I stared out at the passing scenery as the Alpha Bloodlines tour bus made its way through snow-clogged Austrian roads. We were headed towards Kapfenberg, where a three-day metal festival was scheduled to take place in one of the fields just outside the town itself. Of course, our band numbered amongst many others performing over the weekend. Alpha Bloodlines was only one of three symphonic metal bands booked, however; the rest was a melting pot of hard rock, industrial, heavy metal, grunge and many others. We were also scheduled to sit in a band's signing tent sometime the following afternoon, where we would meet fans, sign their merchandise and pose for photos, if time permitted it. That was something we all had grown used to yet it was the first time in a while that I'd had to do any of it on my birthday.
"You all right, Paulchen?" Tricia asked as she settled beside me.
Her voice pulled me out of my Alpha Bloodlines related reverie and I smiled at our vocalist.
"Yeah, I'm okay, thanks, Trish," I said.
"All geared up for the birthday bash tomorrow?" she asked and grinned. "We are still doing that, aren't we?"
She suddenly looked a little worried, as though perhaps I'd changed my mind since last we'd talked about it.
"Of course," I said with a baffled shrug. "Why wouldn't we be?"
"I don't know. It's not like you're going to be 55 every year," she said. "Ya old git."
She laughed at that and I jokingly pretended I hadn't heard her, which made her laugh all the harder. I wasn't certain as to why she was so obsessed with my age; we all were of a similar age and none of us was getting any younger. In fact, Richard was older than me by four years and no one yet had made a similar crack at my husband.
Tricia and I carried on chatting about our plans as the bus finally pulled up outside our hotel. The rest of our band piled forward as soon as the bus had stopped; Jonas and Travis were particularly noisy as they peered out the windows at the picturesque surrounds of Kapfenberg. Richard stayed beside me, one hand nestled comfortably against the small of my back. Once the bus' door had whooshed open, it was a short jaunt to the hotel, to check-in and to get settled a little better. Richard and I, being the only married couple in the band, had the only double room as usual.
Once we'd grabbed a quick bite to eat in a local cafe, it was a quick ride by taxi to the festival grounds. We all wanted to catch some of the performances that day after all.
It was snowing the next day as we made our way to the festival grounds once more. Thick drifts of it had piled by the sides of the road during the night and it looked as though the clouds would drop more by the afternoon. Our taxi was struggling to get through the slush and the traffic and I was worried that we would be late.
"Don't think much of the weather here, eh?" Travis asked moodily.
As the sole Australian in the band and also the only were-panther, he didn't particularly enjoy cold weather. By contrast, Jonas was the only one out of us who actively seemed to relish it, being the only Swedish man. Unlike Travis, he was as human as the rest of us.
None of us answered Travis however; we were too busy watching the snow drifting down to pay much mind to anything, let alone our bassist's complaints. As such, we pulled up outside the venue in silence and piled out amid the snow and milling crowds.
As it turned out, we almost were late for our signing session. As soon as we drew near to the tent, one of the festival staff chivvied us over with loud complaints and near remonstrations even though Travis tried to explain about the snow-related hold-up. I frowned yet said nothing. Richard was the one who leant in and murmured in my ear.
"I feel like a naughty school kid again, don't you, squidgy-face?" he asked and gave me one of his beautiful grins.
I only had time to return that grin before we were ushered down into our places behind a long line of gingham cloth-covered tables. Outside the tent, a whole crowd of eagerly waiting Alpha Bloodlines fans queued; I was surprised to see so many given the state of the weather. Most wore thick coats and scarves which swaddled their bodies in comforting swathes. Just looking at them made me feel cold, despite the thick coat I also was wearing.
After a few moments of waiting, the first group of fans shuffled through the gate that separated us from them; each fan toted Alpha Bloodlines CDs or t-shirts and festival flags, ready to be signed. As each fan moved down the tables to me, I greeted each one with a smile and a nod, lapsing into German when it became clear to me that the fan facing me was either German or Austrian. It made a nice change to be able to converse in my mother tongue instead of pootling along in English as I usually had to.
I was surprised at how many of the fans offered me birthday gifts, such as chunky bracelets, rings, fan-art, even a few home-made mix CDs. All were very well received and put to one side. The worst came when one particularly well-meaning fan stopped in front of me. We chatted for a while as I signed her flag before she popped a question.
"Seeing as your birthday is today, can I give you a present, Paul?" she asked hopefully.
"You certainly can," I said with a smile as I pushed her freshly signed flag towards her.
"Great. I made it myself because I heard you like reptiles," she said before she plopped the ugliest stuffed toy I had ever seen in front of me.
I supposed it was the reptile she claimed it to be although I would have never have known without her explanation. I affected a smile even as Richard leant in to see what I had been given.
"You said you made it yourself?" he asked politely yet I hoped I was the only one who heard he was trying not to laugh.
I pinched his thigh to stop him from actually laughing out loud and thankfully, my husband remained silent. Instead, he nodded at the fan and gave her an encouraging smile.
"Yes, it's a leopard gecko," she replied cheerfully.
It seemed she hadn't noticed Richard's near miss with a laughing fit. I had to swallow my own laughter as I didn't want to offend the hopeful fan.
"Hmm. Lovely. It's very ... thoughtful. Thank you," I said as I placed the alleged leopard gecko carefully with my other gifts.
She grinned in sudden pleased excitement before she then moved on to get Tricia's signature. During a lull in the proceedings, Richard plucked the leopard gecko from the pile and grimaced at me.
"Bloody ugly little thing, isn't it?" he murmured as he waggled the gecko in front of my face.
"I don't know. It might not be the best but she meant well," I said carefully.
"I know that but come on, Paul! Admit it; it's bloody ugly," Richard said and laughed.
"No worse than some of your bloody shirts, mate," Travis said from the other side of Richard.
I laughed at that; Richard was famous for his range of ugly patterned shirts. Richard just grinned and shrugged at the bassist.
"Look at it though. Its legs are too long and are at the wrong angle, the head's too small and the tail's too stubby. The eyes aren't right either. The only thing she got right was the bloody leopard print material," Richard said as he held the toy up again.
He was right but I felt awful and more than a little guilty for agreeing with him.
"He's going to be my onstage lucky mascot now," I said to recompense my guilt. "My ugly-cute lucky mascot."
We laughed at that, even as Richard placed the toy back onto the pile of presents I'd received. It still was snowing by the time we left the signing tent and when we finally took to the stage, I popped the leopard gecko toy on top of my amp. Surprisingly within five minutes, it had stopped snowing and while the December day never truly descended into outright sunshine, it did brighten a little.
"Looks like that gecko thing of yours cleared the weather up, squidge," Richard said with a laugh as soon as we left the stage.
I just laughed and said - "Told you it'd bring us good luck."
We just laughed even as I tucked the ugly gecko into my shirt and continued walking.
It became a routine for me after that to place the ugly gecko onto my guitar amp with every performance. Strangely enough, whenever I did so during bouts of bad weather, it always cleared up, be it rain, snow or wind. I always put it down to coincidence and not through any power of ugly mascots, yet I knew better than to try and break tradition by then. I even stopped seeing the gecko toy as an ugly item, more a weirdly cute good luck mascot.