Friends, oh my friends,
I hope you’re somewhere, smiling.
Just know I think about you…
—Father John Misty
—For J-Wow & Polly
For the third installment of my travel diaries I’m going to share some entries from last summer, which I spent in the small English city of Lincoln.
I arrived in the UK in a pretty bad state. But to go into detail about my problems would take several pages and might bore you, my dear reader, to tears. So I’ll skim over it as efficiently as possible. I was struggling with health problems, I was recently unemployed, and I had just experienced a deep betrayal by someone I had considered to be one of my closest friends in the world. So I arrived in Lincoln feeling bereft, directionless, angry and confused. But why Lincoln, of all places? I ran to that small corner of the world because several of my genuinely best and most loyal friends in the world had recently moved there.
But I felt like my life was coming apart at the seams. Other than a vague plan to move to the Netherlands in September and take a degree at the University of Amsterdam, I was adrift. I had four months to fill and I decided to extend my visit and spend the summer in Lincoln. The first few weeks were cold and overcast. I felt lost and depressed.
But sticking around turned out to be such a good decision. First of all, my friends are amazing. In spite of the several years that had elapsed without seeing each other, they welcomed me back into their circle with open arms. And the grey clouds and rain that had choked the East Midlands since December dissolved into a dazzling blue May. Then the UK cartwheeled into its hottest summer in something like a hundred years. Joel (aka J-Wow) and Jordan (aka Polly) opened their doors to me and rented me their spare room on Alexandra Terrace. My health began to improve. And I wrote the following bits and pieces during my first few weeks in Lincoln.
Lincoln. May 11th 2018.
I leave our semidetached house on Alexandra Terrace and walk along the street past the other brown-brick semidetached houses. Lined up in the morning sunshine they’re like tweed-jacketed professors smoking pipes. This street is modest, quiet, and gets good light all day.
At the bend in the street I step off the sidewalk and onto the narrow footpath that cuts steeply up the hill to the castle. Mossy walls line the footpath and trees lean against them like old neighbors sharing the morning gossip. At the top of the path I stop to catch my breath and enjoy the view. Directly below me are streets lined with brick houses, red roofs and green tree tops in spring bloom. In the middle distance I see the dull grey belts of motorways, office blocks and factories bolted to the landscape. And then beyond the edge of town, in the hazy sunshine are fields, trees and farmland, stretching to the blue horizon embroidered this morning with a thin frill of cloud. I can hear the faint hum of traffic far below. I step off the footpath onto a quiet road and follow it past handsome houses with richly flowering front gardens: roses, violets, peonies, primrose and lavender spilling over low front walls like waves of perfumed colour. The huge stone wall of the castle looms directly behind these houses. I follow this pretty street as it morphs gradually into a collection of small antique shops, pubs, and cafes. There is also an art gallery with a large front window and a red neon sign saying ART FOR THE MANY NOT THE FEW—even though the only person I ever see inside the gallery is the man who works there. He wears red horn-rimmed glasses and a paisley bow-tie, and sits alone all day behind a giant Apple computer.
After passing the empty gallery, the street turns to cobbles and seems to leap about 600 years backwards in time. This is the Bailgate: an ancient, quaint and lovely slice of town wedged between the Lincoln Castle and Lincoln Cathedral (which was consecrated, by the way, in 1092. Yes, 10 motherfucking 92!) The cathedral is grand and venerable, but without being austerely pompous. It’s like a down-to-earth Notre Dame.
The Bailgate itself consists of several short cobbled streets filled with quaint and pretty shops selling local art and craft, books, clothes, cakes, curios, postcards and antiques: in short it’s your grandmother’s dream come true. But there are enough cafes, pubs (and a tapas restaurant called Miguel’s) to keep everyone happy. I head to Coffee-in-the-Gate for my morning fix. The sounds ring around these old walls in the delicate sunshine: voices of shoppers and bakers, delivery men clinking bottles, footsteps pattering on the cobbles, cash registers tinkling, tea cups chattering, delivery trucks trundling off.
When I step out of the café to head home, I look up into the cloudless sky and see a long white scratch mark stretching across the deep blue. It’s an aeroplane, of course, but it might as well be a little silver microchip glittering in the sun, reminding me that it is 2018 after all. I think of a line from James Joyce: Ghostfires from heaven’s far verges faint illume.
This little area may be like an antique historical bubble of medieval England, but it doesn’t feel snobbish, and though much of the rest of the city has a lower-to-middle class feeling to it, Lincoln seems to be a place where almost everyone gets along, regardless of income bracket.
Sleaford. May 19th.
Spent the night in the nearby town of Sleaford. Hung out at Miller’s Bar where Kingsley and Amanda played a few classic cover songs with their band. I looked around me and felt such a glow to be surrounded by so many good people. Kings & Joy are an inspiration. They are so full of vitality, verve and sparkle. Amanda is such a brave, soulful individual. I can’t begin to imagine the depth of her suffering to have recently lost her only son. But she got up at the front, swept her lush silver hair over her shoulder, and poured so much smoky, smoldering soul into every song. The whole bar was transfixed, bewitched by her voice. Lee, Lucinda, Pauline, Joy, Joel and Jordan were on either side of me, several of the most wonderful people I’ve ever known; and there came Tim, trundling through from the bar with another round of drinks and that cheeky twinkle in his eyes. And I was reminded, with a tremendous force of clarity, that these people have become like family to me.
Lincoln. May 21st.
So summer, jangling the savagest diamonds
and dressed in its azure-doubled crimsons,
may truly bear its heroic fortunes
for the large, solitary figure
My recovery continues to shed the scales and scabs of pain, day by day. The bad feelings come in the midnight hour and hold the eyelids of my heart open with hot pokers for a hundred turns and tosses; I fall asleep late and wake early with anxiety’s cold clamp in my guts; but as my day rumbles on I start to feel good; I measure out my morning with coffee spoons; by early afternoon I’m in my stride; I strut the high street at three and my bad feelings are faint shadows under benches and beneath trees; in my ears are melodies of magic; on my face, no sign of damage; my smirk alludes to the waning moon; I’ve got summer’s blood in the veins of my mood.
Lincoln. May 27th.
Last night, I took Marley to Miguel’s Tapas Bar for our date. This was the first date I’d been on in quite a long time. And my first ever Tinder date. Marley had big smiley eyes and a dimple (or well- placed scar) on her left cheek. She had bouncy electric blue hair and brushed it from her face with ringed fingers. Her nails were painted wine-dark, and more chipped than the castle walls. Her nails matched the wine-red flowing kimono she wore. She had an unusual manner of twirling her thumbs when she talked, as if playing thumb wars with herself.
Miguel’s is a tiny restaurant owned by a guy named Gary. What ever happened to Miguel? It was hot and full of hungry sweating people talking loudly at once, with wild Spanish guitar solos soaring manically over the ruckus. We were squeezed into a tiny table near the door to the hell-hot kitchen, from which all manner of clattering and sizzling could be heard. We were both nervous and sweaty and it was so loud that we kept having to say “Sorry, what was that?”, “Pardon?” “What did you say?” I think at some point we just gave up on getting to know each other and smiled vaguely while nodding enthusiastically: “How long have you been in Lincoln?” she may well have asked. “Yes, in politics I’m also left-leaning!” I responded.
The waiter wanted us in and out A-fucking-SAP, presumably in order to refill this bedside table with some other chumps. He kept returning to take our order, the scowl on his glistening face deepening with impatience each successive time that we fumbled with indecision. Eventually, fearing he might snap, Marley gestured wildly at the menu and he stormed off into the kitchen. Within minutes our table was laden with enough food to feed a mariachi band: a huge platter of sweating prosciutto and cheese, prawns sizzling in hot chili oil, a punnet of robust shiny green olives, a shoebox-sized loaf of steaming bread, a bucket of red, bubbling chorizo risotto, and a boat load of steaming yellow potatoes. And to wash it all down, we peered at each other over the girthy rims of two towering jugs of purple sangria. At this point, I felt too overwhelmed to negotiate a shouted conversation about vegetarianism, and so I gingerly swallowed meat for the first time in over a year.
We split the bill and hurried out before our man could see how poorly we’d fared at his all-you-can-eat tapas bonanza. We walked down the hill from the Bailgate, throats hoarse and faces damp with sweat, but feeling the thrill of the sangria in our blood and the fresh night air in our lungs. Our voices quieted and fell in rhythm with our steps. We finally had the chance to get to know each other a little bit. I tried to ask interesting questions and tried not to say dumb things. Easier said than done. Yes, Marley was her real name. No, she was not named after Bob Marley. What was she into? Marley was into the theatre. Marley read Stephen King novels. Marley was from a family of tall, strong single mothers. No, Marley herself was not a mother. Maybe one day. Marley had one younger sister, who was a wild child. No, Marley had not been a wild child. She had volunteered in the school library and had been the president of the school theatre club. Marley had eight tattoos and worked at a small local cinema. The weirdest thing she ever found in the cinema at the end of the night? A raw chicken breast.
Near the bottom of the hill we turned down a quiet lane and then stopped under a street light and sat down on the low front wall of a darkened lawyer’s office. We were out of breath as if we’d just climbed the hill, rather than descended it. Moths tumbled drunkenly in the lamp light and the sky was dark blue with a few pale stars winking over the town. Marely twirled her thumbs and the street was almost silent. Suddenly we were holding hands. Both our hands were clammy, which sounds cliché, I know. Her hand was soft and damp as dough. A couple walked past us with an incredibly tiny dog on a leash and then paused for moment in the glow of a street light a little way off. We watched as one of the women stooped with a plastic bag over her hand to pick up a pathetic little turd. Even the dog himself looked embarrassed.
“The wolves must be turning in their graves,” whispered Marley.
“Who do you think would win in a fight between that dog and a hamster?” I whispered back. We watched in silence as the trio continued on their walk and disappeared round the bend. Then we kissed. It was a strange lead up to a kiss, I’ll admit. Our tongues did not touch. Then we talked some more but I forgot each word as it was uttered. At some point we started kissing again, longer and more urgently, and she tasted of Sangria and summer and a dizzy spinning of stars.
Then the air was chill and our faces were cold. We said goodbye and went our separate ways: she walked downhill; I walked up. I felt giddy and ecstatic. This may all sound like some cheesy heteronormative romantic cliché, but it felt thrilling and novel last night. I listened to Arctic Monkeys on the walk home:
Vehicles will pass by
but I’ll know when it’s you.
I’ll be in a nose-dive
in my flying shoes,
right behind your closed eyes
like a memory from your youth.
Lincoln. June 1st.
Late last night, after our Sunday supper, Polly, J-Wow and I were lounging in the living room. Polly’s candles danced sleepily, reflecting in the darkened window pane. The muted TV ran its river of colour in silence and J-Wow noodled absently on his guitar. We were full, drowsy, and sprawled across the couch and the carpet. J-Wow put down his guitar, ran his hand through his hair and said: “I don’t want to go to bed because as soon as I go to bed I’ll be asleep, and as soon as I’m asleep I’ll be awake, and as soon as I’m awake I’ll be at work, and as soon as I’m at work I’ll be asleep.” Then he picked the guitar back up and sang a line from ‘Star Treatment’: So who you gonna call? The Martini Police?
Lincoln. June 8th.
Polly and J-Wow are one step closer to buying their first house! To celebrate, Tracie, Al and Dolly came round. Dolly is Tracie and Al’s little dog. Dolly can never make up her mind whether she likes me or not. Sometimes she barks and runs away from me, other times she licks my hand and wags her fluffy tail. This time she just flat out ignored me. My canine confidence is crumbling, Dolly.
Polly cooked one of her wondrous, sensational zinger recipes. It was a Buddha Bowl Asian fusion flavour explosion: Chili prawns, spicy quinoa, yellow peppers, and all kinds of tasty green vegetation mingling and dancing in the dish.
Afterwards, J-Wow and I went for a drink at the Mocha Pot Comedy Night. G-Fresh joined us. We were running a little late, and thought we might not get seats. But there were only a handful of people milling around the cafe. Once we had ordered our beers and headed upstairs, however, it was clear that a handful of people was pretty much full capacity in the stuffy, attic-like upper room. There were ten plastic chairs facing a tiny little wedge of stage in the corner. We all managed to squeeze in and the atmosphere was intimate by necessity. Or at least, it started off feeling intimate. The first few comedians were quite funny. But then a large bald sweating man got on stage for his first ever stand-up performance. He was very nervous with sweat rings on the armpits of his T-shirt and a glistening caterpillar of sweat for a mustache. He held the microphone too close to his mouth, blasting his frantic, rapid breathing across the room and into our faces, putting everyone slightly on edge.
He began his panicky, breathless performance: “Now I can’t make jokes about so many things these days, you know, political correctness and all that, you know, so I thought I’d make a few jokes about bugs and insects and all that, because, you know, who could be offended about bugs and insects, you know?” The room seemed suspended in a confused hush. He continued: “Just think about it for a second: cockroach. COCK-roach, you know?” The room was now stunned into loud silence. I thought he might drop the mic and flee from the room, possibly never show his face in Lincoln again. But then a few people laughed and clapped, whether out of irony or sympathy, I’m not sure. Big mistake. He grinned massively, and then launched full throttle into another, equally baffling joke about butterflies, and breathlessly barreled on for his week-long eight minute stint.
Lincoln. June 14th 2018.
Had dinner last night at Char’s house. It’s refreshing to be around so many vibrant people. Every dinner party seems to turn into a house party. The beer was flowing and the music was pumping. It was Char Bar, G-fresh, J-Wow, Pot Polly, LJ-Great, Luna Park, D-Day, Mill Station and Dani (the only one I don’t seem to have a nickname for).
The sun keeps shining; my friends are smiling; I’ve got another date with Marley; the FIFA World Cup is about to start; I wonder what else this summer has in store?