Planes, trains and souzamaphones.
You’ve heard of that bloke. Homer.
Came out with some profound stuff. Apparently very memorable.
And it is of just such profound narratives and timeless tales of human perseverance that I am thinking now. Of high adventure… and low expectations. Of acts of God, and… more desperate acts.
Of passenger ships and… one-liners.
Anyway, whether you’re now thinking of the mythical bloke from Springfieid or the one from Smyrna, my point is that, long ago, I wrote a tune. A simple little bit of electronic sing-songery that made it in some theatrical incarnation to Momo’s forthcoming debut LP; a tune called Asylum Seeker.
Its slightly karaoke New Romantic chorus includes the lines: ‘I am the refugee, come and rescue me; I am the lost at sea, send a boat for me’.
I’d always rather pictured any accompanying video to this showing middle class business men and trendy metro dandies looking displaced and uncomfortable, lost and sockless. Barefoot in the urban jungle, or somesuch. Artistic social commentary if ever there were such a thing.
Yes. So. Funny how a spot of cheesy keyboard pop can turn out to be prophetic.
We set sail in the spring of 2010. A simple Sell Your Soul For A Quick Break Abroad cheap flight from dear old Bomo to Palma de Mallorca. Nothing complicated. Shouldn’t be incidental, we thought. Cop a feel of some nice Mediterranean air and Eurozone splendidness, saunter around the old city, loll in a few leafy coves, and restore the ol’ S. Possibly fitting in a few s-bends in the precariously new little Fiat we plundered locally.
With all these simple aspirations comfortably present and correct nearing the end of our sojourn to the good Bally-Es, we tripped on the hotel room news box one languid afternoon, post obligatory siesta, and saw an item of passing interest:
UK AIRSPACE CLOSED. CLOUD OF LOOMING DEATH SPREADING SOUTH FAST. FOR GOD’S SAKE, SIT ON THE FLOOR AND PRAY.
“Uh… huh” we mused. And opened the mini Pringles.
Well, you know this story. You may well have been caught up in the ash cloud of doom yourself and know it first hand. Bit of a bugger to say the least. And not just the ruddy name. But also because there was, it appeared to clouds of British holiday makers all over the continent, absolutely no-one to blame.
This left everyone strangely subdued.
Standing in Palma international airport, I began to feel a niggling doubt, that Saturday morning, that my cavalier plans to be canny were unraveling.
Unencumbered by the patter of tiny feet, the lovely first lady of Momo and I were possibly about to be treated to what we might later privately end up admitting was a jolly wheeze; a game of Get Yourself Home Without Flying. Why, what a simply novel idea, darling!
I’d looked at the maps and felt informed and equipped. I’d looked at the queues of the forlorn and felt the sobering warmth of pity. I’d looked into the middle distance with a flinty glint and said quietly: “Let’s lose these saps.”
We’d find a last flight out of Spanish airspace. We’d make it to France and be in with a fighting chance. We’d get a train. We’d hike an Alpine pass. We’d hitch-hike. We’d mule trek! We were never going to hitch-hike or mule trek. Just sounds like the sort of thing we would have considered from the point of view of spinning the yarn over-confidently in the pub long afterwards. But one way or another, I figured we’d get back to Blighty with our wits and wallets intact.
Then the alternative airlines one by one stopped their flights to Germany. Then France. Then almost anywhere. Then the price of their few remaining seats across the water to Barcelona seemed to be the only things taking off.
The ferry didn’t seem bothered about leaving for the mainland until midnight, or about making landfall until breakfast time, and the trains in Cataluna were rumoured to be actually evaporating in the sheer heat of demand.
So it was that, crestfallen, I found myself actually joining the queue to talk to the one and only human working for Ryanair on Mallorca that morning.
I felt bitch-slapped into submission. Still, if you’re going to drink from the devil’s cup.
We made friends in the queue, obviously. We were there for a few days. I think we were on the point of going out for dinner with Pat and Veronica from Dublin as we approached the flimsy booth, understanding by then that there would be no hope of flights resuming to the UK for at least a week. As if anyone knew anything at all.
Then, like stumbling out of an amazon jungle of stiff legs into the seductive sheening glow of Eldorado, we found ourselves actually at the head of the eternal Ryanair queue.
“We can get you on a flight next Saturday” said the remarkably composed and cheery sounding woman inside. It was almost as though the air in that booth had clouded her sense of reality. It would be the full week then. A full extra week late home from holiday. And she didn’t seem to think this was odd.
Now, at this point, it’s worth bringing back into view the only imperative we really had on our time – and it was hardly imperative at all. In fact, despite the weird series of fortunate events apparently impelling me towards it before our hols, I had by this stage comfortably given up on the idea.
Momo’s first ever gig.
As Caroline had said to me there in that four-hour snake of lost souls: “Of course. Of course it takes a volcano to stop you getting back on stage after ten years!” And I had simply nodded.
It was Saturday afternoon by this stage. More or less exactly 48 hours before we needed to be casually strolling into the Troubadour in Earl’s Court with our down-at-heel flight cases and world-class horn players. I looked at the booth woman.
“Are you flying anywhere else?” I said quietly. She frowned in thought at her monitor. We waited. Time slowed down. Clocks started ticking loudly at low pitch.
“Well… there is this little flight to Madrid” she said diffidently.
“Madrid!? You’re really flying to Madrid?” I perked. “When?”
She paused again, uplit, staring. Taking her time.
“Now” she replied.
I leant forward into the booth, straining with restraint, torpored brain cells suddenly buzzing with realisation.
“Can You Get Us On It?” I breathed.
When an airport is essentially empty, but for lines of sleeping refugees, you can really see where you’re going much easier when running.
We collapsed into the check-in desk in a flurry of English and luggage and stood panting in front of the huddle of bored women still manning this last outpost of hope, far away from any booths. They made a very slow phone call. We watched their every move. We think we understood them saying the polite Spanish equivalent of: “The bloody plane’s gone, hasn’t it? Two English jokers here want to get on it, can you believe it? HAHA! How is your sister, anyway? Really? Yes, her legs are very bad now..Oh, you’re running late. Sure.” >click< “You’re through.”
And minutes later we were watching Mallorca slip below the windows. We were, fairly randomly, now on our way to Madrid.
I looked at Caroline. “Of course, you realise there is suddenly the preposterous possibility that we can still make the gig now?”
She adjusted her eye mask calmly. “Oh yes” she said.
Hitting the tarmac running, we managed to pull out our heavy Dorling Kindersley Didn’t Realise How Much You’d Need This After All Did You Guide To Spain at a steady trot, losing only a few strewn items of worn underwear, and planned our route across the Spanish capital. I confidently identified the correct rail station we’d need to reach Bilbao and planned the Metro journey to reach it accordingly, as we haired past a suspiciously conspicuous tourist information booth. We hairpinned back to this instinctively for some reason and learned, while jogging on the spot, of the actual location of the correct rail station we’d need to reach Bilbao and not northern Portugal. Thanking the amazingly calm, pleasantly attractive young woman in the booth, and jogging on the spot there for a barely noticeable minute longer than the lovely first lady of Momo, I took off again to catch her up, stopping not at all to rescue the socks, hairnet, hotel slipper and assorted Hotel Jaime III-branded souvenirs spilled from our luggage. “Casualties of war, darling. TO THE TICKET MACHINE” I boomed authoritatively, sprinting past.
Each stage of the journey was like adding another bit of Lego. But proper Lego, old Lego, that didn’t come in very specifically designed model packs that more or less neutered the whole POINT of Lego which is imagination, but magically materialised in your toy box in random combinations. We knew what we were trying to make alright, but each time we reached into the Lego box we had no idea what shape brick we were about to pull out.
So far, we’d found the bit to stick onto the rare and idea-creating flight-shaped bit and reached the Metro successfully. Would we find the crucial train-to-Bilbao-shaped bit?
Madrid’s north-serving rail station was muggy and and weirdly post-trauma torpid. Middle class refugees were strewn quietly all over it’s gently bustling Saturday night movement, like a crisis was still going on in transport somewhere, but everyone was a bit too tired and disheartened to still be in a frenzy about it.
We joined another queue, like hard-core patienteers. We swapped and overheard stories from various English speakers and gleaned the essential theme of them all – namely, that ferries and trains and buses and hire cars the world over were basically booked to buggery.
In the end, stepping up to the head of the Travel Information queue, we learned that there wasn’t another train to Bilbao until the following afternoon. Simply because it was, of course, Sunday.
“Thankyou” we said politely and retired to a seat.
“So that’s that” I mused, emptily. “Well, so here’s what we do, ” I then said, not yet feeling fully defeated. “Let’s go check out the bus terminal, just for a laugh. Then go see if we can find a hotel with a room for tonight.”
I stood, pulled on the suitcase handle again and trudged off. “Just for a laugh.”
It’s worth pointing out that the whole idea of making for Bilbao had struck me as a bit of a stroke of genius in the first place, a few of hours earlier. There I was, trying to hire a skiff to make for Marseilles to seek passage north in the opium dens of the old city or somesuch, when the sudden option of going to Madrid negated the need to reach Paris at all. Paris may indeed have seemed much nearer home than Palma, but it would still be essentially Not Actually Home, with plenty of miles of road and queue and grumpy French between us and passage to Blighty.
Bil-frikkin’-bao, on the other hand, like a light from heaven, would mean passage on a single boat all the way from Spain to the good waters of the blerry Solent. Now that really was home – I’d been chucking up in those good waters barely a fortnight before.
But what of those ferries? Just how many other people would have thought of that clever, secret route out of the ashcloud?
Really? I mean, how many people really use the Bibao ferry terminals? Eh?
Eh? Huh. Cuh.
..Yes, you can see where this is going, already.
Wending our way back across the city’s Metro and emerging into some fake version of daylight, we found ourselves clouded by the hopeful sound and smell of diesel thrattle.
We scanned boards quietly, trying to find signs of north-bound life. More refugees with luggage built for floorless-smooth airport surfaces huddled everywhere in the yellow light, yellow skin and sallow eyes and sorrowful boredom dressing Madrid’s Estaçia de Nord bus depot like the Martian colony of freaks in Total Recall. After they’ve turned off the fans.
Then the lovely first lady of Momo made a little sound. That silent sound she makes when her tenacious brain thinks it’s on to something.
“Queue.” she said, pointing without looking away from a screen, and then surreptitiously marching off.
Clutching our four bags, murmuring Spanish, glancing at blurry screens without my ever-more-needed glasses, I scooched forward into the queue of nonchalant ticket buyers. Most of these characters looked like actual Madridians, not gringo desperados from the Costa Blanca. And they all looked like they were still going somewhere. My heart quickened. Not knowing why.
Then came the tap on the arm.
I turned. With hushed urgency, my resourceful wife simply said: “Get the bags, we’re going to Bilbao” and moved off.
Watching her with steely pride as she slipped through the crowd, I snapped out of my reverie and got moving. Over my case and onto my face in a flurry of passports.
No I didn’t. Not quite. But it’s a funnier punchline-out of the scene.
Ticket machine. She’d navigated a blessed ticket machine and now we were here – sitting on a bench, circled by buses in a yellow light, unsure whether we were supposed to be under or above ground exactly, but sure as sure we could be that we were going to bloody Bilbao.
1.30 am overnight bus. We had four hours to rest up and wait.
Delighted, we set out our little stall right there, picnicking one of the best picnics of our lives, taking humble essentials of sustenance, and elevating them to the ennobling status of triumphant feast. For we were going to Bilbao. You suckers.
And there, surrounded by travelers coming and going, we did feast indeed, eschewing any meagre appearance of whatever packed supplies we’d been able to lay our hands on in our desperate flight, and eating heartily. Simply giving thanks for small but crucial mercies. Olives, pate, pesto, assorted cheeses and a full French baguette would have to tide us over.
Caroline tutted and stopped unwrapping her smoked chorizo.
“What?” I asked, concerned.
“No wine.” she said flatly through a mouthful.
We shuddered and held eachother for a moment. Yet, d’you know, I think we still counted ourselves two of the luckiest, richest people in Spain that night.
“Wouldn’t have been room temperature.” I reassured bravely.
I didn’t seem odd to us to sit in a corner for a couple hours after that and watch the bleak, cardboard, brilliant original 70s version of Survivors on the laptop. Perfectly normal. The time spooled by comfortably and soon we really were on route to Spain’s famous Basque port, never more grateful to sleep on a bus. And not having had to fight for petrol or steal an old Landrover.
I looked at my watch.
I looked at the map.
“Can’t see the port. But you should know that the Gugenheim is just up the street” I said forlornly.
“I’m thinking Metro” said Caroline, as the bus thrattled into life behind us and pulled out of the dark bus depot back into the dawn.
“But it’s just round the corner…” I said quietly, looking over my shoulder with large, sad eyes as we staggered down some steps.
The chap stood for a moment, rubbed his eyes and expertly communicated in just a silent look that he’d only just gotten into his booth here on this Sunday morning. I stood back, allowing my wife’s deftly understated charm to work it’s magic on this kindly middle-aged man.
“Go all the way to the end of the line, the port’s there” he said, handing us tickets. And then we were on an empty Metro platform. In Bilbao. Going to find a ferry to freedom.
“Of course, you realise…” I began, voice echoing around the vast scale of the lonely station.
“Yes,” said Caroline a full minute later, “we could still make it.”
We both continued to sit there, staring forward.
Light finally began to creep out of hiding behind the hills and rooftops of Bilbao as the carriage slid along the estuary to the end of the line. Silhouettes of cranes and other coastal industry emerged and passed us. As it came to rest, 20 minutes later, we slipped out of the shushing doors into the delicate quiet of first light and padded out of the station.
Not a sign.
“Ah. Where do you think the very big boat is hiding?” I asked carefully, spaced out beyond emotion.
We stood there a while longer.
“Must be this way” I then said with the utterly uninformed idle confidence of a man, but without the reassuring theatre of being properly awake.
“How do you know?” Caroline said flatly.
“Stands to reason. Or something.” I said flatly.
Whatever our half-hearted conversation there in the pretty desertion of early morning, we began trundling forward, little airport cases still rumbling behind us.
The empty streets were bereft of signage to the town’s principal passenger connection with the outside world but we trudged without emotion along a main road and followed the sound of gulls until we saw one eventual sign, limply hanging from a lampost. Said simply:
We dutifully followed its vague direction but began to wonder whether an industrial estate was really going to house something as hard to hide as an umpteen thousand-ton, lorry-swallowing boat built to survive the violent distempers of Biscay. Yet on we trundled. Faith blind, but belligerently in place.
And then we turned one more corner, past one more block of empty offices, around one more empty car park. And there it was. A small portacabin in the distance. And humble but visible was a little sign above its door.
Not a queue in site.
There wasn’t a queue inside either. There were only about three other humans in there. But thankfully, at least one of them was behind a booth.
Now, thinking back, to imagine that this poor lady was looking and sounding defeated and frazzled already, is remarkable. Because I don’t know where she felt she had left to go after playing her full emotional hand at seven in the morning, given the particular morning that was, she would discover all too soon, still ahead of her.
“We, ah, don’t have tickets” I opened, perhaps unwisely. She sighed immediately and spoke as if to a crowd.
“ALL THOSE WITHOUT TICKETS, I AM SORRY BUT THE FERRY IS BOOKED. NO TICKETS LEFT.”
Helpful as this cutting to the chase might have been to any waiting crowds, I looked over my shoulder briefly at the empty room and then continued: “So there IS a ferry today?”
“Yes. Is booked.”
“And, the next ferry?”
I felt a little final breath escape me, there at that booth.
“Yes. Is booked.”
I tipped my head and stood there. Just allowing the reality to sink in. Of course. Of course it had always been this.
“I take your name” she said, as if to get me to go tip my head and sink in somewhere else, “but really is futile. Look: I can’t find pen. Look: I talk to colleague as if distracted. Look: pen I find doesn’t work. Look: I eventually write your name in distinctly token manner on scrap of paper that looks like was pulled on bit of elastic from bin. Look, I’m sorry.”
I nodded. We went and sat down.
We stared at the floor. We felt nothing.
And then I thought of something.
“Know what I’m going to do?” I eventually said to the faithful one beside me.
“What?” she said without moving.
“I’m going to have a wee and get myself a coffee.” I said with flat conviction. “Then I’m going to sit here and see what happens.”
“Good plan” she replied quietly as I walked off. “Toilets don’t work.”
We sat there in time-lapse. I slowly finished my coffee and watched the little ferry reception fill like a forward bulkhead of the Titanic. By mid morning, children and other loose items were floating on the surface of the humanity bursting out of the building’s seams. We simply sat and watched.
I turned to the window. A vast rust-spewn wall of white grumbled slowly past and halted.
I looked. Blasted out were the words Pride Of Portsmouth. Bolted underneath in their place were the words Pride of Nantes.
“Bloody nora” I said, as it dawned. ” Do these people realise they’re going to the Bahamas?”
And then it happened. As it was always going to happen.
“MEESTER AND MEESES PEACH TO RECEPTION BOOTH PLEASE.” scratched a tannoy.
I turned round again. Looked at Caroline.
I stood. In a dream. I glided past the throng waiting agitatedly to get to the booth, walking straight up to the window, past them all.
I looked calm. I looked serene. I looked like bleedin’ Keanu right near the end of The Matix; the forces of travel calamity could grimace and flail at me all they wanted, I would fend them off with a surreal single hand as I looked with gentle enlightenment at the woman in the booth.
“Eees NOT my responsibility.” she frowned. And pointed to a chap in front of me, I hadn’t seen. He was holding a green ticket. A boarding ticket. He looked at me.
“You agree and is fine. Between you. We just try to help out” she scowled.
I looked at this stranger beatifically.
“Hello, ” he said simply. “I’m Pete. I have a four-berth cabin. And there’s only one of me.”
The sea of humanity around us fell silent.
“Really no, you’re very kind!” said Pete as we fought our way out of the riot inside, “But it really wouldn’t be right to accept such a thankyou” he insisted as I tried for a fourth time with piercing stare to simply frenchy his face off. My wanton gratitude was not quite the right currency, it seemed, and I eventually gave up the struggle and let him go. Currency was, in fact, the right currency.
And so we sat on a bench outside, with two new suddenly-firm friends, which included the equally bemused and grateful Paddy, and allowed the truth to sink in. We would be home in time. We were on the ruddy boat.
“We’re on the boat” I said vacantly, as another fight broke out inside.
“We’re on the ruddy ruddy ruddy boat” I uttered, as an old man punched a six-year-old boy in the face somewhere nearby.
“We… we’re actually going to make it” I distantly began to smile, then chuckle, then laugh with maniacal comprehension, long and loud, head thrown back with joy.
“Yep,” smiled Pete good-naturedly, “by 4.30 Monday afternoon we’ll be in Portsmouth.”
I fell backwards off the bench, choking on something apparently suddenly caught in my throat.
Funny how things can stick in your mind so you don’t notice. Like the idea that the sail from Bilbao to Portsmouth would take 12 hours. No idea where this fact had alighted in my head from. Had no thought of checking it out for accuracy. Didn’t occur to me that the trip would, in firm fact, take 30.
So the question. That bloody question.
Could we still make it? Could we make the gig? And increasingly to the point – should we?
Firstly, was it doable? Well, reluctantly, it wouldn’t be completely impossible in theory, as I did have the laptop with me and it had backing mixes in there. Just not refined ones. But they might still serve. And we would be tantalizingly close to London as we stepped off the ferry with still two hours to go before the doors of the Troob would open. But really, how would we soundcheck?
But secondly, would it be right to ask so much of the band? To get them to travel to London when the band leader is still technically, if you want to be picky, not actually in the country but in fact somewhere off the west coast of France is to create a little potential concern, I would say. Should I push ahead vainly?
The thing is… bloody yes. How absurd would it have been to land at Portsmouth that Monday night after ALL THAT and say a simple “meh” and turn left for home?
So, it was that I began the process of begging by text.
As the hour to embark approached, it became clear that the broiling sea of hopeful humanity now frothing out into the car park was not going to blithely part to allow green ticket-clutching tosspots like us to sail smoothly past into the security check area. No Mosaic special privileges for us. We would have to plunge in and swim for it.
Limbs writhed around limbs. Bags bobbed and yanked. Old folk were passed overhead to be claimed by their families. Stray animals appeared here and there, pushed to the surface briefly with surprised, mute looks on their whiskery faces. Waves of scowling tossed over eddies of indifference. Great swells of drowsiness lifted and dropped the phlegmy surface. Birds dropped to pick off a small current of rubbish vortexing itself steadily larger amongst us.
Our team bravely swam. Which is to say, politely pushed, in a distinctly English manner – scorning the impatience of the few opting to openly grow narky and shovey, while all the while secretly screaming OH COME ON YOU RUDE BASTARDS – WE HAVE BLOODY TICKETS.
Across Europe, though, it should be said, the English really showed their continental family members a thing or two about queueing. Our patriotic moaning was almost absent, everywhere that we went at least. A dirty great volcano leaves you with no option but to draw on the last essential cultural arrow in your quiver and wait your turn implacably. Bravo us.
Even in this melee, the predominant English may have let go the reigns of queuing, but total anarchy was kept at bay by our inability to complain directly. Common practice in the face of someone pushing in, is to tut almost inaudibly and then bang on about it loudly long after you’re on different continents.
I caught myself being particularly English as we made it to about half way across the hall, mid-sea.
One ballsy chap came at the crows, at what must have been a calculated run-up from the car park, brandishing two huge cases and a phalanx of family moving in tight formation at his back.
“Let me through. Let me though!” he boomed authoritatively, “I have tickets. LET ME THROUGH PLEASE” push push.
Before I could stop myself, my Uptight was out.
“N..No. NO.” I said firmly, instinctively – and before I could show myself in a better light, my wounded sense of fair play had me reaching out an effete hand to pat him back. “NO. N..NO” was all the words I could muster in my panic.
“I have tickets” he mantra-ed again, cutting a bit of a swathe.
“NO. BUT SO DO WE.” I insisted in a squeaky, less than masculine voice, actually stopping him.
He stopped. His family stopped. We looked at eachother. A moment’s pause passed.
“What the hell am I doing?” I said, “You’re doing bloody well there. Go, man – GO! FOLLOW THIS GUY!”
“I hate people who push in, don’t you?” he said with suddenly slumped shoulders and a smirk.
“I hate uptight blighters – NOW GO!” I said pushing him on.
Sitting in the bar, an hour later, looking down on the chaos far below us, I stared into my sparkly, prissy European beer and counted every last blessing, knowing they added up to more bubbles than were bursting at the bottle neck.
I had wondered about whether we should give up our tickets to people more deserving; I had accepted the tickets initially in a bit of a daze. To my guilty relief, and by what miracle of administrative sacrilege I dread to think, but P&O; found a way to get every last straggler on the boat. They cleared the terminal. Somehow.
I resisted the urge, you understand, to telephone the captain and tell him to “leave those bloody losers” because we were already an hour behind schedule. Phileas Fogg, under similar pressures, would never stoop so low as to abandon his fellow Englishman. Wager or no.
“Stoopid English” I muttered into my beer as we finally pulled away.
Then the fog really fell.
Our immediate route home that day is known for something. Something a bit technical and meteorological, so bear with me if it goes over your head. For the bay of Biscay is known to be a bit of a bastard.
Only a week before, friends of ours had been hanging onto the stern rail as the very same boat plunged nose first into great canyons of swell, spraying as much passenger vomit over her sides in all directions as breaking waves. A more grisly, Dantesque vision of humanity on a booze cruise to the Basque hypermarkets you couldn’t picture, by all accounts.
Leaving port this time however was like some sort of surreal cruise. Clear skies. Flat seas. Sunshine. And against all likelihood, we kept these conditions all the way home. It’s just that, along with these conditions, we kept internet silence and near total phone coverage all the way home too. Obviously. When you think about it.
So I had to sit there. Strolling around the deck. Or lolling in the cabin. Or strolling around the other deck. Or avoiding the ‘entertainment’ theatre. All the time wondering if my band would make it and if I would make it and if I would be in any fit state to climb onto a stage if I actually really did make it. And unable to organise or practice or arrange a single bleedin’ thing.
The 30 hours passed steadily. And, in truth, oddly pleasantly. Pete and Paddy were entertaining company, making it feel more like we were off on some wheeze with chums, and the restaurant did us a good steak and an even better bottle of something red and French. To my head’s chagrin, come Monday morning.
More to the point, we got to rest and even shower.
But really. I felt helpless.
Somewhere, mid glassy channel, I had managed to squeeze out some texts. The game was, apparently, on.
The balmy weather had created a haze over the dear old south coast, obscuring everything of home until we slipped past Gunwarf Quays in the evening sun, and we knew it was time to queue one last time.
We packed. I changed into a suit. I prayed for phone coverage. We headed for the muster points and disembarkation.
And then, a chink of English daylight to the huddled masses below. We staggered out, like homecoming soldiers – minus the acts of bravery or service or the snappy countenance, okay, but stop picking holes – onto the gangway and down to waiting terminal buses. We had made it as far as the UK. We were on home turf.
My phone picked up a bar. Then it pinged with excitement; a text. I read.
“We have a drummer.” I said firmly. “The drummer is in place.” A few weary souls around me looked up and wondered why I was announcing this to them with such conviction.
The Lego model of our journey home was looking impressively, improbably close to completion. But still, we crucially needed a taxi-shaped brick, a train-shaped brick and an underground-shaped brick – to say nothing of a dirty-great-amount-of-wits-about-me shaped brick. Oh, mother.
I began to not notice myself joining queues. I snapped out of my automatic stand-and-step mode when a taxi driver took my bag and bundled me into the back of his car like a getaway driver handling someone being papped. I caught a glimpse of a long silver eel of taxies lining up to the rank behind us, glinting in the tea time sunshine to swallow more vulnerable boat people as the saloon pulled sharply away. I eventually noticed that the lovely first lady of Momo had thankfully been bundled with me successfully. As had Pete.
Downtown Portsmouth was groaning as much as every other port in Europe that afternoon. Traffic was thick, but our driver seemed happy to treat it like a scene from a Luc Besson film and we were soon at the rail station. More refugees stood in a gaggle on its steps, perplexed.
“No taxis in town today” the driver grinned, hurling my bag at the entrance and wheel-spinning back into the traffic.
“HOW MUCH?” I heard Caroline’s voice declare.
She pushed a ticket into my hand. “Costing us more to get to London from here than to get to hear from Mallorca via six modes of transport” she muttered, marching for the turnstile.
I looked at the ticket. I wouldn’t be in Waterloo until gone 8.00pm.
My phone pinged.
“We have a sax player.” I said, a moment’s read later, and racheted through the turnstile.
We bid a quietly sad goodbye to Pete. His company in particular had been most entertaining, civilising the last chapter of our epic adventure very nicely. To my delight, after 30 hours of amusing re-enactments of scene’s from The Blackadder’s many incarnations, like some kind of post-modern traveling am dram society, Pete was to prove his worth a week later by sending me a random text in the middle of an Amanda Palmer concert that simply said, in quotes: “One more thing: don’t get drunk and let him try to shag you on the veranda.”
For yes, we were to survive and get home and resume our old adventureless life later that week – but not before the following few hours had done their best to string out the story.
Here’s a truth. Two truths. Perhaps two sides of the same truth.
In a crisis, it is the tiniest things that will unearth your true metal. And there is better mobile phone reception in the Bay of Bloody Biscay than there is anywhere near Guildford.
Chewing chunks out of my fist with delirious frustration, as two dappled hours of trundling train-play trundled past, it was only as we neared Waterloo, that I finally knew.
“We have a trombone player.” I said, looking up. “And a horn player. We have the full band.”
“Minus you, you tit” said my wise companion, throwing my bag at me as the platform slid past the windows.
Except she wouldn’t say something exactly like that. But those were none-the-less true sentiments as we pulled on our bag handles one more time and tottered out into the London evening.
Earl’s Court isn’t all that far by tube from Waterloo. But it was enough time to wonder what on earth I was supposed to do when I eventually staggered into the Troubadour, assuming we found it, two hours into the Unofficial Book Fair Fringe Party.
When I finally saw the legendary pub’s name, there on Old Brompton Road, and fumbled with its shabby door, and staggered down it’s windy little staircase, and exploded into Sebastian’s moody book reading in a shower of tumbling cases and expletives, I was beyond caring about making a tit of myself that night. We’d bloody made it.
We’d actually bloody made it.
WE’D ACTUALLY BLOODY MADE IT!
And, as if in a movie about an unknown but plucky but poorly-hair-styled musician, battling the odds to make it for his big night, his big coming out, everybody actually cheered. The place went wild.
…Or as wild as about twenty people can go in a small cellar bar. But you’re missing the point.
To my disproportionate delight, Sebastian – compare, talent and event organiser – had been reading out my Tweets. I had been expected. Our story had been followed. And we had brought the story alive by actually ruddy, bloody, chuffing, sodding-well making it.
You’re going to ask me about the gig, I suppose.
Did it go passingly well?
Did I pass out before or during my performance?
Did I, in fact, make a right royal tit of myself?
Well, you ask a good question. And I would begin my answer by saying that, trust me, you never ever want to do “live soundchecking” ever. Not when you are a band of noisy horns and souzamaphones and drumamabobs and a speaky-word titamaboob on a teeny tiny stage, trying to play to a bleeping computer mix. No.
But, opening-number-wincing apart on my part, remarkably – nay improbably, absurdly, ridiculously – the first ever line up of the Momo:tempo Electro Pops Orchestra appeared to make a walloping great crowd-pleasing ker-thwallop of fun.
Which ever way you look at it, apparently… baby we’re back.
“We floated into its land-locked harbour silently by divine guidance, right up on the beach: and disembarked to lie where we had landed for two days and two nights, our hearts devoured by fatigue and pain.”
Homer, from The Odyssey.
“Rock stars … is there anything they don’t know?”
Me llamo Momo. Y at this rate I may be doing my London gig live via satellite from the Balearics.
#ashcloud So then Europe is spinning its wheels furiously. People sleeping on terminal floors everywhere and we’re stuck in the bally Erics.
9:10 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Monday’s gig aside, the staying/trying to go spend ratio here is compelling. Doing nothing is not spending nothing.
9:12 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud So we are attempting to catch the last plane out of here, off the island. So to speak, anyway. We’re packing as we speak.
9:13 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Should we be hanging around – comfy room, WIFI, nothing to do? Sounds like more of a holiday than a holiday. Perhaps, yes.
9:17 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Going to try to catch a plane to somewhere in France. Failing that, even Barcelona. Then hunt for local trains.
9:18 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Tomorrow is Sunday, of course. Will anything be operating? It would be easier if we weren’t out here in the middle of the Med.
9:19 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Well, best pioneering foot forward. Let’s see where the airport and our wallet are prepared to take us. If anywhere.
9:20 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Putting last things in the case now. About to check out of the hotel and make for the airport. Here goes.
9:30 AM Apr 17th
We have checked out of the nice hotel. We now currently live on a bus.
10:31 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Hah! In your FACE fellow European nations – the Brits know how to queue in a crisis; look at that ordely snake. No clumping here.
11:16 AM Apr 17th
#ashcloud No flights from Mallorca to virtually anywhere in Europe. Flights to Spain clogged and expensive. Trains, roads, ferries – eesh.
12:03 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud “It was the beginning of the rout of civilisation! (with orderly murmering) DUH-DUH DAAAH!” They should tannoy War Of The Worlds.
12:12 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Genius. Just heard that the French railways are on strike today! Tay Jay no Vay. Gotta love the Gaul.
12:17 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Forced to queue in Ryanair queue now for hours. Feel my ingenuity bitch-slapped into submission by dwindling options. Am a drone.
1:13 PM Apr 17th
Wait. I have the backing beats with me in the case. WE’RE DOING THE GIG RIGHT HERE IN DEPARTURES.
1:16 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Has it come to this? Hugging a pillar because our arrival at it in the queue represents genuine achievement?
1:59 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Getting a booth swoon on; it’s suddenly so close. Booth, don’t tease me drunk with your utterly false sense of purpose.
2:02 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud If booth rumours are to be believed, you’ll never believe what they are about to tell us.
2:07 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud We were offered a seat on NEXT Saturday’s flight to Bomo. .. OR a flight to Madrid NOW. ..NOW! GO!
2:37 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud We are apparently getting on a plane to Madrid. Right now. Then we are trying to find a train to Bilbao. Then a ferry home?
2.45 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Momo is in Madrid! Just getting off the plane now. Random. Are we back in the game, gang? 4:47 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud The art of the queue is being learned all over Europe this weekend. Is Saturday night in Madrid always this sweaty and slow?
7:10 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud May take a while to find out if any trains are even going to Bilbao tonight. Or if we’re in the right estacion. Doh!
7:14 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Tired interaily group of youths ahead have hopeful but feeble sign limply strewn on their bag pile: “France! Por favor”.
7:18 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Everyone is still queueing calm, but all think all is bust. “You in the green number streams – what silly sod broke the matrix?”
7:24 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Denied. No train to Bilbao until tomorrow afternoon. Checking out buses. Also thanking God for Haribo, with no guilt.
7:40 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Madrid train station was like last plane out of Casablanca – middle class refugees everywhere.
8:25 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Now at Madrid bus station. More refugees but a bus to Bilbao at 01.30? Really? And space on it? Soon find out.
8:33 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Get in! Caroline shoots and scores from well outside the box, bypassing the queue with a nifty ticket machine shot. Bilbao bound!
8:45 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Can you believe – odyssey continues! Coffee from the nice lady at the kiosk in the middle of the chugging bus terminal. An oasis.
8:49 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Set up camp on a bench surrounded by buses and commuters – have all the essentials, like olives, baguette, pate, pesto, Dairylea.
8:52 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Very happy. But Caroline’s face drops suddenly, middle of decadent feast: “Nuh,” she scowls, “no vino Tintoretto”. Rats.
8:55 PM Apr 17th
#ashcloud Surrounded by other refugees, waiting for the bus to leave, we’re watching 1970s’ Survivors on the laptop. Brilliant.
10:56 PM Apr 17th
#ashtag We are on and we are off. Looks like ours is a specially-laid-on second big bus to Bilbao. What fates await us at sunrise?
12:39 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag It’s still dark. But they are turfing us off, the heavy implication being that we are IN BILBAO.
5:16 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Bleerily staring at a map, I see that the Guggenheim is a mere potter along the road away from the bus terminal. So near.
5:38 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Instead of art, culture or bed we are once more underground; nocturnal mole people, seeking the one true light of our people’s quest
5:40 AM Apr 18th
– the correct train to the P&O; ferry port. >yawn<
5:42 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag So, half six on this Sunday morning, as we wait for our connecting train we ask ourselves: how fat is the chance of finding a ferry?
5:44 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag As dawn rises over the ferry port close to Bilbao, we sit and ponder; there IS a ferry today. It is booked up to buggery.
6:44 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag The next ferry is Wednesday. It too is fully booked. Only a miracle will get us out of Spain soon; have we used up too many already?
6:47 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag The shabby ferry terminal fills up with more families of holiday refugees, all imagining there would be more ferries. Ah, no.
8:00 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag We sit, exhausted. What next, then? >sigh< “Meester en Meesees Peeech to main desk please” the tannoy suddenly barks. Whuh?
8:03 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Feel free to utterly disbelieve this. I am in a daze. At the desk is a chap with a four-berth cabin. He is alone.
8:06 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag in front of a weary throng of queuing hopefuls we are offered two tickets. Place goes silent with the concentration of all eyes.
8:08 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Am I Charlie in the chocolate factory, or a heartless bastard? A kid whines. An old man looks at me with watery eyes.
8:16 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag I take the bloody tickets in a swift snatch. WE’RE ON THE BOAT.
8:18 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Can it be true? Are we really going to make it? We sit in fatigued dilerium with our two new chums. The second bloke is from Bomo.
8:54 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag I can’t believe it; we’re going to make it. I laugh an empty little laugh. Momo will make the gig! I lean back, beginning to relax.
8:57 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag “Yep,” says one of the chaps with a grin, “by 4.30 Monday afternoon we’ll be in Portsmouth.” I fall backwards off my seat.
8:59 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag How? How did we not know this is a 30 hour voyage, not a 12 hour? 4.30. Now look at the gig event page again. Now do the math.
9:02 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag I have a LOT of calls to make on that bloody boat. And some pants to scrub out.
9:04 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Sitting here waiting, I think: “Sheesh, where can I get a piano?!” Then tannoy woman barks: “Come to the piano desk!” OH STOP IT.
9:28 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Realise momentarily she said “P&O; desk.” Ah. That makes more sense, yes.
9:30 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag I appear to be sitting in front of a bottle of flimsy European beer on board a dirty great boat. I’m on the ruddy boat.
11:13 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag We are aboard – but is this the Pride Of Bilbao or Thunder Child? Might hear a cheer as we get a blast of heat ray trying to leave.
11:27 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Carnage in that little hut, trying to board. People tried hard to keep nice. Ferry just not big enough. How the hell did we make it?
11:30 AM Apr 18th
So, gang – the gig. Can it yet be done? After all that, can I make it onto the Troob’s little stage wih something worth showing and telling?
11:35 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag If we CAN find a way from Portsmouth to London fast-as-arse on Monday and I run out into the spot, will I STILL be in THESE PANTS?
11:42 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag I still need a piano. And a tamborine. And a funny-voice harmoniser. And the rest of the band. And this boat NOT to be leaving late.
11:46 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag The boat’s leaving late obviously. But, thanks to the prayers of this guilt ridden man, it IS leaving with the watery-eyed old man.
11:48 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag Have to say, huge props to Pete and Paddy for becoming our bunk buddies. Pete’s had thankyou offers from all three of us.
11:58 AM Apr 18th
#ashtag BA announce no flights tomorrow. The cloud is over most of Europe now. People are doing amazingly at coping with eachother.
12:04 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag Meanwhile, we ARE pissed.
12:05 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag No we’re not; we have souls. Itchy knickers make you say impulsive things. Someone hose me down in the yard.
12:07 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag Pete: “On the whole, I think I’ve enjoyed being ashed.” Momo: “That’s just the boat talking.”
12:10 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag Paddy’s asked the skipper to get me to London pronto. I believe the skipper said: YOU’RE NOT HELPING. HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?
12:13 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag Of course, I do know that the money I’ve spent doing this roaming nonsense could have flown me home on a private bloody chopper.
12:17 PM Apr 18th
#ashtag BACK! WE’RE BACK! Aledgedly, through the thick haze in front of me, is the blessed Isle of Wight. And that very nice lobster cafe.
3:31 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Biscay was inexplicably flat and sunny the whole way – no swell at all. Channel was like glittering glass this morning. Sweet.
3:33 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag A boat full of passengers have been jolly and bonkers for 30 hours, forgetting their discomforts fast. But everyone is delierous.
3:35 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag No 3G or other Internet for 30 hours. Almost no phone nets either. Quiet. Odd. We’ve spent most of the time dozing and drinking.
3:37 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Approaching Portsmouth. Unbelievable luck to be here. Gunning for the gig still, insanely. I have at least half a band promised.
3:38 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag So. Have to go below. Have to berth. Have to get off. Have to find taxi fast. Have to find train. Back in a bit, gang – here goes…
3:39 PM Apr 19th
@johnmclear Bilbao and Santander only have sailings 2 or 3 times a week. We cheekily just turned up but all is officially booked out.
4:17 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag A throng is waiting at the passenger doors to disembark. More queueing and crossing of streams and Excuse Mes and sudden standing.
4:22 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Someone’s having a last laugh with us vulnerable middle class refugees by standing up decisively with their bags. So did we all.
4:32 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Denied. Pushy bunch on a boat from the Channel Isles get to ‘discharge’ before us. Rufians. Bounders. All the nice people here sigh
4:36 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag ..and then sensibly squash forward a little more. ‘15 more minutes’ be hashed, skipper – WE’RE STORMING THE BORDER. RIGHT EVERYONE?
4:40 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag The lifts are beside us. The doors forlornly open and close periodically on the stuck throng. One bloke has appeared three times.
4:44 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Conspicuous thunk-rumble below; his was the car right at the very front, presumably.
4:47 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag A rumour flashes round: the doors are open! A rumour started by the skipper on the tannoy. We surge.
4:52 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Off. Air. Daylight. ..More queueing.
5:01 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Just heard from the drummer. He’s at the Troubadour and set up. That’s one of us. We have one.
5:03 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Clutching passports and bags we emerge, blinking into the evening sun. And a cue for the taxi.
5:17 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag TV cameras roam. People thank the god of phone network coverage. Others suffering a touch of the Stockholms sit where they are.
5:19 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag In a cab. Queues of them flank around Portsmouth, crawling into the port. Can’t get one in town apparently. More refugees then.
5:23 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Portsmouth, like ports across north Europe, is clogged. Driver said he saw Gatwick yesterday – “ghost town”.
5:31 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Have train tickets, sitting on the platform in the evening south coast sunshine. 17.50 train to Waterloo.
5:43 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Commuters are stranded on the steps of Portsmouth & Southsea station. Cabs are obviously ditching those regular losers.
5:46 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag We’re on the train. We’re going to London. Dawns on us that we are going to LONDON not HOME.
5:52 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag After however-many hundred miles of trapseing around Europe, why the hell are we now going to LONDON? Momo’s set is only 30 mins.
6:21 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Now heard from both the sax player and the trombone player – they’re nearly there, WITH the stand-in horn player.
6:23 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag I’ve never met the stand-in horn player. I am turning up to a gig to go straight onto a stage, without soundcheck, with strangers.
6:27 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Let you know how that works out for me then.
6:29 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag So Mark, Dave, Patrick and Tom are there. We have the talent. Just need the prat at the front. And the laptop at the back.
6:31 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Incidentally, network coverage loss in middle of Biscay = understandable niggle. Near Guildford = last straw. >picks up chair< …
6:48 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Approaching London town. How clear is my head going to be by the time we bowl in to the Unofficial Book Fair Fringe Party?
6:58 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag How demented is this? All bets are off on demented levels after this week; warships are dispatching to get holiday makers. SN=AFU.
7:01 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Said goodbye to new chum Pete. The British can keep themselves endlessly amused in adversity with queues and quotes from Blackadder
7:05 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag I can see the London Eye. I can see us actually making the ruddy gig. Actually.
7:24 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Waterloo. Need the loo.
7:29 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Better reception on the District line than all bleedin’ day.
7:51 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag We are at Earl’s Court. We are walking out of the station. We are turning right and hoping we saw the map up the right way.
7:56 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag We can see the Troubadour!
8:25 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag We are SITTING IN THE TROUBADOUR.
8:25 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Chilling at the Unofficial Book Fair Fringe Party. Sublime sounds, friends all around. All is good. We are actually here.
9:13 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag The horns quickly found the Fabulously Cool Booth to hang in. Look like a Miles Davis album shot or something. Somebody smoke!
9:18 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Tonight, I all of a sudden appear to have a band.
9:19 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag Hello. I am on the stage of the Troubadour.
10:44 PM Apr 19th
#ashtag We are going home. The first ever incarnation of the Momo:tempo Electro Pops Orchestra was brilliant. Much love for all support.
12:17 AM Apr 20th
#ashtag How the hell did we make it home? Thoughts to all who are not yet home. Hope you at least get a good story out of it. Godspeed.
12:20 AM Apr 20th
#ashtag Keep an eye on www.momotempo.co.uk for the sordid video evidence sometime soon.
12:22 AM Apr 20th
# #ashtag Ruddy nora, I’m ashed. Ciao for now. X
12:23 AM Apr 20th