Kevin Carter, skins and a beard off

Our relationship had lasted a few days short of sixteen months, which is around a year and a third longer than most of my typical relationships.  During our time together we had both grown and matured into different versions of ourselves, and my environment was certainly healthier for having Sally around.  Sally and I had seen some sights in those sixteen months.  There were the impromptu flat parties with booze and music and dancing, the nights when I would return home from the pub and fall asleep on the sofa wearing my suit, the repeated airings of the nineties TV sitcom Seinfeld, the hours I would spend practicing reading material to an otherwise empty room.  She was always there.

Sally was a houseplant named after the Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because she was a plant and she was incapable of dancing – and it eventually came time for me to accept that we could no longer be together.  For longer than I could admit she had been looking the way I had been feeling:  tired, drooping, unloved.  Nothing should look like that.  It took me a few days after I had made the decision to dump Sally for me to actually get around to the business of putting her into a bin bag.  It seemed harder than it should have been to get rid of a houseplant.  Finally I stood Sally in a white bin liner, feeling that was the most respectful way of ending our relationship, though her tall branches were still protruding through the handles of the bag, making it difficult to tie up the loose ends.

Buying myself a houseplant seemed like a good idea at the time.  I thought that I could get into a routine of watering a plant the way I go about my other daily habits, like colour coordinating the shirts in my wardrobe or moisturising in the morning; it was just something I would get used to doing.  After a couple of years of using a particular brand of moisturiser, I had taken the decision to change to a cheaper product.  In my mind, why would I spend £4 on something when I could pay £2 for almost exactly the same thing and use the change to buy beer?  

When the time came for me to use my new cost-efficient choice of moisturiser, everything seemed exactly as it had been before.  After stepping out of the shower I applied the cream to my cheeks, forehead, and neck, and it wasn’t any different to anything else I had put on my face.  Then I caught a sniff of the fragrance, which was immediately familiar.  It reminded me of someone I had once known very well, and I was struggling with the idea of having that memory linger on my skin every day when it is difficult enough that is already under my skin.  But I’m a single occupant and I couldn’t afford to dump an entire tube of moisturiser just because it provokes old memories, so I was forced to keep using it.  I suppose that these things are like the stubble on my moisturised face:  I have to take the rough with the smooth.

Under the blue skies of May, things were beginning to be seen in a new light.  On the shore, I was walking with my niece when we happened upon what, from a distance, appeared to be a beautiful act of nature as a crow was enjoying a meal of a freshly caught fish.  As we were nearing I pointed the scene out to the three-year-old, thinking of her fondness for cute animals doing adorable things.  “Look at that hungry bird,” I enthused.  It was only as we were getting closer still that it became clear that the large black crow was feasting upon the carcass of another bird, and that the victim’s head had long since been claimed.  I had to act quickly to divert my niece’s attention from the looming horror, challenging her to find a seashell somewhere off in the distance, far from the sandy dinner table.  Meanwhile, a man – presumably a tourist – was taking pictures of the slaughter as it continued, desperately snapping away on his professional looking equipment.  I was wondering what the photographer had expected he would capture on his camera when he left his hotel room that morning.  A buoyant spring sky, churches bathed in sunshine, boats ferrying passengers to the islands across sparkling crystals in the sea, an act of avian cannibalism.

Earlier I, along with my brother, had taken our niece to the Driving Smarter Energy event at the Corran Halls, where there was an opportunity to test drive electric cars and learn about different ways we can make our homes more energy efficient.  As neither of us knows how to drive, we had attended simply because I had learned that there was a bouncy castle and face painting, and it seemed like an easy way to burn off a chocolate high.  We were the only people in attendance at the time, so while my niece was running from end-to-end on the bouncy castle, I was forced to make conversation with the man who had organised the event about electrical charging points around Oban.  For an educational enterprise about finding a more sustainable use of energy, it seemed like a tremendous waste.

Outside, in the foyer of the hall, after the bouncy castle had been exhausted, I found myself talking to a pair of council employees who are the mothers of two people who were in my class in primary school.  Their attention had been caught by my sister’s daughter, in the way that people are always surprised by how much a child has grown and they struggle to believe that the infant can really be the age you claim that they are, like there would be something to be gained from lying about my sister having a three-year-old daughter who is still growing taller.

The women were especially incredulous about the appearance of my brother, while it was agreed that I have “always looked the same,” which seemed unlikely when I had more hair and less stubble in primary school.  In the end, I put it down to being one of those generic things that people say when they haven’t seen you for a long time and I didn’t argue it.  I asked the women how their respective children were doing, and when one mother responded that her daughter now has a girl who is eleven-years-old, I took on the role of the disbelieving.  It occurred to me that a girl I had gone to primary school with has a child who is the same age I would have been when I last saw that classmate in school.  The friends I had grown up with have husbands and wives, they have families and some live in cities, while I’m walking along the shoreline taking pictures of a man who is photographing a crow eating a headless bird.

It was some time later that the plant doctor, my brother and I were walking down into town after spending a few hours in Lower Soroba drinking beer in the fading sun.  We were three men in our thirties playing songs by the band Wings from my mobile phone, the way trendy car stereos thump loudly as they pass.  A group of teenage girls were walking towards us.  It was impossible to think that they were considering us to be cool.  As we passed the girls, one of them asked if we had any skins, the type of question a teenager only ever asks of a person they think is old.  I was never asked for a cigarette by someone younger when I was in my twenties, not even when I was smoking them myself.  I felt a compulsion to respond that “between the three of us there is quite a lot of skin,” and knowing full well that the girls weren’t enquiring about the body’s largest organ, it came as no surprise when we were told to fuck off.

Things were being viewed differently in the bathroom of The Oban Inn too, where I witnessed a young man emerge from the cubicle and stagger across to the sink where he made an attempt at washing his hands, before vomiting into the clean white porcelain.  He washed away the remnants of his body’s revolt and, just as he was readying to walk away, he turned and spewed again.  “Got to make sure it’s all out,” he was heard to say to no-one in particular as I was standing at the urinal questioning how he had not known that he was going to be sick when he was in the privacy of the cubicle.  I could only imagine that it was similar to when I return home from a shopping trip to Lidl and remember that I haven’t bought spinach and orange juice, which was the reason I had went out in the first place.

On Saturday night Markie Dans seemed to have an unspoken dress policy of only admitting bearded men, though somehow I had managed to sneak past the bouncers with my roughly stubbled and smooth-cheeked features.  I was talking to a girl in a polka dot dress when I was surveying the fuzzy-faced scene all around me, and being that we were in a minority of people whose faces weren’t dressed with hair, I encouraged the girl to rate the beards before us.  It was the first time any of us had participated in a beard off in the middle of a busy pub, though there were simply too many beards to comment upon.  I had the scent of moisturiser still clinging to my nostrils, it was impossible to shake.  Whether it was a beard off, skins or a photograph, it seemed that all I was doing was searching for a seashell.

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The night of the jukebox consternation

Although with spring the days were growing longer and lighter, they were also becoming lonelier.  It seemed that in the last year I have become a lot like the Conservative Party, in that I have developed a difficult relationship with May.  If it is true that April showers bring May flowers, then I should be expecting to inherit a lot more houseplants for me to kill in the coming months.

Recently I have been substituting an absence of actual friendships for imagined acquaintances I’ve been making in the street.  These relationships were not random in the conventional sense, in so much as the people involved were strangers who I had been passing on my way through the town on a near daily basis for several months.  There comes a point when you are seeing the same people every day that in your mind you start to feel like you already know them.  Even though you only see them for those same few seconds each day, you begin to build a story of their routine in your head.

There is the man who is shaped like a large free range egg.  I pass him almost every morning when he is carrying two or three shopping bags which for some reason I always imagine are filled with those packs of a dozen rolls.  I have yet to figure out why a person would need so many rolls, but the timing of our meetings suggest that he is the first person in the supermarket when it opens and that he empties the entire bakery section of rolls, therefore depriving everyone else.  This has caused me to take an immediate dislike to the character, which no matter how harsh it seems, I have been sticking to rigidly.

At the station, a woman gets off the bus from out of town at the same time each day.  She is usually quite smartly dressed in a long skirt and heels, and her professional attire leads me to think that she probably works in an office, though her hair sometimes has an indescribable quality which reminds me of a scarecrow.  Often she is seen carrying a cotton bag over her shoulder, the type one might keep clothes pegs in.  Silently I judge this, as it doesn’t really match anything that she is wearing.  The first thing she does after disembarking from the bus is to light a cigarette, I expect probably more out of an addiction to nicotine than from the treacherous rush hour bus journey through Oban.  I have never seen the woman without a cigarette in her hand, and it is usually a pretty good indicator of how early or late I am for work by how much of it she has smoked.

On a morning at the end of April, a large lorry was taking up an entire lane of a road which straggles off the square as it was unloading a delivery to one of the nearby shops.  The cigarette smoking scarecrow was finding it difficult to cross the road due to her inability to see any oncoming traffic in the other lane.  From the side of the road that she was hoping to reach, I could see that there were no cars approaching and I crossed with confidence.  As I reached the lorry I looked at the stranded smoker, and feeling secure enough in our imagined friendship to attempt actual communication, I assured her that “it’s alright to cross, you’re safe.”  The smoker didn’t seem to have reached the same stage in our relationship, though, and she smiled out of the other side of her cigarette, in a way that said I don’t know who you are.

It was the same look of ignorance that I imagined the charity collectors for the National Deaf Children’s Society saw on my face later in the week.  They had been stationed outside Boots for several days, though I had not passed them due to my habit of walking on the opposite side of the street, which is closest to the sea.  When I found myself striding towards them on Friday evening, I had beers on my mind and my music was turned up loud in my ears.  As I was approaching the donation-seeking duo I could see the woman’s lips moving as she held up her hand in an effort to attract my attention.  I waved in return whilst mouthing the word “sorry” as I continued to walk on by.

A display in Poppies Garden Centre, near Oban, put me in mind of the phrase “April showers bring May flowers.”

Later on Friday the local amateur football club Oban Saints were playing in their first major final as they contested the West of Scotland Amateur Cup in Hamilton.  The public bar in Aulay’s was packed full of sports fans cheering on the team from afar, as the match was broadcast live on the big screen thanks to the efforts of the entrepreneurial local startup Oban Live Streams.  It was a rare sight to see everyone in the bar cheering for the same team, rather than against Celtic.

Things were looking hopeful early in the second-half when Saints marched into a 2-1 lead, and although the promise of victory didn’t last long, the town threatened to have a new hero when Cameron Hill scored his second goal to make it 3-3 and take the final to extra-time.  The goalscorer’s name was being chanted around Aulay’s by drink wet voices, though eventually the valiant effort of the local team succumbed to Bannockburn AFC in the additional thirty minutes and the final ended 6-3.

In the lounge bar, the plant doctor and I had each contributed £1 to the jukebox in order to have our preferred playlist of songs heard.  The usual mix of The Smiths, Neil Young, and R.E.M. serenaded the humming bar, and the plant doctor and I greatly enjoyed our selections.  After around twenty-five minutes of musical bliss, the jukebox returned to playing a random mix of music, as it does when there are no other songs waiting to be played.  The first song it played after our £2 outlay was a Punjabi track which had a hint of the sound of Shakira.  It turned out to be a favourite of the Polish scientist with a moniker, and the plant doctor and I were left feeling umbrage and considering the fairness of the jukebox system.

Despite the incident with the jukebox, we returned to Aulay’s on Saturday, where we watched Celtic win their eighth consecutive Scottish Premier League title.  The noise which roared from the public bar any time Aberdeen threatened to score suggested that, as ever, there was a significant majority hoping to see Celtic lose, which only made the victory more enjoyable.  I had grown up in the nineties, when seeing Celtic win a trophy, let alone a league title, seemed about as likely as me finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night does now.  These days when Celtic win are not to be taken for granted, and they are celebrated with pure joy when they come around.

In Markie Dans, there were celebrations of a different sort.  The dancefloor was pulsing with a wedding party, and one particular woman who was dressed in a becoming ghostly white dress had caught my eye.  I thought that I could dance closer to her, hopeful that my moves would attract her attention, but before I could so much as sway my hips in her direction, she was gone.  Like an apparition in the night, she had vanished in the blink of an eye.  At the end of the night, I was left to go home to the solace of yet more imaginary relationships without finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night.  Some things never change.

The night I read from my notebook for the second time

When you are a single occupant you eventually have to get used to the fact that everything has to be done yourself.  Meals are only ever cooked for one, there is never any dispute over whose turn it is to polish the decorative mirror on the mantelpiece, recycling is a job that only you can do again and again, while romance is an awkward endeavour which only ever takes care of itself.  On Easter Monday I was finally forced to accept that nobody but me was going to clean the conspicuous stain which had been haunting my navy blue tie for months.

I had been planning my outfit for my second reading at Let’s Make A Scene since shortly after my debut spoken word performance and long before I had started to consider what I would actually be talking about.  In my mind, I was already wearing my brown tweed suit with a navy blue tie, socks, and pocket square, because I find it easier to match the colour of accessories to a suit than I do to decide which pieces from my notebooks are suitable for reading in front of people.

Washing a tie is not something I had attempted prior to Easter Monday, though the one thing I did know about laundering the garment was that they are not machine washable.  I learned this the hard way when my favourite burgundy tie acquired a Merlot stain and I thought I could throw it into the washing machine along with the rest of my regular clothing.  An hour or so later I returned to the load to find that the burgundy tie had been decimated, its fluffy innards were torn out like an especially cruel vivisection.  It was almost enough to put me off the spin cycle for good.

I wasn’t entirely sure how a person goes about the task of washing a conspicuously stained tie by hand, but I was relieved and surprised to find a bottle of Persil Silk & Wool in the cupboard under the kitchen sink which I had obviously bought at some time in the past for one reason or another and forgotten about, in the same way people buy bay leaves or string.  I filled the sink with hot water and a speculative amount of detergent before submerging the navy blue tie in the crackling water.  It quickly rose to the surface and took on the appearance of an unusually dapper twig in a children’s paddling pool.  I had no idea how long the tie should be in the water, but I figured that because the stain was a few months old it should be longer than I would normally expect, so I kept it in the sink for two hours.  When I eventually fished it out, it was the wettest thing I had ever held in my hands, and it took most of the week before it was completely dried.

By Thursday evening the sea was a mirror, and the sky had become the face of an angry child.

On the morning of Let’s Make A Scene, I awoke without a hint of the anxiety which had plagued me before my first reading at The Rockfield Centre a couple of months earlier.  I was feeling strangely confident, which worried me because it wasn’t at all like me to feel good about anything.  All I could think of was the story of Icarus:  even if I didn’t have wings to melt, I had a newly cleaned tie that I wasn’t wanting to scorch.  

It was around an hour before the open mic event when I was in my bathroom and finally felt the relief of being brought down to earth by an overwhelming urge to vomit.  I was free to approach the rest of the night as a new version of my old self, and the best thing about it was that I hadn’t yet put on my tie.

My revitalised nerves led to me being the last person willing to perform their piece on the night; this one being about my trouble with talking to girls.  Under the glare of a dozen fairy lights which formed something resembling a fractured spotlight, I began by telling the story of the time the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s suggested that I should seek lessons in how to talk to girls.  The purpose of the anecdote was to lead into an elaborate pun about how my search took me to the local branch of the book chain Waterstones, where I struggled to find a self-help book on the subject of talking to girls and was eventually forced into asking a store assistant if she would assist me in locating the self-help section.

A hush fell over the room, not too dissimilar to the sound I had heard any time I had tried to make a witty play on words in an attempt to impress a girl.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had been thinking of the self-help book line the way other people think of their favourite recipe for a homemade pasta sauce, or of their first child.  I loved it.  Although the rest of my spoken word performance went on to be fairly acceptable and it seemed to achieve a few laughs, I couldn’t stop thinking about the part where it had flopped.

The following day I was wondering where the high I had felt after my first reading a couple of months earlier had gone, and if every other new thing I tried to do would only be an attempt at chasing that high, like watching the original Ghostbusters movie and then watching the next two.  I could hardly conjure the desire to leave my bed, let alone go outside my flat, but I was hungry and had little in the way of proper food in my flat, and nobody was going to go to the supermarket for me.  Feeling like a tie just removed from the washing machine, I sloped around the aisles of Lidl and picked up what I considered to be an adult grocery shop.  At the self-service checkout, my minimal momentum was halted when the scales in the bagging area couldn’t recognise the weight of a packet of chillis, as the Tears For Fears song Everybody Wants To Rule The World was playing from my playlist.  I was standing waiting for an assistant to acknowledge my plight and help me when I realised that maybe it wasn’t all that funny after all.

My sountrack to the month of April: How A Resurrection Really Feels (an Easter playlist)

The night of the handshake

Good Friday started with the sort of hangover which only ever comes from stopping drinking before midnight, the type that is somehow worse than those experienced after you’ve been up until four o’clock in the morning and you awaken on the sofa wearing yesterday’s suit.  If this was how Christ felt after taking a chalice of wine at the Last Supper, I thought, then crucifixion was probably a welcome relief.

In a bid to resurrect my health I took a long walk by the sea after getting a hair cut which only succeeded in helping me look around six weeks younger.  It was the warmest day of the year to that point, and everybody and their dog seemed to be out enjoying the sun – even those without dogs.  I was walking with a hungover gait which I expected was giving the impression to passers-by that I was suffering from some serious ailment.  Near the war memorial, I was quickly overtaken by a couple who were wearing matching green lycra running gear.  They were the kind of outfits that I imagined were probably not so much an expression of their love for one another, but more like an obligation which comes from a his and hers Christmas gift given by a friend.  They had likely told loved ones that as a new couple who enjoy doing every waking thing together, they would accept presents which they could use together, such as a certificate for a day at a spa, or a pair of concert tickets, never expecting that they would be forced into taking up running as a hobby.

Nearer the centre of town, people were lined along the walls looking across the water towards the ferry terminal pier, where a small fishing boat which had sunk the previous morning was being raised from the bay.  The symbolism of this happening over Easter wasn’t lost on anyone – or at least it wasn’t missed by people who think about such things like I spend my time doing.  Most others were more interested in details like who the boat belonged to, where it had come from, how it had sunk and whether anybody had been hurt.  That was all anyone had talked about in the barbershop, anyway.

The sunset at the end of a day of beautiful spring weather presented an opportunity for a lineup of a different variety on the seafront as swarms of people were jockeying for position for the best photograph.  Couples were posing for selfies in front of the setting sun, as though the sinking star was any other prop, like those cardboard figures with their faces cut out you find at an amusement park.  Just another object in the shadow of their affection.

It was Friday night, and although I had been happily lounging around in jeans during the day, I changed into a suit – without the jacket – in keeping with the carefully crafted appearance I had been putting together for four years.  The diminutive barmaid in Aulay’s looked at me curiously and asked if I had been working.  When I told her that I had been off for the day, and pointed out that I was dressed in casual wear, she laughed hysterically.

“But the only difference is that you’re wearing a sweater vest?”  She said in the manner of a question, before laughing again.

I had a tinge of trepidation when I arrived in Aulay’s that night following the events of twenty-four hours previous, when I accidentally befriended my brother’s pub enemy.  If we are to accept that the concept of having a pub enemy exists, and that such a nemesis is a figure who constantly seems to have a presence when something goes wrong, despite your best efforts to not acknowledge them, then my pub enemy would be the fresh-faced homosexual, the diminutive barmaid’s would be the top shelf where the malt whiskies are kept, and my brother’s pub enemy would be the Brexit Guy.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, my brother and I found ourselves in conversation at the bar with a pleasant and soft-spoken man who had blonde hair to match the tanned complexion of his skin.  My attention drifted when the subject turned to politics, though I was soon aware of my brother’s tone becoming animated in the way it does when he disagrees with something.  The soft-spoken man didn’t stick around for long after that, and it transpired that despite living in Colombia for half of the year, he was in favour of Brexit because it would curb the number of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work.  Every time we saw him in Aulay’s after that night he was referred to as the Brexit Guy, and we never talked to him.

I couldn’t be sure how I ended up speaking to him the night before Good Friday, but I presumed that it was a drunken accident, the way someone picks up the wrong jacket or drinks a rum and coke instead of a Jack Daniels.  Once again I found him to be pleasant and softly-spoken, though in the back of my mind there was a pang of gnawing (Catholic) guilt that if my brother could see the scene he would be disappointed by my interaction with his pub enemy.  When it reached the point where the Brexit Guy was offering to buy a Jameson for me, I had to come clean and remind him of the incident a year earlier before I could accept the whiskey and at the same time force the diminutive barmaid to confront her own pub enemy.

The Brexit Guy remembered the confrontation well and implied that he feels awkward every time he sees my brother and me at the bar.  This made me feel strangely powerful, that for the first time in my life I was intimidating another person, even if it had all been the work of my brother.  I imagined that the Brexit Guy viewed us as figures similar to the Kray twins, unlike most other people in Aulay’s who see us as something closer to the Chuckle Brothers.

I was able to accept a drink from the Brexit Guy when he confessed that he was very drunk on the night in question and was probably taking a contrary opinion to my brother’s because he enjoys winding other people up when he has had too much to drink.  I wasn’t sure how much I believed his story, but he seemed genuine and I, myself, have often considered the sporting merits of taking an opposing view to my brother, though have never had the guts to see it through.  On Good Friday the Brexit Guy again approached me at the bar, and we were chatting when he told me that he felt the need to apologise to my brother.  He called across to him and extended a hand, in place of an olive branch, which my brother shook.  Brexit Guy apologised for “being a dick” in that initial meeting, and my brother conceded that he had probably been a dick too.  It was an Easter miracle that I had brought these two pub enemies together.  Not quite the resurrection of Christ, but closer to the raising of a sunken fishing boat.

By the time Easter Sunday came around, many of the faces around town had been reddened by the weather, and some in Markie Dans had been reddened by a day spent drinking.  The bar was busy and had developed its own micro-climate.  There were people crammed into every corner of the room, like the way that when you open just about any kitchen cupboard in the country there is a stash of novelty Cadbury’s mugs which have been gathered over the years, decorated in the style of chocolate bar wrappers such as Double Decker, Wispa or Caramel.  The mugs are only ever used in emergency situations, the occasions where the number of guests overwhelms the stock of proper cups.  I had recently looked in my dad’s cupboard and seen no fewer than seven mugs, which allowing for breakages probably amounted to around three Easter’s in our home.

Under the bar lights, a group of young ladies were organising themselves into formation for a pub selfie.  Following much direction the girls were ready for their moment, and after a pause one of them broke from the pack and approached me.  She had long brunette hair which was tied up into a tail, while on her back she was carrying a grey bag which was the size of a tortoise shell.  I wondered if she had noticed my youthful haircut, or whether she was going to comment on my black checked shirt, but instead, with a European accent, she asked me if I could take a photograph of the group.

When I returned the phone to the brunette with the bag I was waiting for the critique of my lack of focus and disappointing flash when I asked the girl where she was from.  “I’m over here from Germany,” she said. “Bavaria. Most people sound exhausted when I tell them I’m German.” I couldn’t really understand why this would be people’s response.  Underwhelmed I could see; disappointed even.  But exhaustion implied that the energy had been sucked from the very beings of those who had asked the same question I had, and that just seemed a bit of an over-reaction.  I assured her that I wasn’t exhausted to learn that she is German and, on the contrary, quite liked her accent.

“You think my accent sounds German?”  Asked the Bavarian brunette with the bag, her tone laced with something between disappointment and exhaustion.  She went on to explain that she is studying American English and had been listening to her American friends in class in the hope of using their dialect to disguise her German accent.  I told her that I couldn’t hear any American in her voice, and finding the expressions of the girl to be increasingly like the James Joyce novel Ulysses – too difficult to read – I eventually gave up trying.

There was a full moon sitting resplendent in the sky over the bay as I was walking home in the early hours of the morning, the largest substitute for company I could see anywhere.  I was thinking about the miraculous events of Easter weekend as I rounded the North Pier, the historic happenings in Jerusalem and the handshake between pub enemies in Aulay’s, and I accepted that it was always going to be too much to make a German girl smile.  I realised that it was probably for the best when I began to consider the his and hers gifts we might have one day received, and that I could have ended up wearing a bag as large as a tortoise shell.

The day of the spring clean

The infant days of April arrived with a sense of spring that was carried over the town by the warmth of a big, bold sun which bathed in the still sea.  When walking through George Street there were dank leftover oozes of winter when the sun would disappear behind the buildings, which for a few days made it difficult to decide how heavy a coat should be worn.  Until midweek I was persevering with my long black coat, wary of the chill that was still liable to creep up on a person.  This reminded me of the way that my niece always likes to hide behind the curtain in my living room when we are playing hide and seek, and I have to pretend that I don’t know that she’s there.

There is a legitimate vibrancy about the place when the sun is out.  Everything is brighter and everybody seems happier.  Though as much as I really want to enjoy the more pleasant climate of the season, I have found that spring only makes me feel miserable.  More specifically, hayfever is misery.  With the choked sinuses, the red eyes and the constant feeling of tiredness, hayfever can make spring seem like the beautiful friend you have but who you can never get as close to as you would like, because it only ever stings.

It cannot be emphasised enough how much of a pain hayfever is.  It is an ever-present nuisance throughout the finest months of the year; an irritant which for most of the time won’t leave you alone, and which you can do nothing about.  It is an allergy to joy.  Yet it isn’t overwhelming enough for a person to complain about, at least my hayfever isn’t.  It isn’t like the flu or a complete breakdown of the immune system.  It is a fly which you can’t swat.

Oban was a sight in all of its spring splendour.  The sun was casting shards of light onto the sea like it was a George Noble disco.  Families were strolling along the Esplanade with ice cream cones.  Heavy winter jackets had been replaced by loose clothing, such as t-shirts.  The al fresco areas of coffee shops and bars were bustling.  On the pavements there was a hive of activity as dozens and dozens of disoriented pedestrians were ambling in no particular direction.  They were all of a certain vintage and each of them had the appearance of someone who had been walking for several hours for no discernable reason.  There was a dazed look on their faces, and it figured that they had likely come off the cruise ship which was docked in the bay and was the size of a small island.  

Having made land for the first time in hours, or possibly even days, everything the tourists saw was new and wonderous.  Everywhere they looked there was a fresh photo opportunity:  the green hills cradling the town, the sky as blue as a carpet, a fishing boat crawling across the water, a seagull eating a chip, an empty Tesco carrier bag agitated by the breeze.

The sunny days were stretching long into the night, making it possible to enjoy a beer in daylight late into the evening.  I met with the bird watcher and a departing rugby playing accountant in the beer garden of the Perle Hotel, where the price of a Fyne Ales Workbench IPA was broadly similar to its ABV percentage.  It was after eight o’clock and as we were drinking our pints the setting sun was being returned to the lonesome ocean. The location was serene, despite the beer garden only being separated from the town’s transportation hub by a wall which was not much taller than an Ottoman.  Relaxed holidaymakers were rolling their luggage into the hotel behind us.  Nearby, tourists were strolling under a sky which was purple, amber and all of the shades at the warmer end of a colour chart.  Groups of schoolchildren were walking by, revelling in the freedom of another evening of their half-term break.  “Your dick is tiny,” one of the girls shouted down the street at a guy she knew, presumably.

The girl in question congregated on the other side of the small wall with another girl and one of the boys who was in the company of the lad with the allegedly inadequate appendage.  They were maybe around thirteen or fourteen-years-old, though with my eyes it was difficult to be sure.  Their conversation was not discreet, and it soon became clear that a picture of a penis had been sent from the boy to the girl on the mobile phone app SnapChat.  I was thinking about how the most salacious thing I had communicated through social media was a request for the best place in town to buy shoelaces, after the pair on my black shoes had snapped in my hand, leaving one end shorter than the other.

It was an unusual place to be considering it, but I was finding myself in a moral tug of war as to which of the parties I had most sympathy for:  the girl who may have been the victim of an unsolicited dick pic, or the boy with the pensive penis which might have been goaded into action.  Although the decision to send such an intimate image through SnapChat was at best questionable, I was equally concerned with the issue of who had made the girl an authority on dicks.  There were all sorts of reasons that the image may have been underwhelming; an unflattering filter for one, or a sense of artistic creativity which had not yet been fully developed.

The question of the teenager’s method of seduction was bothering me.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the photograph had been the culmination of a lengthy flirtation process, or if the boy had made a bold, balls-out decision to send a picture of his penis to a girl in the hope that it might impress someone.  It seemed to me that the latter scenario would be a mistake.  Even if SnapChat images disappear after a short period of time, the taunting over the size of the image was likely to last much longer.  It would potentially define his high school years, whereas when I make a stupid joke to a girl in the pub the feeling of futility only lasts until the next stupid joke.

The extended hours of sunshine were bringing light into parts of my flat which had only ever existed in perpetual darkness, as though shining a spotlight on my cleaning.  Suddenly I was made aware of a layer of dust on the foot of the mirror in the corner of my bedroom, and of a cobweb on the fireplace.  It was an opportunity for a literal spring clean, and as I went about the task I sneezed repeatedly and loudly.  On my knees, I thought about the stories the passengers from the cruise liner would have to tell their friends when they eventually returned home from their travels.  They would wax lyrical about the sunny shores and the scenery on the west coast of Scotland.  They would recall the busy town they had visited and the insults they thought they had heard the teenagers trade, though couldn’t be sure because English isn’t their native language.  Then there was the man in the long black coat whose eyes were red as though from crying at the arrival of spring.  Of all the unusual things, hating spring has to be up there.

The night I spilled the secret about when a guy guesses a girls age

A cruise ship the size of an island was docked off Oban

The communal close inside the entrance of the block of flats where I have been living for the last fifteen months is an unremarkable area. like the buttons on a shirt:  they serve a purpose, and the whole thing would fall apart if they weren’t there, but nobody ever really pays much attention to them.  The door into the close is painted the sort of green you might find on the cover of the menu in a restaurant which was once popular fifteen years ago.  The blue and white walls are cracked with age in places and some of the paint has peeled to reveal flecks of red underneath.  There is little in the way of lighting in the narrow corridor which leads to the staircase, as though designed to make it as challenging as possible for people to make their way home.  At the foot of the stairs, on the landing outside my door, is a pushchair and a pram, which I have come to think makes the toddler who they belong to something akin to those families in the better off parts of town who drive two cars.

It was the Monday morning after the Saturday where the plant doctor and I had attended a flat cooling at my brother’s place that something more remarkable was to be seen in the close.  A flat cooling is the term given to a party or a gathering of people in a home shortly before the occupant moves out;  the exact opposite of a flat warming.  It was a great source of debate as to which of us had coined the phrase flat cooling, but whoever it was, it was certainly one of our better ideas.  This particular Saturday in March was the second party we had held for my brother.  Traditionally a flat cooling ends when two people have fallen asleep on the couch and the third participant – not so much the winner as the lesser of the losers – is left to let themselves out.  On this occasion we drank beer, ate pork scratchings and listened to music until I was the last man standing, leaving the rest of the dozing flat coolers at around 3am.

Two days later, as I was leaving my flat to go to work, I encountered a lengthy note which had been taped to the back of the green door.  It was sprawling down the woodwork like an ancient scroll being unfolded, and it was reporting some pretty dire news.

“I’m sure we weren’t the only ones disturbed by our 5am visitor on Sunday morning,” it began.  This was the first I was hearing of an incident in our usually quiet close.  My first thought was:  oh, those poor people, imagining that the disturbance had taken place outside the flat of the family with the young child.  My second thought quickly followed: could that have been me?  I felt fairly confident that I had gone straight home to bed, rather than arrive back in the close, climb two flights of stairs and fall asleep outside the door of a neighbour, but I couldn’t completely rule it out, particularly when there had been an occasion in the previous twelve months where I had spent the night in my bathtub.

A redacted version of the sprawling note

Over the proceeding days the inside of the door became a hub of communication as new pieces of paper were attached with suggestions of how the block could best deal with the intrusion, the way that a concerned owner plasters a lamp post with posters of a missing kitten.  A vote was proposed with four selections: to re-enable the secure entry system; for the Yale lock to be fixed and everyone would use their keys to get in and out of the building; for nothing to change; or that there was no preference.  Of the six flats, five voted for the don’t care option, while one occupant went for the secure entry system, with the added note in parenthesis that they didn’t care either way.  It probably wasn’t an election that would break the Brexit deadlock, but within a week there was an electrician on the scene.

The original secure entry system for the building was connected into the circuit of my flat, and to reactivate it the electrician required access to my board.  As he was working the wiring, myself and an upstairs neighbour were standing by, static, and observing. The electrician began to focus on the timer and the question of whether we would want the system to be effective all of the time or only on weekends, when we might be more likely to receive unwelcome visitors.  “Do you get many late-night calls?”  He asked us.  I laughed.  “If only.”  I was immediately beginning to question if I had made a huge mistake with my vote and wondered whether an unsecure entry might have been what I was looking for.

Although I felt sure that I hadn’t pissed in the close a few weeks earlier, I was aware that I was needing to use the bathroom when I was in Aulay’s recently.  I strode through from the lounge bar to the men’s room with the sort of confidence that only a man who is desperate to use the toilet can show.  At the urinal there were already two men stationed at either flank of the stainless, although soon to be stained, steel.  I made my way between them and was standing directly over the drain, which at least was giving me something to focus on.  Ordinarily I hate finding myself next to another man at the urinal, let alone between two men.  There is always either the awkward attempt at conversation or the awkward attempt at pretending that the other person doesn’t exist.  This time, however, both of them left at exactly the same time, and I was left wondering what I had done to upset them.  While I was feeling a quiet relief at having the entire urinal to myself, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a sense of dread that something had happened between the moment I had walked into the bathroom and when I had begun the act of expelling urine that had driven those two men to leave.

Upon leaving the men’s room and returning to the lounge bar I was beckoned by a table of half a dozen or more girls, one of whom I knew and another who recognised me from a meeting one night two years ago.  The girl, whose hair was the colour of a moonlit midnight sky, wasn’t particularly familiar to me, and when I asked her how she remembered me, she responded simply “because no-one dresses like that.”  It occurred to me that most men probably want to be remembered by women for their appealing physical attributes, their charming personality or because they were able to make them smile and laugh, while I have reached the stage where I am happy to be acknowledged as the guy who carries a pocket square which is the same colour as his socks.

The table of girls were out celebrating a birthday, I believe, with the female whose age had increased by a year that day expressing delight when I suggested that she looked younger than her years.  It was a throwaway remark made in the dizzying realisation that each of the girls before me was alluring in their own ways while I was a skeleton with hair dressed in a tweed suit.

Before I knew it I had six or seven girls asking me to “guess my age.”  Even when I confessed that I often have a habit of supposing an age younger than what I truly think, either as a form of flirtation or from a fear of offending, another girl would ask me how old I think she is.  The longer the charade went on, the more ridiculous my guesses were becoming.  It was getting to the stage where I had to walk away from the table before I was accusing someone of being too young for the pub.

As glamorous as the table of girls were, they had nothing on a sandwich artist who I saw the following night in Markies.  She was wearing an elegant black dress, the sort you would more likely see at a dinner party than in Oban on a Saturday night.  I have never before commented on an outfit she has worn, but as a person who is no stranger to an extravagant outfit in the pub, there was nothing I could do to stop myself from complimenting the dress.  It wasn’t just the dress, though.  She had these eyes that were like champagne, the sort that would go straight to your head if you stared at them for too long.  I couldn’t put an age on them.

At the end of the night, I put my earphones in and made the gentle walk home along the seafront.  When I arrived in the dark close of my flat I stopped myself and made sure that I was going into my place of living and not climbing the stairs.  Alone like any other Saturday, I opened a bottle of beer and eventually fell asleep on the couch.  It was more of a flat freezing than anything.

Music makes the people come together

There aren’t many things like a song for marking out the moments in your life.  Sometimes a scent can awaken certain memories, but music has an inexorable ability to act as a highlighter pen and bring colour to people, places and the emotions you were feeling when a particular song was playing during an experience.  I can vividly remember the churning of car sickness in my stomach as a child sitting in the back seat during those long journeys to Inverness with Sit Down by James playing every hour or so on dad’s mixtape.  I still feel the same anticipation each time the opening piano refrain of November Rain begins as I did the time I waited up most of the night because a Northern Irish girl I briefly knew had requested it on Kerrang music television in the days before YouTube was popular.  The weekend during which I first heard the David Gray song Shine and Dollskin by Toadies lingers in my mind, as does the sense of thrill and adventure I was experiencing at the time.  The intoxication of the night the plant doctor and my brother introduced me to Wah-Wah is relived frequently.

Of late I have been creating monthly Spotify playlists in the way other people collect commemorative plates.  As small wooden figurines decorate a mantelpiece, serving as a reminder of a thoughtful anniversary gift or an enticing offer in a brochure from a newspaper, so too do playlists in my Spotify library.

I mention the memories made by music because I was recently listening to the Prince album Dirty Mind whilst cooking a pasta sauce.  Although my regular homemade sauce isn’t terrible and does a job when it comes to using the tremendous amount of onions I always end up with in the store cupboard, I had been looking for something to make it a little more interesting.  I found a recipe on the BBC Food page which looked straightforward enough for me to follow, and where the only addition to my usual ingredients was a tablespoon of tomato purée and the use of oregano instead of my usual method of indiscriminately dusting mixed herbs over the bubbling red liquid until I think it might change the flavour.

The olive oil was heating in the pan and the ingredients for my sauce were lined along the kitchen counter like schoolchildren in a class photograph.  The chopped onions were the first to be introduced, and as they were beginning to soften, the song When You Were Mine started to play from the Discover Weekly playlist which Spotify creates for each of its users every Monday.  I was enjoying the rhythm, it was a funky beat for agitating onions in oil, and I decided that I liked it so much that I would listen to the entire album as I was preparing dinner.  I had never heard a full Prince album from beginning to end before, and this particular record was released in 1980, a time before I had even been conceived, let alone born.  1980 is a year that I know happened, because I have read about it, but the idea of it had never registered with me and seemed almost alien, like the suggestion of putting tomato purée into a recipe which already has chopped tomatoes.

When I added the garlic to the pan it sizzled like some of the lyrics which Rolling Stone magazine had described as “complex erotic wordplay”, and my mind was drifting to the way some of my neighbours might react if they knew that I was making a pasta sauce while listening to a song titled Do It All Night.  If I can be standing in my hallway and hear someone sneeze as they travel through the close, then it is surely likely, I was thinking, that someone could have been innocently going about their recycling duties as my shoulders were swooping and my sauce was stirring to this salacious eighties funk record.

By the time everything had been cooked and I was ready to sit down to enjoy my meal the Prince album was nearing its end.  The additions of tomato purée and oregano didn’t do much to enhance the flavour of the sauce for me, and Dirty Mind proved to be the more significant discovery of the evening, though I would always remember the underwhelming culinary experience whenever I thought of it.

A curious arts installation along a pavement in Lower Soroba didn’t hold much appeal

Some days later the west coast of Scotland band ‘Creel’ were playing in the upstairs lounge of The Oban Inn.  My brother and I went along after a few hours in Aulay’s, and as we were being served drinks in the bar downstairs we got to talking to a guy who was somewhere around our age and who recognised the two of us as being related.  Upon confirming his belief that my brother and I are in fact brothers, the guy informed us that he had once taken part in a threesome in the house we had grown up in.  When I thought about it later, it was obvious that he was expecting that the story would impress us, the way someone might mention the horsepower of their car engine or how many pints of lager they had drunk the night before.  But in the moment it only had the consequence of having me thinking about maths, and how I am never going to be comfortable in any situation which requires me to perform an equation.

If our familiar friend is ‘V’, and the other participants in this problem are ‘W’ and ‘X’, then V + W + X = Y.  As in:  Why was this guy able to have sex with a number of people in the house I grew up in one night which was equal to the number I achieved over the course of a decade?

Against the sound of traditional Scottish music with a modern twist which was whistling downstairs, the claim of an orgy took on added weight.  I remembered the way our parents would react whenever an ornament was broken in an accidental act of mischief, or the terrible guilt I felt when mum found out that I was going through a several-years-long phase of smoking cigarettes, and somehow it just didn’t seem fair that this guy had gotten away with enjoying a threesome in our home.  Shouldn’t he be made to sit in his room for a couple of hours and think about his actions?  Won’t someone lay the evidence of his betrayal out across his desk so that he knows that we know?

I woke up in my bed alone on Saturday morning with Dirty Mind still in my thoughts as I was lying amongst my untangled cotton sheets.  There was a brilliant spring sun in the sky, the first day it hadn’t been raining or threatening to rain in recent memory, so I decided that I would take a walk along the Esplanade to freshen my mind.  There was a cold breeze coming off the sea, but the sky was clear.  On the shoreline, a woman was removing her black leather glove as she crouched down to pick up a shell.  A couple were leaning against the railing taking photographs of the streams of sunlight as they were bouncing off the white wake of an approaching CalMac ferry.  Across the road from the Cathedral, I was accosted by a woman who I didn’t know.

The Blur song Out of Time was humming through my earphones as the woman was approaching alongside a man, who I presumed to be her husband.  Her hair was the colour of wet sand, and although it was windswept, it didn’t look out of place for her character.  She was wearing a red jacket which was puffy around the shoulders, and beneath it I could make out a long floral patterned dress.  Her boots, which came up to her shins, were the colour of a camels foot, and about right for a woman her size.  In all, she wouldn’t have looked out of place as a mannequin in the window of a charity shop.

As she neared I could tell from the movement of her mouth that she was attempting to talk to me.  If it was anywhere else in town I might have felt bold enough to continue walking, feigning ignorance of her presence, but despite everything I wasn’t capable of doing that in the shadow of St Columba’s Cathedral.  I plucked the earphones from my ears to hear the woman’s softly spoken voice ask, “Are you out enjoying some music?”

The bass from the track was reverberating in the palm of my hand as I clutched the earphones, looking down at them forlornly.  I was enjoying the music, I was thinking to myself.  “It’s a beautiful morning for a walk,” I responded as I noticed that the man had continued walking a few paces further on, the way a person does when the other half of a couple is raising a complaint in a shop and they want nothing to do with it.

“Would you be interested in a free magazine?”  The soft voice thrust a small bundle of paper in my direction, each piece no bigger than a Farmfoods leaflet.  When I think of a magazine I imagine a publication of at least sixty pages, like the glossy spread which comes with The Times on a Saturday.  These looked as though they would hardly be worth the wind’s effort to carry off in a light breeze.

I squinted in the midday sun to get a look at the title which was printed on the front of the sheet of paper.  “The 12 secrets to a successful family” it read, alongside an image of a family of three who appeared to be happy that their success had allowed them each to dress in the same white clothing.

“No thanks,” I sighed.  “I wouldn’t have any use for that.”  Maybe if it could tell me the 12 secrets to finding a girl who would smile at my jokes, I was thinking.  Or the 12 secrets to meeting a woman who enjoys a man who wears pink socks which match his tie.  But I didn’t feel like getting into that with the woman.  She nodded knowingly and wished me a good day, while I returned to my walk and Blur.

My mood had changed, though, and all of a sudden I was thinking about Dirty Mind again.  I was thinking about my recent efforts to make things more exciting, and how other people seem capable of doing it with ease and having a threesome in another person’s house, when rather than spicing up my life all I am doing is adding oregano to a pasta sauce.

March comes in like a lion: my soundtrack to the month of March (a Spotify playlist)