It is 8am on a Friday and I am walking around Bury, Greater Manchester, looking for toothpaste. The immediate area is unpromising: an overpass in one direction, an underpass in the other, and no shops in sight.
My phone dings in my pocket. It’s a text from my wife that reads, “In case you were feeling guilty”, and is accompanied by a photo of a brand-new hairbrush. Yes, I packed our only hairbrush, forcing her to buy another, and no, I don’t feel guilty. The previous day I had looked at my hair in the mirror and decided mine was the greater need. She’s lucky I didn’t take the toothpaste; it had certainly been my intention.
I find a chemist on an otherwise deserted corner, buy some toothpaste and stomp back to the hotel as an icy rain begins to fall. Several weeks of rehearsal have reminded me what it’s like to be in a band, but I’d forgotten what it’s like to be on tour.
There are moments of apprehension and of adulation, but they are brief compared with everything else: the setting up and breaking down, the loading out and loading in, the waiting around, the endless getting ready.
“Move back,” I say, in the dressing room half an hour before showtime. “I need to set this up.” The accordion player looks at me with concern.
“You’re gonna iron now?” he says.
“I have to,” I say, “the shirt’s a mess.”
The iron is empty. I motion for a bottle of water from the table. “It’s not distilled,” says the accordion player.
“I don’t care,” I say, filling the iron. “This is how I roll.”
The next morning we sit drinking coffee in the hotel breakfast area.
“When are we leaving?” I say.
“Wheels turning, 11 o’clock,” says the fiddle player. This is the expression we always use, to convey a sense of urgency where there is none: even if we left at 12, nobody would be ready for us at our destination. We have nothing but time.
On the road north I speak briefly to my wife.
“Yeah, it was good,” I say. “I got told off by an audience member for talking about local politics from the stage, and I left my phone charger behind, but otherwise good.”
“Where are you tonight?” she says.
“Newcastle,” I say.
At breakfast at the Travelodge the next morning, we sit surrounded by a large stag weekend party: a dozen young gentlemen wearing T-shirts bearing an image of the groom’s smiling face photoshopped onto the head of a cartoon penis, a pair of hairy testicles dangling beneath.
“Where can I get one of those?” says the guitarist.
“They’re not for sale,” says a groomsman.
Wheels begin turning at 10am. Once again we arrive at our destination long before we are required. I find myself outside a restaurant, scrolling through alternating five-star and one-star reviews. Depending on who one chooses to believe, this is either the best or worst establishment in Yorkshire. The fiddle player rings me from the venue, just down the road.
“What do you think?” he says.
“Some describe it as ‘shocking’,” I say. “Others as ‘the perfect meal’.”
“Hmm,” he says.
“Food unpleasant, staff sarcastic,” I say. “But also delicious, friendly and Covid-safe.”
“Shall I ask the venue to recommend somewhere?” he says.
“Please,” I say.
Despite our being early, the extra hours somehow get used up. By the time we’ve finished setting up and sound-checking, it is once again dangerously close to the point where they let everybody in. The opportunity for a nap never materialises.
Our brief moment on stage arrives and disappears. Afterwards, a contingent of us sit in my hotel room, drinking red wine, eating pulverised crisps and pointing out each other’s mistakes. Suddenly it’s 10am again, and wheels are turning.
I ring my wife on the journey south.
“It was good,” I say. “I mentioned nothing about local politics.”
“Well done,” she says.
“I left an ironed shirt in a hotel closet in Newcastle,” I say. “But all in all, a success.”
“So where are you now?” she says.
“Watford Gap,” I say.
“Already?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’ll be home in, like, an hour.”
“Oh,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that. I’m not really ready for you.” I think: no one ever is.