Maya's a pathologist. Bits of the human body drift constantly through their house. I like staying with Luke and Maya, not only because we've all known each other for the length of time that makes friendship as comfy as your oldest jimjams, but because she has a collection of the most disgusting books on earth. There is no bedtime reading like The Illustrated Dictionary of Rare Skin Diseases. I've spent the night before marvelling at the effect of tertiary syphilis on the nose: Michael Jackson could have saved a fortune.
And now we're in the car, heading out to sample the delights of Birmingham on a Saturday afternoon. It's raining. I've never been to Birmingham without it raining. Without fail, as I emerge from New Street station, the first spots will be beginning, to be replaced by hailstones, or waterfalls, or that nebulous wet that would be called a haar if it were the East Coast. The Eskimos may have 67 words for snow, but the Brummie dialect must encompass thousands for a state of soggy.
Fortunately, Birmingham was built for rain. Since the War, the town planners have made a concerted effort to build with an eye to encouraging people never to expose themselves to the elements. Which is why the city centre consists almost entirely of four-lane roads and shopping malls. Going for a walk in Birmingham is about as advisable as sunbathing in Isfahan: sure, you can try it, but you'll be taking your life in your hands. There are paved open spaces, but you'd better not take an umbrella; you'd be swept off to Kansas by the gale-force winds that howl across their steppe- like expanses.
So Luke takes us on a tour of the ring roads while Domsy goes "Aak!" and "Ga!" in the back and Maya points out the landmarks: here's the hospital I used to work in; here's our favourite curry house, I Am the King of Balti (I resolve to try it out on directory enquiries when I get home); this council estate is known as Fort Apache; here is a cafe called "Mr Egg (for a cracking good meal)"; here's the Manyana sauna, solarium, video room and massage; here's another canal; here's the art gallery; this tunnel runs underneath a splendid example of Victorian Gothic. Eventually I find signs for Bournville and we go to Cadbury World.
Evidently, the entire population of the West Midlands has had the same idea. The car park, whose railings are painted the colour of a Dairy Milk wrapper, is, as you would expect, chocca. Coaches decant parties of grannies with frizzy perms on the front steps, where they ooh over a pair of cars converted to look like giant Creme Eggs. A couple of hundred five-year-olds sit on the floor in the foyer, patrolled by exhausted-looking teachers and fighting over boxes of mini-rolls. It's an hour until the next tour, so we give up and go into the shop instead.
I head for the Bargain Corner and study the huge bags of misshapes retailing at pounds 2.49; the three boxes of chocolate chip cookies for pounds 1; the piles and piles of selection boxes. Luke pushes through crowds of teenage girls in Cadbury World paper hats to secure a kilogram bar of Dairy Milk, which he tucks under his arm like a briefcase. Maya picks up a giant tube of chocolate buttons and rattles it at Domsy; his face lights up like Oxford Street, and then he starts wailing when she won't let him chew the top off.
The whole room is crammed with wailing children whose parents have refused them more than one of the exclusive-to-Cadbury-World Chuckle Beans, an Easter egg substitute in the shape of a chocolate bean with a demonic grin plastered across its face. I pick up a bag of misshapes, feel queasy, put it down again. Two porcine 11-year-olds crash between me and the display stand, locked in gladiatorial battle over a maxi-box of Flakes. They cannon into an old lady in a wheelchair whose lap is piled with Milk Tray. Their father pursues them. "All right, you two. Stop arguing," he says. "Cookies, look! Cookies!" The pre-teens shriek to a halt and plunge into the dump bin. I decide to go for greed and snatch the bag of misshapes back to my bosom.
Which circle of hell is this? I don't know, but everyone is wearing an anorak and square-lensed specs. It's probably the punishment for obsessive health freakishness: you will spend all eternity surrounded by sartorially challenged families in the throes of sugar rush. I stand in the ten-deep queue for the checkout. The woman behind me tells her husband she'll meet him in the restaurant. "Hey, Sheila!" he shouts at her retreating back, "get me a triple truffle torte."
Driving back through the rain to Harborne, the infant gurgling in endorphin- induced ecstasy, we pass a huge sign. danger, it says, blind people patrolling. I laugh and point it out. "I know," says Luke, "and the great thing is, this is the road where the driving schools take pupils for their first lessons."