It’s tempting now to look back on certain decisions I have made in life and try to rationalize or explain them with the benefit of wisdom or hindsight. But where’s the fun in that? I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done, and that includes those moments where I put rational thought to one side.
This chapter begins with me still in Melbourne in late January 1999, and ends in London four months later. I’d finished the screenplay, or at least I had figured out how it would end, and that gave me a couple of weeks to enjoy myself, say my goodbyes, and start my journey home.
I loved Melbourne and I could have stayed longer. I had made a lot of friends and had been offered a job with a law firm, but I needed to go home to be sure that I was healed.
“Healed” is the wrong word. That suggests that I was back to normal or somehow unscathed from my experience. That was not how I felt. What I’d decided was that the death of my brother had metaphorically cut me open, and that I was visibly scarred. Through grieving, I had finally learned how to live with the scar rather than ignore it. I had accepted that this shadow would always be a part of me. It wasn’t something that would be obvious to everyone, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to hide it.
That was my philosophy, but I could only test it by being with my family and friends that really knew me.
I’d changed the dates and destinations on my 6-stop round the world ticket a few times and finally settled on visiting New Zealand, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, and New York before heading back to London.
But first I had to say goodbye to Melbourne and the friends I’d met over the past 12 months.
I had started dating my next-door neighbor at 32 Story Street. There was something very soap opera-esque about having a fling with my neighbor in Melbourne. It was a great arrangement for a while, until we broke up and I could hear her doing it with another bloke through the wall.
Anyway, it was decided that we would have a big leaving party for me on my last night. I invited everyone I’d met that year. People from all the temp jobs I’d worked, all the Irish gang, all of Jules’ mates, neighbors, roommates, and more. Belinda, my art student roommate drew up a flyer.
I’m not sure why I thought it was a good idea to have an all night party the day before I was scheduled to leave on an early morning flight but that’s what we did.
It was another emotional night. My 4th “leaving party” in 4 years. I had a little black moleskin notebook that someone started passing around at the party. I hadn’t written anything in it but everyone at the party wrote a few words about me in the book with their contact details. I’ve still got that little book. I was only in Melbourne for a year, and I’d forgotten how many thoughtful messages of love and affection are in there. That was such a pivotal year of my life. It really could have gone either way, but fortunately I came out on the side of joy.
The party raged all night. We were really into old school ska music at the time so there was a lot of skanking in the living room, and several bottles of cheap champagne were consumed. I really don’t remember this but apparently I’d arranged for my Aunt to take me to the airport. She showed up at 6am, with the party still in full swing, and she couldn’t find me. Eventually someone found me passed out behind the couch next door.
I’d also forgotten this, but my diary says that before I left my Aunt and Uncle loaned me $400 for my travels.
It’s funny how I really had no shame about borrowing money from people back then. I would always pay it back though, eventually. Just ask Nelly. I also went traveling across the world fully expecting to just sleep on the couches of people that barely knew me. That was just the way I rolled back then.
So my first stop after Melbourne was New Zealand. I’d met Callum, a Kiwi guy, while working at TGI Fridays in Glasgow. He was on the training class after me and we had a similar loathing for the whole experience. He invited me over and I made plans to be there for a week.
New Zealand is, or at least it used to be, the best-kept secret in the world. This was just before the Lord of the Rings films were all filmed there. So you may now be familiar with the stunning mountains, crystal clear lakes, heavenly waterfalls, surprising fjords, warm summers, and the friendly educated people. Kiwis are also keen to draw a distinction between themselves and Australians. Not unlike Scots with the English. I liked that.
Initially I showed up in New Zealand fully expecting to continue the party of the last few weeks. I was as high on life as I’d ever been and brazenly optimistic about the future. Then Callum and Grim told me that one of their best mates had just died a few days before I arrived. So for the first day we just chilled out and talked about unexpected deaths and grief. It’s the first time I remember being able to talk openly about my own experiences. That felt good.
The next day we drove out to visit one of Callum’s oldest friends Matt in Twizel, a tiny town in the shadow of Mt Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand. Matt and his girlfriend Emma lived and worked on an endangered bird sanctuary outside of town. They spent their days tending to the birds and building up the environment for them. They lived in a small wooden cottage in the middle of nowhere, surrounded my mountains and lakes. In the winter they would work for a bit and go skiing. In the summer they would work for a bit and then go out on their boat and water-ski.
It seemed like an idyllic life, but the job required them to be there to feed the baby birds every few hours. So it was hard for them to go anywhere, which meant they really appreciated having visitors.
It was an amazing couple of days. We went water skiing every day on Lake Pukaki. I’ve never seen lakes so brilliantly blue before or since. Every evening we’d grill fresh fish by the lake and watch the sunset. And then we’d go back to the cottage, sit outside and stare at the sky all night.
And that sky. I didn’t know it at the time, but the tourist guides describe it now as “one of the world’s cleanest, driest and darkest skies”. It was just incredible. It was so dark out there that you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. The huge black sky was full of stars, and arched from horizon to horizon. It felt like we were floating in space looking out at the universe.
I know this all sounds clichéd, but I remember having one of those special moments where I just felt that I was on the right path. Connected to the universe and all that. It doesn’t need to be explained. We weren’t even drinking either. Twizel. I’ll never forget that place.
The next weekend I took the bus to Christchurch and then flew up to Auckland. From there I time-travelled across the International Date Line to San Francisco arriving on the same day, a few hours before I left New Zealand.
I’d arranged to stay with an old Sandia roommate from Austin in 96, Steph, who was now a dancer in San Francisco. Unfortunately, there had been a misunderstanding in our correspondence. She hadn’t realized that I was planning to stay with her in her studio apartment for a week. She really didn’t have anywhere for me to stay, or any desire for me to stay. So she put me in cab to a hostel. My budget was about $100 for the week and the cost of the hostel left me about $40 for 7 days in San Francisco.
So I didn’t have a wild time in San Francisco. I found a place that sold a gigantic burrito for $5 so I would eat one of those a day and just walk all over the city. I visited the bridge, the parks, the record stores. I took a lot of nice photos, none with me in them. I wrote a lot too about my state of mind at that time.
The next stop on my travels was to be Austin. I’d not been back since I left in August 1996, but I had kept in touch with quite a few people, especially my old roommate Marc, and a girl called Kristy.
It’s very strange for me to read today about where my head was at during that week in San Francisco. I was loving life. I couldn’t wait to get home and share my new outlooks on life with friends and family, but I was also very excited to see Kristy again.
Kristy and I had never really ‘dated’ in 1995-96, but there was a connection there that I had worked hard to maintain. Every few weeks in Melbourne I would try and find time to speak with her on a long-distance call. I would even brush my teeth before calling her.
Over the years, I’d built her up to be my perfect girl. I used to think of her as my angel. I know that part of the attraction was that she represented many of the qualities that I didn’t have. She was spontaneous, and beautiful, and spiritual. But again, there needn’t be a rational explanation for how I felt.
That week in San Francisco, I spent most of the time daydreaming about seeing her again in Austin and sweeping her off her feet, and that we would set off on adventures together in Scotland.
Even then I knew that this was a thing I would do with girls. Not the sweeping off their feet part, but the unrealistic romantic notions. The fantastical fantasies – but not in a sexual way. These were PG-13 fantasies.
I’ve always been a bit of a dreamer. I thought I would marry the first girl I ever kissed when I was 14. She didn’t feel the same way. But I think there has always been a girl, a muse maybe, about whom I would daydream. I wrote about this in San Francisco too, listing the names of girls that had been the subject of my over active imagination – Lisa, the ‘girl on the train’, Sammy, Gail, Katherine, Julia, Kirsty. All unrequited. All broke my heart, without even realizing it.
In March 1999, my muse was Kristy. I was 23 years old but I’d never even been in a serious relationship. Logically, I also knew that it probably wouldn’t happen with Kristy. I mean first of all, there was no way she could have felt the same way about me. And secondly, even if she did, what was she going to do? Leave Austin and live with me in Scotland? I flew down to Austin from San Francisco, excited but realistic.
Marc met me at the airport with a beer. My bags didn’t arrive but I didn’t care. We went straight to the Crown and Anchor. It hadn’t changed a bit. The bar staff and the regulars all remembered me. Then Kristy walked in. In slow motion. With a perfect song playing in the background. We spent most of the night just smiling at each other and holding hands.
The next day I met Kristy for lunch and it was properly surreal. Our connection was even stronger than in my daydreams. I took her to the mound, the little grass space near the law school where I used to go to be alone. We just talked and talked until it got dark. I felt like I was in a movie.
I fluffed my lines a few times though. I was staying with Marc on his couch at his apartment complex on Bull Creek. The next night Kristy and I sat out by the pool and we kissed. As we held each other I whispered to her that I had always remembered the tattoo on her back as being one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. She replied, sweetly, “I don’t have a tattoo on my back”.
Somehow we got passed that. Within 48 hours of seeing her again I had told her that I loved her. Two days later her apartment on the east side was burgled and she didn’t feel safe there. So she moved in with me on Marc’s couch for a while. He didn’t seem to mind although he mentioned one morning that the couch was a lot squeakier than he realized.
I’d planned to stay in Austin for a week but I ended up staying for almost a month. I loaded up on vintage suits from a charity shop and saw Beth Orton play at South by Southwest. We spent many nights at Marc’s new favorite place the G&S Lounge, where somehow the owner would only charge us $10 no matter how much we drank. That was great because I was almost completely out of money again.
I had one credit card that I had been using to get cash advances from an ATM, but the fees were brutal. I didn’t care. I had the rest of my life to pay it back. Eventually it was time for me to leave. Kristy told me that she would come and visit me in Scotland but, as much as I hoped that would happen, I wasn’t expecting it. I don’t even think she had a passport at the time.
We had another farewell party at the Crown with Marc and a lot of his friends. Ali was there too, as was another old Sandia roommate Farmer Dave. I’d re-booked the flights for one night in Chicago and then a weekend in New York, but I’d bought so many old shitty suits in Austin, and a leather suitcase to hold them, that I now had too much luggage to physically carry by myself.
I had a quiet night in Chicago with Suzy, the girl who drove me and Nelly around in 1996, and then I flew on to New York. When I got to La Guardia airport, I tried to take money out on the credit card but it had stopped working. I had only $40 in my pocket and that was it. I had enough money to either store my bags or get on a bus to the city, but not both.
I’d arranged for a night out with someone I barely knew in New York, a friend of a friend. Anyway, even I, the world’s foremost moocher, felt uncomfortable asking them for money. So I decided to get the bus to JFK and just get on a flight back to London. For the second time, events had conspired to stop me from seeing New York City.
But I was ready to go home. I’d done everything I had set out to do. I’d finished the screenplay, I was happy again, I’d spent every penny I had, and I’d even fallen in love.
I got back to London, 13 months after leaving. Jonny Graham met me in the city and helped me with my ludicrous collection of suitcases back to the house he shared with Phil, Stef and Teddy in Tufnell Park. That weekend I saw most of my London friends, and I think they recognized the change in me. I was happy to be home. I was happy.
A few days later I borrowed some more money and got the bus back to Glasgow. My plan was to come back to London in a few weeks and make some money so that I could pay everyone back before I was due to start training to be a barrister in September.
My Mum and Dad were still in our old house in Barrhead, but after more than 15 years they were getting ready to move. They said that the house and the garden were getting too much work for them. There were too many empty rooms, and they liked the idea of a smaller, newer house.
They didn’t have a computer back then, so it was a few days later that I went down to Barrhead Library to check my emails. There was an email from Kristy. She said that she had decided to come and visit me in Scotland. She had already bought her ticket and would be arriving in a couple of weeks.
My heart exploded. I couldn’t believe it. My dreams were coming true. This girl, my angel, was giving up everything to come over to Scotland indefinitely. It was a fairytale ending.
That’s was it. Love is not rational nor logical. Immediately my priorities changed. She became the most important thing in my life. And I couldn’t have been happier about it.
Over the next few weeks I set up some job interviews and mini-pupilages with barristers in London. The day after Kristy arrived in Glasgow, I said goodbye to my parents again, I bid farewell to my old house in Barrhead forever, and I took the night bus down to London with my angel by my side.