In the nineties, when I learned to use makeup, the whole idea seemed to be to make as little difference as possible to your natural face. Hours were spent deliberating between eyeshadows with names like Ecru, Bone and Shell; if it was a really special occasion I might break out the Mushroom. (No, not that sort of mushroom).
Things are different now. I stand at a makeup counter in John Lewis in Oxford Street, feeling old and out of touch. Should I pick Bird of paradise, Neon, or Pop? Which one of those says 'the grandparents are babysitting and I've got a night off, baby' most effectively? I decide on Bird of Paradise, because it's true - the babies are being sat upon and J and I are off to see the Shins. The tickets for this London show sold out in sixteen minutes and I got two of them; I scored them from work a few weeks ago, frantically pressing 'refresh' on my computer while the interns shouted encouragement from the sidelines. I haven't been so excited about anything since... well, since I saw Radiohead in 1998, I suppose.But now the day is here, I feel disoriented too - I haven't done something like this for such a long time and I find that I don't really remember how to do it.
I wasn't even sure what to wear. I know that everybody else there will be wearing confusing shirts with logos I don't understand; shirts that have obviously come from some Hipster Palace of Awesome that I've never even heard of. None of them will have to check their cardigans for evidence of some small person's mucus, and if they are wearing cardigans at all it will only be in some sort of hip, ironic way, rather than, you know, to actually keep warm, like me. I can't keep up with that. In the end, I wear jeans and a striped top from the Anthropologie sale because I just want to be comfortable, dagnabbit, but now I'm regretting it and some new eyeshadow seems the only way to redeem my confused, out-of-touch self. I realise it's unlikely that James Mercer will see me up on the balcony and say 'Hey! You! Onstage now! I must have you for my muse!' but if that does happen, I want to make sure my eyelids don't let me down.
I take the package and slip it into my bag and wonder what to do next. J is still at work. I've left the children with his parents and travelled up to London and I have an afternoon to myself. Shouldn't I have something urgent to do? Apparently not. I may be on my way to an utterly awesome gig, but I'm still a woman in my thirties who is renovating her attic so I go and look at fabric swatches and request some samples. Then I go to the hotel and put on my new makeup, layering it on until my eyes look bruised, and then I get on the tube and now it's the date and the time that it says on the ticket and here we are, it's time.
I meet J at the tube station and we go to grab a burger, but I'm so excited that I can't eat it. I know I'm ridiculous but I can't help it - I'm absolutely giddy with anticipation. Any moment, I could breathe in some carbon dioxide that has actually been inside James Mercer's lungs. It's too much to take in. We go to the venue, me faster than J's long legs for once, dragging him along and saying hurry, hurry! I don't want to be late!
We are definitely not late. This is how out of touch I am - I'd forgotten how boring it is waiting for the main act to come on stage if you turn up at anything resembling the time printed on the ticket. Also, I have no idea why the support act are wearing surgical masks. Would I understand if I was younger? If I didn't have kids? Is there some kind of airborne pathogen I should be aware of? This is dull. J and I start to play Angry Birds.
Then The Shins finally come on, and they hit the ground running. They kick off with an incredible version of 'Kissing the Lipless' and the crowd goes crazy - okay, I go crazy, anyway. I was hoping they would start with this! I say to J and clutch his arm in excitement. He says why? and I look at him like he's got two heads and say because it's awesome, also it's the first song from the first album of theirs that we bought, obviously and then he looks at me like I'm the weird one, even though he has heard these CDs as often as me and really, there's no excuse, he should totally know these basic facts.
It just gets better and better. I love the songs from their new album and they are even more amazing live. The Shins is exactly my very favourite sort of music - downbeat lyrics with upbeat tunes, sort of a bit Smiths-ish, I guess - and I'm as happy as I can ever remember being. There's so much energy and I'm bouncing on my chair like a two-year-old because I'm just having so much fun. It's not like I don't like my normal life. It's not like it isn't fun watching DVDs of 30 Rock on the sofa and eating pasta, but I'd forgotten what it felt like to just be swamped by a wave of fantastic music, to be in a room where everybody is being carried along by the same tide and everybody is feeling it (except, maybe, J, who would possibly rather be dropping eggs on a pig wearing a helmet). Right now it seems to me like every minute of my life that hasn't been spent at a Shins concert was a total waste of time.
My favourite thing about live music - any kind of live music - is that you can be totally absorbed in the experience but at the same time, your subconscious is footling along in the background and you find yourself suddenly thinking about stuff, stuff that you didn't realise was even in your head until it falls out. I'd say that a really good concert takes up exactly three quarters of the brain, leaving the other quarter to wander down strange, deserted alleyways. I guess that means live music is sort of like going for a run, but without the pesky shortness of breath or unattractive sweat circles. I find myself thinking about the people onstage and wondering about their lives. I know the frontman is married with two kids. Does having two kids feel to his wife like it does to me? Or does being married to someone famous (and presumably rich) insulate a person from most of the inconveniences that go along with everyday life for the rest of us? Does she have a cleaner, at least? I bet she gets to go to more live music than I do. But then, my husband doesn't go on tour. She's probably at home, on the phone to her mother, right now, complaining that he's off having a grand time while she's stuck on her own looking after the kids and her life wasn't supposed to turn out like this and she has dreams too, what about her dreams? Or maybe they've brought the kids on tour and she's sitting next to me. Gosh, if so, I hope I didn't say any of that out loud. But speaking of women - there's a girl in the Shins now. How did that happen? It seems odd to me, but I can't really put my finger on why, apart from the fact that she looks about eighteen. Also, that guy playing the keyboard - his hair! Ouch. Definitely the world silver medallist in Bad Indie Hair (with the gold, of course, going to Darwin Deez and his frankly ridiculous ringlets). And then they start playing New Slang.
If you didn't think that post-punk pop could do bittersweet visceral yearning, you haven't heard this. Suddenly, without warning, this song catapults me back to 2007, when we went on holiday to Wales and had this CD on repeat in the car the whole time. It poured with rain that whole week - in fact, that whole summer - and we were miserable. We were in the middle of the horror of trying to make a decision about how to have a family and I couldn't think straight for sadness. The couple in the cottage next to us had a little baby and I would run past their front door in the rain and glare at them damply and get in the car and turn this up. I had forgotten about that. I loved this song, and every time it came on I would press repeat to hear it again. The line that always stuck with me was: If you took to me | Like a gull takes to the wing and I know this is cheesy but I used to listen to this and think about that image, two people taking to each other in a way that is irrevocable and natural and somehow immediate and right, like jumping off a cliff together and finding out that you can fly. I wondered if I would feel that way about my baby; I wondered if my baby would feel that way about me, if we would ever have a baby at all. And in a matter of seconds I'm not sitting here any more, I'm that old Claudia again, somewhere else, heartbroken and lonely and hollow and willing to trade all the freedom in the world for what I have right now, two precious children to tuck in at night.
The song ends but I still feel dizzy. I feel like crying and I don't know whether it's the smash to my emotional solar plexus or something else. Probably it's just that I'm up past my bedtime and I'm overexcited; too much time spent looking after toddlers and it seems I've become one. I want some juice. They do another number then leave the stage and the crowd begs for more - and they come on for an encore and do three more incredible songs. I'm myself again by the end - waving my arms with excitement and glad, so glad, that I work with people who are young enough to explain how to get tickets to shows when they are going to sell out quickly.
A day later. We've picked up the children; disassembled their travel cots and packed up their highchairs and thanked the grandparents and driven back to our house. It's good to be home. I like my home, and I missed my kids, these kids I fought so hard to find. This life feels very stable and anchored and I wouldn't change a thing but sometimes I get the urge to wriggle out of the ties that bind me and leave that weight behind and fly, just fly away.
I shake off that thought and turn my ipod on to scroll through my ipod to get Artist>The Shins > All Songs>Shuffle. I press play and let the melodies wash over me again, the perfect studio mixing reminding me that this is not the same.
It's not the same, but it'll do. And then I go downstairs and get out a chopping board and I cut up some potatoes for dinner.