The week I wore a t-shirt and got a haircut (aka James @ Corran Halls, Oban)

I woke up one morning during the week, my eyes bleary from another night of mostly restless tossing and turning in bed and my mind not immediately certain whether it was morning or night or some mad hour in the middle of the two, and I had the thought that on that day I should wear a t-shirt for the first time in a while.

I don’t often wear t-shirts, despite having at least a third of a shelf in the bedroom wardrobe, which was surely built for a 19th century giant, devoted to neatly folded plain black and white and navy variations of the garment.  Although I am not anti t-shirt per se, I have long considered them to be the article of clothing of choice for men who don’t know how to dress properly.  The type of man whose reluctance to make any kind of effort when it comes to fashion leads me to speculate that they probably don’t even have a separate sock drawer.  I sometimes ask myself when I am bored and alone why I have so many t-shirts when I don’t wear them, and I think it’s because I have it in my mind that one day I might need to wear a black t-shirt.  A circumstance might arise where the only way of dealing with it is by throwing a cotton navy t-shirt over my head and arms.  In the same way that when I look right into the back of one of my kitchen cupboards I will find an unopened bottle of Rapeseed oil and the middle shelf will be full of tarragon, turmeric and thyme, because you never know when you might be cooking on a night and need a pinch of bouquet garni.  It is true that there is often too much thyme, yet there is never as much time as you would like.

Most of my better decisions are made in the shower.  There is a certain clarity of mind when all you have to think about is making sure you don’t accidentally put Nivea facial wash into your eyeballs, and it was this ability to think clearly which enabled me to agree with my earlier sleep-deprived realisation that it would be a good idea to change into a black t-shirt if I was intending to go for a haircut after work.  As disagreeable as the notion of being seen in a t-shirt is, it is preferable to the prospect of spoiling a perfectly good dress shirt with the ferociously irritating itch created by dozens upon dozens of stray hairs which gather under the collar in the way sun seeking drinkers loiter around the tables in a crowded beer garden.

I finished work early on Wednesday afternoon in preparation for that evening’s James concert and I went home and changed into a black t-shirt before walking along to the barber’s.  Ahead of me in the queue was a young mother and her two boys, only one of whom was getting his hair cut, and the wait was less arduous than when I normally visit on a Saturday morning.  The family seemed quite unremarkable, though after the child had his hair styled and they all left the barber was adamant that he doesn’t want to become “the darling of the tinkers.”  I found this to be a colourful turn of phrase and it featured often in my thoughts for the rest of the day.

As the hairs began to tumble from my head with an urgency I usually only ever see when I try to make a joke in front of a girl, the barber continued his tirade against the tinks and restated his desire to not become their darling.  I had been silent for what was probably close to two or three minutes and there came a point where I felt captive to respond due to the fact that I was held in a chair with a live blade to my scalp and with my arms imprisoned under the tightly wrapped cloak which was tucked under the collar of my t-shirt, despite it never doing very much to prevent the pesky little hairs from reaching my neck.  I threw out the occasional “aye” to compensate for my head’s inability to nod and to create the impression that I was interested in the views which were cascading in greater numbers than the hairs littering the floor around me.  I could imagine the headlines in the following weeks Oban Times if didn’t make some effort to sympathise with the trials of a barber:  Fringe killer; Cut off in his prime; A parting of the ways; A lot more than a little off the top; Short back and inside; Comb-OVER; Brutal barber can’t brush off dispute; Hell razor; Balding man murdered by the darling of the tinks.

Later in the afternoon, having changed into a proper shirt after deciding that rather than having a hair cut I would get them all trimmed, I indulged in some pre-gig libations in the May sunshine.  The town was a heaving mass of middle-aged men and women who were wearing mildly unflattering daisy t-shirts and the bars were throbbing.  After some time I wandered to Wetherspoons for what some might overly kindly describe as food, where I observed the fury of a man who claimed to have been waiting for twenty minutes for his wife’s order of a cup of tea only to be served with an empty cup and the advice that he should go inside and pour the tea himself.  The scene was amusing from a distance and the customer’s ire portrayed a man who was a couple of leaves short of a full box of loose leaf tea.

In the Corran Halls James played some good rock and roll music which was enjoyed by a capacity crowd, despite the bar being closed shortly after nine o’clock.  The band have been playing smaller venues in towns which are rarely visited by large or even any kind of musical acts in preparation for the summer festivals and the release of their forthcoming album Living In Extraordinary Times.  While much of the audience were probably waiting for the big hits like Sometimes and Laid that came in the encore, the entire set was engaging and met with great enthusiasm, and Tim Booth’s dancing was inspiring for my own moves.

The remainder of the week burned increasingly brightly and by Thursday evening I decided that I would pour myself into a seat at a beer garden.  On these sunny days there is little more joy in life than unwinding outside a bar by the sea with a refreshing cold Innis & Gunn, looking out towards the bay as the sun explodes off the sea like a thousand shooting stars and you feel the cool caress of an evening breeze against your face, quickly followed by the waft of a nearby cloud of Golden Virginia.

I knew that one pint of beer would not sate and so before leaving the flat I took what seemed at the time to be a sensible decision and I chopped the vegetables for the green bean, ginger and garlic stir fry I was intending on cooking for dinner, because cutting the ends off green beans is an arduous enough task without drunkenly cutting the end off my finger.  I left the prepared vegetables on a plate next to the wok on the cooker so that drunk me would be reminded of my intended method of cooking and I looked forward to the cuisine all night.  I returned home quite a bit later than anticipated at 11pm, and while the actual act of stir frying my meal went flawlessly I would quickly discover that intoxication has a detrimental effect on soy sauce control and my plate of green beans was swimming in the stuff.  This had the unfortunate consequence of ruining my navy blue tie and I reached the conclusion that in the future I would be better off cooking whilst sober.

The balmy conditions on Friday night led to me dispensing of the usual suit jacket and I instead dressed down in favour of a waistcoat, which was replete with a burgundy pocket square.  Most of the people I talked to refused to accept this as “dressing down” and instead were asking what the occasion was for me being so dressed up, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was being casual.  One man noticed the scent of Joop clinging to the skin of my neck and it seemed to evoke a memory of the first time he smelled the aftershave on the 13th of July 1998.  I was happy for his fond recollection but felt sad for myself that the ladies do not pay me such attention.  I later tried to engage a dogsitter in conversation, but when she revealed that the small dog – who was perched upon a bar stool next to her – is eleven years old my ability to talk seized up and I became paralysed by the fear of remarking that she would probably be hopeful that this elderly canine would not die on her watch,  I couldn’t trust myself and left the bar soon thereafter with my forehead pink from the sun and my face red with the shame I had narrowly avoided.  And even after all of that, not one person had commented on my neat hair cut.

The week I couldn’t sleep (aka The day Celtic won the cup)

While most people seem to judge their lives in terms of achievements, career progression, meeting the right person and raising a family, making important contributions to the community, bringing joy to the lives of others, being a good dancer, having an involvement in a major scientific breakthrough that will benefit generations of people, creating a beautiful piece of art, earning the respect of their peers or donating an organ my only wish – the only thing I want to achieve in my life right now – is to be able to sleep for one night.  Or to at least remember to replace the Nivea Deep Cleaning Face Wash before I get into my shower in the morning and realise that it is empty.  Whichever comes first.

This paradox of my morning routine is in stark contrast to the scene in the cupboard under the kitchen sink, where as well as there being a full bottle of washing up liquid there are also two other bottles which each have a small amount of luminous liquid loitering around the bottom, like a drunk who refuses to leave at closing time.  These bottles exist as a constant reminder that despite there being the joy of preparing a freshly cooked meal from scratch and sitting down to enjoy eating it, there will always be the mess to clean up afterwards.  It is a lot like life in a nutshell – almost literally, although those seem easier to wash away than my signature pasta sauce.

In the past week or so my body has forgotten how to sleep.  Or at least how to stay asleep for longer than twenty-six minutes.  I am not sure when this happened, but I was most aware of it on Monday night when, despite going to bed feeling extremely drained and tired, I lay awake for the entire night until my alarm sounded at 6.10am.  I could feel my heart racing as though I had just finished a marathon – or, because I am not sure how it feels to have run a marathon, taken a brisk walk to the pub.  My mind would not settle and my thoughts raced through an entire catalogue of events in my life.  I became increasingly restless amongst my white 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and it was the most physical activity my bed has seen in some considerable time.

As the week progressed and I was functioning on night after night of broken sleep I tried different methods to see if I could find something that would help me slumber.  I played music, but this only resulted in me wanting to queue songs I wanted to listen to and so I found a six-hour playlist titled ‘Night Rain’ which I thought would be relaxing, though it only had the effect of convincing me that I needed the toilet and at one point I laid staring at the ceiling wondering if I should erect a canopy over my bed.  On Tuesday I believed that whisky would be a good idea and that it would solve all of my troubles, because it usually does, but I only ended up awake and drunk.  On other nights I tried positioning myself on the other side of the bed; pretending that I didn’t really want to sleep at all, in the hope that it would trick my mind; counting sheep – although they wouldn’t stay still and they all looked the same and this led to me becoming frustrated; laying on top of the sheets, but it seems this only works in the Travelodge and when I am fully clothed.

Despite a miserable week and a lack of sleep I was looking forward to Saturday and the Scottish Cup final, which turned out to be a day where Celtic achieved something which had never been done before in Scottish football when they won a second consecutive domestic treble.  Through the week I had been considering how my memories of cup final Saturdays are similar to the way that everybody remembers the days from their youth, when everything seemed better and it was almost always sunny.  I have extremely vague memories of seeing the 1988 cup final, though I certainly remember the Joe Miller final the following year and watching it on a portable television in the back garden with the sun blazing.  On the morning of the 1995 final I walked up to my favourite teacher at the St. Columbas primary school sale of work and told him that Celtic would win, and he was sceptical because he was older and Celtic hadn’t won a trophy for six years.  I was reminded of this exchange when I considered how much easier it was to attend the sale of work and eat homemade cake and buy second-hand books than it is as an adult dealing with the hangover from Friday night and having to get yourself to the pub in time for kick-off.  After Celtic beat Airdrie in ’95 I went out into the garden in my home kit and kicked a football around and pretended that I was Pierre van Hooijdonk.  Following the game on Saturday I couldn’t even spell Pierre van Hooijdonk.

Now that I am an adult with my own place I decided that I would try to initiate something of a cup final tradition when I invited my father and brother around for coffee and beer and a Scotch pie before we went to watch the game.  In an effort to try and replicate my experience of eating a pie at Celtic Park I hid the bottle of brown sauce earlier in the day so that I would be forced to conduct an increasingly desperate search for it as my pie cooled, but my flat is very small and it didn’t take me very long at all to deduce that I had placed it in the bathtub.

We walked along to Aulay’s some time after two o’clock and the sun was exactly as it was in each of those childhood memories.  It was a beautiful day.  As we approached the bar there were rumours circulating that another pub in town had been charging customers £12 to watch the Royal Wedding with a slice of cake and a glass of Prosecco and although, like all bar stories, it sounded too ridiculous to be true, it occupied our minds and distracted from any cup final nerves.  With kick-off approaching the pub began to fill with more Motherwell fans than I have ever seen in my life, although they looked distinctly like some of the people who occupy the same spot on Old Firm games.  One older man who had ushered himself next to me became increasingly agitated as Celtic rushed into a two-goal lead and complained bitterly each time Motherwell were penalised for a foul.  He left at half-time.

After the game finished and the pub became sparse and the post-match celebrations were diluted by a switch to the FA Cup final, a very pleasant Danish couple appeared, as if by magic, and bought us a pint of beer because “we’re on holiday.”  I was struck by this generosity and probably made them immediately regret it when I indulged them in conversation for half an hour.  His grey stubble looked like sand on a moonlit beach and his wife wore glasses which were comically large, but they seemed a nice pairing nonetheless.  I learned that they were in Scotland for some conference in Edinburgh next Friday and they left before I could get any more information.

The night wore on like a crumpled and creased shirt, and by the time we returned to Aulay’s after eating dinner the beer was weighing heavily in my stomach like the thoughts in my mind which had been keeping me awake all week.  I switched to Jack Daniels and coke and then Jack Daniels Honey and lemonade, which although – or probably because – it is essentially diabetes in a glass, gave me a second wind.  Despite this I was preparing to blow the final whistle on the day around 11pm and was feeling a lot like the football must have felt when Callum McGregor hammered it into the top corner around eight hours earlier.  However, I learned that a friend who I was quite eager to see was also out in the bars and it was no earlier than 2am when I finally returned home, although I had not connected with her as I was hoping.  I drank another beer on the couch and listened to the Whiskeytown album Faithless Street before I went to bed and fell asleep straight away.  It is too early to say if I have achieved what I want from life and my insomnia has been cured, but when I woke up this morning with my stomach churning and my head banging like a Taylor Hawkins solo I at least had another sunny memory, blurred as it was, to cling to.

The week nothing got done

With my friend, the spider, gone from my life I was feeling low and lonely and at a loss.  In an effort to bring some meaning to things I began to compile a mental list of goals I wanted to achieve in the coming week.  I thought it would be an idea to shed some light on my situation by changing the lightbulb in the living room ceiling fitting which has been out since I moved in, but I wasn’t sure how I would do that when the entire reason I had befriended the spider was that the ceiling is too high for me to reach.

Other items on my cerebral checklist included:  a need for more picture frames to cover the blank spaces on my walls; to make a decision on whether or not I should invest in a kitchen roll holder, having balanced the eternal trouble of having to reach into the small low level cupboard every time I make a spillage against the aesthetics of having paper on display; to buy glasses (or something similarly useful) to fill the empty shelf in the glass cupboard; dispose of the dead houseplants, as the living room is beginning to resemble a particularly sorry memorial garden to dead houseplants.

Before tending to my list of tasks I decided that I would go out and buy some beer.  Hump day – or ‘Wednesday’, for those who still follow the Gregorian calendar – is typically the day of the week on which I will stock my fridge with beer for the coming weekend.  Two days are ample time for a box of beers to chill in time to celebrate surviving until five o’clock on Friday for another week.

Each week I try to manipulate my grocery shopping so that on Wednesday I am also buying spinach, sugar snap peas, asparagus, blueberries and other items which make my basket appear less dependent on alcohol, even if it is ultimately the only reason I am in the store.  On this occasion I strolled up to the self-service checkouts with more confidence than usual, being that it was the middle of the afternoon and I didn’t have to stand back and awkwardly analyse each customer as I wait for a station to become free.  I scanned my greens and brown bottles and paused for an assistant to come and approve my purchase of alcohol.

After around thirty seconds one appeared and on the screen she was confronted by the question of determining whether I appear to be under 25, and therefore being required to produce ID, or if ‘the customer is clearly over 25′.  The assistant tapped this latter option and although I thanked her out of kindness I couldn’t help but feel that there should be a third response which isn’t so damning.  Something like:  ‘the customer looks to be around 34 but is wearing it well’ or even “the customer is over 25 but has understandably had a tough few days’.

With the threat of some early evening rays breaking from the blue skies on Thursday I abandoned my ambitious plans for cooking a chicken and asparagus risotto and instead grilled the chicken and boiled the asparagus and ventured to my favourite seaside bar.  The sea has such a magnetic attraction and I have always been drawn to it.  It is both beautiful and dangerous, like all the best things we experience.  There is often something soothing about watching the boats moving through the harbour, the way they seem so elegant and effortless as they stay afloat.  Though maybe it was the beer.

I sauntered up to the service area – in the way a thesaurus might – and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn from the young barmaid, who appeared exotic and European.  She flashed an immaculate toothy grin and I immediately thought that she had found my black sleeveless v-neck sweater, black shirt and baby blue tie combination pleasing.  When I went up to the bar for the second time she again had this big beaming smile and I wondered if she had seen my light blue socks or caught the scent of my aftershave.

I returned to the outdoor seating area and observed the ships in the sea; the islands in the distance looked like shadows dancing against a gold curtain.  Soon the barmaid came out to serve some food people had ordered and I realised that she had the same toothy smile the entire time.  It turned out that she wasn’t smiling at me, that’s just the way her face is.

After a few beers it seemed natural that my body would feel the need to expel some of the unwanted fluid and so I was compelled to take a trip to the bathroom.  This particular bar has three urinals and those to the left and right were occupied by work men in high vis jackets, leaving me the piggy – or the penis – in the middle.  Ordinarily such a situation might prove awkward for me, but on this night my bladder was not willing to wait for any man and things flowed along quite smoothly.  That was, at least, until the pungent evidence of asparagus consumption began to emanate from the steam below.  I shuffled nervously.  If I can smell that then surely they can too,  I thought to myself pensively, worrying that despite the heady mix of body odour, farts and general male toilet aromas it would be the scent of asparagus that would cause these heavy built work men to kick off.  They left shortly thereafter, without washing their hands, of course, and I couldn’t help but feel that I had offended them.

For much of the rest of the night I found myself considering urinal etiquette.  My strategy with pub urinals is always to head towards the one furthest from the door.  This is a trick I learned whilst riding the subway in New York City when I realised that the further down the platform you move away from the entrance the less crowded the carriage seems to be; because everybody is attracted to convenience.  The same theory tends to apply in the bathroom and the further away from the door you position yourself the less likely you are to become engulfed by fellow pissing participants.  Nothing concerns me more than when a man needlessly encroaches upon my intimacy zone, which should be at least nine inches, although nobody carries a measuring tape to the bar these days.

As Friday stumbled in – sleepily, despite the lights short circuiting in the lounge bar in Aulay’s the night before – my attention had turned to thinking of a suitable colour scheme for the day.  I favoured a yellow ensemble and this caused much consternation as the evening progressed.  In the first instance I was congratulated by a woman for following her suggestion of wearing a yellow tie and pocket square, and although I had no recollection of ever hearing such an idea it did strike me that it could be a fun development for my Fridays if I was to begin taking sartorial requests.  I suppose that such an endeavour would be a lot like a prison library, in that it would have its prose and cons.

Conversely, the formerly red-haired barmaid expressed dismay and questioned the accuracy of the match, which opened a mustard or custard debate.  I am no stranger to ladies conducting an inquest into the legitimacy of my wear and by the end of the night I felt vindicated by a girl who also wore mustard yellow.

As the week ended I was aware that I hadn’t achieved any of the goals I was aiming to.  Maybe next week I will get round to my list.  For now it seems to be a version of man built to collapse into crumbs.

The week I befriended a house spider (and other attempts to make myself feel better)

It must have been around Wednesday or Thursday afternoon of this week, as I was wallowing in the silence of an empty flat, when out of the corner of my eye I became aware of the presence of a relatively small house spider – at least, it was small relative to the size of the picture frames which share the wall space.  There have been occasions where I have been in the company of people who shriek or cry “ick!” at the mere sighting of a spider, but I found myself welcoming this eight-legged intruder into my abode, as I haven’t had many guests since I moved in, and certainly no wildlife visitors.  Besides, this creepy crawly had clambered all the way into the corner of my ceiling, which is so high that it seemed easier to befriend the creature than convince it to leave with the handle of a mop.

At infrequent intervals I would glance up over my left shoulder, looking to see if my new arachnid acquaintance was still there.  I wondered what it found so fascinating about that particular corner, although it is positioned directly above the Sonos speaker and is probably also my favourite corner in the entire flat.  It showed no interest in moving from its location, not even to spin a web or stretch any of its legs, and it was as though the spider knew that I was in need of company.

I had been off work for the week – not through having any particular plans, rather as a means of using time – and after a couple of days I was finding myself at a loss.  I hadn’t experienced any kind of interaction with another person since Monday afternoon, when the formerly red-haired barmaid commented on the rolled up sleeves of my checked shirt and how the tattoos on my arms made me appear more normal than when I walk into the bar wearing a three-piece suit.

By my second or third morning without social interaction I had taken to attempting conversation with my houseplants.  I would ask the roses on the mantelpiece if they thought it likely to rain in the afternoon, while the succulent was invited to comment on my intention to make a peppercorn sauce to accompany that night’s dinner.  Of course, the houseplants did not respond to my efforts to initiate conversation because they can’t talk and, in any case, I suspect they may be dead.

On an afternoon I thought that I might try to relax and unwind by burning some incense and listening to a collection of Miles Davis tracks.  For a time it was working, and in my mind I had been transported into a tastefully decorated cocktail bar where a four-piece jazz band were playing unobtrusively in the corner and I was surrounded by suave and sophisticated drinkers, many of whom were elegant ladies.  My foot tapped along to the music in concert and some of the troubles were beginning to ease from my mind.  I held my drink to my mouth and took a sip.  It tasted like dirt, and I remembered that I was in my living room drinking the Java Sumatra coffee I had bought earlier from Lidl.

Typically music is the one medium that is almost certain to act like a forklift in a whisky distillery and raise my spirits.  I recall from my youth spent listening to the radio that the sounds of R.E.M. always seemed upbeat and jaunty with songs like Shiny Happy People, Imitation of Life and The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonight sticking in my mind, and it was this memory which led me to seek out the band’s 1991 album Out of Time, which I had never played.  By the time I reached track eight – Half a World Away – I was feeling overwhelmed by the unrelenting misery of the record.  My internal monologue began to debate whether the songs were making me feel sad or if they only had the sound of despair because that was the emotion I was approaching them with.  I never found the answer to that question, although the line “This lonely world is wasted/Pathetic eyes high alive/Blind to the tide that turns the sea/This storm it came up strong” seemed telling. I still haven’t heard the last three tracks from Out of Time.

I visited Aulay’s Bar on Thursday night for a contemplative pint or four of beer when the Atletico Madrid versus Arsenal Europa League game happened to be on in the background.  A couple of Londoners arrived at the bar on the half-time whistle, moments after Madrid had scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game, and they seemed convinced that this had happened as a consequence of them appearing, as though to suggest that Arsenal would perform better if these two particular men never saw a minute of their games.  Upon ordering their drinks I overheard them discuss past European disappointments and they would reel off dates and the names of places in the way people remember when and where they were when a relationship ended:  Valencia, 1980, a caravan in Pontefract.

Often rumination is abetted by the sensation provided by whisky, and I was in a pensive predicament.  I ordered a Jameson and upon taking my first mouthful exhaled in the manner of a sigh, though deliberate on this occasion.  The feeling created by performing this act is comparable to how I imagine a hug on the inside of the body would feel. For those few moments it is a beautiful warm and lingering embrace. This is in contrast, I found myself thinking around nine hours later, to the way many measures of whisky can leave the body feeling as though it has been through a sustained physical assault.

The following evening I returned wearing my favourite suit, mostly out of a sense of duty to maintain my image as the man who wears a suit to the pub on a Friday night, but also because I was feeling the need for the ego boost which is usually given by the sound of a young woman squealing at the sight of a matching navy pocket square, tie and socks.  Later in the night an older woman wearing an Oban Lorne RFC sweatshirt asked if she could sniff my neck, though this act didn’t offer the same massaging of my masculinity when the woman in question emitted an odour which suggested that she had been wearing the sweatshirt for a fortnight and had undertaken every physical exertion imaginable whilst doing so.

When I was accompanied back to my flat by two female friends I had learned from my previous mistake and ensured that the fridge was stocked with a selection of mixers.  My ability to enjoy a Jack Daniels and coke was hindered, however, by my decision as a considerate host to offer to open a tube of original Pringles and the subsequent scattering of crumbs across the oak flooring.  I was becoming increasingly restless as I watched the potato chips fall and I came to terms with the realisation that bachelorhood has turned me into a neat freak.  When I eventually made it to bed at around 5.57am it was only after a quick crawl around the living room with a dustpan and brush.

By the end of the week the spider was no longer sitting in its corner.  I glanced around the edges of the ceiling and it was nowhere to be seen.  Gradually I decided that it must have left my flat, and it seemed to me that this kind of slow realisation is similar to when you are caught behind an elderly couple as you try to navigate a narrow pathway; sometimes you just have to wait for it to happen.  Although the spider had not been in my life for terribly long and we didn’t often talk it felt as though we had formed a bond, perhaps even became best friends.  I wasn’t sure I was ready for it to leave just yet.