I arrived in Glasgow and stayed two nights in two separate hotels, as described in the previous blogs. Then I moved into my cousin Lily’s apartment. She wasn’t there because she was visiting her sister in London. This felt weird, even though I’d had constant reassurance that it shouldn’t be a problem. I hadn’t seen my cousin for about seven years, and her gesture of offering me a place to stay was a Google Image result for “blood thicker water”.
So I busied myself exploring the city for the few days before she returned, avoiding her housemates to personify the adage “I’ll be no trouble whatsoever – you won’t even notice I’m here”. The night before she did return, however, I got caught in the house alone with one of her two housemates. But she was right: it wasn’t a problem. Housemate and I bonded over our involvement in the arts and watched a film together, and I realised that sometimes presence can be just as reassuring as a fly-by-night.
Once my cousin was back, we launched into the seven year catch-up: boldly asking the questions about each others’ lives that we half felt we should’ve known already, ie What are you doing exactly? and: what was that picture about on Facebook? We talked about family and went down small cobbled alleyways of nostalgia, but it was easy enough to strike up familiarity with someone I’ve known about all my life, and talk about ideas and plans for the future.
Without much fanfare, Lily’s housemate set a time for me to meet with a member of an art collective, Transmission; a collective twenty years into the future of the one I’m involved with in Adelaide. They took my cousin and I around their premises and we were introduced to their artist-in-residence:- all of it scores of grant approval and funding away from the Format operations; their ethos a tad more high-brow – or was that just because it was the (capital A)rts in Britain? I did my best to come across pragmatic and art-world-weary, and handed over a Format business card wondering if they’d ever check whether I was legitimate or not. They gifted me a book about the collective anyhow, so I mustn’t have seemed too naive – I worry about that sometimes.
After saying goodbye to Lily, I boarded a bus for Edinburgh at Buchanan Station. I got myself seated and was about to plunge into my book, when a voice asked me if the seat next to me was taken. I beamed politely and said “no” and the woman took her seat.
“Are you on holiday?” she asked.
“More or less,” I said truthfully, though realised this was one of those answers that begs another question. So I continued, “Yes, I’m visiting friends and family in the UK.”
“That’s great,” said the woman, who I now saw was unkempt and rather rotund, with big, wide eyes, yet a pleasant enough demeanour. She carried a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke. “Oh dear, I can never get these seatbelts on.”
So I helped her get it on, closing a personal space gap so early on in proceedings. We hadn’t even left the station.
“Where are you from?” she asked, her Glaswegian accent making me concentrate. When I looked at her face, her eyes wandered – often in two different directions at once.
“Australia,” I said.
“Oh!” she exclaimed. “Oh, I love Australia, though I’ve never been. I’ve just been to Spain – the Cos-ta Del Sol,” she pronounced every syllable, like she was tasting its flavour, sucking on the vowels, “with Mum. How old are you?”
“Twenty-six,” I said.
“A baby! Not old like me: no, not as old as me,” she chuckled.
“Aw…” I began, but then thought it better not to charm someone I was stuck with for the next two hours. Plus, I was pinned to the sunny side of the bus, getting travel fatigue in the heat, and there were no curtains to block it out. I tried not to sigh too audibly. “How did you like Spain?” I asked.
“Mum and I relaxed. I don’t like working too much. That’s why I’m going to the Capital for the day.”
“What do you do for work?” I asked.
“I clean a few offices, nothing very interesting. What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher,” I said. She cooed; the next question already on her lips.
After about forty minutes, my head was swimming in the heat; didn’t the bus have air-conditioning for crying out loud? I gave my travel companion short answers and smiled, turning my head slowly to concentrate on the landscape outside the window.
“Sorry if I’m boring you,” she giggled, “I can leave you alone if you like – won’t take it personally.”
To which I said, “No, no… I’m just… tired.”
“Those are trans-knitters,” she said, pointing to a radio tower. “They make sure our phones and televisions and the internet work.”
“I think I might take a kip,” I said, when I couldn’t think of anything to say to that, and she left me alone until we got to the outskirts of Edinburgh, where I stirred from my pretend sleep.
“What’s your name?” the woman asked. “I’m Siobhan.”
“I’m Sam,” I said, “That’s a good Irish name.” Siobhan suddenly got defensive.
“My family’s Irish,” she said. Then she softened her tone, “Nice to meet you, Sam.”
“You too,” I said, thinking: you’re a great character to write about later.
Then she said, “I get off here,” and took off her seatbelt and leapt to her feet. In a few strides, she got off the bus and was gone. While I had endured her company, I was a little pissed off she didn’t say goodbye.
Over Twitter I found out by surprise that my friend Lisa was in Edinburgh, so I planned to meet up with her after heading to an Edinburgh Fringe venue to let my accommodation-sporting friend Miki know I was there, since she hadn’t replied to any of my text messages. It turned out, after an exasperated call from a Scottish woman called Deidre, that I’d been harassing the wrong number.
Lisa and I spent most of the weekend together, where she showed me the Edinburgh equivalent of Format, called the Forest, and we talked travel, travel-writing, Edinburgh, men in kilts, Scottish men, good coffee, and vegetarian food, among much else. We’d seen each other a few times in Adelaide and Newcastle at different literary events, but had always been too flustered to have any quality time to converse, so it was great to do it overseas – clocking up another “remember that time in…?” moment to solidify a friendship.
When I finally got to see Miki, she was flat out, working front-of-house for several of the theatres in the Pleasance venue. She was part of a team of gap-year school-leavers or young drama students. This was at first a cause for much grief – this side of 25 – but she soon found it entertaining – sorta like Big Brother – following everyone’s tangled web of drunken sex and broken hearts. They all started on the first of August, and by the final week when I came, Miki seemed ready to lie down on the Royal Mile and let the hoards of tourists trample her to death. The upshot of the job, however, was that you got to see Fringe shows playing at the venue you worked at for free, and Miki was third on the ladder of most-shows-seen. So I got to see four shows for free in the two days I was there: nothing spectacular, though nothing to sneeze at either.
I also met up with my old and dear friend Ruth, who’d come down for the Fringe, and to take me back to her hometown, Aberdeen. She’d come with her friend Travis, and intermittently I swung back and forth between the branches of friendship, and introduced them all, basking in the fact that I knew and trusted each person, and that they knew and trusted me in return.
[I found another friend in Edinburgh, too. On Calton Hill in the morning of the second day, among all the tourists taking photos of Arthur’s Seat, the Scott Memorial, and the castle, I looked down and saw a puppet lying face-down on the ground. I recognised the grey fur and black ears immediately – a Sweep puppet from the Sooty Show! I picked him up and looked around. I gave Calton Hill about four seconds to claim him, and then ran, chuckling maniacally to meet up with Lisa, Ruth and Travis for lunch.]
Over lunch I told them about the woman on the bus, and Ruth said that she must’ve been autistic (an area of health she’s worked extensively in). I also told them how I was bitten on the leg by a deer in Japan, and regretted not including the story in the Superheroes blog. We joked about it, and the name Stagman was born. “Hen’s nights are kryptonite to… STAGMAN!” And so I found myself with Ruth buying a t-shirt in Primark in Aberdeen with a stag on it, and the next day we went in search of deer in the Cairngorms National Park.
Nearing twilight – the best time to see them frolicking before nightfall – Ruth parked the car and we turned Blondie off and had a nap, hoping the stillness would attract the deer. For most of the day we had talked about love and life and letting go. So it was fitting when, as soon as we’d truly given up on the elusive creatures, turned the stereo back on and began the drive home, we spotted three deer on the side of the road. They froze still, staring back at us, then darted away… Poignant.
After Scotland, I went to Manchester. I had a few days to spare before going on to Bath, so I decided to see England’s second city; the capital of the North. It was the first time alone in a while, and I was lucky to get a six-bed dorm to myself for two of the five nights there.
I set out each day getting my bearings on the city: a strange place, the mix of new and old architecture more jarring than in other British cities. I likened it to the weather – if you didn’t like your surroundings, just walk on, and soon enough they would change. One day I got a tan and saturated by a freak thunderstorm. I’m still unsure of whether I liked the city or not. It seemed prosperous enough; had a flourishing subculture, mostly seen in the Northern Quarter, where my hostel was; had a strong Queer community in the famous Canal Street; and a few really interesting art galleries (like the Whitworth) and museums (like the People’s History). But I never warmed to it – instead I contented myself exploring the Asian supermarkets in its Chinatown and practising my Mancunian accent: “Don’t worry, Son. You’re a big, fat poofter, now, like.”
I talk to myself a lot when left alone for more than a couple of days. I like being alone – I relish the time to do whatever I want. Yet, I can’t do it for too long. When I finally found the zine shop Good Grief on the penultimate day in Manchester, I gushed, babbling at the poor guy who ran it. I awkwardly mentioned it was my first conversation in a few days, and prolonged the conversation past its use-by, and left overstimulated. Any longer in there and I would’ve told him about the photo I’d taken the night before of Sweep and I having an argument.
Luckily, I’m not that naive. I know when some human interactions must stop before exposing too much…