The night I was told I smell like old books

It was the twenty-first of November – I knew this because it was Wednesday, and it always rains on the day the blue recycling bins are emptied.  The morning was remarkable only for the way it was like every other morning: I woke up as a single in a double bed, trimmed my stubble to a fine 1.0mm, showered, stood bare-chested in the kitchen as I ironed a shirt which was the colour of a custard cream, ate a handful of blueberries and drank two small glasses of orange juice; because I like to get my vitamins and my bright colours early in the day.

Fully dressed and ready for work, I was approaching the door of my flat when something struck me as being peculiar and out of the ordinary.  In the close, snuggled in against the bottom of the stairs, was a baby’s buggy – or, at least, a buggy which belonged to the parents of a baby.  Its transparent plastic hood had amassed a collection of pearly raindrops, and on the thin layer of fabric at the back of the seat were three polar bears of varying size, coloured white, black and minty blue.  The bears looked friendly and happy, as though they knew that their only purpose in life was to look at the back of this baby’s head, and they were doing a good job. Cradled between the purple handlebars was a pink blanket which looked like it would provide great comfort and warmth.  The blanket had little pink tassels that dangled loosely along the ends, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would look against my navy blue suit.

I was standing in the cold concrete surroundings of the close, the only light provided by a streak of winter daylight which was shining through the glass pane on the back door, illuminating this baby’s buggy which had become the object of my curiosity.  Nobody in my block of flats has any children, as far as I am aware, and the youngest living being is a one-year-old golden retriever who lives with her owners on the second floor, and I was feeling certain that she could be taken on walks without the aid of a pushchair.  I couldn’t imagine where the buggy had come from or why it was sitting outside my flat, especially when Christmas was more than four weeks away.

As the week developed, there was an increasingly cold wind which was ripping in from the sea, the kind that rattles in your bones and leaves a person feeling like they need to pee.  On my nightly walks along the Esplanade, I was finding that my hands were making for the pockets of my coat regularly, in search of warmth and in an effort to assure myself that I was still in command of my functions.  In Aulay’s, as I was entering into a debate with a bald-headed man about the percentage of a pint of lager which should be head, a pair of women who were wearing wooly hats were ordering a measure of whisky each, and at that moment they were maybe the warmest people I have ever laid eyes on.

Downtown in the Oban Inn, a woman who was some years beyond middle age – if it is assumed that she won’t live to be a hundred – was dancing by the side of the bar with great enthusiasm.  She informed us that her father had recently died and that all she wanted to do was dance.  Over the shoulder of the middle-aged dancer, the one man bar band was preparing to resume his set, and as he sat on a chair alongside his pale electric guitar he was looking like a drawing a young child would produce if it had been asked to sketch the saddest man in the world.  His eyes were dropping like shaded pencil outlines, and his mouth could have been a golf umbrella.

A short while later, in a bar along the bracing seafront, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was claiming to have cut my hair when I was little more than a small boy.  I didn’t remember her face, but she seemed trustworthy and I decided that I would believe her.  After all, I thought to myself, who would it really benefit to invent such a story?  The hairdresser was beginning to embellish me with further details when I could just about see the cartoon thought bubble appear above her head.  “I always knew he would struggle to keep his hair,” it read.

In a booth close to the door, my brother and I were talking to a couple of young women who we had met whilst stood at the bar.  The girl sitting closest to me had canary blonde hair that rested upon the top of her head, which was the size of a boulder.  Her facial features looked like they had been carved out of stone, the sort an archaeologist would spend an age studying.  She was a close talker who liked to speak almost directly into the eardrum.  Each time she leaned in to say something, her hair would wave across my cheek and I was picking up a distinctive scent which I couldn’t quite place.  I speculated that it might be vanilla, and suggested this to the girl who had a face like a rock, thinking that vanilla is an inoffensive fragrance.  She didn’t dispute my sense of smell, and once again leaned into my ear.

“You smell like old books.”

I have never been told that I have the aura of antique literature, and being that it was something I am not used to hearing, I misheard the words she originally used.  I don’t know why the question that I next asked occurred to me, but it was the only response that I could think of.

“The kind of old boots that someone might have died wearing?”

The girl’s stony features had the look of confusion you might usually see on someone who has happened upon a single slipper by the side of a busy road.  Her hair brushed my face once more, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about, before repeating that I smell like old books and that she found it comforting.

With it cleared up that I have the fragrance of words which go to the soul, rather than leather which goes to the sole, the archaeologist’s dream asked me if I had ever considered how sexy it would be for two people who work together in a library to hook up after a time.  I told her that I had not spent any time contemplating that particular scenario, though in my mind I was thinking how I would find it sexy to get with another person in just about any situation.

She sat closer to me as she started to elaborate on the fantasy she had in mind.  She asked me to picture how it would be to work as a librarian, and I told her that I had no trouble conjuring the image of finding a way to make girls stop talking.  In her workplace ballad, the two participants would have been working in the same library for years but rarely crossed paths, which seemed terribly unlikely to me, but I didn’t want to tread on her artistic license.  One day, she said, they would be returning books to the same section of the library, and their hands would touch as they were placing the books back on the shelf.  She illustrated this by touching my hand as she spoke.  I could tell that she was finding the idea of the saga quite stimulating, and I should probably have taken the role play more seriously.

“Which section of the library were they in?”  I asked.

“Why does it matter?”

“I like to paint a picture.”

“Oh, alright.  Non-fiction, I suppose.”

“So there was friction in the non-fiction?”

The girl with canary blonde hair took her hand from mine and suggested that I should get another drink.  Whilst at the bar I encountered a couple of friends, and once they left I found myself standing next to the fresh-faced homosexual.  As a gesture of good will, and a display of there being no hard feelings, I offered to buy him a drink.  The entire process of getting a round of drinks for our table took around ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I returned the two girls had moved elsewhere.  The fresh-faced homosexual joined me, and I reminded him of our initial encounter a few weeks previous.  He laughed and denied that he had ‘cock blocked’ me, though in an absurd twist of fate he had unwittingly contributed to my failure on this occasion, too.   Instead of learning what happens after hands touch in the non-fiction section of the library, the fresh-faced homosexual and I were talking until closing time about his time as a trainee chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, and about the planet Mars.

In the small hours of the morning, I returned to my flat to find the baby’s buggy still sitting in the close.  I was beginning to feel like it was haunting me, as though someone had left it there as a cruel play on the Christmas story.  Instead of a baby being bestowed upon a virginal woman, an empty buggy had been presented to a single man who can’t be very far away from regaining his virginity.  It was either that, or I had new neighbours.

 

The night I wore a tie which matched the colour of my plaster

I cut the middle finger of my right hand on a can of tuna chunks in brine – sliced it right open on the raised lid – and there was so much blood spilling from the wound that I was wondering how this whole thing could possibly be considered as being sustainably sourced.  For a moment I was frozen to the spot, questioning how it was that a 35-year-old man could cut open his finger on a can of tuna, but as crimson dripped onto the clean kitchen counter I knew that I had to take immediate action. Life is difficult enough as it is without becoming known as the man who lost a digit to a tin of fish.

As I stood over the kitchen sink with my hand held under the taps, bloodied water splashing everywhere against the stainless steel, as though I had come to the sudden realisation that nobody really likes cranberry juice unless it is used as a mixer, I was feeling myself become light headed and a sharp pain was shooting through my finger.  It seemed like it was going to take an eternity for the blood to clear away, so long that I might never get around to finishing the construction of my tuna salad for the following day’s lunch. Then I remembered that I am a trained first aider, and that running an injury underneath a cold tap might be how one would deal with a minor burn as opposed to a small laceration inflicted by a tuna can.

I raced through to the bathroom, cradling my wounded finger in the palm of my left hand in the way that I might if I had come across a stricken robin.  Blood was pooling around the bird as I stood outside the bathroom cursing my obsessive need to keep every door in the flat closed. A mess was going to be made either way.  Once inside, I wrapped the victim in a fluffy blue bath towel and applied as much pressure as I could manage, until I could feel it twitching and throbbing. I couldn’t be sure whether it is a wound or a fracture which should be kept elevated, so I held my right arm high upright and the left one to my heart, and after several minutes had passed, the blood had trickled to a stop.  As I was fumbling, one-handed, with an unopened box of plasters, I observed all of the blood spread around the porcelain of the bathroom sink, on the chrome taps and the hand wash dispenser, and I was beginning to reconsider my position on blood spatter evidence in the Netflix series Making A Murderer.  

The incident with the tuna can led me to reflect on recent events and consider where things had begun to go wrong in my life.  It wasn’t as though I had been plunged into a deep despair when the sharp aluminium from the tin was plunged into my middle finger, but something didn’t seem right about a man whose greatest joy in months was when his cactus plant produced a pair of pink petals.

I was sitting on the same chair in my living room which, days earlier, I had awoken in at seven-thirty in the morning with little recollection of the previous night.  Staring at the beige Elastoplast which was crudely dressing my finger like an ill-fitting jumper, I played through a highlight reel of memories which were laced with misfortune in search of an answer.  There was the moment during the redheaded rugby players leaving night where tequilas were offered – and subsequently drank quicker than the time it takes to say ‘yes’ – that I kept returning to, like it had been bookmarked in my brain with a yellow sticky note reading:  “this is where things were fucked up.”

My cheeks were blushing pink with the mixture of Tequila and Jameson, similar to the shade of the tie I was wearing.  The potent pairing had worked its way through my entire body, from hazy head to dancing feet, and it wasn’t long before I was overwhelmed and everything became a blur.  By the end of the night, I was in my flat with my favourite delicatessen delight, making another calamitous attempt at convincing her that it would be a good idea to date me.  When I woke up in my chair the next morning, I was feeling like less than the sum of a six-inch sub.

As the days progressed, I was finding myself in the grip of a slow drying sock saga.  Since I became what Argyll & Bute council describes as a single occupant in January, I have typically done my laundry between one and three times a week – ie twice – and regardless of the climate outside, I will dry my clothes on an airer which sits in the centre of my kitchen.  Over the months it has become increasingly evident that there is a disparity in the time it takes different items of clothing to dry, and every time I run a wash I know that I am going to be plagued by the frustration of waiting days for four pairs of socks to dry.  It is a vicious cycle.

Irrespective of colour or whether they are plain or patterned, dress shirts tend to dry in around a day.  Jeans, towels and other large items are usually ready to be stored away in under thirty-six hours.  But the socks, by far the smallest things in the load, take much longer than anything else to become fully dried.

For months I have been questioning the physics of socks and why it takes them such a time to dry compared with the rest of my laundry, which is hanging in exactly the same conditions.  I haven’t been bold enough to try it yet, but there are occasions where I have considered changing the positions afforded to each article on the airer, as an experiment to see whether being closer to the ground makes it more difficult to recover from the wash.  I’ve been feeling reluctant to do this, however, due to the fact that my underwear occupies the bottom rungs of the clothes airer, and moving them to the top would raise the danger that anyone who is unsuspectingly passing the kitchen window could catch sight of my pink socks and boxer shorts.  I’m just not sure that I am ready for someone who I am not in a romantic relationship with to see my underwear, and I don’t want to make things awkward with my neighbours.

Bedsheets need the entire airer to themselves, and during the week I undertook the task of changing my sheets.  Washing and drying them is not problematic, but putting a fresh layer of linen on my bed proved troublesome on this occasion.  I struggled to feed the double duvet into its white cover, its size and unwilling floppiness making matters more difficult than they should have been.  I have heard people speak about leading a horse to water and the difficulty of convincing it to drink, and I quickly realised that similarly, you can lay a duvet on the bed, but you can’t make it go inside a duvet cover.

After what seemed like at least seven minutes of wrestling with the duvet, I was feeling defeated by the cotton and began to consider how much it would really matter if I slept without a cover on the duvet.  No-one is likely to see it and judge me any differently because of it, I was thinking to myself.  The absence of a duvet cover on my bed isn’t going to be the reason another woman doesn’t want to sleep with me.

I asked myself who I was making the bed for.  It is the sort of activity I can imagine a couple doing together at the end of the day, laughing at one another’s incompetence – just like sex.  Then they would fall onto their perfectly made bed and make love, whereas I am a man who is doing everything by himself, and my bed is like an exhibit in a museum; something that was once useful years ago.  Next to the display would be a handwritten sign which requests:  “Please do not touch on the exhibit.”

The duvet was eventually stuffed into the cover, and the day after I sliced my finger on the can of tuna I went to Aulay’s, where the band of beards was joined by a friend of the plant doctor’s.  We enjoyed several beers over discussions about literature, the question of which album we would choose if we were forced to listen to a record a thousand times consecutively, and hip hop, although it seemed as though we had the hops without the hip.

Soon our group was joined by a wavy-haired woman with an Italian accent, and I asked her more questions about worms than I ever knew I had.  I enquired about what they eat and whether or not they have their own personalities, and after an extensive conversation regarding worms, I realised that the reason I was asking so much about her work was to challenge myself to understand the Italian accent.  After some time, the subjects ranged from worms to Francesco Totti and the Mafia, and I felt that I probably had a better grasp of her Italian timbre than she had of my slurred Scots.

By the jukebox, I observed two young women scrolling through the selection of music on offer.  Their first three picks were quite inoffensive choices for the moment, though they then somehow proceeded to mistakenly play ‘Something’ by The Beatles four times in a row.  I opened up my wallet and found two pound coins amongst the loose change.  With the coins clenched in my closed hand, I approached the music machine, imagining myself as some kind of jukebox Romeo.  I made light of their Beatles blunder as I slotted the gold into the machine in a fumbling manner which probably didn’t look as seductive as I was hoping.  We were talking briefly as the girls made further song choices, and they left two in the machine for me and promised to stick around the bar until they played.  By the time their songs had finished, they had left their table, and my own Beatles song went unheard.

The town’s fortnight-long Winter Festival was underway, and on a blue and chilly Saturday, the Christmas lights were switched on.  In a continuation of a tradition we started the previous year, my sister and I decided that we would drink some mulled wine before heading out into the cold darkness.  While she and her partner took their daughter to see Santa, I prepared for the first pre-midnight gathering in my flat.  There was incense burning in the living room whilst mince pies and sausage rolls cooked in the oven and a pot of mulled wine was warming on the stove.  I set plates on the coffee table and was feeling pleased with my efforts when it occurred to me that I didn’t have any classical means of pouring the wine.  I don’t own a ladel, or even a serving jug, and eventually, I had to resort to transferring the wine from the pot to a measuring jug in order to pour it into the mugs.

My guests arrived, and upon inspecting the pot of mulled wine, my sister queried why I had dropped a large, unpeeled orange in the wine rather than peel it and allow the flavour of the fruit to imbue the drink.  I knew better for the second serving, but I was again asking myself where things had gone wrong in my life.  With a wound across my middle finger, slow drying socks, a crudely made exhibit of a bed and a whole orange sitting in my pot of mulled wine, I wondered if this is really the life a 35-year-old man should be living.  I thought back to a line I had used in conversation on Friday night, and it seemed to be true that I am not getting older, it’s just getting harder to live.

The night I fell asleep wearing a brown tweed suit

The night I fell asleep wearing a brown tweed suit

When I returned home from Perth on Sunday night, I found that two pink flower buds had sprouted from the cactus plant on my mantle place, beaming like pimples on the end of a nose.  I was surprised by the discovery because I didn’t know that my plant was capable of producing beauty.  In the days previous I had been feeling a lot like the Roy Orbison bridge in the Traveling Wilburys song “Handle With Care”, and until the following morning, when I awoke with fresh and sober eyes, I couldn’t be sure that the flowers weren’t a drunken creation of my imagination’s desire for company.   

The pink buds were still present on Monday, and although I felt happy to see them, I was questioning why they were there.  I hadn’t watered the plant in months, believing that the cactus enjoys the drought a relationship with me brings, yet it was still capable of producing new life.  My instincts were telling me to pour a little water into the soil, to help nurture whatever was happening amongst the leaves, but I worried that showing affection now might cause more harm than good, as is the case any time I try and approach a woman in public spaces, and I decided to continue to neglect the plant.

The arrival of new life wasn’t the only recent transformation in the living conditions in my flat.  The change in climate, and the early onset of winter weather, has brought with it a realisation of how cold my small living space can become.  Seemingly any heat which is generated is drawn upwards to the high Victorian ceilings, like a snow globe turned on its head and left there, helpless.  Each night when I return home after work, there is a quiet voice within me which wonders whether I am going to open the door to the living room and find a polar bear sprawled across the brown leather sofa, giving the impression of a fluffy throw.  I’m quite sure that nobody wants to encounter a polar bear in their property – particularly in Scotland, where the arctic animal would presumably have undertaken a long journey to travel to and may be in a tetchy mood – yet I can’t help but feel that I would at least welcome the warmth generated by snuggling up to a polar bear when getting my nightly Netflix fill, and if nothing else, it would be something to talk to.

In search of company and warmth, and as a means of avoiding any potential Halloween guisers, I went to Aulay’s to watch the football on Wednesday.  The night was shaping up to be a rather uneventful one: the bar was mostly empty, Celtic were winning 4-0 before it was even half-time, and it turns out that, unlike small children going out dressed as skeletons, nobody gives you a free beer as a ‘treat’ for matching your black tie to your socks.  

After a while, a drunk man was refused service in the adjoining public bar, an occurrence which is not unusual in a pub. Several minutes later, there was an exclamation from one of the scatterings of men in the lounge bar that someone was urinating against the outside of the door.  When someone in the pub is so animated about a going on it is difficult to avoid turning around to see for yourself, and sure enough, the man was accurate with his description of events.  As soon as I swiveled on my barstool, my eyes met the penis which was grasped in the drunk’s hand, its appearance disfigured by the blurred effect of the stained glass.  Clouds of steam were visible around the cascading pee, making the gland appear as though it were a zombified tortoise emerging from a misty darkness in a scene from a horror movie.

None of us present in the bar thought to go out and confront the drunken urinator, presumably because it was so cold, and there was the consideration in the back of my mind that if this is how he would treat a perfectly acceptable piece of stained glass, what would he do to anyone who dared to question his actions?  I turned my attention back to the football, although it was a struggle to concentrate and my thoughts were distracted.  I was appalled by what I had just witnessed, yet there was a part of me which couldn’t help but feel a faint admiration for the guy outside.  The autumn had been a cold one, and the temperature was continuing to drop, so for a man to be exposing his penis to such elements when throughout the week I had been feeling nervous about walking around town without wearing gloves seemed like a brave thing to be doing.

By five o’clock on Friday evening, the clouds above the bay were the shade of a slice of bread which has been left in the toaster for a minute too long, like they had been most other nights through the week, and when it came time for me to go out some hours later, they were releasing drops of rain the size of monkey nuts which had been broken from their shell, and they soaked my brown tweed suit.  The bars were mostly quiet, as they had been since the end of the summer.  Upstairs in the Oban Inn, George Noble was playing disco music to as much enthusiasm as there were people.  It was the saddest Halloween party anyone had seen, and I was feeling uncomfortable watching it all.  We decided to leave for Markie Dans, the walk along the seafront adding several more splashes to my teal shirt. When I arrived, I had received a text message from the moonlighting banker, the upshot of which was that at least one more person was drinking in the bars that night.

It had been a while since I was last drinking with the banker who is occasionally seen on the other side of the bar.  We ended the night in The Lorne, which is often the way these meetings go.  With a glass of Jack Daniels in my hand, I was approached by a girl whose hair was bleached blonde, giving her the stature of a lighthouse at sea on a stormy night.  Her lips were painted a rambunctious red, the colour of a traffic light, but all they were saying was “go”.

The girl with the bright red lips was making her intentions obvious, even to someone like me, whose understanding of female body language is as fluent as my understanding of Mandarin.  She was standing unnecessarily close to me and spoke as much with her hands as she did her mouth.  At one moment she breathlessly confided in me that she likes a man who wears a suit, and it was all I could do to respond that I am a man who knows how to wear a suit.  In spite of my senseless way of communicating, she continued talking to me, and it was becoming clear that this was a situation even my words couldn’t spoil.  I was beginning to imagine where I might take her on our first date:  what I would order to eat and the outfit I would wear.  Ordinarily, it probably wouldn’t seem appropriate to wear a suit on a first date, but if it’s what attracted her to me then how could I not?

The bar lights flickered back to life, and suddenly the room was as bright as her bleached blonde hair.  Closing time was nearing, though it felt that the night was only opening up its possibilities, like a pink flower bud on the end of a cactus.  Who knows how it got there, but it was exciting.

From a crowd of people soon emerged a baby-faced homosexual who turned out to be a long lost friend of the girl with the bright red lipstick.  They reacquainted themselves, and I waited patiently for their reunion to be concluded with the promise of a phone call or a cup of coffee. After an agonising passage of time, the young woman and I left the bar and returned to my flat for some drinks, along with the friend she had come out with, the moonlighting banker and the baby-faced homosexual.  We all gathered in the kitchen with our drink of choice, with the exception of the two long lost friends, who sat down for a heart to heart in my bedroom, on the end of the bed I had been hoping for a crotch to crotch on.

It was some time around five o’clock on Saturday morning when everyone started to leave my flat.  The absentee gay friend left in a taxi first, but by then it was too late.  The others left a short while later when the friend of the girl with the bleached blonde hair had passed out on the kitchen floor and was unresponsive to her name being called out in a loud, drunken fashion.  There was a measure of concern about her wellbeing and talk of phoning for an ambulance.  As I held my phone in the palm of my hand, scenes from the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction played in my head.  Within these scenes I was trying to get my story straight, thinking about how I would explain to the medical crew that my measures of vodka were almost within reason and that as far as I knew the tube of Pringles didn’t contain any opiates.

I was about to dial for help when the girl whose name I had only learned in the midst of panic moments earlier came to, and she was able to leave with the assistance of her friends.  The relief I was feeling was tempered by the confusion over how there were six glasses in various stages of emptiness for five people.  No fewer than seven bottles of Budweiser sat along the kitchen counter, none of them finished, and broken Pringles were strewn throughout the flooring of my flat, as though someone had left a trail to remind them of how to get out.  I shuffled through to my bedroom, defeated by the night, and fell asleep on top of my bed in my brown tweed suit, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely.