After finishing up at Edinburgh University in the summer of 1997, most of my friends were moving on to graduate training positions, or post-grad degrees, or jobs in London. But I wasn’t ready for that. There was only one thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get as far away from Scotland as I could, lock myself away, and somehow deal with my grief.
For almost two years I had intentionally stopped myself from thinking about Andy’s death by either staying drunk or throwing myself into study. But now that college was over, I didn’t have an excuse to ignore it any longer.
I was 22 years old and I was emotionally exhausted. I was so tired. Tired of being unhappy or drunk. Or both. I still didn’t know what ‘deal with it’ meant but I had a plan to start writing about it and to see what happened. As soon as I graduated, I was ready to go immediately.
Unfortunately, at that time I was totally skint. In fact I owed the bank £200, and I owed my Dad £300. I didn’t have a credit card, and no one was going to lend me any money. I even owed Nelly £50 and he was calling it in.
So I signed-on for a few weeks and started looking for a job. I figured that if I worked hard and saved everything for six months then I would have enough money for a flight and some breathing space when I got there. Wherever ‘there’ was.
The thought of getting a 9-5 desk job gave me the shivers. I was already miserable, and at that time I just wasn’t ready to get into the rat race. I’d had a side job as a bartender throughout university, so I started to look for a bar job in Glasgow. The six-month plan only worked if I didn’t have to spend any money, so I tucked my pride away in my back pocket and moved in with my parents in Barrhead.
A couple of weeks later, in early August 1997, I answered an ad in the local paper and eventually found a job working as a waiter at the TGI Fridays on Buchanan Street in Glasgow. I used to walk past that place every day on the way home from Glasgow Academy but I’d never been in. It always looked a bit, well, shit.
Whenever I tell someone now that I once worked at a TGI Fridays, they inevitably start laughing. Fair enough – it’s pretty funny in retrospect. It’s not really my sort of thing. But at the time, I just wanted to be able to afford my plane ticket out of there. I thought that the idea of making money would be motivation enough to get through the experience. I was wrong. I fucking loathed it.
This was not a high point in my life. I love my Mum and Dad but, you know, moving back in with your parents is not usually a step forward. I was also still in a self-imposed emotional limbo, where I couldn’t let myself feel anything or I might implode.
So when I learned that part of TGI Friday’s philosophy was that the waiters have to smile all the time and be really cheery with the ‘guests’, I knew it was going to be a rough few months.
The company actually has a whole training program where they teach you to be all fake smiley and friendly. Imagine David Brent teaching people how to wait tables for two weeks. You learn how to approach the table of guests and announce yourself with a big intro. And then you are supposed to crouch down yeah? So you can be on the same level and really make a connection with the guests yeah?
Then you’ve got the hat, and the shirt with red stripes and the braces (suspenders) with the wacky ‘flair’. I felt like a pathetic clown. A big, red and white, floppy-hatted, fake laughing, crying on the inside clown. Or sometimes I thought of myself like a prostitute, demeaning myself for money. Or both. A big, red, floppy-hatted, laughing to the crowd, crying all alone, clown prostitute.
Actually it wasn’t all bad. I made some good friends among the other staff, and I did learn something about the psychology of selling.
The thing is that the bullshit corporate psychology actually works. You get all chummy with the guests and it makes them spend more money, which means more money for me because the waiters at TGI Fridays got paid on commission of sales.
And the more engaging you are the more people might tip you. Although remember this is Glasgow in the mid 90s so a 10% tip was a great result, and most people considered it generous to just throw in whatever coins they found in their pocket.
I got the hang of it after a couple of weeks, then at the end of August 1997, Princess Diana died, and everyone in the country got sad. For about a week. That’s not an understatement. It seemed like some sort of mass hysteria enveloped the entire population of the UK for the few days between hearing about her death on the Sunday and the funeral the following weekend. I was immune to it though. Not because I had anything against Diana, but because I was still not allowing myself to feel. Although, I remember being pissed off because no one went out to eat that week and I didn’t make any money.
But for six months I pretty much kept my head down and did the job. I went straight home after every shift and saved every penny I made. I worked doubles whenever I could and on a good week I could net 200 quid, so I stuck it out.
There were a few good nights. A lot of the Rangers and Celtic footballers would come in there from time to time. There was one night where Richard Gough and a few other Rangers players (Ian Durrant, Gordon Durie, Andy Goram, and Stuart McCall) were sitting in my section getting food and booze. Then some Celtic players showed up at the bar and Goughy invited them over. I was upselling the Rangers players all sorts of shots and fancy cocktails and they were getting shitfaced. Before the end of the night Gough was trying to get me to take cocktails over to Henrik Larsson, Regi Blinker and Harald Brattbakk at the bar. But I got the Celtic players weaker drinks and they left quietly, whereas Gough and Durie were waving their shirts around their head to Spice Girls songs, wasted on Long Island Ice Teas.
I appreciate that those names mean nothing to most people, but at the time these were probably the most famous people in Glasgow. That was also the year that Celtic would go on to win the league for the first time in 9 years by two points. I like to think that I contributed in some small way.
Anyway, by January 1998, I’d saved up almost 2 grand. I hardly went out at all during that period but there was a girl I was close to at the time, a girl called Louise who I had met in Edinburgh when we both worked in an Irish pub there. She knew I was fucked-up and incapable of having any emotional connection. She also knew that I was desperate to leave, and she encouraged me to stick to my plan. In fact she knew me better than I knew myself at the time. She was a really good friend.
In late January 1998, I decided that I was going to go to Melbourne, Australia. I had been thinking about San Francisco or maybe some island somewhere, but I had an Aunt and Uncle who lived outside Melbourne and I thought it would be good to know someone there, just in case things took a bad turn. I bought a round-the-world ticket through Trailfinders, and was scheduled to leave on March 3rd.
I put in my notice at TGI Fridays in early February. I kept a draft of my resignation letter to the boss where I wrote that: “The reasons for my departure can be stated simply in that I have now saved enough money to be able to do what I want to do, and what I need to do. I may be back, but as I still do not know where exactly I am going, my future is certain only in its uncertainty”. I don’t remember him trying to talk me into staying.
So I’d booked my flight, but I really had no idea what was going to happen next. There was something freeing about that too. It felt like I was about to jump off a cliff into nothingness. But that I wouldn’t fall. I really didn’t know if, or when I would ever come back. And I was fine with that.
Before I left there was one other thing I wanted to do. In my first year at university I had bought a VHSC video camera with my student loan. I used it mostly to film our football matches, or silly short films, and every once in a while I would take it out to parties.
In my final year of college, I filmed a lot of stuff. Partly because it gave me an excuse to stay distant from whatever was happening. I also did it because I loved my friends and I wanted to capture these times for them. And for me too. But because I really didn’t know if I would ever return, I wanted to edit together the footage of all the good times for everyone before I set off. Also, selfishly, I didn’t want them to forget me.
So after I quit TGI Fridays, I gave myself a few weeks in February to edit all these videos together. At that time, I had one basic editing machine that would allow me to add music to footage and that’s it. So I had to rent a VCR for a month and borrow my Dad’s VCR and play a couple of seconds of tape from one machine through to the other, four seconds at a time, in order to edit clips together. It took hours. But I worked on it every day for 3 weeks until I had edited an hour of a film I named ‘PJTV’.
On the Saturday night before I was to leave, I went out with my parents for a farewell dinner in the West End of Glasgow. My friend Myles was having a bit of a party at his flat in Byres Road with some of our friends from Uni. I dropped off my bags and the finished video at his place about 7pm before I went out for dinner. At about 10pm I arrived at the party and it was in full swing with a lot of my friends there.
While I had been at dinner, they’d all been watching my video on a loop and everyone loved it. I remember walking in to the party and I’d never felt so appreciated. Every single person came up to me and hugged me and thanked me. We watched the video again and again all night. This is the last segment:
The next morning, I said my goodbyes and got a lift down to London with my friends Tamsin, Lindsey and Joel. I stopped off in Oxford to hang out with Dougie and we talked and laughed about the girl that we had both had teenage crushes on.
I’d planned a night in London to say goodbye to my college friends who were now living down there – Ed, Stef, Phil, Stu, Lyndsay, and Jersey.
I had a few hours to kill in the afternoon before everyone could get out of work. I remember that I bought Beth Orton’s ‘Best Bit’ EP on CD and I walked along the banks of the Thames listening to it on my headphones. She and Terry Callier do a version of the Fred Neill song ‘Dolphins’ on that disc. It’s beautiful and I put it on every mix tape I made for years afterwards. As I meandered through the streets of London, I found myself crying as I started to let myself feel for the first time in a long time. I remember thinking that if they just played this song constantly on loudspeakers throughout the city of London, then the world would be a better place.
That night, I met up with London gang in Leicester Square for drinks. I remember being absolutely convinced that I was doing the right thing. I had no fear at all about the uncertainty that lay ahead.
The next day I got on the plane to Melbourne. It’s basically a 24-hour flight with one stop in Bangkok. The entry in my diary for March 4th just says “Arrived Melbourne. Knackered but excited”.
I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle for a few days while I tried to find somewhere to live. They would have been happy for me to stay with them indefinitely, but I knew I had to have my own space. I went around the city looking for notice boards and cafes where people might have posted ads looking for roommates. I saw a couple of places in South Yarra and North Carlton but nothing came of it.
Eventually, on March 12, I found an ad for a room in Parkville, near the University of Melbourne, at 34 Story Street. I called and they asked me to come over the same day. There were three roommates looking to fill a small room upstairs, but it had it’s own small balcony big enough for one chair. Warren was a jazz pianist; Belinda was an art student; and another girl, whose name I can’t remember, was a fashion student. They interviewed me and it felt good. As I was leaving, Belinda chased me down the street and offered me the room. And that’s how I ended up on Story Street.
The next day, March 13th, I went into the City and sat in the Botanical Gardens. I tried to relax but my mind was racing with all the things I had to do. Then I remember sitting on a bench in downtown Melbourne waiting for the tram to take me back to my Uncle and Aunt’s house.
My tram approached but for some reason I chose not to get on it. I remember just deciding to sit there and let the tram go by. It dawned on me that I didn’t really have to go anywhere. Also that I was completely anonymous. No one knew where I was or who I was. I had time. This is what all the TGI Fridays misery had been for. This is why I was here. I started to smile.
I called home later that day and my Dad was really down. I realized that, while moving back home for the last six months was just a way for me save money, it must have been quite nice for my parents to have had me around again.
Even though they would usually be asleep by the time I got back from the restaurant, they would always leave the hall light on for me and ask me to turn it off when I got home. I think they probably gained some comfort from that, waking up in the night, seeing the light off, and knowing that I was safe under their roof.
And then I’d gone away to the other side of the world, without really telling them why, possibly never to return. That day that I called home, March 13, 1998, would have been my brother’s 21st birthday.
I had just started the process of figuring out how to live with his loss, but I don’t think my parents had. I think that they got there eventually, but through it all they had each other. For whatever reason, foolish or otherwise, I had determined that I was going to do it alone.
I moved into Story Street a few days later. It was autumn in Melbourne and the weather was warm and sunny most days. I spent the next few weeks just going to parks, and thinking, and writing. I decided I was going to write a screenplay based on my life over the past few years. I even wrote the first scene. These were small steps, but I started to feel like this whole quixotic notion of writing, grieving, and writing about grief could work. That maybe I could find a way to be happy again.