Searching for a happy medium

I had never been much of an enthusiast for pyrotechnics; they never sparked my interest the way they seemed to others.  The last fireworks display I could remember attending would have been when I was much younger, when our mum used to take us out to Mossfield Stadium and the fifth of November was always a cloudy and drizzly night.  As such, the squibs were invariably underwhelming and damp, and the most exciting thing about those occasions was sitting in the back of the car eating candy floss to the sound of raindrops crackling against the windows, while somewhere in the distance we were assured that there were some fireworks going off.  Since becoming a grown-up single occupant, the way I saw it was that if I wanted a great deal of build-up to a short explosion which would be followed by hours of disappointment and recrimination, I would have stayed at home self-partnering.

Instead, I was invited to watch Oban’s 2019 Guy Fawkes Night display with a trio of women who ranged somewhere between acquaintances, friends and pub quiz team-mates.  It was a more appealing prospect than spending another night pondering why my socks were taking longer to dry on the airer in November than they did in July or what had gone wrong with the tomato soup I had made on Sunday.  And besides, it was probably warmer than spending the evening in my flat.

Walking through the centre of town prior to the event was an exercise in surrealism, as songs by Dire Straits were booming from the mobile unit of the local radio station Oban FM.  The music could be heard almost the entire length of George Street, and we liked to imagine a scenario where Argyll & Bute council had decided to make the installation a permanent feature, where songs would funnel through the town all day, every day; a backing soundtrack to the hum of traffic.  Better yet, I interjected into the fantasy scene, it would be Dire Straits played on a continuous loop.  Everybody else would just have to learn to live with it.  Earlier it had been reported that the fireworks display had been made possible by funding through the non-profit community organisation BID4Oban and had cost £8,500, which wasn’t quite a case of money for nothing, but it was your kicks for free.

At Station Square, there was a selection of charity stalls and children’s rides for the locals to peruse and be entertained by before the night was due to ignite at seven-thirty.  Some of our group had decided that they wanted a hot drink from the snack van beneath the clock tower to help in fending off the falling temperature, so I stood in line and waited with them.  I was quickly struck by the aroma of cooking onions, which was trailing through the black sky like an undercover operative seeking out its enemy target, hunger. I was enjoying the fragrance of the onions whilst at the same time wondering why they never smelled that way when I cooked them at home, but then nothing was ever like it ought to have been in my kitchen.  I could practically smell the onions curling and crisping before me, when at home they were always sad and wet, like the Bonfire Night displays from my childhood.

The sound of the onions sizzling in the pan and the scent of them swirling around the atmosphere was dizzying.  I was standing taking it all in as the queue moved forward and my friends ordered their coffees.  On my right elbow, I felt a sudden, sharp nudge.  I turned to be met by a woman who was wrapped up as though she was prepared for an Arctic expedition.  She asked me if I was being served, at which point I realised that my friends were being handed their hot drinks and I would have been next in line if I was actually wanting anything.  I apologetically stepped to the side.  “Oh, no, I was just smelling the onions.”  The woman gave me a look which was the type of glare a person has after chopping a couple of onions, and I moved off into the night.

From the Oban FM position, a local councillor began the countdown to the beginning of the display, going from ten to one as these things typically do, and many of the crowd of people who were packed along the pavements joined him, some out of anticipation of the event, and others surely just trying to keep warm.  With the excitement at close to fever pitch, the countdown quickly reached one and everyone gathered to see what would follow.  Nothing.  There was stillness and silence and people waited some more.  It was like when I would talk to a woman at the bar and eagerly wait for the moment where I could use the hilarious joke I had thought of and the tension would never combust.

Unlike my pub encounters there eventually was a spark, and the sky over the bay was lit up by a series of fireworks from the Railway Pier.  It was bright and emphatic, and over much more suddenly than anyone was expecting.  Some around us were disappointed and wondered was that it?  But it soon became evident that the whole thing was a joke designed to mimic the disastrous display of 2011, when a technical error led to the entire arsenal of pyrotechnics being set off at the same time.  The farce was immediately christened Obang and the video was since watched more than a million times on YouTube.  As far as humour on a cold Tuesday night went, it was mildly more successful than my pub puns.

In the downtime between the joke display and the actual fireworks extravaganza, we decided to walk towards the North Pier in search of a better vantage point.  As we passed the radio broadcast van we could hear that they were no longer playing Dire Straits, but instead, the airwaves had been taken over by a domineering instrumental number which was heavy on the brass and sounded like a military-style anthem from a Soviet-era state.  Inexplicably, the music seemed to be growing louder the further away from it we travelled and I could feel my shoulders straighten and my steps develop into a march. I wondered if we should expect to see a large red flag rolling down the facade of the buildings along George Street, or if a brown bear was going to be paraded through the centre of town, but I remembered that they were still carrying out some resurfacing work on the road and it would have been silly to allow a bear to trample all over that.

A site less thrilling than the fireworks was visible over the North Pier some time around 2am on Saturday morning

The North Pier was busy with those who had taken up position for the original display, though we were fortunate enough to find a prime spot outside the Italian style restaurant Piazza.  Inside we could see tables of people, predominantly couples, who were enjoying plates of food and bottles of wine as they were waiting for the nights’ entertainment to unfold before them on the stage offered by Oban Bay.  Some of our group praised the forward-thinking and planning of the diners who had reserved their tables to coincide with the fireworks display, ensuring that they could eat their dinner while savouring the squibs from the warm environment of a restaurant.  I preferred to see it another way, liking to imagine that a hapless man had thought to take his girlfriend out for a romantic and peaceful meal on a Tuesday evening in a restaurant with a beautiful sea view, completely oblivious to the date and any notion of Guy Fawkes night.  The happy couple had sat down at their table, perfectly positioned by the window, totally in awe of one another and excited about spending the night alone with nothing but the other’s company.  Suddenly the North Pier was beginning to fill and the entire town was standing in front of the windows, obscuring the postcard view.  A series of loud explosions were going off in the distance and it was becoming difficult to hear the sweet nothings being spoken across the parmesan.  On the other side of the restaurant was a young couple on their very first date, after months of an aching courtship, and the lad was sitting thinking to himself, “how the fuck do I top this?”

Oban’s 2019 display was widely regarded as being one of the best in recent times.  I was still thinking about it when I went to Aulay’s the following night after another miserable attempt at winning the Lorne’s pub quiz.  With a pint of Tennent’s Lager in my hand, I was questioned by a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn-Bru over whether on a previous occasion I had written the word fizz or frizz.  I assured her that there was no rogue ‘r’, although I began to wonder whether it would be more accurate to say that her hair had the qualities of the hot end of the sparklers I had seen around town the previous evening.

She reminded me of our last discussion in the pub, when she had complimented the effort I was putting into the colour combinations in my outfits and had suggested that she had been looking at scarves that could suit me.  The woman, who was out celebrating her birthday, reached into her bag to fish out her phone, which she used to bring up the website of the designer Rory Hutton, whose pocket squares she assured me would bring an extra dimension of colour to my attire.  I was viewing the rainbow of accessories with the same kind of wonder I had for the way the sky had been illuminated a night earlier, but the prices which were listed alongside the items seemed higher than a rocket reaches into the air, and I couldn’t think of a circumstance where I would like myself enough to spend so much on a pocket square.

The conversation at the table continued to my ongoing ineptitude with the opposite sex, when the flame-haired woman offered the suggestion that I should think about dressing down now and again as some girls may be reluctant to talk to me because a man who is wearing a suit can appear intimidating.  I scoffed at the idea that anyone could be intimidated by a man sporting a pink pocket square and reminded her I had a tendency to feel nervous any time there was a woman within a one hundred yard radius. “Besides,” I argued, “I can wear jeans on a weekend and it makes no difference.”

She stuck to her task, like a pyrotechnic determined to get over a false start and set the sky ablaze.  “Well then maybe you need to find a happy medium,” the woman advised.

I leaned across the table, knowing immediately how I wanted to respond.  “Are you saying that I should seek a psychic who will tell me all the things that I want to hear?”

As far as jokes went, it was my version of Obang, but I could tell from her reaction that the countdown had reached one and she was still waiting for something to happen.  At the end of it all, I was going to have to wait for the opportunity to put the theory of a happy medium into practice.  By Saturday I had been struck down by a cold which had come on as quickly as a rocket explodes in the sky.  I was burned out and in bed by ten o’clock, watching the hardly uplifting but classic movie The Silence of the Lambs.  My nose was streaming, barely likely to capture the essence of any onions.  Wrapped in a grandfather-like jumper, absent of all colour, it was a scene which wasn’t going to be intimidating anyone.

They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.

The different uses for a comb

In my experience it wasn’t rare for a major high to quickly be followed by a crushing defeat, but ordinarily it would be me who was suffering the rapid fall from grace, and it usually wouldn’t come around as suddenly as the swift setback I had witnessed in Aulay’s around an hour after the pub quiz in The Lorne, where I had suffered a small defeat of my own.  Three members of the four Unlikely Lads had reunited after the brief flirtation with success two of us had enjoyed a week earlier when we formed a winning alliance with the Bawbags who weren’t away on holiday, and for a while it was looking like our quiz joy might continue when we found ourselves in the lead at the midway point.  I was already allowing myself to think ahead to how I could spend the prize of a £25 bar voucher on a second date, even though I had yet to find a woman who would accompany me for the use of the voucher we had previously won.  However, our team endured a torrid round of questions on siblings, registering a pitiful return of three points, and the whole thing went downhill from there.  It was a lot like the frequent challenges I faced with my own brother, who was always much better equipped for attracting the opposite sex than I was.

Aulay’s was quiet on Wednesday night, much quieter than it apparently had been the night before, when legend has it that an eve of funeral gathering ended with a wild bar brawl.  There weren’t more than three patrons in the lounge bar when I walked in, and I was beginning to wonder if the only people who go to the pub on a Wednesday night are those who are lonely.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, where there was ample room for me to consider where the evening’s quiz had gone wrong over a beer while I embellished the diminutive barmaid with the story of my bar voucher and how I was hoping to use it to attract a date.  In the meantime, a couple who were half-Scottish and half-Australian entered the bar, and they quickly became involved in a conversation with one of the three folks who were there before I was, an older man who had travelled from a nearby island in the Outer Hebrides.  It wasn’t long before the new acquaintances were serenading the sparse bar with drunken Scottish lullabies.  

Pints of lager, measures of whisky and orders of vodka and Irn-Bru were finding their way to the table in the corner in quick succession, and it wouldn’t be long before the lyrical infused libations were requiring some accompaniment in the form of music.  I wasn’t witness to what happened next, but I was able to savour its effect and I could easily picture the scene when the Glasgow born male of the aforementioned couple told the story after the event.

Volunteers collecting from the bay near Dunstaffnage Marina under an approaching storm

As the couple were sitting at the comfort of their table, their island companion reached into the pocket of his jumper, which was the colour of a Mentos wrapper, for a packet of cigarettes.  He shook the cardboard carton like it was a pepper mill, though instead of granulated peppercorns there were around thirteen Silk Cuts tumbling onto the surface of the table, which was wet with pools of Tennent’s Lager.  The cigarettes were swimming in rivers of gold while the man from the Outer Hebrides was carefully separating the silver paper lining from the inside of his empty cigarette carton.  Neither of the pair was at all sure what he was up to, and it wasn’t any clearer when he withdrew his black comb from his inside pocket.  He proceeded to attach the shiny paper to the hair straightening tool, fashioning an unlikely instrument, and he provided the most unlikely backing I had ever heard to a pair of pub singers.

The comb harmonica had a similar sound to that of a duck call, and after a few minutes of the man breathing into the thing, I found myself glancing towards the entrance of the pub, wondering if a flock of ducks might waddle in, and everyone would look at one another in search of the punchline.  It was ridiculous, and yet at the same time sublime, and his newfound friends were in rapture to his device, celebrating every note he produced.

The impromptu performance continued for some time, the Glaswegian man singing his folk songs and the islander accompanying him with his musical comb, until the plentiful supply of drinks that the couple had been replenishing him with caught up with the islander.  Suddenly the female of the group called out.  “He’s being sick on his shoes!” Apparently it was just the vodka and Irn-Bru repeating on him like the two notes his instrument could play, but it was enough to cause some alarm at the table.  Within a matter of minutes, the distant islander had gone from the high of being regarded as a hero for his virtuoso instrumental interlude, to the bitter defeat of vomiting on his shoes in the pub.  It was the visual equivalent, I thought, of how it would be to watch myself try and talk to a woman.

A scramble for paper towels ensued, and the old man was looking lost as he watched the whole thing unfold around him.  The woman wiped the orange fluid from his shoes, which were the black of faded tarmac on a busy town road, and once he had taken some time to compose himself, he slipped the comb, still shrouded on one side by the silver cigarette paper, off the end of the table and began playing it again, as if nothing had ever happened.  I couldn’t help but admire him for his resilience and his devotion to the cause, whichever cause breathing into an old comb might be.  There had been many a time when I had been sick in a pub and immediately left to go home, albeit I was in the modesty saving surroundings of a public bathroom.  This was something I had never witnessed before, and I was struck by how humble it all was.  How nice it would be if everybody could handle adversity like this.

Autumn would always arrive like an artist’s stroke on canvas; with wonderous new smells and curious sounds, with exciting hope and it was all so full of colour.  All around town things were changing with the season, nothing more so than the leaves on the trees.  Amongst the diminishing green, there could be seen different shades of all sorts, from regal gold to burning amber, from aged rust to crisp red.  As dusk was settling in over Oban bay, the headlights of cars would whizz by on the Esplanade, looking like fireflies with somewhere to go.  And yet, amongst it all, everything still felt blue.

The cold air troubled my newly exposed ears as well as the sea

By the penultimate Saturday in October I could no longer be sure if the temperature had taken a significant drop or if the sudden cold feeling around my ears was because I had just been for a hair cut.  It had been at least nine-and-a-half weeks since I last had the hairs around my head trimmed, and they were becoming increasingly difficult to fashion into a respectable look.  When I first walked into the barber’s shop the couch was almost full, but one of the guys was waiting for his friend in the chair, and besides, we weren’t having our weekly family breakfast at Poppie’s, so I had nothing better to do than read the sports pages of the Daily Star and occasionally feign interest in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia on the old television in the corner whilst waiting my turn.

Nobody else had taken a seat on the couch since I had arrived, and it seemed that this was a theme of the morning.  Whilst sitting in the barber’s chair I received a lesson on the economics of cutting men’s hair for a living.  “I’m probably fifty quid down today because the rugby is on and there doesn’t seem to be many people coming out,” the barber said to me over the buzz of his clippers as I stared ahead at the blurred reflection of what I assumed was myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t be sure when I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  “But on Wednesday I could be fifty up…someone will always need their hair cut.”  I was reluctant to nod with a blade so close to my scalp, but I understood what he was saying.

I shuddered each time the barber ran his comb through my hair, though I wasn’t sitting there for very long.  “Slip on your glasses and tell me what you think” is a phrase I could imagine being said in many situations, but I had only ever heard it in the barber’s chair.  As the barber brushed away the stray hairs from around my collar he admired his own handiwork, proclaiming the hair cut the best he had ever given me.  I could see the look of bemusement on my own face when I put my glasses back on over my exposed ears.  Does this mean that he hadn’t been doing his best work over all these years?  And all those people who had noticed my previous hair cuts, had they only noticed them because they weren’t so good?  I couldn’t stop going over those questions in my mind as I was surveying his snipping, struggling to see what was different about it.

A week had passed and I was still settling into my new hair cut when Let’s Make A Scene was cancelled not quite at the last minute, but certainly at the last hour.  I had already showered and changed into my suit for my reading, so I carried on to Aulay’s regardless. A sense of awkwardness quickly came over me when I was standing at the bar wearing a brown tweed suit as people funnelled in to watch the big fight on television, and I only really began to feel comfortable later in the night when strays from a Halloween party arrived and I was no longer the only person wearing costume.

The marine biologist barmaid from Aulay’s had been keen to listen to my set at the open mic event, and when she returned to the other side of the bar later on Saturday she arrived with her boyfriend and a friend whose scarf immediately caught my eye.  I was in such a rush to compliment her on the neck-warming apparel that I immediately forgot her name when she was introduced to me.  Even when I was talking to her, it wasn’t the midnight mascara around her eyes that I was thinking about, but the cashmere around her collar.  

I tried to make conversation with the young woman around all of the usual things, and I learned all about her studies and her reasons for moving to Oban, where she had come from and some of the places she had travelled to further her research.  But I still couldn’t take my mind off the scarf, and I could tell that things were going awry when I asked her about the hurricane evacuation procedure in Costa Rica.  Seemingly people from the coastal areas were moved inland to cramped farmhouses, and it was only a matter of time before she initiated an evacuation procedure of her own.  I couldn’t resist asking about the scarf any longer.  It was made up of two or three different colours, and I was keen to know her view of what they were.

“What would you say the predominant colour on your scarf is?”

“Purple,” she said, unwilling to elaborate on whether it was lavender, lilac or mauve.  Whatever interest I had been able to hold for the girl lasted about as long as a hair cut, and she soon moved into a discussion with my more interesting friend.  I never saw the scarf again, and I was left wondering if this was how it felt to be sick on your shoes in the pub.  Worst of all, I wasn’t even carrying a comb to overcome my defeat.

The tenth playlist of the year – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of October

For those who don’t have access to Spotify, but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three favourite songs from the past month.

One of my favourite songs by the popular alternative rock band from the 1980s and 90s, R.E.M…

A reminder of how great a song sounds when you haven’t heard it in a while and it sneaks up on you…

The best cover of a song by The Carpenters…

Diaries of a 36-year-old single man

It was difficult for me to pinpoint precisely when I started to get old, but I reckoned it was probably around the eleventh of October nineteen hundred and eighty-three.  It started out as a slow process, a gradual crawl that wasn’t really going anywhere in particular, that one day learned how to walk and over time let me know that it could run if it really wanted to, but for the time being it didn’t have all that much enthusiasm for breaking a sweat.    

Things were beginning to change by the time the second week of the October of 2019 arrived.  I had put my second load of laundry of the week into the washing machine before I left for work on Tuesday morning.  It wasn’t a large load:  a few pairs of socks, some boxer shorts, a bath towel, a kitchen towel and a dishcloth, but I liked the idea of getting it out of the way and having a full colour chart of socks to choose from for the week ahead.  By the time I had arrived home at the end of the day and put the small load through another spin cycle, I couldn’t remember if I had thrown one of the little laundry gel pouches into the machine before I started it on its way.  I was glancing at the cupboard where the detergents were stored with a wistful look, the sort I had given across a crowded bar often enough, one which said that I didn’t really understand what was going on or how to resolve it.  There was no way of me knowing whether I had washed my socks or just made them soaking wet, and suddenly, as I was draping my red and yellow cotton socks over the rungs of the clothes airer, 36 wasn’t feeling all that far away.

Almost three years had passed since I turned 33, when I was just happy to have reached the age that Jesus was reported to have been when he died.  At the time I considered it something of an achievement to have outlived our Lord and Saviour, and when I was thinking about it again in the days before my thirty-sixth birthday I realised that it was probably still the most significant thing I had done in the intervening years.  I had tried boasting about this to a friend over a pint in Aulay’s when she pointed out that Christ was famously resurrected two days following his crucifixion, and neither of us could remember what became of him next.  I was being forced to reconsider everything I had done between the ages of 33 and 36 and whether living to an age which was older than Jesus ever managed was really that much of an achievement anyway.  He was a man who had sacrificed himself and died for all of our sins, after all, though the way that he came back to brag about the fact sounded a lot like the way someone buys a round of drinks at the bar and then spends the rest of the night telling anyone who will listen that he has.  I would know because I’ve done that.

There were two pub quizzes taking place on the nights before my birthday, and I was hoping that if I could no longer use the fact that I had been on earth longer than Jesus was as my greatest achievement in life, then I could at least be a part of a winning quiz team.  The half-term holidays meant that many people were away in places where the conditions were more favourable than the cold rain that had been falling in Oban, so the raven-haired quiztress and I joined the remaining members of the Bawbags to form The Unlikely Bawbags, although anyone who had known me would not have considered it unlikely that I could be a bawbag.

The silver-haired host of the Lorne’s pub quiz had recently returned from a trip to New York City, which meant that many of the questions had a distinct theme.  If there was one subject that I could be more of an insufferable know-it-all in than I was on Budapest, it was New York City following my travels there in 2015 and 2016.  We scored a perfect ten in the picture round, which featured NYC landmarks, and followed that with nine out of ten in the round which was dedicated to the Big Apple, where the only gap in our knowledge was failing to identify that if you put lox on a bagel you are eating cured smoked salmon.  After three rounds we were in the familiar position of being tied for the leadership, although I was in the unfamiliar role of having correctly answered a question about the nationality of a Celtic player, at the third time of asking.  In spite of a sketchy sport round, we were able to recover in the New York-themed music round to win the quiz by two-and-a-half points.  While lording it over the three teams we had vanquished to claim the £25 voucher for a bar meal, we liked to imagine the envy that the absent members from our two regular teams would be feeling from their sun loungers when they learned the news that we had won.

Our triumphant team, which had been re-christened as Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady, was brimming with confidence going into the Oban Inn’s quiz the following night, although immediately something seemed off.  As I was rubbing an itch from my nose I caught the stench of what smelled to be fish on the tip of my thumb.  It wasn’t present on any of my fingers and I hadn’t touched any sea life, so it was a mystery where it had come from or what it was, and the question was troubling me for much of the night.  

A further distraction from the questions I should have been focussing my attention on came when the rest of my team-mates made the generous offer of giving me sole custody of the £25 voucher we had won from The Lorne, with the suggestion that I should use it as a means of enticing a woman to join me for dinner.  It seemed to me to be the type of gesture a person makes when they know that they will probably still get something out of it, like opening a share size bag of M&M’s and offering some to your friend who suffers from a dairy intolerance, or offering to buy a round of drinks when everybody in the group has a full glass in front of them.  My team likely knew that I wasn’t going to be successful in finding a woman who would accompany me to The Lorne for a bar meal, particularly when the voucher came with an expiry date of January 2020.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up scenarios where I might be able to at least make the offer, and the lines I could use to make it appealing.

“The voucher is only valid for food, so we’ll have to pretend that we’re enjoying ourselves.”

“Would you like to eat £25 worth of food in The Lorne?  Good. The only thing is that you’ll have to spend some time with me.”

“They say that it’s feast from a fiver, but how about we feast for five fivers?”

“I may not have the natural charm, wit, charisma, intelligence or rock star looks that you’re looking for, but I can tell you that the World Trade Center is 1,776 feet tall.”

“If we have a good time, perhaps we could go on a second date once I win another pub quiz?”

Nothing I could think of sounded right.

We were feeling pretty confident and clever following our achievements the night before, but we soon found the Oban Inn quiz to be quite challenging, and while in the corner of the room we could see Scotland losing 4-0 to Russia in a European Championships qualifier, a table of three eggheads were winning the quiz by more than 30 points.  Even though we ended up finishing third, and were a question away from claiming the second-place prize of a bottle of wine, Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady had encountered a bump in the pub quiz road.

The eleventh of October arrived and I was still no further forward in realising the significant achievement of my life.  Oban was rainy and blustery on the day I was turning 36, as though the howl of age itself was biting at my face.  Along the seafront, the tide was high and wild, and all sorts of debris was floating on top of the bay, which was as dark as a broken slate.  There were discarded plastic bottles swimming amongst the seaweed, a tub of Ariel Laundry 3 in 1 pods, dozens of empty crisp packets, a white bucket and a tennis ball which was well worn.  It was as though the contents of a bin had been carried from the shore in a great gust of wind.

For the first time, my birthday suit was the subject of discussion; more specifically, the colour scheme of the shirt and tie I had elected to wear on my birthday was being talked about.  One of the younger women at the office suggested that my pale yellow shirt and bright pink tie gave me the appearance of a birthday cake.  It wasn’t the look I had in mind when I was getting dressed in the morning, and when I thought about it, I was feeling more like a four-day-old birthday cake which had been left sitting by a radiator.  Later, in Aulay’s, a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn Bru complimented me on my look, which I was beginning to accept did have a hint of marzipan, and she intimated that she had been admiring for some time the attention to detail which always went into my outfits.  She said that she had recently seen a handwoven scarf which she was considering buying for me, and I confessed that I wasn’t certain that 36 was the right age to be introducing a scarf to my attire.  How would it interact with the tie?  Where would I find the socks to match?  

Elsewhere in the bar, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was reunited in its full form for the first time in a long time, though some of the group were no longer as lonely as others.  The Brazilian belly dancer pressed a kiss onto my moisturised forehead, leaving a lipstick print which meant that from my head to the socks on my toes, I was colour coordinated.  Meanwhile, the Polish scientist with a moniker was celebrating the removal of a cast from her drinking arm.  I was hopeful that there would be such a steady stream of people arriving into the bar who both knew me and that it was my birthday that I could go the entire night without needing to put my hand into my pocket to buy a drink, but there eventually reached a point in proceedings where my Catholic guilt got the better of me and I was forced to buy a round of drinks, although I was quick to let everyone know that I had done so. 

It was like old times when the plant doctor and my brother returned to my flat after Markie Dans had called last orders, when I was simply a 36-year-old man, rather than a man who was turning thirty-six.  We drank bottles of beer and listened to music until it was almost daylight again.  When I eventually made it to bed, there were the crowns of discarded Budweiser tops all over the place and Pistachio shells strewn across the oak flooring.  I was feeling like a tennis ball adrift in a web of seaweed.  The plant doctor had fallen asleep on the couch, which wasn’t the sleepover I had been wishing for on my birthday, though it at least didn’t come at the expense of my £25 voucher for The Lorne.

I had certainly aged by no more than a year on Friday, but I had largely recovered from the experience by the time I met with the rest of my family to take the 6.11 train out to Connel for a birthday dinner.  We were sitting at a table watching the plush green countryside roll past through rain splashed windows, while from the corner of our eyes we were looking out for the ticket inspector who had promised to come back to us so that we could purchase our £3 fares for the journey, though we had an unspoken hope that he wouldn’t have time to return before the train made its first stop, which was our destination.  Things were looking promising when the wheels screeched to a slow stop by the platform of the small village’s station, and we carefully disembarked from the train with the spring of triumph in our steps.  As an act of larceny it probably wasn’t up there with Ronnie Biggs, but we were feeling good about our free journey all the same.

When you get off the train in Connel and leave through the station car park, there are two paths that you can follow.  There is the dark shaded path to the right of the exit which ends directly behind the Falls of Lora Hotel, where we had our dinner reservation at 7.30.  The other path, on the left of the car park, takes pedestrians down onto the main street of the village and finally out to the A85, which is the main road to and from Oban, and from where it is around a three or four-minute walk to the main entrance of the hotel.  As the rain was starting to fall from the dark sky again, hitting off the ground and bouncing back up again like a thousand ping pong balls, we decided to walk down the path to our left.  By the time we reached the Falls of Lora the four of us had been soaked through, and any feelings of success from our complimentary train ride were running down our faces and dripping onto the ground around us.

We took a table close to the great warmth which was being produced by the wood-burning stove in the centre of the bar, attempting to dry out as we whetted our lips and waited for the two members of our party who had decided to drive out from Oban to arrive.  The place was like sitting in someone’s living room, comfortable and with all sorts of quirky and interesting things to look at.  There were pencil drawings hanging on the walls, ornaments of cats and other creatures, and a large, framed cicada which was mounted on the wall near our dinner table and which looked like it could easily overcome a roll of flypaper or even a sturdy tennis racket.

My sister reached into her bag and brought out a board game, which she had taken to keep my niece amused.  Three Little Pigs was more of a problem-solving puzzle game based on the children’s story about a wolf with a troublesome appetite.  The challenge was for the player to build three houses onto the board around the endangered pigs to keep them safe, in keeping with the 48 challenges outlined in the booklet.  It was like a jigsaw, with the pigs and the wolf positioned in ways that required the colourful blocks with the houses to be rotated and placed so that they would all fit together on the board.  The puzzles were designed for children between the ages of three and seven to be able to complete, and my sister decided that it would be a good idea to test my ability to protect the little pigs.

I took possession of the board and analysed the positioning of the pigs and the whereabouts of the wolf.  I confidently placed the first green block on the board, safely housing the first pig.  This is child’s play, I thought, as my three-year-old niece watched on.  My brow furrowed in consternation as I realised that the placing of my first block wouldn’t allow all of the pigs to be rescued, and I sheepishly removed it.  I looked again at my niece, with it slowly dawning on me that the puzzle wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I manipulated the pieces in all the different ways I could think of, but still they wouldn’t fit.  It took me much longer than it reasonably should have to find the correct solution, maybe as long as ten minutes, and when my sister took the board back to give my niece another shot at a new puzzle, she completed it with much less of the drama.  I could outlive Jesus and win a pub quiz, but I still couldn’t outsmart a three-year-old.  Thirty-six was shaping up to carry on where thirty-five had left off.

In addition to reading A lion’s roar, I will be sharing an anecdote from my fifteenth birthday at The Rockfield Centre’s Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 26 October.  Full details on the event can be found on its Facebook page.

Ambulance blues

The infant days of October arrived on the west of Argyll with a tranquillity which made a fool of those forecasts that a week earlier had been predicting lashings of rain and wild winds as the dying howls of Hurricane Lorenzo were approaching the country.  Those early pen strokes through the calendar were greeted with temperatures which forced some to rethink their choice of jacket, although I had already reverted to my long black winter coat and nothing was going to change my mind.

My early evening walks along the Esplanade were being conducted under skies which were largely free from clouds.  It was a time of year when at quarter past five the sun was already beginning its slow and uncertain descent back into the waiting water, its procrastination and unwillingness to dive straight in being vaguely similar to my own reactions when there is a girl I like at the bar.  The great golden bulb was hanging low in the sky, shining brightly into the eyes of pedestrians with the type of intensity I would experience further along my route on Combie Street when I was walking towards a woman who had unknowingly activated the torch app on her smartphone.  It was the first time I had ever seen anyone do that on the street, and it made me feel better about the photograph I had taken minutes earlier of the setting sun which had been distorted by the appearance of my thumb in the bottom left corner.

Everything was still and peaceful in those early evenings, and I enjoyed marvelling at the colour of it all.  The water, in particular, was as though a toddler had spilt a palette of paint on a carpet and repeatedly trodden through it barefoot, spreading it all over the place with wild abandon.  

All of a sudden the fragile peace was shattered as an ambulance emerged from the distance and came screeching down the seafront.  There isn’t anything like a passing ambulance to grab the attention of people on the street who have been minding their own business.  You can’t help but stop and take notice, wonder where it is going, what kind of incident has taken place and who, if anyone, has been hurt.  As the vehicle approached its sirens were becoming so loud that the sound pierced through the saxophone from the new Huey Lewis & The News track I was listening to at the time.

It came to a stop a few hundred yards ahead of me, outside the Great Western Hotel, beneath the tall and wide windows of the cocktail lounge.  Its blue lights were flashing against the rice pudding-coloured stone of the building, and the back doors of the emergency vehicle were pushed open, suggesting that there was some activity.  As I was walking past the hotel, which can be dated back to the 19th Century, I could see that many of the tables by the window in the lounge bar were occupied by guests who had largely, I presumed, been born in the middle part of the 20th Century.  What a terrible way to start a holiday, I was thinking to myself as I craned my neck to get a good look at the ambulance which was doubtless waiting for the arrival of some poor casualty.  You get yourself a relaxing drink and a great window seat with a spectacular view of the sun setting over Oban bay and an ambulance comes along and parks right outside to spoil the whole thing.

Although I wasn’t likely to be in need of an ambulance, I had been suffering from a dose of the cold for much of the week and I was feeling pretty miserable for it.  There was nothing that would make me feel more hopeless than the need to blow my nose into a tissue every other minute or to be unable to smell when I had overcooked the chunks of chorizo in a chorizo and prawn jambalaya I had been preparing for dinner.

My health predicament wasn’t being helped by the dipping temperatures of the season and the fact that my flat was never the warmest, or even the coolest, place in town.  The first thing I would do when arriving in from the evening chill was to put on a jumper to combat the rampant cold air, as opposed to the warmer summer months when the climate in my place rarely merited so much as loosening my tie.  My flat had a problem with temperature, and it was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t get to grips with the idea of storage heaters.  I would come home at six o’clock and the pair of them would be as cold as the other side of the pillow that people were always citing as an example of something that is cold, though in my place both sides of the pillow were as cold as everything else.  Yet when I awoke at five o’clock one morning and got out of bed to use the toilet, the heaters were the warmest I had ever felt them.  It was doing me no good when 5 am was a time that I would usually be in bed, wrapped warmly in a 2000 thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, and I soon realised that my understanding of how storage heating works was on par with my understanding of how to talk to women.

In spite of my waning wellbeing, I still found it within me to wheeze along to Aulay’s on Friday night.  With the oncoming October school holidays, amongst other things, the bar was the busiest it had been in a while.  I was just happy to feel some warmth.  I nursed a pint of Tennent’s Lager whilst waiting for my brother to turn up, the voice of the large gentleman over my right shoulder booming along to the soundtrack of the random mix of dance tracks which the jukebox was toiling through.  He was from North Ayrshire and was visiting Oban for the second successive weekend, regaling his younger, local companion with his tales from back home.

“I can go into any pub in Saltcoats and walk up to any girl and pull them.  It’s dead easy. You’d love it there, pal.”

It came as a surprise when I finally turned around to take a look at the character that he wasn’t a dashing George Clooney type figure, but more of an early-career John Candy.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where it would be easy for me to walk up to a woman in a bar, let alone talk to her or take her home.  I should have been paying more attention to his words, see if I could pick up some of the expert tips from the Ayrshire Uncle Buck, but instead I was hesitating over an offer to join a couple of young ladies I knew at their table in the corner.

The table was populated by employees of a local primary school, and there was tremendous excitement and giddiness amongst them for the beginning of the half-term break, which some of the women were looking forward to spending in places as far apart as New York City and Mallorca.  One of them was dressed in a striking black and white specked suit which was putting even my own considered sartorial combination in the shade.  For the first time in my life, I was feeling suit envy, and I was finding a different way of wanting to be inside a woman’s clothes.

A silver-plated headband was being passed between two friends like a crown, though it was silver of a different variety that was finally catching my eye.  The more I was looking around the table, the more the sight of jewellery on fingers was becoming evident to me. It was almost like having an Olympic flag unfurled before me, and right at that moment, I could understand how it would have felt to be sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Great Western Hotel, admiring the view as the sun was setting over the bay, only to have an ambulance pull up in front of the window. 

The Oban Games are held on the fourth Thursday of every August

On the way back down the Esplanade towards Markie Dans, I encountered a recently graduated teacher who I had vaguely come to know through previous intoxicated interactions.  She was travelling in the opposite direction from my brother and I, on the other side of the road, though I couldn’t help but see her hair, which was the shade of a sunset, though not the type that blinded a person, like an iPhone torch.  It was softer, more subtle.  She chastised me from across the desolate street for having neglected to write the story of our earlier meetings.  We had entered into the kind of non-contractual agreement that you come to with people in the pub, whereby I had given her a brown note to save her walking all the way to a cash machine to pay for a taxi home, and she compensated me with a glass of whisky when she next saw me in Aulay’s.

In the months since that whisky, the teacher with the sunny disposition had graduated and was already thinking about her next achievement.  By this point, she had already graduated twice in life, but for her, that wasn’t enough.  I asked her if there was a maximum number of times a person could graduate, and although she didn’t know the answer, she said that she was wanting at least three.  I continued on to Markies, where I found myself thinking how great it would be if someone could teach that kind of positive attitude.  If anyone was going to graduate three, or four, or five times, it was probably going to be her.

Like in Aulay’s earlier in the night, Markie Dans was busier than I had seen it in weeks.  The place was full, and I was having a better time of it than on my previous visit, when I learned that I had an intolerance to Jägermeister when it is taken without the bomb of Red Bull.  I enjoyed catching up with some friends and having a fish dance with my aquatic hip-shaking partner.  By the end of the night I was walking home alone, though, with my head in a fuzz and my nose in a Kleenex.  On George Street, the towns main thoroughfare, I walked under a banner advertising the Oban Highland Games, which had taken place on the fourth Thhursday in August.  It occurred to me that my search for romance was becoming strikingly similar to the council’s promotion of the summer games, in that it was still happening long after it was obvious that it was over.  If I was being optimistic, I would at least surely have better luck with the storage heaters.

I will be reading A lion’s roar and some other bits and pieces at Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October.  Full details can be found at the event page here.

You say Elyounoussi, I say Elhamed

When I returned to Oban from my trip to Budapest, everything was just as I had left it five days earlier.  The entire flat had a chill in the air, in keeping with the dipping September temperatures, and in the kitchen sink there was a cup three quarters filled with stale dishwater and topped with a ringed coffee stain a few inches from the rim, like the tidal mark you find on the walls by the sea.  A damp red and white striped tea towel which had questionable shades of grey was lying discarded on the kitchen counter. The scene was one you might expect to find if someone had been called away to attend to a drastic emergency; news of an accident or a kidnapping.  I was reminded that I had left in a rush that Monday morning to catch the early bus, and immediately I was back in the old routine of cursing my decisions.

It was the longest I had been away from home since I became a single occupant more than a year earlier, and it seemed like a weird sensation the way that it felt as though I was moving into a new place all over again.  In my absence, the surface of the oak flooring had gathered small pockets of dust and other unidentifiable debris in areas, while the whole place carried the scentless smell of somewhere that has been uninhabited for a while.  After a few hours of procrastination, I unpacked my rucksack of all the things I had taken with me, many of which I didn’t need anyway, and I tried to figure out where they should go.  

The washing machine was soon filled with a week’s worth of travel wear, and my next mission was to visit the supermarket to replenish my supplies of milk, fruit and food.  I had arrived home to a fridge which was as empty as the day I moved in, with the exception of a tub of butter and a jar of Dijon mustard which was looking as tired as I was feeling.  Everything else had been used up in a mad dash before I flew to Hungary, the result of an inherent mistrust that food wouldn’t possibly keep to its expiration date if I wasn’t around to check on its health every time I opened the fridge door, as though the remaining portion of cheese, a bottle of milk and packet of meatballs would reunite to get one over me by spoiling when I wasn’t there.

Oban Distillery on the morning of 21 September

Nine months had passed since the idea of me reading in front of an audience had been conceived as a joke amongst friends, the thought being that the most socially awkward of us would sit before a gathering of people at The Rockfield Centre’s monthly open mic night dressed smartly in a suit and read stories of ineptitude from his notebook while someone else played a ridiculous instrument in the background, like the triangle or the panpipes, and no-one would quite be able to decide if the entire act was deliberately absurd or just a complete shambles.  As it turned out, nobody in our group owned a triangle, and our attempt at an artistic exhibition went the way of all of my romantic endeavours and I was left to perform as a solo act.   

Even though I had only done it on a handful of occasions, I had recently been invited to read at the launch of the local acoustic duo The Blue Moon Traveller’s new album, and despite the ferocious anxiety which greets me when I attempt to do anything in front of other people, I accepted the offer.  By the time I arrived home from my trip to Budapest, there was less than a week to prepare for the big night and I was trying to keep myself as occupied as possible in an effort to hold my nerves at bay.  I cooked a large pot of goulash, making use of some of the paprika I had brought back from Great Market Hall, and the aroma of spiced beef and potato and carrot was clinging to the washing and everything else in the flat for days.  Later I participated in the pub quiz in The Lorne and watched the latest two IT movies, which between them totalled more than five hours in run time and distraction time. 

Although we had made an unremarkable start in the first two rounds, our team, which was as much three ladies and a tramp as it was The Unlikely Lads, was developing an increasing confidence that we were about to experience our breakthrough pub quiz victory when we scored a maximum of 18 points from the round of questions on Hungary.  The tremendous gain saw us surge into joint-first place at the halfway point, and we were finding it easy to visualise our eventual win, the moment when our little breakaway outfit would finally be rewarded with a £25 bar voucher.  A wave of excitement and optimism was sweeping across the table, along with waves of Tennent’s Lager down our throats, but I was struggling to get over a blunder I had made in the previous general knowledge round which I feared could be the Vesuvius question repeating itself all over again.

The silver-haired host had asked us to name the nationality of a footballer Celtic had recently signed, and I snatched the pen from a team-mate’s hand with the assuredness that only a person who knows the answer can legitimately display.  I wrote Israeli on the corresponding line and took a mouthful of beer to congratulate myself on my contribution.

When the answer sheet was returned to us after it had been marked at the end of the round there wasn’t a tick next to the word Israeli, and I was wondering how the quizmaster could possibly have made such a mistake.  I was listening with interest as he went through the questions once more, this time revealing the correct answers alongside them. Eventually he reached the one I was desperate to hear.

“What nationality is the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi?”

I realised immediately what had gone wrong.  In my exuberance, I had misheard the name Mohamed as Elhamed, ignored the rest of the question, and taken it to be in reference to Hatem Abd Elhamed, the Israeli international footballer, rather than Mohamed Elyounoussi, the Norwegian.  I was kicking myself, and the longer the quiz developed into a three-way fight for the prize, the more I was worrying that my error, which was the equivalent of lunging in with a two-footed tackle in footballing terms, was going to cost us.

In the end, it wasn’t only hearing the name of the Celtic international which proved to be our downfall.  In the slim 3 point defeat, we also failed to identify which musician collaborated with Michael Jackson on his song The Girl Is Mine, or calculate the total numerical value of three Scrabble tiles, amongst other cracks in our pub quiz knowledge.

The Michael Jackson tree, outside the hotel in Budapest where his fans gathered hoping to see him during his stay there in 1993

We finished joint-second, and although the win we desired would have to wait another while yet, we were in the mood to celebrate our achievement, or nearly achievement, so we walked round to Aulay’s for one last drink to end the night.  As we were approaching the doors to the lounge bar it occurred to me how I had spent countless nights inside the pub hoping to find female company and it would never happen, with tales of failure becoming my thing, like wearing matching socks, ties and pocket squares, when all around me there were people meeting other people and being happy about it.  This time I was about to stride into the bar with three women who most people would kill to be seen with, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about it.  The door opened with the kind of dramatic swing you would ordinarily see on the silver screen, and the four of us walked inside to find the bar completely empty.  I would have been as well walking in with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for all anyone would see or care about it.

My efforts to distract me from any nerves I might have been feeling about my forthcoming reading led me to binge-watching the two newest IT movies over two nights.  I had never felt much of an inclination to see the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a murderous clown until I was invited to the cinema to view the newly-released second chapter with my friend who constructs sandwiches, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  I was asked to go along as a friend who could be grabbed and punched at the arrival of any particularly frightening scenes, and that was enough to have me searching my subscription streaming services for the first film.  Even if my awareness of what was happening was flimsy at best, it seemed that the least I could do would be to make an effort to familiarise myself with the story, sort of like when someone in a passing car is enthusiastically waving at you and you can’t fathom who it is, but you give a conciliatory gesture in case it is someone you know.

When I arrived at the Oban Phoenix Cinema on Friday night with a bottle of Coca-Cola which had its chemical balance transformed by seven 25ml measures of Jack Daniels I was considering how I was surely the least likely figure a person would turn to in the situation of anxiety caused by scenes from a horror film, or anything, really.  It would be like crafting a scarecrow out of seeds and fat balls.  Nevertheless, I was happy to be invited, even if the second chapter didn’t produce nearly as many scares as I would have liked.  Indeed, the most harrowing part of the three-hour movie came after around ninety minutes when I had finished my stash of Jack Daniels and coke and I found myself in an increasingly desperate need for the toilet.  I was reluctant to leave my seat through fear of missing a truly terrifying scene and failing in my role as a stress punch bag for the night, so I valiantly held out until the closing credits.  The feeling of relief was one I had rarely experienced.

On the last Saturday of summer, the sky was a sapphire blue shade and the clouds had been scared off by a vibrant warm sun.  At station square the final producers’ market of the season was taking place, where there was on offer an abundance of local meats, cheeses, handcrafted goods and talk of how it was a good day for it.  It made for a busy scene by the glowing harbour.  I was walking aimlessly through the bustle, free of my usual weekend hangover but filled with the growing recognition that later I would have to read in front of an audience.  Even a killer clown couldn’t save me now.

Despite having lived in Oban for all of my thirty-five years, I had never been inside the Oban Distillery, where the town’s most famous and most popular export had been produced since it was built in 1794.  It occurred to me that this would probably be like living in New York City all your life and never seeing the Empire State Building, or being a Parisian who had never stood next to the Eiffel Tower.  My whisky of choice wasn’t even Oban Malt.  It was always Jameson, which I supposed made me like the Italian who prefers the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper:  I enjoyed the local product, but I liked it better when it was bottled elsewhere.

A placard the day after the Global Climate Strike in Oban

Although I had never been on the inside of a whisky barrel, my first impression of the interior of the bar at the Oban Distillery was that it was probably quite similar to drinking inside an old cask.  The intoxicating fragrance of malt barley was hanging in the air, to some the very essence of love itself, while everything in the place was wooden. The flooring was oak, the bar, the tables, the seating, the walls were all made from wood.  At £5 for a bottle of Guinness Hop House 13, even the prices wouldn’t bend.

As well as the microphones on the stage, gathered around it was an array of audio and visual recording equipment, the sum of which was probably similar to the number of people who had previously listened to me read.  If the price of a bottle of beer hadn’t already made me feel queasy, then the constant stream of people entering the room was really making me nervous.  The bar was beginning to fill up with folk I recognised, some I sort of recognised, a couple of former work colleagues, but mostly with people who I didn’t know at all.  By the time the evening got underway, there were around a hundred spectators squeezed into the whisky barrel, and I was feeling sick over it.

A small group of regulars from the Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights were in attendance, and it was the Czech marine biologist who didn’t have a ticket but who had blagged her way in who I remember talking to first.  She complimented me on my suit, and nothing made me dissolve into a puddle of self-deprecation like someone saying something nice about me or my choice of outfit, especially when it was a woman with an accent.  I thanked her and proceeded to list all the things I had made a special effort to do on that day for the occasion of reading aloud to people I mostly didn’t know.  “I thought it would be a good idea to shower for a change.  I trimmed my stubble.  I decided that I would comb my hair.”  I couldn’t pinpoint precisely where it had happened, but I knew that I had said too much.  “Please…don’t give me any more details,” she said as she walked away towards the oak bar.  

Before The Blue Moon Travellers could perform the first of their two sets of the evening, we were provided with a safety demonstration by an employee of the Oban Distillery.  He informed us that as the place was still a functioning whisky distillery there was a possibility that something could go horrendously wrong and some piece of machinery could explode during the single occupant’s performance, and if you need to make an emergency exit, either in the event of physical disaster or emotional catastrophe, the fire exit is located here.  Or at least that is what I heard him say.

The more I watched Jim and Sheila of The Blue Moon Travellers handle their initial set of cover material with grace and professionalism, the more I was worrying that I was in over my head.  Sheila’s voice owned the room, while Jim’s guitar playing was so good that even my brother commented on it, and he had never mentioned anyone’s string plucking in Oban.  As the duo were nearing the end of their first performance of the night, it was all I could do to go to the bathroom and seek refuge in the unblemished porcelain surroundings.  I wasn’t feeling sick enough to throw up, but I always liked to pee right before I was due to read, if only to give me one thing less to worry about.  I took the only free urinal at the far left of the trio, and all of a sudden the thing that I was most nervous about getting out from within me wasn’t my words.

Before I knew it, I went from performing to a theatre of one at the urinal to sitting in front of a room of around a hundred people, trying to juggle my thick navy blue notebook in one hand with a green plastic party tumbler filled with Chilean Merlot in the other.  The choice of drinks ware was intended as a joke to accompany the piece I was reading, but the only joke turned out to be my attempt at turning the pages of my book without spilling red wine on the dry white sheets.  The chair felt as though it was the tallest I had ever sat on, rising so far from the ground that my feet could barely touch the oak floor.  I was like a toddler who was reading to an audience of adults for the first time, and after the opening couple of paragraphs, I was forced to rest the wine on an out-of-reach wooden ledge, as much for the sake of my trousers as for comfort.  It was the first time I read without the stage crutch of alcohol. 

From the tall seat behind the microphone, the only sound I could hear was the constant chatter which rustled across the room from the bar like a golden leaf down an empty street.  To me it sounded like everybody in the place was talking during my set, and although I was later told that the noise was only coming from the bar area, it was unsettling.  Still, I persevered with reading my material, like a drunk who is determined to walk home despite everyone insisting that he takes a taxi, and I was feeling hopeful as I approached the point where I was going to make a second public attempt at performing my favourite joke.  

I had once before read the story about the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s and how she on more than one occasion advised me that I should receive lessons in how to talk to women, which in turn led me to seek out a self-help book in Waterstones on the subject of talking to women, but it was proving difficult to find and so I approached a sales assistant and asked her to assist me in locating the self-help section, and the punchline received little reaction.  This time there was around a hundred people in attendance, and I was hoping that at least two or three of them would give me the laugh I had been craving.  I told the story again, and for a moment, even the sound of chatter from the bar fell silent.

Despite having to endure the farce of sitting through my own round of applause after I had finished reading because I had forgotten to mention my Diaries of a single man Facebook page and I wanted to get the plug in, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself after I gave up the stage for The Blue Moon Travellers to showcase songs from their new album Into The Blue.  The relief was unlike anything I had ever experienced, greater even than when everyone else had vacated the urinals earlier in the night.  As the night developed, I was approached by a clutch of people who wanted to tell me how much they had enjoyed my piece, and once again I was feeling awkward in dealing with compliments.  If there was one thing that made me nervous more than reading to an audience, it was having to actually talk to people.

Firstly a woman walked up to me as I was finishing the last dregs of the bottle of Chilean Merlot.  She was sweet and humble, and I had actually noticed her amongst the crowd when I was performing my reading.  I thanked her for her kind words and told her that she had caught my eye from the stage because she reminded me of Beetlejuice.  The woman seemed affronted, her eyes narrowed with a look that was a cross between confusion and annoyance, the kind I might have flashed at the pub quiz when our answer sheet was returned without a tick next to Israeli.  I noticed the woman’s displeasure and clarified my comment, assuring her that I was referring to her shirt, which had black and white stripes like the suit worn by the character in the Tim Burton movie, and not to her hair, which was not white and unruly.  Even the friends in my company couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

Later I found myself in conversation with a woman whose hair was the colour of Chardonnay, uncorked it flowed past her shoulders and over a scarf which was presumably worn for purposes of fashion rather than warmth.  I noticed that her fingernails were the colour of the Parma Violets sweets that I could remember from childhood, though at the time I couldn’t recall where I had seen the colour, and it was impossible to concentrate on talking to her when I was so distracted by that absent detail.

Despite my inability to communicate in a normal manner with people, the night was one of the most triumphant I had experienced.  I was feeling flattered and even happy with the way things had gone, as though I had achieved something. It was a good feeling, but even after it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Beetlejuice remark.  I could have said anything else in that moment and it would have been better; I could even have asked her the nationality of the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi.

Links and things:

Wake me up when this September playlist ends: my Spotify playlist for the month of September

For those without access to Spotify, the following are the two most significant songs from the last month.

I will never be able to hear the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry again without thinking of a wildly drunken Hungarian man in a bar in Budapest:

Digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea…

The Blue Moon Travellers can be found on Facebook here.
I will be reading from my notebook at the Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October. Full event details can be found here.

A tale of two cities (part three)

The first part of this story can be read here
The second part of this story can be read here

One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company.  While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter.  All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them.  The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes.  But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.

In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended.  Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth.  This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.

Budapest’s Great Synagogue

The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street.  Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue.  Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.

On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side.  In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

The House of Terror

There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.”  I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true.  After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?

The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine.  My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke.  It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey.  Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection.  Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.  

At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary.  Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in.  I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck.  In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly.  It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.

Szent István Bazilika

Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary.  The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044.  For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950.  Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all.  A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.  

There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first.  I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot.  They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it.  The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn.  It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.

I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond.  The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state.  I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted.  I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself.  Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes.  In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.

Hősök ter

If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better.  While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did.  The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey.  It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below.  I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything.  As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me.  While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp.  For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.

Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away.  It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking.  My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day.  I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process.  I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side.  I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.

When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke.  My aches were beginning to mount up.  Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked.  Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination.  The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry.  It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down.  Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.

Great Market Hall

Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.   Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see.  Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors.  There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer.  Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps.  You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.

The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms.  The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets.  They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004.  I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.  

On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of.  It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women.  I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.

My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor.  On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone.  She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian.  Yo a Stevie.  And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English.  I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer.  She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.

The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home.  She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency.  I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.”  She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password.  The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.

Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer.  I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there.  So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins.  Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing.  She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat.  I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch.  I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette. 

The Hungarian Parliament building

I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning.  The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me.  I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.

“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long.  I was eating a chippy.”

“I haven’t been here too long.  Sorry for disturbing your chippy.  What did you get?”

The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls.  I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.

I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later.  The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool.  He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s.  The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.

“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar. 

“It was maybe around two years ago.  You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”

The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to.  I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me.  She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim.  He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans.  I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.

I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell.  She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee.  Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl.  Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert.  I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room.  Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed.  Already I was missing Budapest.

The full version of this story can be found here