August 7 – I wake with the sour taste of Southern Comfort and sliced lime lacing my dry gob like an Orc with a fire poker, foreboding sunlight piercing through the drapes and attacking my glazed eyes. It’s 9.30 a.m. and my flight left for London Stansted two hours ago. What follows is a frantic credit card-infused construction of an alternate itinerary. I find a train to London King’s Cross with a First Class seat, a Premier Inn for the overnight stay, and a flight to Bilbao early in the morning. I rush to Edinburgh Waverley railway station reeking of booze and with eyes heavier than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I bump into a few crackers folk I used to work with in my semi-feckless days as a railwayman. Some are pleased to see me, others not so. One bloke can’t remember my name. Not much has changed.
The wife of the bloke who cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire sits at the table opposite. She rolls her eyes at my reading of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler biography – this book itself a one-volume amalgamation of Hubris and Nemesis – and uncouth slurping of M&S gin and tonics. I cough loudly to intimate I know who she is. She reserves her judgement somewhat. The remainder of the journey is the usual snore. I think of these trips back in the ‘Olden Times’, the carriages filled with smoke and soot, the ’30s relayed in black and white. And no plug sockets or Wi-Fi.
By the time I reach King’s Cross I’m shattered, immeasurably plastered. I wander around the station in a two-mile tetrahedron until I pinpoint the buses for Stansted Airport. The bloke offing the tickets looks at me as if I’m a visiting species from Venus, such is his puzzlement at an accent one could deem Scotch; conversely, I cannot understand a word he is saying. I’m glad we shall never converse again. I arrive at the airport, and quickly find the shuttle bus to the next-door Premier Inn. There’s a tall blonde on the bus with a ‘resting bitch’ face, a sort of aesthetically pleasing, My-Fair-Lady version of Ronda Rousey. I don’t say anything.
This is glorious. You get your key from a touchscreen-activated locker. No human interaction warrants taking place. Sometimes one really has no tolerance for the foibles of the hotel receptionist. I set alarm clocks on three devices for 4:30 a.m. and plummet down onto my £84 sheets for an erratic sleep, my ‘dream’ consisting of Leon Trotsky stood in the queue at Tesco. I don’t think we converse but it was definitely a pre-icepick head of the Fourth International picking out tomatoes and mushrooms.
The lady at security confiscates my tuna (mandatory) and a spanner I forgot was in the stash. I’m gutted about the wanton Machtergreifung, but have come to accept my ritualistic hazing at the hands of the airline Gestapo. I don’t think it’s facile narcissism to suggest that in these orderly enclosures one – under the influence and over the no-sleep limit – appears (perhaps only to oneself) quite the apparition, the sore thumb, the incongruent THING in the corner attempting to be inconspicuous. I’ve seldom been sober or indeed possessed of psychological equilibrium in an airport. The constructs bring out the very worst thoughts and I wish we could teleport instead, though not metamorphosing into a fly in the process.
On the jet, I find my seat by the window and pass out, only waking to cheers and sporadic claps. There seems to be so many planes falling from the sky these days that zealous celebrations are a prerequisite to the tarmac embrace.
It’s at Bilbao Termibus that I meet my friend Pablo, who navigates me to Pil Pil Hostel. I can’t check in until 3:00 p.m. despite having paid for the private room since the previous day. In the long list of ridiculous hostel moments this loiters around the top tier, almost elevated to the Number One spot through the curt manner of the desk employee dressed in hobo clobber spouting a hostel rules 101 monologue. Pablo – a crazy drinker I met two years ago in Warsaw who’s staying at Botxo Gallery Hostel nearby – and I ditch the Pil Pil shithole for the time being, and go out drinking, wandering the streets in search of ethanol enlightenment, which is found at this wee cafe of sorts in a park. I can’t remember what it was called – the park or the bar. The booze was okay, though.
I’ve noticed something about the bar staff in Bilbao – most of them are horrendous actors. When I say actor, I refer to an ability to mask one’s emotions and crack on with the job. It’s a skill the British have. Not so much the Bilbao denizen. I ask for three drinks at a time for a reason – it saves me having to request a pint every 10 minutes. It saves my time and theirs, for I drink quickly. Anyway, my simple demand stimulated either a grimace or a shocked face of befuddlement, the contortion before me a discombobulated cup bearer. Just bring me my fucking order. Sigh.
This day was pretty full-on.
After finally checking in at Pil Pil, we gobble down beers and vodkas outside a dusty, almost Wild West-like saloon – inside I trip on the stairs on my way to taking a piss, such are the hazards of the dimly lit interior. Things do proceed to get decidedly messier after this. I recall a child screeching “Coca-Cola, Coca-Cola” behind me in the arches by Plaza Nueva, the little monster imitating my request to the waiter. I give her father a look that suggests I’m on the verge of chucking a glass of the stuff at their table. He gets the picture and they vacate the area. Job well done.
We’re proceeding past the Guggenheim Museum and I have a revelation that the contents of museums are an increasing irrelevance; it’s the exterior that matters. I struggle to think of a museum that’s anonymous on the outside but chock-full of treasures on the inside – at least ones worth taking a butcher’s at. The Guggenheim is discarded for a session of drinky poos by Nervión river.
Flash-forward about six hours and I’m picking up a phone battery from between some tram tracks in dark marshland. Later, I’m walking around in circles, unable to extricate myself from an urban version of The Blair Witch Project (1999). I spend hours doing this, and twice visit a petrol garage requesting a taxi. They tell me to go away on each occasion. I sleep in a bush until daylight, and emerge covered in worms beneath this high-rise apartment building to a bottle (albeit plastic) thrown down at me, which narrowly misses my leg. I must be intruding on some kind of inward-looking ghetto. Only at a metro station do I realise where I am: Etxebarri, the last stop on the line. I make it back to the hostel at 8:20 a.m. and collapse for the second time on this trip.
Noon. I wake up feeling strangely sober, eminently fresh. I realise that I forgot to pack an EU adaptor. The receptionist doesn’t know what one is and doesn’t know where any shop pertinent to my needs is. I locate a supermarket and emerge with coffee liqueur, cottage cheese, a packet of ham, and knock-off Riveta. I purchase a charger at a store in town. I stand at the desk for five minutes waiting for a member of staff to return from the bathroom. The smell accompanies him.
Pablo is relieved that I am still alive. Apparently, I wandered out of the pub around midnight looking a little somnambulist. The events of the previous evening are recalled over several drinks before proceeding back into town. When you’re vitamin and sleep and water and all manner of essential sustenance deprived, haggard, rougher than a junkies carpet and/or badger’s arse, it has an immediate effect on people. They become wary, keep their distance, presume you to be the bringer of danger and the harbinger of unfortunate events. A part of you wishes to hit the sack, the healthy snack, and the shower in order to rejoin the acceptable standards of society, but the other part feels like it would be a betrayal of the Dionysian self.
I’ve always been captivated by Nietzsche’s conception of man’s duality as channelled by Apollo and Dionysus. When the drinking starts I don’t believe in endings until it ends – the flight home, the physical impossibility of continuing the journey, the recommencement of work. As long as the body and clock can take it, I’m in the drinking zone for the long haul; I am the binge becometh. I see it as a case of fulfilling decadence, making a masterpiece. A day off the sauce would kill it.
Baileys, more vodka, Pablo napping in his seat to prolonged gawking from passing locals, the singing of the Ghostbusters theme tune with another bar patron, and the surreal visit to a Winston Churchill-themed cocktail lounge. We rock in donning scruffy booze-soaked shorts and t-shirts, and sip faux-elegant concoctions as the bartender quietly facepalms. Back at the hostel, I hear fornicating in the room next door. It sounds like two Ewoks trying to build a fire. I collapse for the third time.
My enduring memory of Bilbao is of red. That’s it, really. There were a lot of red streets. The more I travel, the less places leave an impact. One city – with some oriental exceptions – is for the most part indistinguishable from the next. Perhaps I’m not doing enough of the ‘cultural’ stuff and spending too much time in bars.
It’s one of those trips. The bus breaks down en route to the airport. I miss my plane. The next one is chartered. I arrive in London at midnight. The Premier Inn is utilised again. I collapse (again). I head back into Stansted the next day for the 4:20 p.m. Edinburgh flight. It’s delayed by an hour. I get the shakes during the flight, and headbutt the seat in front of me during a nightmare. No one says anything. I arrive in Edinburgh. An hour later I’m home. I take a piss, and then promptly collapse on my bed, once more with feeling.