Tim Dowling: it’s my band’s first gig in months – and I am terrible

Usually when I mess up on stage my bandmates reassure me I played OK. Not this time …

After our first gig in months, the members of the band I’m in walk off the stage and regroup outside the dressing room.

“How was that for you?” says the guitar player. “Good?”

“Are you kidding?” I say. “I’ve never made so many mistakes.”

Often when I say something like this, someone else will say, “Yeah, I cocked up quite a few things myself” or “We were all a bit rusty; tomorrow night will be better.”

That doesn’t happen this time. This time the other band members take turns enumerating all the mistakes I made – wrong notes, missed cues, howling absences – and laughing. So they noticed, I think. The truth is my first mistake – an ill-chosen chord, played with idiotic confidence – set off a chain reaction of panic that led to all the others. The rest of the songs in the set came at me like bottles on a conveyor belt, half of them smashing to the ground.

After most of the audience has filed out I go into the auditorium to find my wife standing in the aisle.

“It sounded fine to me,” she says. “But then I never notice anything.”

“Take my word for it,” I say. “I was terrible.” The guitar player comes up behind me.

“Oh dear,” she says. “Are you going to be fired?”

“Nobody gets left behind,” the guitar player says. “It’s the code.” Until that moment I hadn’t realised we’d reached a point where that particular clause of the code needed to be invoked.

Considering the sudden and wholesale retreat from competence I just displayed, I sleep better than I should – an hour and a quarter of mounting panic in front of a paying crowd is, if nothing else, reliably exhausting. After briefly staring into the blackness in mute horror, I slip into unconsciousness. In the morning I make a pact with myself: what happened in Frome stays in Frome.

Twenty-four hours later my wife rings me while I’m in the car.

“Where are you?” she says.

“On the M4, standing still,” I say.

“Bad luck,” she says. “How was Honiton?”

“There were no mistakes,” I say. “Actually, I made one catastrophic error, but I didn’t let it get to me.”

“Well done,” she says.

“The thing is, you practise so you don’t make mistakes,” I say, “but you only learn to cope with the mistakes you do make by getting out there.”

“I wasn’t trying to encourage this sort of conversation, to be honest,” she says.

“I just wanted to know if you’d be back for lunch.”

“Not at this rate,” I say.

By the time I get home a granular dusk is already softening the edges of the afternoon, and the cat is having its first lesson in going outside. With the middle one holding the back door open, the cat peers into the garden with suspicion.

“He’s not interested,” the middle one says. The cat places a single paw on the damp back step, and then withdraws it.

“Think of it as one big litter box,” I say. “All for you.”

Eventually the cat creeps down the step to the edge of the grass, curiosity overriding fear. Then it chases a yellow leaf around the lawn while we watch from the window.

“Keep an eye out for eagles,” I say, sitting down at the table in front of my laptop. Another band member has emailed me a short video from the previous night, filmed on a phone by an audience member. The sequence takes place directly after my catastrophic mistake, which has been excised. Shorn of it, the whole thing looks remarkably professional.

When I next look up, the kitchen is empty and the garden dark. I go out to look for the kitten, but my search turns up nothing. I call to it in a whisper – I find myself quite unable to shout the name Giles in an outdoor setting – with no result.

“Did you bring the cat in?” I say to my wife, who is working at her desk.

“No,” she says. “Did you?”

“Well, it’s nowhere,” I say.

“Don’t panic,” she says. “Why do you always panic?”

“It was nice having a cat, however briefly.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” she says. “Remain calm.”

I return to the garden door and stare into the blackness beyond. When I look down, I see the kitten sitting on the step looking up at me.

“You need to hide,” I say.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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