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.

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