A lion’s roar (aka First Aid Kit @ Perth Concert Hall, Perth)

It had been eight days since a woman at the bar called me a geek, and when I boarded the morning train to Glasgow, destined ultimately for Perth, I was still unable to get the incident out of my mind.  I could not be entirely certain over how the situation arose in the first place, but I could clearly recall the educated and voluptuous brunette speaking of her surname, which sounded elegant and born of the middle ages, and remarking something along the lines of:  “Of course, you’ll know where that name comes from.  You look like a geek.”

I remember that I nodded my head in agreement with the first part of the woman’s statement, in exactly the way I do whenever I haven’t fully heard what a person has said to me but don’t want to appear impolite by asking them to repeat the vital piece of information they were attempting to communicate.  I also agreed with her observation that I looked like a geek, and it ranked amongst the nicest things I have ever been told in Aulay’s, and probably in my adult life.

As the days passed my internal monologue became increasingly involved in a fervent debate with itself over whether the word ‘geek’ was used by the woman with the old-fashioned name as a compliment or in an intended insult.  Was she commenting on my carefully crafted outfit with its silver tie, pocket square, and socks triumvirate, or on the fact that I had an awkward nature which meant that I was avoiding making eye contact with her in the way that a lamb instinctively avoids walking into a wolf’s den?

On the train, I was hoping to catch up on some much-needed sleep.  I had thought when I went out on Friday night that I could live a Keith Richards lifestyle, but by Saturday morning I felt like I was a Morphy Richards kitchen appliance – I was blowing steam.  Knowing that I had an early train to catch, my intention was to enjoy a few sensible drinks with the plant doctor and go home earlier than I normally would, but at one thirty in the morning I was having Jameson bought for me by a man who was wearing pink trousers and who earlier in the day had scattered the ashes of both of his parents on the island of Lismore.

When I first arrived at the bar I viewed the man as a foolish figure of fun.  He was sitting at a table in the corner of the room, his trousers were as pink as the cheek of a newborn baby, and his navy blue jumper was holding a belly so large that it looked like it had been drawn onto him.  The company he was with, presumably strangers he had become involved in conversation with, left, and he got up to refresh his drink. I was standing at the bar alone, and as the man waited to be served we exchanged complimentary words on each other’s outfits.  He confided in me that his parents had recently passed away within a short period of time of one another, and I expressed sympathy for his loss. He thanked me and commented that it is rare for another person to be so nice, which struck me as being odd, as I thought I was only saying what anybody in my position would have said.  When the man with the pink trousers bought me a whisky, I began to feel remorse for my original observation when I walked into the bar, and we spent the rest of the night discussing death and Brexit, and it was difficult to tell where one subject ended and the other began.

Despite suffering from the type of headache which narrows a person’s eyes, and with the taste of whisky still sitting around the back of my throat, I couldn’t bring myself to sleep on the train.  At the table across the aisle from me was a younger woman who was wearing eyeshadow that was the colour of midnight. She unwrapped an oaty wholefood bar, and when I lifted the top of my roll to squeeze a sachet of brown sauce onto some bacon, all I could see was a pig rolling around in wet mud.  In an attempt to make myself feel better I reached into my bag for the banana I had packed, and I sat it on the table in front of me, although I think she could tell that I had no intention of eating it.

My interest in sleeping wasn’t just as a means of appeasing a hangover.  Recently it has seemed that the only way I am able to see my best friend is in my dreams.  She has been appearing in them frequently of late: at least two or three times a week, which is considerably more than the zero times I am able to talk to her when I’m awake.  In one of those sleep scenarios, I found myself in dispute with my subconscious. It was a day or two following my family birthday dinner, and in my dream, I was trying to describe to my friend where we had eaten our meal.  I gave very precise directions as to where the restaurant was located, although I couldn’t remember its name. She believed that I was describing The Seafood Temple, an assertion I agreed with, and I continued to elaborate on the evening, even though my lucid self was screaming out that the dinner had taken place at BAAB.  In my dream, I could hear myself say this, but the dream version of me ignored my pleas and continued to talk about a meal I had not eaten in a restaurant I had not been.

Unable to sleep, I sought to amuse myself by imagining the conversations other passengers around me were having.  With my earphones playing music at a moderate level, observing my fellow commuters was like watching a silent movie, and when their lips moved it was up to me to work out what they were saying.  As the train rattled through quiet little villages which were surrounded by rolling green fields, fluffy clouds of grazing sheep and calm blue streams, my attention was caught by a table of three people who I speculated were probably aged in their fifties.  Their conversation was constant and animated.

“It’s really beautiful and peaceful out here,” the first woman would have said as she leaned across the table in her knitted yellow top.  “We could happily live around here when you retire.”

“The dogs would really enjoy the space,” her husband agreed with a wistful look out of the window.  His hair was neatly combed and looked the way flour does when it becomes wet.

“You could probably build, like Edward and Barbara did.”  The third of the trio was female and was either the sister of the woman with the sunflower top, or one of those people who likes to befriend others who have a similar physical appearance.

“It’s so remote.  I bet you probably wouldn’t have to see anybody for days.  How perfect!”

“That’s a point,” the husband chimed in, sipping from his coffee cup as he considered retirement in rural Argyll.  “How would the boy from the bottom of the road get us the cocaine?”

By the time I arrived in Perth, autumn had put on its winter jacket.  I disembarked from the train and immediately played the U2 song Where The Streets Have No Name, which is a habit I have any time I visit somewhere new and unfamiliar, when I know I am going to get lost.  It took me longer than necessary to find my hotel for the night, and when I eventually did my hands were raw and my hangover had all but gone.  Although Perth is an old and historic city which is hugged by the River Tay, I only had eyes for its bars.  Drinking beer down by the river put me in mind of a Neil Young song, but I couldn’t place which one.  At three o’clock I met with my brother and a work colleague who resides in the area to watch the football scores come in.  We pored over our respective betting coupons, and at half-time, they were looking quite promising.  With great excitement we were discussing what we might do with the tremendous fortunes we were each destined to win in the coming hour, though by the time we walked the short distance from The King James to The Foundry we had lost more than our sobriety.

All manner of ghoulish characters were stalking the short streets of the city centre when night fell.  Whilst I initially thought that the people of Perth didn’t care as much for their appearance as those in more trendy places like Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I was verging on accusing the cleaning staff in the watering holes I visited of slacking on the job when it came to dusting the cobwebs which were dangling from the ceiling, I soon remembered that it was the weekend before Halloween and this probably wasn’t a regular sight.

On the plaza of the Concert Hall, a spectacular light show was taking place to celebrate the holiday.  Families of witches and vampires and the Predator from the Alien vs Predator movie filled the streets.  This made for quite a scene as hundreds of people dressed in plaid shirts of varying colours made their way into the venue to see the popular Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit.  The auditorium was more compact than I was expecting, which made for an intimate setting where every spot on the floor felt close to the stage. The Swedish sisters serenaded the sold-out audience with their beautiful harmonies, their voices sounding the way a great piece of art looks.  Every note stirred an emotion within me, although a level of drunkenness contributed to what I was feeling. The set passed very quickly and was a musical triumph.

After the gig, I drank in the Green Room, which seemed larger than a room and would probably be more appropriately classed a hall.  The bar was decorated in keeping with the Halloween theme, and amongst the spooky monsters and bloodied figures around the place were some spirits I was interested in.  I sampled a blend of whisky from the Isle of Jura and found that it didn’t burn my throat the way a malt usually does, so I continued to order it until the bar closed.  As I was walking back to my hotel, my breath was warm with whisky, and it escaped into the frozen night air, making me feel like a mighty dragon.  It was not long after one o’clock, although I couldn’t be sure if the time had already gone back an hour to mark the end of British Summer Time.  I spilled myself into the luxuriously comfortable hotel bed and slept well into the morning.  My dreams were as silent as a conversation on the train, though the hangover was like a lion’s roar.

The night I changed four light bulbs

One by one, over the space of two or three weeks, they were slowly beginning to disappear; gradually fading out of existence in exactly the way a dimming lightbulb lives its life.  For a while, it seemed that every other evening when I would turn on my living room lights, another bulb in the five-eighths-of-a-spider-like chandelier which hangs above my large glass coffee table had been extinguished.  I was oblivious to the first bulb burning out, and even the second event had little impact on my life.  It was a little darker, sure, but the mood reminded me of the bar, and I became used to it.  Who really needs five lights illuminated at any one time, anyway?  But when the third bulb went out and I was left with only two, I began to feel worried.

The last two bulbs in the chandelier co-habited for around five or six days until some morning this week, when one of the couple decided that it didn’t want to come home.  If I had been nyctophobic then all of my worst fears would have been dangerously close to being realised.  By the process of elimination, I knew that the final bulb remaining couldn’t have much longer left before it too would burn out, and my concern heightened.  I have never changed a lightbulb before:  at least not a ceiling bulb, and never my own.  I have replaced the bulb in a bedside table lamp, in a desk lamp, and in a standard hallway light fixture, all things easily reached by stretching an arm out, and nothing that would require the use of a stepladder, or even standing on the tips of my toes.  I was considering if home ownership was really for me.

For several days the surviving bulb struggled on, using all of its resources to light the entire living room on its own.  I admired its resilience, but I knew that soon physics would get the better of the bulb and it would join the others in perpetual darkness, and this troubled me.  It quickly followed to question how I was going to change these five exhausted lightbulbs when the ceiling in my Victorian era flat is so high, and I am a man of average stature.  Am I supposed to turn all of the electricity off?  Before long I was contemplating what would happen in the event that I am electrocuted and nobody can find my body because the property is in darkness.  I suspected that it would take days for my stricken shape to be discovered, and it would only be by accident, in the way that you are looking in the back of the fridge for something else entirely and find the half-eaten mozzarella ball you bought for an Italian recipe three weeks ago.

Some time passed and I began to put some serious thought into the possibility that I could live an existence without the need for lights in my home.  It occurred to me that if I never closed the curtains I could probably just about get by on the strength of the nearby streetlights, and if I upped my tea light candle usage from two at a time to, say, eight, I might even have enough light to read.  If I happened to have visitors I would just claim that I’m trying to achieve the minimalist look and that my place is “atmospheric.”  The flat with no lighting and several dead houseplants decorating the mantel place.

My reluctance to change the light bulbs wasn’t born of laziness so much as it was a tremendous dislike of physics.  It was by far my least favourite subject at school, and any discussion of Sir Isaac Newton and his work only left me craving a Granny Smith.  For a brief time in fifth year we had a teacher who was new to the school, and each lesson he would have us listen to Moby’s new album Play.  If my Higher exam had been on Honey or Why Does My Heart Feel So Bad? I’m certain I would have achieved a better grade than the lamentable letter which marks my certificate next to the claim that I studied physics.

It was probably around 7.20 on Wednesday evening when I was eating dinner and I thought I was taking a spicy sweet potato wedge on my fork, but actually ended up with a mouthful of lemon baked salmon, that I realised that there are downsides to living in dimly lit conditions.  With the fragrance of fish in my nostrils, I decided that it would be for the best if I changed my light bulbs, and the following day I purchased three twin packets of halogen candle bulbs.  I returned home from work that night with a solitary goal in mind.  The positioning of the glass coffee table proved problematic, largely due to the way that its size dominates the room.  It is by far the biggest object I own, and I was concerned about how I was going to stand the stepladder around it in order to reach the chandelier.  In spite of my failure to grasp the basic fundamentals of geometry, I was able to fit it around the table, and when standing on the top rung my outstretched arm could reach the dead light bulbs and no more.

I have never considered the possibility that I could have a fear of heights.  Over the years I have walked around the observation deck of The Shard in London, tread across the glass floor of Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower and visited the tallest building in the western hemisphere, One World Trade Center, and felt nothing but awe.  But on top of this five-foot-tall stepladder, I was feeling numb and nauseous.  I was standing there for what seemed like it must have been three or four minutes, completely frozen and unable to move.  It was an experience similar to the few moments before I approach a girl to talk to her; when I am unsure whether there will be a spark or if my jokes are once again only going to lead to resistance.

My eyes tumbled downwards as my attention turned from the chandelier overhead to the table on the ground below.  I tried to take my mind off the entire predicament by imagining the stories I could tell at dinner parties if I had fallen from the ladder.  Perhaps a few people had returned to my flat for some drinks after the pub, and they would listen intently to my anecdote as we all gathered around the battered coffee table with its shattered glass plates which are only visible due to the street light which shines through the window.  They would remark on the horror of the tale, the looks of great interest and sympathy on their faces enhanced by the atmospheric tea light candles which are placed strategically around the room, the three on the mantel place giving the impression of a loving memorial to the dead houseplants they sit between.

The scars from the fall, on my face and hands, would attract attention in the pub, and girls would be sure to ask how I had got them.  In my thoughts, I am much more suave than in reality, and I would casually tell them that I was doing some electrical work at a great height.  All manner of scenarios paraded through my mind before I was finally able to unscrew the light bulbs, one by one, and replace them with new ones.  The entire process took minutes, and when I stepped back down the ladder to turn on the switch, I was rewarded with a brightly lit room.  I admired my work and reflected on how simple the task was, before dimming the lights to the lowest setting and igniting two tea light candles.

The three nights of Thirty-five

A few things had made it obvious to me that it was October.  On my nightly walk home from work through town, the air had recently become fragrant with the chimney smoke coughed up by coal fires which were being lit ever since the rain and wind had adopted a brisk autumnal chill.  Rusted leaves scampered down desolate streets, their movement making a sound that put me in mind of kitten claws on a wooden floor.  Supermarkets were displaying their seasonal offers of Halloween costumes and Christmas selection boxes side by side, bringing back to life the ancient dispute between Paganism and Christianity.  On my smartphone, the calendar application had been reading October for more than a week.

Although October is the month where I not only age day by day and week by week, but also by an entire year, it has always been one of my favourite pages on the Gregorian calendar.  In the days when I was growing up, it would usually be every other October when we would go away on a family holiday.  The school term would end around the week of my birthday and the five of us went to Butlins, or on the bus to Blackpool, or on three occasions, to Walt Disney World in Florida.  It was on the third of those trips, in October of 1998, when I turned fifteen and fell in love with a girl from Tallahassee over a weekend in the hotel swimming pool.  She was petite and blonde, and her skin was the tone of a freshly varnished bookcase.  We played Marco Polo late into the nightand her inability to tag me gradually convinced me that she had at the very least developed a sympathy for me, and quite possibly held romantic intentions.  It wouldn’t occur to me until a few years after the fact that she was simply terrible at water sports and was struggling to identify the Scottish accent.

On Sunday morning the Tallahassee girl and her father were checking out of the hotel, and our family was scheduled to visit the Magic Kingdom.  As at age thirty-five, my ability to talk to girls when fifteen-years-old was comparable to this particular girl’s Marco Polo strategy, and I left the hotel swimming pool bound for Disney without being able to make her it.  I felt heartbroken, and my parents realised that they could never take us on an extended family holiday again due to the threat that I would ruin it with puberty and emotions.  We traipsed around the Magic Kingdom that afternoon, with my eyes memorising the pure white laces of my trainers, and It’s a Small World gnawing away at my soul.

The week of the thirty-fifth day marking my birth contrasted greatly to the week of my fifteenth birthday in 1998.  Whereas that week was spent visiting theme parks in the baking Florida sun with my mother making sure that my siblings and I were wearing an appropriate level of sunscreen at all times, the week I turned thirty-five was a challenging one for footwear.  The rain which had been falling in an almost constant cycle since the end of August had left puddles the size of moon craters by the sides of the road, and Oban even made the national news due to the severe flooding parts of the town was suffering.

There were reports of shoes struggling to cope with the deluge, and in the office socks lined the storage heaters in the way patients sit around a doctors reception, waiting for the prognosis on whether or not they’re going to make it.  Avoiding the tidal waves which would erupt over the pavement, at least four feet into the air, every time a vehicle was driven through the puddles was an arduous task, and one which demanded a great amount of skill and judgment.  A quick calculation was required to measure the speed and size of the oncoming traffic against my own walking manner, in order to decide whether I could step across the length of the moon crater before the next car would drive through the body of water and leave me drenched.  In what was an unlikely turn of events, and surely my finest triumph in months, my socks were left completely dry.

The flooding was a pain in the neck for many, but an incident in the shower caused me to suffer my own neck pain.  As I was raising my left arm overhead to wash away the ‘Lynx Black’ Frozen Pear and Cedarwood Scent body wash from under my arm, I had a simultaneous need to cough, and those two actions together seemed to strain a muscle in the back of my neck.  It hurt tremendously, although I was not sure if the greater injury was to my body or my pride.  As the day progressed and every turn of my head brought a sharp reminder of my shame, I found myself questioning if this was something a person’s body does as it ages.  Are everyday chores like showering or polishing the dado rail or recycling empty milk bottles going to bring with it the added risk of doing myself physical harm now that I am 35?

In an effort to reclaim a feeling of my fading youth on the day before my birthday, I wore a striking red shirt.  A combination of confidence and anxiety washed over me as I left the flat that morning and the thought occurred to me that I haven’t seen many men wearing a dress shirt the colour of a bashful cherry tomato.  Certainly, if any men are sporting such bright and bold fashion they aren’t approaching forty, and I wondered if this was my equivalent of buying a motorcycle or going skydiving.

The shirt attracted many comments, such as “That’s a very red shirt,” and “You’re looking very red today.”  I admired their observation, though naturally, they couldn’t have known that I wasn’t wearing the shirt as some extravagant statement of fashion or a grand announcement of my mood.  It had been several months since I last wore the bright red garment, and I only wear it so infrequently because I am scared to wash it.  To be exact, I am worried about what will happen to the rest of my laundry if I introduce a red shirt to the load, and so it is left hanging in my wardrobe while all the other cool and more trendy looking shirts are taken out, in much the same way that I remain standing at the bar while the more suitably attired guys are taken and worn out by the girls.

In keeping with the belief that dabbling in new and adventurous experiences would restore some form of youth, I decided that my birthday meal out with my family would be eaten at BAAB Meze & Grill following a few positive reviews from friends.  Their dishes are all eastern Mediterranean recipes which are served in a manner that encourages sharing and bonding, which is a departure from our standard Saturday night in Wetherspoons where my father and brother will inevitably become involved in a debate about politics and my interest will rapidly diminish, until I am casting glances around the bar, dreaming up scenarios in which I humiliate myself by talking to women.

Although our waiter carefully described the idea behind the menu and the various foods on offer, our inexperience in this culinary heritage was obvious for anyone to see.  The waiter took our order, and later in the night, it was all I could do to imagine the scene in the kitchen when he returned with his pocket notebook and tried to explain to his colleagues that the table of five had ordered two Baba ghanoush and no fewer than three other dips.  In the end, we were forced to ask for another bag of pita bread as we came to terms with our folly and made a desperate attempt to use as much of our dips as possible.

The food was terrific and plentiful – obviously – and the discussion at the table turned to the different social occasions this kind of dining would be best suited for.  A drunken rabble seemed obvious, but I remained unconvinced that it would be a good place to take a date.  Although the location is luxurious, and the nature of the experience would be a fine talking point, I couldn’t get my mind past the potential for calamity.  How well could a date really go when there are two dishes of rich, garlicky Baba ghanoush to get through?

I had been thirty-five for roughly nineteen-and-a-half hours when I went to Aulay’s for some beers with friends.  It was just like any other time I had been at the bar when younger:  the lager was quickly accompanied by whisky, I was exuberantly over-dressed, we watched Scotland lose a game of football, and we were tormented by an unknown girl.

Our crew was joined briefly by a fresh-faced Englishman who reduced the beard ratio amongst us.  His girlfriend was once a barmaid and recently became appointed a sustainability manager, and the fresh-faced Englishman insisted on buying for me my favourite minty green shot on her behalf.  I wondered whether I would manage to sustain such a level of drinking on a Thursday night, though my doubts were soon forgotten when I became distracted by the girl who was sitting at the table behind us.  She had more than a hint of mischief in her character and seemed to revel in being contrary.  She refused to believe that I was out celebrating my birthday, though my ability to perform a squat seemed to convince the contrarian of my worth, and we followed her onto the next bar.

The View is not my regular scene, on account of its predominantly young clientele and the dance music they tend to play.  The curtains were drawn across the large windows, meaning that the bar which probably has the best view in town had no view.  After some time the Arsenal supporting barman from Aulay’s arrived, and he handed me a shot of Sambuca.  Even a faint whiff of the anise-flavoured liqueur is enough to turn my stomach queasy after too many a night in my early twenties spent downing the flaming spirit, and I should have had more than the measure of reluctance I felt when given the drink.  The wisdom and experience I’ve gained over my thirty-five years should have been enough to warn me about what would happen if I took the shot, but I ignored all of that and accepted the token of celebration.  Within moments of throwing the Sambuca down my throat, I was striding towards the bathroom with a purpose I hadn’t displayed in years.  I swung the cubicle door open and was instantly Linda Blairing all over the toilet, my right arm clutching my purple Paisley pattern tie to my chest as I desperately tried to protect it.  I continued to retch and heave, and in that bleak moment, I was finally returned to my youth, as I remembered how it felt to be a fifteen-year-old boy in the Magic Kingdom.