3.45am, 16th February 2018. I’ve been unable to sleep and have been awake for twenty one hours. I’m outside my flat leaning on the front wall. A badger bundles down the street away from me, a cat arches in surprise when it rounds the corner. This is not a time for men. It’s cold and the neighbourhood is hallowed quiet, the deepest of dark starts. I’m travelling light; a change of clothes, a novel (a Tudor whodunit), notebook, comb, toothbrush and passport.
Will’s car glides down the road. He moves fast. I picture him barely fifteen minutes earlier cutting through the suburbs of Westcliff to pick up Dave and then over the main road past Chalkwell Park (empty of dog walkers at this time) and along the seafront to Paul’s flat; then the three will go up and over the railway track and turn back on themselves to my place. Everyone is bleary eyed but excited for the journey ahead as we cut through Essex countryside to Stansted Airport. Yesterday Paul crushed the index finger of his fretting hand in a car park barrier so we inspect it on the shuttle bus into the terminal; it’s twice the size of its right hand counterpart and is black and oozing.
Hours later we enter Stockholm over a bridge. The city, spread across a series of islands divided by frozen lakes and tributaries, hosts no high rise leaving the sky wide and inviting. All the buildings have Art Nouveau style balconies and are mustard yellow or peach in colour. We take a short walk from Citytermalin to T-Centralin train terminal where we take the escalator down to a plush shopping mall style concourse. This is the main station – no-one rushes and there is a sense of calm even in the busyness. King’s Cross it is not. The Metro, green line heading south Hawk had said, any train going to Hågstra, Skårnpack or Farsta Strand. Four stops to Skanstull – count them off – Gamla Slan, Slussen and Medborgarplatsen.
Then we are up and out onto the wide open street. Snow is falling in big flakes but it does not feel cold. The city seems alive, I feel alive.
In Hawk and Sofia’s apartment we eat chocolates and strong coffee. I feel elated to have arrived at our destination, safe to be directed and organised by a native. We’re all too exhausted to go out, it is just enough to look out the window (being warmed by the radiator) and watch the Stockholm afternoon go by. The street is a wide boulevard, cars swing past with their wipers on, people are going about their daily lives, it’s the same as home over a thousand miles away. I’m a time traveller. I get lost in the busy vignette.
Stage time 10.15pm, I’ve been awake forty hours. My body feels wrecked, Paul with his crushed finger is screaming behind me every time he forgets and uses his mushed digit on the fret board. We are collectively medicated by booze, caffeine or pain killer. Words hang in my brain my mouth just a fraction slower to get them out. People dance and people have fun. We finish and drink ourselves stupid.
Amongst the pounding music of Oasis and Dave loudly ordering beer after shot after beer I fall into conversation with a man who quietly exclaims, ’Why? That is the question of the artist and you must keep asking it for everything as you get older, why? Why?’, he pauses and looks to his wife, ‘The blood must continue to be heated even as you get older. The blood doesn’t have to boil necessarily. It is not always about passion but the growing companionship between a man and a woman’. It made sense to me in my inebriated state.
4am: back at the apartment and we are still talking with Hawk and Sofia about social media, the show and the state of Swedish and British politics, something about their king stuffing a microphone down his throat at a university presentation while drunk. There’s one bed and Dave is too big for us both to share. I try to sleep on the parquet floor but my head is full of bad dreams and I wake before 9am my hip and ribs burn from the tiles. Coffee.
Saturday is the day for exploring. Ann and Hasse have offered to show us the town so we walk to the very edge of the island we are on and from a snowy peak we survey the black tiled roofs of Stockholm, the yellow and orange plaster of the old town and Knight’s Island. The Stockholm Concert Hall where the Nobel Prize is awarded stands proud on the bank south of us. A walk along a tow path and into the streets again for a coffee at Tårtan where we are told a famous comedy sitcom about retired sailors was filmed. Our Swedish companions are chewing tobacco gum called Snus. I respectfully decline.
Back to Hawk’s flat before the tube and double decker train to Uppsala. Forty minutes through snowy hinterland. The cold feels bitter here and we leave the square brick train terminal following a wide boulevard and along a canal towards the HiJazz Club. Away from the station Uppsala seems empty of life, snowflakes occasionally fall, the wind slight but biting. Doors closed, curtains shut. We stand outside the club, barred windows, the crunch of snow under foot, everyone’s face wrapped up silent and focused on getting into the warm.
Jilal the owner of the club cycles towards us and opens up. Inside the bar is small, shop like, with a small counter serving bottled beers and an array of CDs stacked on shelves. We are directed to an English themed restaurant/pub called Sherlock’s for dinner. The pub is dark with anaglyptic wallpaper and nestled amongst tower blocks. It reminds me of parts of east London. Fairy lights hang off most balconies, their pre-set patterns twinkling on and off being the only signs of life. It’s quiet, a commuter suburb deep in the delight of a Saturday night in. I am later told by a member of the audience that there is a Eurovision heat on and the Swedes take their Eurovision very seriously so were all most likely glued to their TV screens.
The show is good, a massive challenge physically, but a few students dance towards the end. I feel sad that we are leaving tomorrow, leaving the Plastic Pals who we have only just started to know. We’re all tired, Will and Paul especially. They sit in the front row hollowed and empty. The gig gets them back into the land of the living though.
Post show we return along the canal to the boulevard and the station which is thronging with young people heading back to Stockholm. Boys with tails and white bow ties, medals pinned to their jackets. They are too young for the military. It’s a tiring journey back to Hawk’s place and another late night.
Rolfe, Sofia’s Boston terrier meets us back at the flat. By 3am he is prized from his bed in the living room and relocated elsewhere so that we can sleep in peace. Another night on the parquet floor for me. Hours later I find myself staring directly into Rolfe’s eyes. In the pale morning light he has liberated himself from another room to find me using his bed for a pillow. Sorry Rolfe. An hour’s sleep at most before Dave’s alarm goes off. I feel neither alive nor dead. I am in the in between. And so, with a note to Hawk and Sofia hastily written saying heartfelt thanks and love, we creep out of the flat and into a bright Stockholm morning.