Strawberry Milk

The date was set months ago. He agreed in haste, unconsciously sowing a tiny seed of anxiety in his fertile mind. A hometown show by his favourite band, surrounded by his closest friends. Measured by any metric this was something to look forward to.

Four weeks to go. He was still excited, but the tiny seed had sent out green shoots of worry. He barely noticed, save for an occasional prickle at the edge of his consciousness. He thought about the club, an oppressive concrete box with low ceilings. It would be busy. Hot. Sweaty. Claustrophobic. He could still have fun though. Maybe.

One week to go. He was driving, listening to songs that reminded him of past times and places, words triggering vivid recollections of youth. Tunes first encountered when he was in his prime, if indeed those years could be described as such. It was a strange time, filled with academia, loneliness and a crippling lack of self esteem. He had largely expunged it from his memory, but he’d held on to the music. Always the music.

It’s the day of the gig. The anxiety seed is now full-grown, a complicated vine of creeping dread infiltrating every fibre of him. He’s at work, and whilst his body and mind are busy with the challenges of his job he can keep the unhelpful thoughts at bay. Work is his safe place, a sanctuary where his confidence in his own ability is unshakable. Within those office walls he is invulnerable, but the dread vine waits patiently outside. As soon as he steps out the doors it strikes, triffid-like, and panic sets in. “You’re the worst. It’ll be too busy. It’ll be too hot. You’ll look stupid. You’ve got nothing to wear. You’re going to embarrass yourself you fat fuck”. He doesn’t want to go anymore. He’s not going to go.

He is going to go. It’s two hours before the show and he sits waiting for a taxi. He feels uncomfortable in his ill-fitting clothes, and he’s started to sweat. Scared.

He meets his friends for a drink before the show, and the anxiety melts away slightly. He knows his brain is playing tricks, he knows he’s just the same as everyone else, but his mind won’t let him believe it. Alcohol gives the panic a fuzzy edge that seems less intimidating, and he relaxes slightly. They walk to the venue, and the cool breeze soothes his sweaty brow.

A short queue. Ticket scanned. A quick search from a security guard and he’s in. The wave of sticky heat hits him immediately, just as he predicted. The unique ambience of thousands of human forms temporarily entombed in a windowless bunker, perspiration condensing and dripping from the ceiling. Visions of wartime, but with a funkier bassline. He inhales a plastic cup of beer, then heads to the merch stand to waste some money. The endorphin boost is disappointingly brief, but it’s good to feel something. He buys another cigarette lighter. He doesn’t even smoke.

The venue fills, becoming packed like the metaphorical sardine tin. He takes up his regular position at the back, near to the sound desk. You always get the best sound near the desk. He struggles to find a position where he’s not constantly in contact with the writhing mass of other people, and gives up. The sweat comes again. He feels like a bear in a cheap man suit, and he convinced himself that people see him as some sort of landmark. “Meet you by the man-bear”. The lights dim and the band comes on. They start with an old song. His favourite. Adrenaline pumps, and he moves his right leg in an awkward near-dance, like someone trying to dislodge an amorous ferret from their trouser leg. He soon gives up and heads to the bar.

The bar. Thirty minutes spent in a seething ball of life, during which he sweats out enough liquid to fill Gas Street Basin. He emerges with a small cup of warm beer, which is immediately knocked from his hand by a man with a face that appears to have been drawn onto a deflating balloon. Fuck this.

He rejoins the crowd. Strobe lights flicker, framing the singer in a slow-motion sepia world. The crowd are mesmerised, but all our hero can focus on are those around him. The gig-talkers, the portrait-filmers, the pissed-up dancers windmilling their arms with gay abandon. An idiot in front crouches down, ingesting his MDMA somewhat less subtly than he thinks, before exploding back to a standing position and sending a young girl sprawling to the floor. The idiot doesn’t notice, and starts to windmill with renewed vigour.

His nerves are on edge, and all he can think about is how much he hates everyone around him. He imagines telling them to stop, imagines getting involved in an awkward fight under the strobe lights, all missed punches and kicks. He never wins his imagined fights, and he knows he’d never be brave enough to do it anyway.

A mid-gig lull. The band are playing new songs. The sound is muffled, and they seem to be coasting. Something is missing, some spark of danger and excitement. Before he knows it he’s heading for the exit, pushing his way through two sets of doors and out into the open. The cold air shocks him, a bolt of adrenaline runs through him as he realises that he’s free. He can still hear the band plodding through a disappointing album track as he skirts around the railings, ignoring the bootleg t-shirt sellers as he makes his escape. He doesn’t have a plan, but with every step away from the club the anxiety melts away. He walks the wrong way down the main road into town, away from the buses and taxis that could carry him home. At least a mile passes before he stops to collect his thoughts. He calls a cab, and heads into a nearby corner shop to buy a pint of strawberry milk. It’s been a bizarre evening by even his own strange standards, but sometimes the anxious thoughts win, and sometimes things don’t always go according to plan. That’s alright though, he doesn’t mind.

He sits back in the taxi seat, strawberry milk in hand, feeling calm. Until next time.

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