I’ve just boarded a plane to Austria with a few friends after a busy day at my sales job. It’s been a difficult month so far: work is all over the place, none of my interesting projects seem to be moving in anything resembling a productive direction, and I’ve been limping around for the past six week with a really painful football injury. That said, all of these temporary trials pale in in comparison to more recent events. My dear mum passed away about three weeks ago after a brief period of illness. I was (still am, for fucks sake) very close to my mum. Everything has seemed different since last week’s funeral, not meaningless or empty, just very different and pretty fragmented. I’m sure in time I will find suitable words to articulate what I mean.
Many have said that coming to terms with the death of a close parent is one of life’s most difficult experiences. I guess we all manage our inner turmoil in our own way.
I’m now watching the flight attendant start the safety routine and my mind wanders. I nod in agreement as I reflect on all the advice and kind words that have come my way. Getting away from the daily grind seems like a good idea and a good read seems like the best start to this brief odyssey away from the routine .
I have the opening riff to Hüsker Dü’s “Chartered Trips”running through my head as the attendant points to the exit points and I extract the reading matter from my trusty rucksack. I place three books and a fanzine on my lap—I love reading and, current events aside, this is a pleasant situation to be in. I glance down at God Is Back by John Micklethwait (about the resurgence of faith across the globe), Gardens of Stone by Stephen Grady (an autobiography about life in the French Resistance), The Day the Country Died by Ian Glasper (about the U.K. anarcho-punk scene of the 1980s) and Razorcake issue 78—mmmmm, what should I opt for? Decisions, decisions… but nice ones to deliberate over on this occasion.
Life is often dictated by chance and this situation is no different. A brief comment from a passenger across the aisle: “What’s that … a comic ?” sparks a conversation. Before I realize it, I am knee deep in a discussion about fanzines, in the process of being diverted away from my almost-opened Micklethwait book. I am blissfully unaware that I am already on a short journey towards writing this column.
I reason that these punctuated moments of reading are perhaps better suited to dipping into various sections of a fanzine as all the surrounding noise and chatter are not conducive to sustained concentration. So, following the exchange with a fellow passenger, I leaf through the review section, the top fives, and the Low Culture interview. I start to read the “Blue Ghosts” column on page six by Sean Carswell. I get into this pretty quickly. I like his writing style and I can relate very easily—although in my case I would probably replace his experiences with The Riverboat Gamblers albums for my travails with The Lawrence Arms. The Pac-Man metaphor about life being an exercise in eating dots and moving on to the next maze immediately clicks. Death is the only certainty in life, There is a certain futility in everything, and the ghosts are indeed closing in on us in our vain attempts to reach the high score.
Another conversation suddenly sparks up about the fanzine with another of my fellow passengers. My head starts filling with lots of ideas about connections, coincidences, and temporality—so I resolve to start writing. Soon I’m scribbling like a frenzied beat writer on speed. The “Chartered Trips” theme tune switches to Hüsker Dü’s “Private Plane” off the vastly underrated Flip Your Wig album and I am convincing myself that, although everything seems very different at the moment, I really need to press on with things. Why not start right now because today has already been particularly eventful. Not so much for what I have experienced first-hand (although I must admit I am enjoying this unexpected trance-like scribbling exercise), but what has been going on in others’ lives and how their experiences have intersected with mine.
Earlier that day I was working at my job selling franking machines in the idyllic north-west of England. Although it may be hard for some of you to believe, I did not always dream of becoming a franking machine salesman (these are quaint little devices for sending parcels and letters). Unfortunately, the job does not exercise my grey matter sufficiently, but at times it does help exorcise grey matters and this was one of those days. I had three sales appointments and a number of interesting telephone conversations, all of which gave way to some interesting connections.
I bumped into a lady I had not seen for ages during my first appointment. Our sons both played for a football team I used to help manage and both have since gone on to play for another team at a higher level. It was good to chat about how the boys had grown up together, listened to their music, and stayed friends over the years.
The woman I met in my second appointment was the mother-in-law of the comedian Marcus Brigstock. I was told a few quite funny stories of his drinking tendencies, being expelled from school, trucking through South America, and competing in a TV ski-jump competition in Salzburg (quite coincidental given I was heading out to Austria later that day).
In my third appointment I was surprised my meeting was with someone who I had recently been chatting to up at the hospital when I had been visiting my mum a few weeks previously. She had also been visiting an ill relative and was sad to hear the news about my mum.
All of these interesting appointments were followed by a call from a friend of mine as I was on my way to the airport. He had just got back from a weekend skiing trip.. He had also been to Austria and had been in exact same place where I was headed that afternoon. He seemed a little underwhelmed for some reason—not his usual chirpy self.—I wasn’t sure why, until he told me about his frightening experience out there.
He had felt ill and was slumbering in the back of a minibus while one of his friends was driving back to the airport. It was dark, cold, and late in the evening. The road was pretty clear so they were making good time. There were four others in the minibus. Three were people he knew and the other was a big, burly ex-rugby player. The former rugby player had become increasingly withdrawn from the group over the past two days and began acting unusual. I will refer to this guy as Bob and my pal as Grant for anonymity’s sake.
Earlier in the day Bob said he felt tired and was going to ski down the mountain by himself and then go back to his room. He left amicably and the others thought little of it. That was up until a couple of hours later when Bob reappeared at a bar, where they were having a bite to eat.
In Austria there is a bar game called Hammer-schlagen (striking-hammer), whereby the players try to hit nails into a block of wood with the thin end of a small hammer without bending the nail. A few people partaking in this quaint local pastime quietly amused themselves at the end of the bar, but the ambience was suddenly shattered. Bob raced through the bar door flailing a large hammer, pushed passed the startled Hammer-schalgers, and started repeatedly bashing the nails into the block of wood. The whole place fell silent. Bob looked around, composed himself, and walked quietly to the door. My friends looked at each other in amazement.
They went outside and approached Bob, who was surprised to see them. When they quizzed him, he said he didn’t remember the incident with the hammer and that they should all go back in the bar and have a few beers together. They were spooked. Apparently, this had been a pretty frightening experience and, for safety reasons, the bar workers had no intention of re-admitting Bob. The group thought it best to leave and make their way back.
Fast-forward three hours to the minibus journey and the slumbering Grant is woken by Bob, who is leaning back over the set and yelling in Grant’s face, “Have you got your seatbelt on? … Have you got your fucking seatbelt on?” Bob then hauls himself over the seat, grabs Grant around the throat, sits on him, and begins to strangle him. Bob is about nineteen stone (266 pounds) and built like a brick shithouse. Grant is less than half his weight. They are in the fast lane of the motorway, visibility is poor, and the guys in front don’t know what to do.
Grant starts to pass out after about fifteen seconds. The other three guys are clambering back over the seats as the driver attempts to swerve over to the inside lane. One grabs Bob around the neck, another starts punching him in the head, but he won’t let go—he just keeps yelling about the seatbelt. The van slams to an abrupt halt and the doors are flung open. Amidst all the commotion, for some unknown reason, Bob loosens his grip and wanders out of the van into the road. Bob then walks into the path of an oncoming juggernaut. One of the guys manages to grab him and pull him back to the hard shoulder.
Grant is in a bad way, but he is still alive. He comes round slowly and takes some fresh air. Everyone is in an absolutely frantic state except Bob, who is now vomiting by the side of the motorway. Once again, he cannot explain what has happened. They sit Grant in the front with the driver and Bob right at the back of the minibus with everyone else in between. The group make their way to the airport in silence and flies back to London with no further incidents.
Bob, it seems, has mental issues and was supposed to be on medication—unbeknownst to the rest of his traveling companions. The incident is fed-back to Bob’s family, who are seeking some medical advice. Grant is still psychologically shaken—he has a broken thumb and bad bruising around his neck from the incident.
All this information came my way in the space of a couple of hours from some brief conversations. Some people call this happenstance. The fragility of life with all its happy/sad encounters is what makes us consume the dots and chase back the ghosts. A game we know we are all going to lose somehow, but let’s make a good fist out of it while we can. Tempus fugit!
I try to make some sense of all this as the plane lands—is it merely another vague equation of complete randomness? Probably. Is there really any equation and, if there is, is there any meaning to be made out of it? Possibly not. Drawing these elements together to make sense out of our already existing reality often requires some creative thinking. Consequently, a lot of work needs to be done in the realm of the imagination and I enjoy these travails of thought immensely. My often vain attempts to detect meaningful patterns by joining together these anecdotal, Pac-man dots conjures up some lines from one of my favorite Weakerthans’ songs “Sun in an Empty Room”
Or felt around for far too much (sun in an empty room)
from things that accidentally touched (sun in an empty room)
Well, it’s now over a week since I returned to the U.K. and, on reflection, I am pleased to report that my trip passed without life-threatening incidents. I even managed to stay warm in the sub-zero conditions and read some of the Micklethwait book that I have to admit is pretty good, although I dispute some of his more adventurous claims about a global return to the dark ages. I think I feel better after the trip, but everything still seems different. I will just keep working through the fragments trying to create some sense of order until normality resumes.
Andy Higgins lives in Blackpool, the Las Vegas of North WestEngland.
He leads a challenging life writing, reading, teaching, playing, selling and supporting the financially draining, yet spiritually uplifting justsaynotogovernmentmusic records.
Contact him: [email protected]