie army could survive the predatory power of armed Cape Town gangs intent on relieving them of any and all personal ornamentation, sunglasses, designer jeans and shoes.

And once that had happened, of course, we in the quiet suburbs would be safe from zombie predation, given that it is nothing much worse than what we already experience on a daily basis. In fact, Gus and I are supposed to be writing a zombie novel set in Cape Town – yes, we are, Gus! – in which just such events will come to pass.  With the Cape Town hippies and hipsters so beloved of Ms Mitchell who become the zombies – due to an unfortunate series of events involving a bat, a rat, a stray dog and a hipster – being ruthlessly and efficiently cleaned out by Cape Town’s finest.  And by our finest, I do not mean the SAPS.

As for the comment that:

I’m just saying, if we wanted to, we could come down there in droves, throttle each of you with your any-weather scarves, impale you on your gluten-free, vegan lollipops and cut your hearts out of your artfully tattooed chests with a broken wine bottle before you could say, “Kif, bru.”

You think we in Cape Town like people like that??  Jade, we try to run them over ourselves – or at least I do.  Because, dear Jade, they’re not from around these parts: they’re immigrants; arty people from upcountry who try to adopt our city as their own.

And we know this, how?  Because they hang out in Long Street – which is where we send our children to learn the Art of the Hunt.

So, dear Jo’burg: whatever.  Mind over matter, Gautengis, mind over matter. As in – we don’t mind, and you don’t matter B-)

Two good reasons to be in Cape Town: The Mountain - and Kirstenbosch. Oh, and the good wife, of course.

Two good reasons to be in Cape Town: The Mountain – and Kirstenbosch.
Oh, and the good wife, of course.

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The OFFICIAL sequel (there is another unsanctioned version out there, I find) to Womanspace.

After losing their wives, Ed and Russell discovered Manspace. An infinity of shops, packed with all the gadgets, tools, and electronic toys in the multiverse. However, they soon died of malnutrition.

The End.

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Dr Isis gets outed. I get hits. Life goes on.


And so it came to pass that one Henry Gee, a Senior Editor of Nature, distinguished biologist and author of science fact AND fiction, recently outed one Dr Isis via Twitter.  He actually also apologised for this in print, while mentioning that:

“Since 2010, Dr Isis has, in my opinion, waged a campaign of cyberbullying against me. I do not feel it appropriate to rake over the history of this situation, but throughout it I have been subject to unfair personal criticism including the repeated unjust assertion that I am sexist. This is untrue and is an allegation I find deeply distressing. I do not think that anyone deserves to be personally and publicly attacked in this way. As an editor and member of the online community I am absolutely up for a robust debate, but this went far beyond what I feel is acceptable.”

Now I was alerted to the whole thing by the steep rise in accesses of my modest blog, shown above – due largely to a blog by one Sarah Hillenbrand discussing the issue, and Dr Isis’s response to it, which linked out to my account of the Womanspace saga.  And Dr Isis’s response to Womanspace, which was one of my first introductions to cyberbullying of the kind Henry describes.

Fascinating stuff, by Sarah, and sad: for me, largely because Sarah was so disheartened, yet still wanted to go out and inspire little girls to be scientists.  Even if what she took from Womanspace was:

“Men sitting around talking about science while the women clean house and fix supper and keep the children in line”

Ah, well.  We read into things what we want to.

And of course, the redoubtable Michael Eisen got involved – via this blog post – and yet again weighed into Henry and me:

“Gee and Dr. Isis have apparently had issues in the past. I don’t know the full history, but I was witness to some of it after Gee published a misogynistic short story in Nature several years back. Gee behaved like an asshole back then, and apparently he has not stopped.

Think about what happened here. A senior figure at arguably the most important journal in science took it upon himself to reveal the name of a young, female, Latina scientist with whom he has fought and whom he clearly does not like.”

Three things that are essentially irrelevant to this issue here: young, female, and Latina. I am sorry:  NONE of those things give ANYONE the right to cyberbully anyone – none!  My daughter’s high school knew that, and had a written policy that Dr Isis and like-minded folk would have fallen foul of long ago IF they could have been regulated by such a thing.

But it’s in the comments to the blog that the vitriol comes out: comments like

“Gee is an asshole, and he would be an asshole even if he worked for PLOS”

by Eisen himself.  Although this is partially counterbalanced by:

“Regardless of Gee’s history of frankly “being” an asshole he doesn’t deserve what essentially is genuine abuse”

But yet, from someone known as “Ginger”:

“If a person is bigoted, his behavior will give him away far more quickly than his name in an online forum. That’s why Ed Rybicky and Henry Gee have run into opposition: they’re demonstrating their inner attributes very publicly, and being called on it, which is new to them. That is the power of the internet.”

Takes. My. Breath. Away.  Our inner attributes (bugger that; MINE!) as imagined by a small, vicious, self-satisfied, smug, self-congratulatory cabal, who gleefully and childishly trash us on the basis of those misperceptions in any forum they please, damaging reputations and possibly even mental well-being – being evidence of “the power of the internet”??

Oh, there’s a lot more, there and all over the blogosphere – and so much of it is so uninformed, and so vicious, as to be the playground gang response to slights real or imagined, where the response is so disproportionate as to constitute a mugging.

Henry, you should have taken the advice you gave to me a couple of years ago, and simply ignored the nasty rabble.  So childish.  So wilful.  And seemingly ignorant of any customs of civility, or privacy, or decency, or even possibly of the laws of libel.

So here’s a song for y’all, courtesy of the British Army.  Feel free to replace the word “bless” with anything you like.

Bless ‘em all,
Bless ‘em all.
The mean and the snide and the small,

Bless all those tweets from anonymous ones,
Bless all those bloggers and their bleedin’ sons,
Cos’ we’re saying goodbye to ‘em all.
As back to their slimepits they crawl,
You’ll get no reaction this side of the ocean,
So cheer up my lads, bless ‘em all!

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Baby Steps in a Spacesuit 3: In Praise of the Short Form

I think the best possible way to inculcate someone into the deep and profound mysteries that are science fiction, is to shower them with short story anthologies.

I am deeply biased, of course, because I have both had it done to me, and done it to myself.  The first time was when I was eleven or twelve years old, and needed weaning off the juvenile play-play SF (Tom Swift, etc) I was reading at the time.  The second time was when I was a little at a loss as to what new material to read in the noughties: I had been reading exclusively store-bought novels for years, meaning I was no longer frequenting second-hand bookshops or the public library, and it is difficult to pick someone new up in full-length novel format.

I praise the wisdom of my first SF mentor, back there in 1966: Judy Drew, it was; primary school teacher at my school, friend of my mother – and only in her mid-twenties, possibly.  Meaning she was only a few years ahead of me – but WHAT a difference those couple of years made!

She lent me a series of anthologies when I was around 11, starting out with the slim volumes – just 8-10 stories each – of John Carnell’s very excellent New Writings in SF series.  He edited at least the first 20 or so, which appeared from 1964 to 1972, and you could find everyone from John Rackham to Colin Kapp to Poul Anderson and Brian Aldiss – which is why I picked on their novels later on.  The covers were also consistently good and very well done.  Sadly, I have just given my last few issues away – so Rethea, if you read this, know that I have given you history!


Judy then graduated me onto meatier collections such as the legendary Spectrum III – which I will remember as long as I live, because it was so very good.  It is still available, I see – and looking at the goodreads entry, I see that it was edited by Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest; that its contents were

“…culled from the Sci Fi Pulps of the late 1940s and 1950s and includes works by Theodore Sturgeon (“Killdozer!,” 1945), J.G. Ballard (“The Voices of Time,” 1960), Poul Anderson (“Call Me Joe,” 1957), Murray Leinster (“Exploration Team,” 1956), Alfred Bester (“Fondly Fahrenheit,” 1954) and Arthur C. Clarke (“The Sentinel,” 1951), among others”.

How could you possibly go wrong with a set of authors like that to cut your teeth on?  I think Killdozer is among the best stories I have ever read; so too Fondly Fahrenheit – and I am pretty fond of Call Me Joe, too.  Just those three stories introduce one to an ancient plasma-like being possessing a bulldozer, a temperature-triggered serial killer android who projects his madness onto its owner in the course of its spree, and a disabled man remote-operating an artificial body on Jupiter (Avatar, anyone??).

It’s not surprising, then, that I went on to collect (usually tatty second-hand) novel and collected short story offerings from the likes of Sturgeon, Asimov, Anderson, Bester, Aldiss, Heinlein, Leinster and Clarke.

short stories

However, I also avidly kept reading New Writings in SF – and Analog, Astounding, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and any other collection I could lay my hands on, because I found short-form SF to be SO exciting.


I also met many other authors that impressed me – like Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, Cordwainer Smith, Michael Moorcock, Fred Saberhagen, Larry Niven, Keith Laumer, and Robert Sheckley and their ilk.  Smith and Saberhagen were especially exciting, because they obviously had entire universes that they explored in stand-alone stories: Smith The Instrumentality of Mankind, and Saberhagen the Berserker universe.  While these were very different, and the styles of their authors similarly different, the sustained creativity within a literary construct was something I really enjoyed.  I have continued to enjoy such things in full-length form, such as Larry Niven’s Ringworld, set in his Known Space universe first met via short story, and his related and now franchised Man-Kzin War series, and Farmer’s World of Tiers series.

However, part of what drew me so strongly to SF was the fact that many of the stories I read in my early days were little masterpieces in their own right – and affected me so powerfully, that I remember them vividly to this day.

Stories like It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby from 1953.  I read this when still a young teenager, and it lives with me still – the fascination of a baby who can make the world go away, and the boy who keeps his town going.  His way….

And Mimsy Were the Borogroves, by “Lewis Padgett” – aka Henry Kuttner and CL Moore – from 1943.  I loved this story: the combination of future technologies and bright children has always drawn me, and this was especially good.  It made for a not-very-good film – The Last Mimzy – in 2007, but it was still good enough for my then 12-year-old daughter to thoroughly enjoy.  And how do you make toves slithy?  Vaseline, obviously!

The Cold Equations, published by Tom Godwin in 1954, was a completely different animal: its basis is how the cold certainties of physics doom to death a stowaway on an Emergency Dispatch Ship carrying emergency serum for a deadly disease down to a colony planet.  While that is all pretty straightforward, it was the way Godwin described the teenaged girl who stowed away that stuck with me. I defy you not to be moved by passages like this:

The stowaway was not a man — she was a girl in her teens, standing before him in little white gypsy sandals, with the top of her brown, curly head hardly higher than his shoulder, with a faint, sweet scent of perfume coming from her, and her smiling face tilted up so her eyes could look unknowing and unafraid into his as she waited for his answer.
…he saw that she was not wearing Vegan gypsy sandals, but only cheap imitations; the expensive Vegan leather was some kind of grained plastic, the silver buckle was gilded iron, the jewels were colored glass.

I think I cried at the time.  It still moves me now.

And given that we have just had Xmas, consider how Arthur C Clarke’s The Star from 1954 might have affected a Catholic kid raised on Nativity stories: the ending paragraph alone has to be one of the best things he ever wrote.

“There can be no reasonable doubt: the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”

The interesting thing was that, apart from Clarke, I read very little else from any of these writers: their offerings were pretty much confined to short form SF, and they were masters of the craft.

I moved gradually in the 1970s, as I began to be able to afford new paperbacks while at University, to buying, reading and keeping full-length novels.  I stuck with people I had met via short stories in the main, and built up a collection of Dick, Anderson, Niven, Moorcock, Farmer, Heinlein – and then Frank Herbert’s Dune series, because I kept reading about this wondrous book, and then it got republished – and it had sequels!!

Oh, I kept buying, short story collections and novels, and occasionally I’d chance some money on a new author – the Cape Town Public Library proved useful as a proving ground for a while, as it had a reasonable collection – but I found myself mainly recycling the same folk over and over.  Interesting new discoveries in this time, however, were Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, and Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile series and related Galactic Milieu collection, and Gordon R Dickson’s Dorsai cycle.

However, the rut grew a little boring – until I discovered, as part of my second childhood, (OK, I had children) the truly excellent and very meaty (as in, thick: 650+ pages per collection) Mammoth Book annual series of Best New SF, edited by  über-fan Gardner Dozois – although, sadly, only from issue 12 in 1998.

new sf shorts

This series is the new best way to introduce someone to SF: the spread of authors is breathtaking; the scope of the stories, stunning – and if you haven’t found at least one very promising new author after reading just one issue, then you’re not really a fan.

I went on to explore Alastair Reynolds and Neal Asher in enough detail, after discovering them in Best New SFs, that I think I now own just about everything in novel form that either of them has written.  I reviewed Reynolds’ Revelation Space on the WWEnd site:

I got introduced to the Newest Wave of SF the same way I met the last one: by reading short story collections.  And in those collections, I read several stories by the likes of Charles Stross, Neal Asher – and Alastair Reynolds.  I was immediately taken with his stories about Clavaine; it was logical to move on to longer-form offerings in the same universe – and then into others.

Reynolds is truly impressive: his Revelation Space is a self-contained masterwork, with impeccable physics, and really good characterisations.  Oh, and a stunning storyline.  Read this book: you will then go out and buy all of his others.  I certainly have….

I had this to say about Neal Asher in my own blog:

I’m off to finish Neal Asher’s latest offering, “Line War“.  Wherein the awesome power of a black hole is harnessed via a mega-matter transmitter as a weapon against a nanotech-enabled enemy.  And sassy and cantankerous androids do battle with rogue artificial intelligences.  Serious stuff…B-)

And which I had to repurchase, after losing it somewhere in a plane, a week or so ago, nine-tenths finished.

hate it when that happens [and it really did: happened to Niven’s The Draco Tavern AND KS Robinson’s Green Mars, AND Dan Simmons’ Endymion as well…].

I discovered Ian McDonald – whose Cyberabad Days and Brasyl are the best recent single-author short story collection, and best novel that I have read in years.  I reviewed Brasyl as follows, on the WWEnd site:

I cannot praise this book enough: I so thoroughly enjoyed it, I put off finishing it until I absolutely HAD to.

It ticked all the boxes: incredible writing; parallel universes; historical accuracy (and recreation) – and a MOST satisfying and complicated ending.

Oh, and it is anything but Amero- or Britain-centric, which pleases me even more, as a denizen of the gobal South.

I’m not sure if I found Charles Stross in the same collections, but if not, then I found him in the bookshop that I bought all my Best New SFs in, because I was browsing after having found one – and I am so glad I did, because Accelerando is the next best book I have read in recent years.  Again, from WWEnd:

While I liked Charles Stross already – I think he is one of my best discoveries of recent years – I was not prepared for Accelerando.  The effortless way that he sweeps us from just-a-little-in-the-future, with the technology singularity lurking, to a far and very digital future, with galactic routers and digitised humans travelling as information packets via light sails….

This is an absolutely incredible read.  I found I had two analogue versions, before I bought an electronic one as well.  I am more than happy to have contributed to Cde Stross in this way.

So, as a result of twice having introduced myself to new short-form SF via short story collections, I now have a collection of SF mainly in novel form, which spans some 70 years.  It is literally in two sections, each of 4 metres around: the top deck is the older ones, going back to some of the first books I ever got; the lower is everything new – like from the mid-1990s.  I am very happy with the “new” SF, I must admit: so much so that I wrote this, in a vaguely work-connected blog, a couple of years ago.

I was most impressed, when I first came to UCT [University of Cape Town] – lo, these 33 years ago and counting [now 39] – that the English Department had a recommended reading list that included a significant amount of science fiction.

I have no idea whether or not they still recommend Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” or “The Sirens of Titan” – but if they don’t, they should.  And they should add to that list some of the truly impressive New Young(ish) British Wave of authors: people like Charles Stross, Ken MacLeod (OK, so they’re nationalistically Scottish),  Peter F Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds; newer Americans like Dan Simmons, Greg Bear and Gregory Benford.  Not to mention OF*s like Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, who seems to have become Hollywood-respectable, Samuel R Delany and especially Roger Zelazny….

The thing about the new guys, and OFs above, is that they write well: they blend hard science (never a bad thing for non-practitioners), sociology and politics in a way that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke never could.  I remember being totally bemused by a postgrad with literary pretensions in our Dept about 20 years ago, who said she never read “…that stuff, because it was simply fantastical by definition, and had no literary merit”.   I remember making the point that she couldn’t say that if she’d never read any, but like most people who put down  “The Satanic Verses”, she obviously didn’t need to, in order to know it was bad.  She didn’t seem to have the same opinion of “1984”, or “That Hideous Strength” or “Brave New World”, so obviously SF by mainstream literary authors was OK?

Ah, well.  Invincible ignorance is not punished by hellfire in the old Catholic canon, merely by eternal stagnation (aka Limbo).

But back to the New New Age: this is an exciting time, much like the mid-1970s, when it seemed that every few months brought a new chapter in the “Dune” saga (40 years old this year!), or from Larry Niven’s “Known Space” or “Ringworld” universes.  Alastair Reynolds is cranking them out, it seems, as is Charles Stross – who is very funny, as well as being seriously good at his social / scientific predictions.  Anyone who wants to blow their mind(s) need only read Stross’s “Accelerando”, available online: this has to be the single best (well, OK, SF) novel of the last 10 years and possibly even further.  Apart from Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, which mixes a history of the Age of Enlightenment with some serious mysticism – and cryptography.   And U-boats.  And gold…

* = Old Fart

I also know of no better way to get into it than by reading short stories.

So, get on with it – wonders await!

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SF stories in 200 characters or fewer

My favourite source of very-short SF stories – the back page of Nature magazine (aka “Futures”) - is holding a competition.  This involves writing

“…a sci-fi tale that is just 200 characters long (including spaces and punctuation). The microFutures story must be your own work and not previously published, and should be science fiction rather than, say, outright fantasy, slipstream or horror.”

I already screwed up by entering more than one – and more than 200 characters long, because I neglected to take spaces into account – so I am just going to put all of mine here.  Enjoy!

Borg morning
Seen on the inside of your eyes, upon waking: “Resistance was futile. You were assimilated by the Borg. Reality simulation terminates in 1000 seconds.  Welcome to glorious servitude!”

 Henry’s cunning plan
…so Henry’ll just tag them all together into an avant-garde stream-of-someone-else’s-consciousness SF novel, and win a prize?

Wow! signal
The Wow! Signal is finally decoded.  It says: “Is your xvvvdrt4hator running?  Well, you’d better run after it then”. Other interpretations are still being explored.

The Overlords’ plan
The Futures competition turned out to be an exercise by the Planetary Overlords in gauging the depth of knowledge of their existence, with the minimum of text. All winners were duly executed.

After losing their wives, Ed and Russell discovered Manspace. An infinity of shops, packed with all the gadgets, tools, and electronic toys in the multiverse. However, they soon died of malnutrition.

The problem with inventing time travel
The problem with time travel is that no budding inventor of it ever gets past saying “Now that’s a brilliant idea!” before suddenly and mysteriously dying. Except for the first one, of course.

Marking the Universe project
Novel in concept, but dark energy was a bad miscalculation. Incorporating your initials into the hologram was also cheeky. Creating everything from one element was novel. Overall mark: 60%

The multiverse’s revenge
The multiverse considered the problem of the Futures competition at some length. It decided it didn’t like it. Henry Gee suddenly ceased to exist in every universe simultaneously.

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To the Father Who Thinks My Daughter is a Bad Influence

…on his son, and doesn’t want him associating with her.

Really?? My daughter is a bad influence on the boy I first met when he was so spaced at a trance festival, that his pants were round his knees, and he fell flat on his face in the dust every ten steps he took? When she delayed us going home, so she could try to look after him?

The boy about whom I had serious misgivings concerning letting him into my house, but allowed him in – many times – anyway??

The boy who, in my home, has never managed to speak more than ten words to my wife and I – despite spending many nights here, and even eating with us?

The boy who I have seen passed-out drunk at my house more than once, on booze he brought with him – while his peers were having civilised gatherings?

Sorry, friend: I think he has far bigger problems than associating with my daughter.
At least now he won’t have THAT one any more.

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