The day I had a cold (aka The Gaslight Anthem playing ‘The ’59 Sound’ tenth-anniversary tour @ Barrowlands Ballroom, Glasgow)

I embarked upon the 12.11 ScotRail service to Glasgow and located my table seat close to the toilet, where I unloaded all of my travel essentials from my backpack onto the  green surface of the table which resembled a regurgitated avocado:  an A5 lined notebook, a black pen, two bacon rolls, three sachets of Nottingham’s finest export, four cans of Budweiser, a small flask with a finger of Jack Daniels, a pocket packet of tissues and a silver film of Paracetamol.

Despite having recently added an intake of effervescent multivitamins to my morning routine and having also eaten a third of a punnet of blueberries, a banana and two easy peeler oranges which had taken no fewer than five attempts to peel, I had been hit with my first cold since December 2017, and it happened on the day The Gaslight Anthem were performing the tenth anniversary tour of their ‘59 Sound album at the Barrowlands.

I folded myself into my seat and watched Oban slide slowly into the distance when another sneeze erupted from my nostrils, which by that point had taken on the distinct shade of a wind-battered rose.  I cursed my immune system and wondered if this was the sort of thing Alanis Morissette was alluding to.  A heavy sigh and a cough left my mouth at roughly the same time and I reached for the Paracetamol and drowned two of the tablets in a mouthful of whisky, unsure if I was trying to numb the nuisance of the cold symptoms or of everyday life.

By the time the train had wheezed into the village of Dalmally, I had downed most of the first can of Budweiser and my nose was streaming more quickly than an addictive Netflix series.  The alcohol had soaked into my system and I was feeling extremely drowsy and miserable.  Steal My Sunshine by Len played from my Spotify playlist, and even though the elderly woman sitting opposite me had spent much of the journey complaining of a cataract in each eye which meant that she was barely able to read her copy of the Daily Express, even with a magnifying glass which was larger than my hand, she could probably see that I wasn’t capable of finding the energy to drum along on my thigh.

I managed to stay awake all the way to Glasgow Queen Street, and when I checked into my room on the fifth floor of the Travelodge the first thing I did was to take another dosage of Paracetamol using the small, flimsy plastic cup they provide guests with, presumably for such emergencies.  Soon I was forced to confront the dilemma which seems to vex me more than most other issues:  whether or not I should wear my denim jacket out to go to the gig.  It wasn’t feeling especially balmy outdoors considering it was the middle of July, and my failing immune system seemed capable of convincing even the most ardent horologist that it was November.  However, in the back of my mind was the memory of many hot and sweaty nights seeing The Gaslight Anthem, and I decided that I would be better off leaving the jacket behind.

I pushed all of the most valuable possessions in my life into each of the four pockets of my black jeans:  a mobile phone with its ability to play music, a pair of earphones to listen to the music, a wallet which was thick with silver coins and as many tissues as a person can reasonably carry.  The weight pushed my jeans – which were already sitting quite loosely – down past the waistband of my boxer shorts, and I worried that it might look to others as though I was making some vain attempt at a youthful statement of fashion, even though it was clear that I simply don’t have the buttocks for such a thing.

At The Raven, where I would enjoy a pint of Caesar Augustus, I was beaten to the bar by a short red-haired girl who proceeded to tell the barmaid in a softly whimsical tone that I should be served first.  This friendly act didn’t sit well with me, and when the barmaid floated across the floor to my side of the bar I insisted that the short red-haired girl had arrived before me and should be served instead.  The barmaid returned to where she had once been standing and thanked both of us for our honesty as she poured a schooner of ruby coloured ale for the diminutive redhead.  I made some stupid remark which drew laughter from both of the ladies, all the while my internal narrator was telling me that despite making a chivalrous gesture and doing the socially correct thing of ensuring that the person who was first in line was served their drink before me, I was actually a dick because the short red-haired girl had made the move first.

After drinking my ill-gotten pint of hybrid lager and IPA, I strolled down the Gallowgate to Saint Luke’s, which is a relatively new bar that has been restored from an old church, although people still go there seeking salvation and hiding from the problems of real-life with the assistance of a spirit.

I met with the girl with candyfloss pink hair and her friend who had the most bold and brilliant pink hair which looked almost like an explosion of raspberries.  I felt a little out of place with my boring and balding salt and pepper hair which was slicked over to the side, but we engaged in a round system anyway and I ordered a Tennents and a Jameson in an effort to give my cold a good kicking before the Gaslight Anthem show.

Most of the tables in the bar had been reserved by smart people who had planned ahead for the occasion, leaving the only seating available at tables which were so high that a compass was needed to reach the summit.  The Irish whiskey worked in drying out my nose and all of a sudden the pocketful of tissues that I was carrying had become redundant.  We ordered a round of Jägerbombs, having decided at six o’clock that eating any kind of food would be futile, and the shot glasses were placed carefully inside a glass with an exceptionally wide rim which made it almost impossible to down both the Jägermeister and the Red Bull without a good quantity of the drink spilling onto my shirt.

In Bar 67, a pub I had never visited despite being a frequent attendee at Celtic Park over the previous two years, the Jägerbombs were served in regular glasses which made it easier to drink the entire quantity of alcohol as well as energy drink.  My drowsiness was disappearing to an extent where I was once again beginning to feel human, if not dancer.  An older gentleman arrived carrying a small bundle of magazines which he quickly tried to convince us would be a good idea to buy.  His sales pitch involved an explanation of how the magazine he was selling raises money for the homeless and is a contemporary adult competitor of The Big Issue.  He continued, insisting that he had received complaints that some of the content of the magazine was misogynistic and anti-Semitic, but that he didn’t know what either of those terms meant.  I couldn’t decide whether he was pushing was some kind of elaborate scheme or if he was being genuine.

As we were entering the Barrowlands Ballroom, which is directly across the road from Bar 67 and was the venue of the first gig I ever attended in November of 2003, I could feel myself becoming anxious as it became clear that I was going to be subjected to a pat down.  I felt concerned that I would be forced to explain the excessive quantity of tissues in the front left pocket of my jeans and why a thirty-four-year-old man was wearing jeans below the waistband of his boxer shorts anyway.  The girl with the candyfloss pink hair handed me my ticket and I watched as the man in front of me was fondled around the pocket area without any issue and I knew that I would be next.  I strode forward towards the man in the high visibility jacket with a Jägermeister confidence which I hoped would mask the fear I had over the pocket which was bulging conspicuously with tissue paper.  The man’s hands danced over my body and I could only hope that he was finding the entire experience as awkward as I was.  He didn’t pass comment on the tissues and we were all free to enjoy the night ahead.

We ordered a round of doubles between the end of Dave Hause’s supporting set and the beginning of The Gaslight Anthem’s in the hope that they would last, but my Jack Daniels was finished by the time the lights went down at around 9.15pm.  There are not many feelings more euphoric than those few moments after the room goes dark and you know that your favourite band is about to come on stage.  The Gaslight Anthem began with a blistering version of Handwritten, and it wasn’t very long into the opening song of the set when my glasses were sent flying from my face somewhere into the blurry distance in front of me.

I could hardly see a thing and I was utterly panic-stricken.  I had no idea how I was going to find my glasses amongst the mass of people who were standing around six or seven rows deep in front of us.  How would I enjoy the rest of the gig when I couldn’t even see my own pink nose, let alone the band I had been waiting years to see again?  How would I find my way back to my hotel, or even be able to get a new pair of glasses in the morning?  It was the worst thing that could have happened to me.

I nudged the person who was standing next to me to alert them to the fact that I had lost my glasses, but I didn’t know what I was expecting a complete stranger shrouded in darkness to do about it.  Could she get the band to stop playing rock and roll songs and have the house lights turned up so that everyone could look around their feet for my stray spectacles?  I conceded that she couldn’t, and that even if I could see the stewards they would likely be too far away for me to attract their attention, so I squatted onto the sticky floor of the Barrowlands and desperately fished my hand through rivers of beer and amongst a dark forest of legs and crushed plastic cups.  Somehow, miraculously, I was able to put my fingers on the extended leg of my glasses and I retrieved them, unscathed, from the floor. It might have been the best feeling I have ever felt.

The ‘59 Sound is a joyous portrait of youthful exuberance, of heartache, of wild summer adventure and of hope and glory and love and everything else, and this gig was too.  I found myself frequently locking arms with bouncing sweaty strangers, my own blue and black flannel shirt clinging to my hot body like foil around a jacket potato, and my black jeans melted to my flesh. My hair was drenched – utterly soaked – with sweat, as though I had just walked out of the shower and decided not to use a towel because the wet look is in vogue.  It was a cathartic release and I sang myself hoarse.

Nice n’ Sleazy’s seemed like a very long way from the Barrowlands when the gig finished at sometime around eleven o’clock, but it is one of my favourite bars in the city and they had been promising the best offering of music after the Gaslight Anthem performance.  I weaved my way through the maze of the city centre, with all of the demolition work which had been going on around Sauchiehall Street meaning that much of it was closed off and alternative routes had to be taken.  I had my music for company and after some time I managed to find what I was looking for.  I stepped casually towards the doorway, where I was confronted by two large bouncers who had the appearance of men who had never known amusement.

“Are you alright?”  The least amused of the two men asked, and I was baffled by this sudden interest in my wellbeing from a total stranger.  I assured him that I was well, having forgotten all about the rogue cold which had befallen me earlier in the day.

“Where have you been tonight?”  He continued, his tone taking on an increasingly interrogatory nature.

“Just the Gaslight Anthem gig at the Barras,” I said excitedly, wondering if he was going to engage me in conversation about the finer points of punk rock.  Instead, he viewed me with suspicion, his demeanour becoming no more amused.

“Go easy in there tonight, pal,” he eventually relented as he opened the door and invited me to step inside the bar.

I ordered a Jack Daniels and coke and stood at the dim end of a quieter than expected bar, and it suddenly struck me that with all the Paracetamol I had taken earlier in the day and all of the beer and whisky and Jägermeister I had drunk over the course of the night and with my sweat-soaked head and disgusting shirt that maybe the bouncer had seen me as a figure of distress.  As I pondered this a young woman arrived next to me and she was holding a smartphone which was open on the Google Maps app.  She leaned across a pile of free magazines which were sitting on the bar between us and asked me if I knew how to find Mango.  I had never heard of the bar but could see from the flashing icons on her map that it was close to Nice n’ Sleazy’s.  I explained to her that with the various works going on around Sauchiehall Street it might be more difficult than normal to find Mango, at which point it occurred to me that I could make a really great pun about the difficulty of finding a good mango.  The words had barely left my mouth when the dislocated stranger left and rejoined her friend at their table.

I had one more Jack Daniels and coke before retiring to my bedroom on the fifth floor of the Travelodge hotel.  I undressed and sunk into the cotton sheets but was still so exceptionally warm that I soon kicked them away.  I woke up in the morning, dazed and hung over, and sneezed.  Not once or twice, but three or four times. I reached over to the bedside table for my glasses and affixed them to my face and nothing else really seemed to matter.

This post was first published on 25 July 2018. The original can be viewed by clicking here.

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The day there was snow chaos

The observations of the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were still percolating through my mind the morning after I had met them as I was standing in my cold kitchen trying to remember how much ground coffee the machine is supposed to take.  I was fumbling with the filter paper, trying to fold it into place, my fingers and thumbs existing only to hinder my progress as I attempted to fashion the shape needed to guide the flow of the liquid coffee. With the little beige paper finally in position, I poured three cupfulls of water into the tank and pushed the green button which told the coffee machine that I was hungover and in need of a kickstart.  

I went about poaching some eggs as the machine groaned into life.  Soon steam was coughing angrily from the vents on its body, and by the time I had presented the eggs, which had been poached perfectly to the point where the yolks would gush the way a girl laughs at any other man’s joke, on a couple of slices of toast, the coffee was ready to be served.  I excitedly released the jug from its cradle and directed its spout towards the waiting cup. A stream of water which resembled the colour of stale dishwater cascaded into the clean porcelain cup, and it soon occurred to me that I had forgotten to put ground coffee in the filter.

Hours earlier, the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were confiding in me their astonishment at the level of drug use they had seen in their few hours in Oban.  I was somewhat taken aback by their surprise, which was expressed mostly by the mild-mannered gentleman, given that they had arrived from Lanarkshire, though much of this talk was likely prompted by the karaoke renditions the three of us were bearing witness to in the Claredon.  I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought if only they could have seen me standing in my kitchen with my jug of dirty water.

In the evening, hours after I had reverted to the more traditional kettle for solace, I met with the plant doctor and the bird watcher prior to us all attending the Rockfield Community Centre’s monthly open mic event ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.  The Rockfield Centre is a former primary school building which was opened in 1877 and closed in 2007 and came to fall into a state of disrepair until the Oban Communities Trust took ownership of the building in 2015, transforming it into a creative and cultural centre for the town.  Each month people are invited to attend the laid back setting of ‘Let’s Make A Scene’, where acts are encouraged to perform music, poetry, spoken word and stand up comedy.

On this night there were around thirty people crammed into the small hut.  Rows of chairs were sitting around small tables which each had plates of crisps and grapes on offer for the hungry.  Alongside them, in the centre of each table, was a tealight candle, all of them combining to comprise the only lighting in the room.  It was an intimate environment which was reminiscent of how I imagined a Prohibition-era jazz club in New York City might look. I was standing at the back of the room with my two companions who could be a David Attenborough documentary.  It wasn’t clear if we had elected to position ourselves there in order to present ourselves as brooding hipster types, or because it was closest to the bottled beers.

A broad palette of local artists were displaying a great range of talents, from stirring string acoustic ballads to poetic verses and Islamic chanter music.  My attention wasn’t entirely focussed on the performances at the front of the room, however. Earlier in the night, it was jokingly suggested amongst our group that if there was a lull in proceedings I should stand before the room and read items from the small notebook I was carrying in my pocket.  The idea that anyone would want to listen to my journaled observations in such a cultured committee seemed preposterous to me, but as the night wore on my mind was continuing to play with the possibility. I could imagine myself ambling to the performance area at the front, pulling the black notebook from the inside pocket of my jacket in a dramatic fashion and sitting a bottle of Jameson on the table before me.  I would pour myself a glass of whiskey and begin to read passages from the book. Meanwhile, in my mind’s eye, I could see the plant doctor, or some other acquaintance, playing the panpipes or the triangle in the corner of the room to bring an absurdist twist to the reading. The more I was thinking about it, the more I was considering that it would be quite a scene for a future ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.

It was early in the week when the snow which had been threatening to fall the previous Friday finally arrived, when following the break of dawn there was a break in the resistance of the clouds.  By the time I was leaving my flat for work, the pavements were covered with a dusting of white and resembled my kitchen counter the one time I tried home baking.  There didn’t appear to have been a significant fall of snow, and much of the streets were already forming a dull slush which was the shade of a jug of water which had been filtered through a coffee machine without the addition of ground coffee.  The rush hour traffic travelling outbound from town was at a standstill, and later the region’s newspaper of record, The Oban Times, reported that Oban was gripped by snow chaos.

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 1.46.44 pm
The front page of this weeks Oban Times

The tumultuous Tuesday morning storm caused commuters all over town to be up to half an hour late for work, with extreme cases forcing people to clock in after ten o’clock.  Some larger vehicles became trapped down rural roads, while fears of icy stretches on some routes caused the popular Soroba-to-Dunollie bus service to terminate on the Esplanade, leaving the public transport using residents of Dunollie cut off from the rest civilisation, and even the local Tesco supermarket, until the afternoon.

Amidst the scenes of a white winter horror, I learned that my black shoes have as stubborn a resistance to wet, slushy pavements as many of my houseplants have had to death.  More specifically, I discovered that while the left shoe of the pair performs all of the functions one would expect from a leather shoe, the right had been acting as though it was under the impression that it is a sieve and had allowed the yellow sock I was wearing on that foot to become sodden.  I was feeling bitter about this revelation, the sort of bitterness which a soggy cotton sock holds onto all day long.  What is it that suddenly causes a shoe to decide to go rogue?

Although there was no further snowfall during the week, the chaos continued when the plunging temperature caused the slushy pavements to become iced over in a recreation of the scene in Arendelle.  I had embarked on my morning perambulate to the office on Thursday, wrapped up warmly and wearing more appropriate footwear, when by the time I had reached the clock tower at station square the trek was already looking treacherous and laden with the potential for a slip-up, like when I am approaching a girl at the bar.

I was feeling uneasy on my footing, and shortly into my journey, I was forced into adjusting my steps to reflect those of a small child who is just learning how to walk.  As I was travelling nervously beyond the bus shelter, a group of three or four schoolchildren were striding sternly, strongly and confidently across the icy pavements to catch the school bus.  They were literally walking on water, and as I was struggling to negotiate the ice with my baby steps, I could feel the tiny eyes of the children glaring at me with a look of mockery.

Beyond the young schoolchildren, I could see an elderly gentleman who was sitting prone on the edge of the pavement beside his car.  He had propped himself up with his elbow, surrounded by a couple of loud neon suitcases and an elderly woman, presumably his wife, who was looking at the stricken man with sympathy and concern.  The woes of the stranger were doing nothing for my state of anxiety, and I was thinking to myself how easy it is to shoulder emotional hurt without anybody else seeing that something isn’t right, but a broken arm would draw a lot more attention.  I couldn’t imagine an outcome where I would find a sling that would compliment the colour of any of my ties, so I conceded that my morning walk by the sea wouldn’t be worth the risk.

My inability to walk only added to the pervading sense of hopelessness I had recently been encountering.  At times I had the feeling of a storm brewing behind my eyes, and although it didn’t bring chaos or dampen the sock on my right foot, it was something I could have done without.  I decided that the only way of dealing with such things would be to get back into a routine of doing yoga twice a day, so I dusted down the black mat I hadn’t stretched on in around eight months and tried to motivate myself out of the permanent struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  Once I had finally arisen, I rolled the yoga mat out across the wooden flooring of my living room and inhaled.

I was feeling pleased with my effort as I was manipulating my muscles and limbs into various shapes, per the workout I was following, though as I worked myself into a downward dog and came face to face with a sad speck of dust and a lone strand of artificial pine from the Christmas tree I had removed three weeks earlier, I was finding it difficult to focus on yoga.  As I formed a cobra on the mat I could hear the sound of a bus sloshing through slushy snow outside my window, and it was all I could do to think about my shoes.  I supposed that I would try again the next morning.

Wah-Wahnuary: My soundtrack to the month of January (a Spotify playlist)

The night I went solo

By the end of the week, the mild winter had been withered by a cold front which was sweeping through from the east.  On Friday morning, the pale sky was threatening to cough up a flurry of snow, though in the end it only amounted to a brief scattering of flakes, as though someone was furiously agitating a near-empty salt shaker over a plate of steaming chips.  As I was walking home from work in the early evening, a bitter breeze was wheezing in off the restless sea. It was the sort of wind which wasn’t respecting the boundaries of clothing, eating its way through my thick black overcoat and everything below it.

The preceding days had brought with them a sense of loneliness and an anxious feeling which was creeping through me in the same manner the icy wind had found its way past my woolen scarf.  In an effort to fill the void in my life with some kind of meaningful activity, I decided to reorganise the items which were pinned to the two corkboards residing on the walls of my kitchen. I dumped written reminders from May 2018 to check the process of changing to a billed electricity meter and a vegetable-heavy shopping list which kept me fed for a week in late November.  

With space freed up on the boards, I thought it would be a good idea to record words I hadn’t understood in books or articles I had read, or songs I had heard, and research their meaning to allow me to introduce them into my everyday vocabulary.  After three days I had noted twelve words, and I was beginning to question my methods, which were in danger of making me appear illiterate. I was studying my cards each night, with every addition leading me to think about how I was going to use my newly learned words,  It was proving more difficult than I initially thought it would be, and as the days moved on without me using any of the twelve words I had investigated through the week, I came to realise that with the type of lifestyle I live, there is never a situation that is practical for imprecation.

By the time I had defrosted after my walk home from work, it was becoming clear that my weekly visit to Aulay’s was going to resemble my love life and be a solo endeavour.  In the doorway of the lounge bar, a group of smokers had assembled, huddled beneath the edge of the building as they sought to enjoy their cigarettes shielded from the snarling face of the winter wind.  I walked through their clouds of smoke and entered the tavern in a more spectacular fashion than usual, though there was nobody that I knew inside to witness it.

As I was standing at the bar drinking alone, I became aware of a boisterous conversation taking place between the two tables behind me.  I continued to slowly sink into a pint of Tennents Lager as I became immersed in what sounded to be a happy meeting of two separate couples who were from the same area of the west coast of Scotland.  The most animated of the characters was a large man who had the pinkest cheeks I have ever seen on an adult.  His appearance was similar to that of a garden gnome who had recently learned that there is more to life than simply fishing all the time.  The second gentleman in the newly formed quartet was wearing a navy blue jumper which had a red animal motif sitting on the left breast, waiting patiently to be petted or fed.  It may have been a donkey or a horse, though I could never get close enough to properly examine the design.

The voices of the two men were much louder than those of their female counterparts, and I listened as they were discussing the part of the world where they both happened to come from.  The men were challenging one another on their memories of buildings, places they had worked over the course of their lives and bars they had drank in.

“If you were working in this job then you must have known that person?”

“You’ll know the place I’m talking about, it used to be next to the ethnic corner shop, though we can’t call it that anymore.”

“Did you know the big man?  It would probably have been around 1974 to 1983.”

Neither of the two men knew what the other was talking about, and there reached a point in the night where I was beginning to consider the possibility that they had realised this long ago and were attempting to one-up each other with improbable tales and recollections, knowing well that the other wasn’t going to recognise the people or the places involved.  It was the only explanation I could think of for the woman who had miraculously fallen pregnant following her first visit to the newly opened tanning salon in 1994, although I wasn’t hearing every detail of the stories.

After a couple of hours spent wallowing in my own company, the beers were only weighing my spirits down.  The random mix of music which the jukebox plays when nobody has paid for specific songs was leaving me apprehensive, so I decided to play a few of my own.  For my pound coin I was afforded three selections, and my third Ryan Adams choice was Nobody Girl, by which point the lounge bar was quickly emptying.  When I am feeling particularly low Ryan Adams is all I ever want to listen to, and Nobody Girl is a song which seems to me to be a lament to a lost girl, where the singer is trying to convince himself that this girl is a nobody who isn’t worth fooling his heart over, though he is conveying all of this in a song which is nine minutes and 39 seconds long.  After around seven minutes of misery, the track explodes into a Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street-like finale, but by the time this arrived there was almost nobody left in the bar to hear it.

In the meantime, a middle-aged couple from Hamilton had arrived, though they had presumably not come directly from the Lanarkshire town to Aulay’s Bar.  The man was mild-mannered and friendly, whilst his partner was a much more energetic and slightly older woman who spoke with an English accent and whose hair was as white as the icy winter air.    Although she was admirably balanced in her heeled footwear, her gait led me to suspect that she may have had a couple of coins trapped in her shoes.  The white-haired woman was querying why anyone would have filled the jukebox with so much sadness, and she immediately made it her mission to liven the atmosphere in the bar.  After a failed attempt at operating the digital jukebox, she called me over to assist, and I was forced to help her find the Marina and the Diamonds and the S Club 7 songs which were going to “get the party started.”  As Nobody Girl was nearing its emphatic climax and the numbers in the bar were diminishing, the woman chastised me.  “There isn’t going to be anybody left to hear my songs!”

Back at the bar, the mild-mannered man from Hamilton and I were bonding over a beer and our mutual disdain for his partner’s taste in music as she was dancing in a barren background.  He went into some detail about their weekend trip to Oban and the wider context of their relationship, which was only in its sixth year.  I could sense the regret in his voice that although they had known each other for many years, they had not gotten together sooner.  Before I could learn why they had not become romantically involved until six years ago, the white-haired woman with the awkward walk crashed into us and demanded to know where the best bar to visit next would be.  The most flamboyant barman in Aulay’s was standing nearby, and he insisted that if the couple wanted a true taste of Oban then they should go across the road to the Claredon, where Friday night is karaoke night.  A sense of dread imbued with my drunkenness as the woman shrieked her delight at the prospect of being able to perform her signature song.  Nevertheless, I agreed that I would show them the sights of the Claredon.

We finished our drinks and headed into the vast darkness, where plumes of alcohol bellowed from our mouths like great chimneys.  As we were walking the short distance across two roads to reach our next destination, I thought it would be best to paint the couple a picture of what they should expect when we reach the Claredon.  I asked them to recall the 1972 film Deliverance, with the greatest difference between the two being that instead of duelling banjos there would be karaoke in the Claredon.

The blue doors to the bar swung open before us, and as I led the couple from Hamilton on their first foray into the Claredon bar we were greeted by the sound of what could only be described as being an imagining of a scenario where Bryan Adams had been captured and held hostage by two powerful men, whose giant bear-like hands were wrapped violently around the singer’s throat as they threatened him with the death of everyone he loves unless he performs their favourite song in the style of a nervous baboon.

On the far side of the room, close to the stage, there were around six or eight – maybe seven – balloons of different colours which had been tacked to the wall and were visibly sagging.  They surrounded a short but cheerful blue banner which was wishing an unidentified person a happy birthday.  The white-haired woman was eager to perform a song, and she approached the hostess to request that her name was added to the list of people waiting to entertain the bar.

Meanwhile, at the bar, I was standing with the mild-mannered man, trying my best to make sure that my tan shoes weren’t sticking to the floor.  His face was contorted with the sort of confusion a dog would display when its owner pretends to throw a toy.  Over my right shoulder, I could see the Subway girl with the smile, and I excused myself to go over and talk to her, though the conversation was brief as her group was leaving.  I returned to the company of the couple I had come with, when the gentleman asked me if I ‘like’ the sandwich artist.  I questioned why he was asking, and he responded by telling me that it was “written all over my face”, like in The Smiths song, I assumed.  The couple enthusiastically suggested that I should leave and pursue the girl, the white-haired woman’s enthusiasm so strong that she grabbed a hold of my arm and tried dragging me towards the door.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have such resistance to leaving the Claredon, but on this occasion, I dug my heels into the syrupy floor and advised the couple that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  I was reluctant to tell them that I had already twice tried and failed in my pursuit and was now in a Wile E. Coyote-like loop, and instead left them with the fleeting hope that I might one day succeed.

The white-haired woman with the coins stuck in her high heels was growing impatient as a succession of terrible crooners stepped up to take the microphone, and when her name once again wasn’t called she claimed a conspiracy against visiting karaoke artists, insisting to her partner that it was time they left for their accommodation.  I finished my Jack Daniels and walked back along the seafront to Markie Dans, even the addition of a navy v neck sleeveless jumper to my attire struggled to keep the vicious cold wind from attaching itself to my body.  I took a seat at the bar as a band was playing to an empty dancefloor, presumably out of contractual obligation rather than enjoyment.  If only the Marina and the Diamonds enthusiast could see this scene, I was thinking.

As the curfew was approaching after midnight, a series of stragglers were beginning to arrive from the Oban Inn, and the bar was looking a little more healthy as drinkers were indulging in their unhealthy pursuits.  The Subway girl was amongst them, and after some time her acquaintance slid onto the barstool next to mine.  She observed that I appeared to be miserable and was curious as to why.  I was struggling to conjure an answer to her question before she amended her enquiry to ask if my sorrow was related to sandwiches.  The truth was that the Subway girl was only a very small fraction of the shape I was in, but to confess otherwise would only have led to more questions I wasn’t in a position to answer, on a barstool in Markie Dans with a Jack Daniels in my hand.  The acquaintance suggested that I should talk to the sandwich artist, advice which was proving difficult to refute when I couldn’t offer alternative explanations for my moping demeanour.

I peeled myself from the barstool in the way a plaster is pulled from a gaping cut and approached the Subway girl.  I had no idea in my mind of what I was going to say, and I was feeling as though I was carrying a comically large box labelled “ACME”.  Words began to fall from my mouth like snowflakes, melting as soon as they landed on the floor around us.  Just as I started talking to this girl who I have known for years, I realised how big the world is.  The box didn’t explode in my face, though I was searching for another word for melancholy.

The week I became a single occupant

It has been nigh upon twelve months since I became what Argyll & Bute council refers to on their local authority tax application form as a ‘single occupant’, which sounds like a bureaucratic way of saying that I am not yet mature enough to cohabit with another person.   Over time I would gradually become used to being a man who lives in his own space, but on the afternoon when I was handed the keys to my first flat I wasn’t entirely sure what was supposed to happen next.  I stood in the barren kitchen – my kitchen – and surveyed the scene, as though hoping that the previous owner had left behind some inspiration and it would fall from a cupboard at any moment, but all that was in the boiler cupboard was what the woman described as “a set of summer net curtains.”

Do I take a meter reading?  How do I take a meter reading?  It wasn’t immediately obvious.  Should I familiarise myself with how the heating system works?  Introduce myself to my new neighbours?  Perhaps walk through the property and analyse what kind of storage space I have before everything was due to be moved in the following week?

I considered all of these options before I reached into my bag for the bottle of Perez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2014 which I had been saving for more than a year, for no particular occasion other than such a time as I might feel like drinking a bottle of wine.  I poured the fragrant red wine into a small neon green plastic party tumbler, recently purchased in a set of four from Tesco and the only drinks container I had brought with me, and over the course of the next two hours, I went on to drink the entire bottle.  The remainder of the night was lost in a grape infused fog.  It was a scene which was destined to be repeated.

For many months I was fighting a constant struggle to remember what I had done with the keys to my flat.  I would find myself reaching for my pocket to handle my keys at intervals so frequent during the day that any half competent doctor would have classified it as obsessive behaviour.  I always liked to know that they were there, in a manner similar to how a younger version of myself, newly discovering the virtues of boyhood, enjoyed knowing that my testicles were still there.  Whenever I was in the flat my favourite place to sit my keys was always on the breakfast bar, and I would regularly make trips through to the kitchen, under the guise of ‘making a coffee’ or ‘recycling’, to make sure that the keys were still where I had left them.  I was never sure where else I was thinking they could possibly be, or who could have moved them considering that it is a small flat and it is only me living in it, but I could never stop myself from checking anyway.  In spite of this mild obsession, there were often occasions when I was leaving the flat that I  would reach the other side of the front door only to realise that my keys were still stranded on the breakfast bar.

When I wasn’t thinking about my keys,  much of my time was spent considering whether there is some kind of specific science behind the way people decide which kitchen cupboard will be allocated to certain goods.  I inherited thirteen cupboards of varying size, which not only seemed like an unlucky number to me but also felt like too many for any single man.  Some of those cupboards had an immediately obvious purpose:  the two with glass-fronted doors proved ideal for displaying wine and beer glasses; the short and wide cupboard situated above the oven hob was surely built for the storage of pots and pans; the area under the sink is the natural home for cleaning materials, while another cupboard nearby was already populated with crockery. But what goes in the other eight cupboards?  Even after living in the flat for a year, the question hasn’t been fully answered.

Over time, Sunday afternoon became the part of the week where I would go to the supermarket for a pantry shop, stocking up on typical kitchen necessities like oil and vinegar and salt and pepper and stock cubes and pasta and rice.  I remember the first time I filled my cupboards with such essential goods, and how I was feeling good about my achievements as I went about the task of storing cans of tuna fish and chopped tomatoes, three or four at a time, as though I was preparing for some impending apocalypse.  Yet doubts began to creep into my mind as condiments were introduced to one another like children on the first day of school.  Is it alright to store different ethnic flavours such as soy sauce and Dijon mustard in the same place?  Surely it is in 2018, I thought to myself.

In the end, I decided to keep them separate, but I couldn’t help but worry about an occasion where I might find myself in need of pesto and mayonnaise, and whether I would be able to find them.  Would there be confusion if macaroni and green Thai curry paste were stored in the same cupboard?  It could lead to a terrible culinary catastrophe and much mocking at dinner parties.  The issue kept me awake for hours on several nights during that first week, and even today I am not settled on my organisation.

Despite my fears over the arrangement of my kitchen cupboards, the rest of my small bachelor pad was quickly regimented with precision.  The books in my bookcase – which, strictly speaking, is more of a book cupboard – were catalogued in alphabetical order, firstly by author and then by title, and if neither of those was appropriate, then by the colour of the cover, which was really flying close to the rule of never judging a book by its cover.  The bedroom wardrobe, which stretches all the way from the floor to the high Victorian ceiling, was brought to life with my suits and shirts arranged by colour, ranging from dark shades to light, and my multitude of ties folded neatly onto two tie racks.  If I couldn’t find pak choi, I would at least be able to locate my pink tie.

When moving day arrived I felt that the best way of focussing my mind amidst all the upheaval and of providing company in an otherwise lonely flat would be to surround myself with houseplants.  There were three left for me at my request by the previous owner and in the days after moving in I added a further two.  I imagined that it would be beneficial to have another living element in the place, something to freshen the atmosphere and give me some form of company, like some horticultural masculine version of a cat lady.  My credentials as a ‘plant man’ were furthered on the first Friday evening when I added the latest addition to my family and decided to name it.  To mask the glaring absence of a female presence around my flat, I determined that the new houseplant must be female, and so I gave the plant the name Sally, after my favourite Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because, for as lovely as she was to look at, she had little in the way of rhythm

The previous owner informed me that the majority of the plants I inherited belong to the cacti family, and I undertook a Google search to learn the best methods of caring for them.  I was pleased to find that the plants require very little attention, infrequent watering and for all intents and purposes practically thrive on neglect.  They were, in that respect, broadly similar to the majority of my social relationships.

I knew from the first night that music was going to be a frequent feature in my flat.  I spent all of my time telling anyone who would listen that my place would be a destination where people can drop by any time and listen to good music and drink responsibly priced wine; a sort of refuge for the bohemians and the boozers, for the lovers of Merlot and Marillion.

To that end, I invested in one of the well-reviewed Sonos sound systems, and it was one of the very first things I made sure was in position on removal day.  The quality of sound emitted from such a relatively small speaker is remarkable.  It can fill a room with ease, though my flat is so small that filling the living room with sound pretty much fills the entire apartment.  In order to achieve this, the Sonos app employs a technique it calls ‘Trueplay Tuning’.  During the initial setup, once I had decided where in the room my speaker was going to be positioned, the app asked me to walk around the room waving my mobile phone up and down so that it could tailor the sound produced by the speaker to the room.  It was at this point on Friday morning, as I was walking slowly around my living room waving my phone like a magician suffering a terrible seizure, that I felt thankful that I live alone and have net curtains.

After a busy moving in day filling my living room with music and decanting my books onto the bookcase in their alphabetical and colour coded order, I set about cooking my first meal in my new flat.  Being short of time I opted for something light and easy and tossed a couple of venison burgers into the oven.  I wouldn’t normally buy venison burgers on account of finding them a little deer, but they were on offer for £1.99 from Lidl and it seemed like a good buy.

As time passed I became accustomed to living life as a single occupant.  Although it is true that most of the houseplants died, with the exception of Sally, who still can’t dance, and company remains at a premium – being the 25% discount on council tax which the local government applies in exchange for me living alone – I am largely comfortable.  The kitchen cupboards remain a source of confusion, and the expansion of my collection of books has brought chaos to the bookcase, but I haven’t once misplaced my keys.  The obsessive behaviour I had developed as a pre-teen male was finally proving useful in adulthood.

This post was first published on 21 January 2018. The original content can be viewed here.

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The night we couldn’t find a pool table

It was two days after the twelfth night when I was finally able to muster the motivation and the sobriety to declutter Christmas from my living room.  The most miserable looking tree known to man, replete with baubles which had all been hung from the artificial branches at arms reach of a two-year-old and red and silver tinsel that was snaked lazily amongst the greenery by a thirty-five-year-old man, was deconstructed and squashed into a cardboard box which had last seen a good day in the late nineties.  The 9ft pine garland which crawled along the front of the mantelplace and dangled over the ends like an abseiling anaconda was removed, along with the three plush Christmas figurines which were my most loyal companions for three weeks in December, in spite of their difficulty with communication.

My Victorian era flat has only marginally less storage space than it does living area, making the question of where to store the festive decorations a difficult one to resolve.  The bedroom has a floor to ceiling wardrobe, with a top shelf which is so far from the ground that it requires a stepladder to reach the bed linen. It is by far the largest of the two utility cupboards in the flat, and my original instinct was to carry the boxed Christmas tree to the top rung of the ladder and push it to the back of the wardrobe.  The more thought I put into the dilemma, however, the less enthused I was with the prospect of sharing my bedroom with an artificial Christmas tree. I imagined the look of confusion, dismay and borderline disgust on the faces of others while I explain to them that although I am single and technically live by myself, I share occupancy of my bedroom with a Christmas tree from the 1990s.

Convincing girls that it would be a good idea to date me would become an even more arduous challenge.  

“Santa only comes once a year, but in my bedroom, it is Christmas all year round.”

I could already sense the blank stares and awkward tension.

In the end, I decided that I would use the cupboard in the kitchen to store the unneeded decorations.  The cupboard was already home to many objects with varying degrees of usefulness: There is a boiler which often produces the heat which seeps through to most of the flat; a mop and a bucket that assist in keeping the floors of the kitchen and bathroom clean; a set of bathroom towels, some of which are a dull grey colour and others which are navy blue; a 2018 BT phone book for Lomond and Argyll, presumably supplied in the event that the internet breaks; an iron and ironing board; an ever-growing collection of environmentally friendly bags for life; a 225 piece stationery set containing pink paperclips, push pins rubber bands, map pins and binder clips; two rolls of sellotape; an Aldi Christmas food and drink brochure.

Once the Christmas tree and the 9ft artificial pine garland had been transferred into the kitchen cupboard, it immediately became the most festive part of my flat.  All of the cheer and joy of the last few weeks had been crammed into a small space, out of sight and mind.  The living room suddenly seemed a little larger without the tree which had been decorated in the way a blind person with a poor selection of tasteless clothing might dress.  The mantelplace was looking bare following the removal of the garland and the three plush figurines, and the only way I knew how to fill the void was by adding three miniature cactus plants which came together in a set from Homebase.  I had replaced artificial decorations with a false display of horticulture care.

On Friday night, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was convening for the first time since the previous Friday.  We had plans to find a bar with a pool table, but before I could leave the flat I was compelled to go through my weekly routine of polishing the large mirror which dominates the living room from its position on the mantelplace and dusting the dado rails.  My need to dust the perimeter moulding so regularly is born out of a fear that if the rail is not clean and healthy, the dado could go the way of the dodo.

Our group, which was one short of a famous five, journeyed to the Kelvin in search of pool and adventure.  The bar, which doubles as a hotel, was a regular Friday night haunt around two years ago when some friends and I would venture for its Brewdog Punk IPA on tap, the pool table, the Polish barmaid who once taught me all about the eastern European celebration of Halloween but who never succumbed to my flirtation, the owner who has a love of the Rolling Stones and her little Bichon Frise dog who is named after Keith Richards.  None of those were present on this occasion; even the pool table had been taken away due to an apparent lack of use and failure to pocket money.  The night was becoming just like any other Friday night:  the opportunity to play pool was proving elusive, the same as my ability to pull.

We sourced a table in the sparsely populated bar and bought a round of drinks, the large void at the other end of the room where the pool table once stood was a constant reminder of our disappointment.  Soon we were joined by an inquisitive woman wearing a leopard print blouse who was from Inverness and in town visiting friends, who were sitting at a table nearby.  The spotty dressed woman seemed reluctant to believe that we lived locally, and her friends began the peculiar Oban thing of interrogating a person for every detail of their life in order to establish why they don’t know you.

Once we had answered their questions to a reasonable degree, the group announced that they were leaving to go to Markie Dans.  The woman in the leopard print blouse was still having her doubts, however, and refused to accept that we drink in the seafront bar every week and would likely see her there.  I insisted that we would be in Markies later in the night and enforced my point by offering a wager on the outcome.  She was unwilling to take my original suggestion that she stakes her scarf on the bet, though she eventually conceded that she would buy us each a Jagerbomb if we did actually appear in the pub.  Later in the night, we did see the spots of the leopard print blouse again, but she didn’t live up to her promise and failed to buy a round of shots.  In a further cruel twist of fate, the plant doctor lost his scarf before the end of the night.

For a while, in the late months of 2018, there was a topic of conversation amongst our group regarding the merits of keeping a budgie as a pet.  Although it began as a joking curiosity, the idea remained stuck in the cobwebs in my mind, and at points when I was sitting alone in my flat, I found myself considering what it would be like to have a budgie around.  I would think about how the small bird would make for a more interesting point of conversation than the Henri Matisse print of the scene from a window which hangs next to my living room window.  The sounds of song would provide more company than the continual soundtrack of a Spotify playlist, and I often liked to imagine a budgie flying around the high ceilings of my living room, frolicking amongst the houseplants.

My interest in an aviary ally peaked when I asked Google how a person would care for a  budgie.  A pet keeping website offered substantial advice on the subject of diet, cage keeping, training and the freedom a budgie requires.  The idea of bird feces splattered all over the oak floor of my living room, and how difficult it would be to clean from the dado rail, began to dissuade me.  A friend reminded me of how useless I am at keeping houseplants alive, and I turned to thinking about my struggle with feeding and cleaning myself on a daily basis without having to worry about a budgie.

I put a pin in the idea of getting a pet bird, though the subject returned to my mind this week when I was reading an article in The Times about research conducted by a team of Chinese scientists into the mating behaviour of budgerigars.  They found that the female of the species will change her choice of partner once they see a male who appears more clever than their own mate.  The scientists learned this by teaching a spurned male budgie to open a box before returning it to the cage, where the male showed off his new prowess, which caused the female to switch her affections.

Upon reading this article, I immediately began thinking about ways it could be applied to humans, and more specifically my own pursuit of romance.  I was eager to use my new found information at the bar on Friday night, though nobody ever walks into a pub carrying a box, unless it is a massive game of Battleship.  In Markies, my eye was caught by a girl whose hair was dark as a raven and who I recognised from previous nights out.  As the bar lights came back on after the band had finished playing, I decided that I would approach her.  She didn’t know who I was, and the conversation was pained from the outset, but I was feeling confident that as soon as the box was introduced, I would woo her.

“I’m glad that Christmas is over, all those Amazon deliveries…”

“I did all of my shopping locally.”

“There were so many packages that I became an expert at opening boxes by the time December finished.”

Her nose began to crinkle.  Not in a cute way, or even a nervous way.  It was an irritated crinkle of the nose.  Her lips, the colour of a carnation, were sealed shut, like a cage door, and there seemed to be no prospect of getting any further response from her.  The space between us was thick with an awkward silence, and all I could think about was how things would be so much better if only I had a large box to demonstrate my skills, or even a team of Chinese scientists who could study where I was going wrong.

I returned home in the small hours of the morning.  As ever, there was no bird in my flat.  In the living room, there was still a glaringly empty space which was tormenting me as I undid my burgundy tie.  I staggered through to the bedroom and pulled back the white curtain which hangs over the front of the wardrobe.  I was feeling relieved when I remembered that I wouldn’t be sharing my room with an artificial Christmas tree; if only someone had seen the expert way I resolved the dilemma with the box.

A weekend of failed flirtations and unexpected bonding (aka U2 @ Croke Park, Dublin)

When you are standing in Croke Park and the lights go down, at least as much as they can go down at an outdoor show in the middle of summer, and you’re suddenly hearing Sunday Bloody Sunday followed by New Year’s Day on a Saturday night in July, you are entitled to ask yourself:  is this some kind of U2 concert?  And, of course, it was.  

The opportunity to see one of the world’s greatest rock bands perform one of music’s most iconic albums – The Joshua Tree – in their home city on the 30th anniversary of its release was too good to pass up, and it was an excellent reason to make my second trip to the city of Dublin; a journey which proved to be both one of the feet and the mind.

One of the best ways, though not necessarily the only way, of getting from Oban to Dublin is to travel first to Glasgow, and it was here that I stayed overnight on the Friday prior to the gig.  The stayover enabled me to enjoy a few craft beer refreshments at the Hippo Taproom, which became one of my favourite bars in the city when I visited months earlier.  I quickly learned on that first occasion that it is not advisable to enter the Hippo Taproom in the expectation, or at least with the faint hope which I had on that initial evening, of being served your IPA or chocolate porter by a hippopotamus.  Because even though the name almost definitely suggests that you might encounter a hippo for a bartender, you will only find yourself bitterly disappointed.  Besides, when you really think about it, how could a hippopotamus pour a schooner of beer with those massive clumsy paws?  It would result in far too much leakage for any business to remain sustainable and the cleaning would be a nightmare.

As I was sipping on a pint of milk chocolate stout which had been poured by a barman with a beard, once again recalibrating my expectations, I became the subject of the attention of a silver-haired gentleman who looked to be enjoying a few after work beers with a couple of colleagues.  The group was standing over my left shoulder, and this one guy who was less of a silver fox and more of a weather-beaten cherub, took a step towards me and asked how I decide which beer I am going to drink out of the many taps on offer in a bar which is focussed on selling craft beer.  I wasn’t sure if he was under the misguided impression that I am some kind of expert of the hops, or whether he could see that I am a man who has enjoyed a few beers in my life.  The silver-haired cherub told me that the reason he was asking was that he finds most IPA’s too bitter and acidic to enjoy, and I responded with a series of words which fell from my mouth with no particular reasoning or meaning.  

Our conversation moved on beyond beer, as most of them do at some point, and it was when he took it upon himself to tell me that he is 52-years-old that I began to realise that there was a chance this man was flirting with me.  When he proceeded to speculate that I “must be early forties” I recognised that, if he was flirting with me, his technique of seduction is worse than my own.  Once I corrected him and pointed out that I am actually thirty-three years a man he attempted to make amends for his flawed flirtation by touching my arm and suggesting that his mistake was an easy one to make when I speak with the eloquence and wisdom of a man in his forties, which he certainly would not be saying if he knew me.  

Some minutes passed and the first man to have ever hit on me in a bar left with his colleagues to catch the last train to Edinburgh.  I ordered some pistachio nuts at the bar and contemplated if, in the scenario I had just experienced, I was the nut or the shell.

Despite my libations the previous evening I made it to Glasgow Airport in good time on Saturday morning.  Whereas I frequently arrive at railway stations with barely minutes to spare before the train departs, I always get to the airport much too early.  There have been two occasions in my life where this has not been the case:  the time I was so hung over that I couldn’t possibly make it to London Gatwick and consequently had to spend more than £100 on a single train fare to Glasgow, and the Monday morning of this trip, when I was so hung over that I arrived at Dublin Airport with around fifteen minutes to spare.

There is part of me that thinks there is an over-emphasis put on the need to be at the airport hours before your flight to allow time to go through security.  I feel this deceit is probably concocted by Starbucks – and probably other retail operations – because what else is a traveller going to do when they have cleared security and have two hours to idle away in an airport other than spend £5 on a coffee from a man who adds four letters to your two letter name?

The moment I received my styrofoam cup of froth addressed to Jay-Jay (always with a hyphen) wasn’t the most awkward of the air travel experience for me, however.  It was far more uncomfortable trying to decide whether to start a conversation with the woman sitting next to me on the plane.  I am not at ease opening a discussion with a stranger at the best of times, but I find silence equally as unsettling.  Others appear to be terrific at talking to new people, even the weather-beaten cherub in the Hippo Taproom, but I have to deliberate over it if I do it at all.  

As the air stewardesses were going through the onboard safety procedures, I was finding myself increasingly drawn to the passenger who was seated to my left.  I couldn’t turn to get a good look at her face, but I could tell by her presence that she was one for me.  The stewardess was a few feet away, gesturing towards the emergency exits, when all I could think about was the question of how other people begin a conversation with a stranger on a plane.  I surely couldn’t ask this woman beside me where she is going, because unless one of us had made a hugely unfortunate mistake or there has been a serious breakdown in the process of boarding passengers it should be fairly obvious where she’s going.  

So I was sitting there anxiously processing in my mind the various possible outcomes of talking to this unknown woman:  falling in love with her, making a terrible play on words that ensures the rest of the flight is more awkward than it would have been if we had sat in silence, discovering that she is a serial killer on the run from the law, finding out that she had a deeply disappointing night in the Hippo Taproom when she learned that her beer wouldn’t be poured by a hippopotamus.  Eventually, I came to realise that so much time had passed that it would likely just be weird for me to speak to her thirty minutes into the short flight, and so I suddenly developed a fascination I never knew that I had with looking at clouds and nondescript land mass from above.

Dublin is a city of many bridges – 23 if you’re keeping score or don’t have access to Google – but on Saturday it appeared there was only one place people were going.  Nobody mentioned it by name, almost as though they were trying to keep it secret, and I don’t think that I heard the name U2 spoken the entire day.  Instead folk would simply refer to “the concert.”  “Are you going to the concert?”  They would ask.  “It’s busy with the concert on tonight,” it was said.  There were U2 t-shirts everywhere.  Mostly the black Joshua Tree anniversary tour novelty shirts, but there were some men who wanted to show that they were of a certain vintage by proclaiming their love of War or the Vertigo 360 tour through sartorial selection.

There was one place in Dublin where the concert wasn’t a consideration, though.  Across the River Liffey in J. W. Sweetman craft brewery, a tall building which was painted a creamy white like the smooth head of a pint of Guinness and which was dressed with a number of hanging baskets blooming with an assortment of colourful flowers, there were groups of people gathered together watching the hurling whilst a riotous hen party was competing with the sounds of whooping and cheering.  The hens were most definitely from Liverpool and some ordered pints of Guinness, which seemed like an especially bad idea at four o’clock in the afternoon.  Some chose to dilute their Guinness with blackcurrant juice, which seemed like an even worse idea and immediately caused me to dislike them.  

In my position at the bar, I ended up with two hens, one at either side of me, possibly due to congestion but probably down to poor organisation.  They were talking loudly across me and my pint of Barrelhead IPA, and the sound of their Scouse screeching was still nesting in my eardrum like a small startled bird which has gotten itself stuck in a chimney stack and is still too afraid to leave after two days. 

The hens became concerned with the gaelic sport which was playing on the television screens above the bar.  One of them asked me, “why are they playing lacrosse?”  

In my mind my face had been planted firmly in my palm, but as I couldn’t actually conjure an image of what lacrosse looks like I didn’t feel confident in disputing this assumption.  “I think they call it hurling over here, and they’re probably playing it to determine which is the better team.”

“Oh,” replied the hen with a faint hum.  “It looks like it would hurt.”  I nodded in agreement with this observation, as it did look like hurling could be quite painful.  The hens took their pints of cloudy Guinness and rejoined the rest of their flock in taking photographs with large novelty inflatables.  The barmaid remarked that I would be featuring in all of the pictures the women were taking.  I told her that they would be appalled to find that in the morning and confided in her that while the situation of being surrounded by a large hen party would be the stuff of dreams for many men, I was finding it utterly terrifying.  She laughed wildly, presumably out of an acknowledgment of my ineptitude.

I hadn’t really researched how I was going to get to Croke Park, believing that I probably wouldn’t be the only person attending the concert and so shouldn’t have any trouble finding the stadium.  Even still, after four or five pints of beer it wouldn’t usually be advisable to blindly follow a large group of people in the hope that they are going to the same place you are.  It worked out for me on this occasion, and the whole thing felt like a procession of sorts.  Thousands of people in uniform marching slowly, if not solemnly, towards the same place with a single goal in mind.  The sky was blue, like in the U2 song Bullet The Blue Sky, though a quartet of raindrops splashed my face as I lined to enter Croker, lending to a fear that my decision to leave my jacket back in my hotel would prove to be foolish.  Fortunately, there was no rain to follow and the only wetness I came to experience was from the sorely overpriced bottles of Carlsberg on offer pitchside.

Prior to the concert, I had given a lot of consideration to the question of tactical use of the toilets.  Urination is not always easy to predict in ordinary circumstances, but I have found that I can generally get a feel for when it is going to happen.  One of the downsides of drinking beer – or any form of liquid, I suppose – is that the need to expel urine is bound to increase in line with the quantities which are taken.  So when you are drinking bottles of beer at a concert, even terrible beer like Carlsberg, you are going to need to get rid of that shit at some point, and usually at several points.  I had developed a dire fear that I would find myself in desperate need of relief just as U2 were about to launch into the rarely played Red Hill Mining Town, so I had forensically planned my toilet breaks and was hoping for the best.  

My strategy after going from, and going at, J. W. Sweetman was to make immediate use of the facilities at Croke Park and then pee again around the halfway point between Noel Gallagher finishing his set and Paul Hewson and the lads taking to the stage.   Naturally, I wasn’t needing to use the toilet at that moment.  Only an hour or so had passed and not enough beer was requiring to pass through me when I strode up to that urinal with a mask of confidence.  I was standing there hoping for something to happen.  Anything.  I just wanted a drop to trickle from me, enough to justify my strategy.  But I was met with the same sound of awkward silence that I had experienced earlier in the day on the plane.  

After a few moments but no urine had passed, the guy to my left spoke to me, his thick Irish brogue distracting me from the task at hand.  I can never remember what his opening line was, but I recall admiring his ability to start a conversation over the urinal at a U2 concert when I had struggled with the issue on an airplane.  The Irishman noted that I was a fellow ‘shy pisser’ and we bonded, although I couldn’t be sure if I was a ‘shy pisser’ or just had terrible timing.   He expressed sympathy for the men who were waiting in line behind us, acknowledging that they were likely cursing us and the refusal of our genitals to perform their natural function.  I said that what I was finding especially frustrating about the situation was the sound of urine cascading from every man to our right, as if mocking us.  How do they do it?  How can they walk up to this urinal and just piss like there’s nothing to it?  It felt like we were there for at least twelve minutes exchanging tips on how to convince our bodies to pee in pressurised social situations and discussing the strategic need to urinate at this moment rather than when The Edge would be belting out those glorious opening chords from Where The Streets Have No Name minutes from now.  

Then it happened.  That wonderous thing of wastewater trickling from my system.  I apologised and left.  It was the first time I had ever been sorry for peeing, and certainly the only time I have ever felt comfortable and relaxed whilst talking to a fellow-man with my penis in my hand.

The U2 show was a triumph.  It is difficult to recall such peace and love and harmony at a gig and the set was worked perfectly around The Joshua Tree.  I can’t compare it to the Innocence + Experience tour two years earlier.  That is still my favourite gig experience, but there was something very special about seeing the band in their hometown and to be in the place that moulded these songs.  You know that with U2 you are going to get a visual and musical experience that no other act in rock can provide, to the extent that when an aircraft flyover painted the sky with the colours of the Irish tricolour it somehow felt understated.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to spend a Sunday in Dublin without U2, but as it turns out U2 has a way of finding you in Dublin.  After spending an afternoon taking the enjoyable tour at the Irish Rock ‘N’ Roll Museum – which obviously is laden with artifacts related to Bono, The Edge + Friends – I embarked on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which was something I had greatly looked forward to after my experience of the New York City version the year, despite having a limited knowledge of Irish literature.  As it turned out I had been drinking beer since one o’clock on Sunday afternoon, so when the literary tour began at 7.30pm I was in little mood for enlightenment and had greater interest in the pub crawl aspect of the event.  As individual groups of people began to assemble upstairs in the Duke pub on Duke Street two things became evident:  almost everybody on the tour was both older than I am, and American, and I was the only solo attendee.  

I remained unperturbed, however, and continued to nurse the Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon which I was becoming fond of.  Straight whiskey isn’t something I normally abide.  I am typically a lover of Jack Daniels and coke, but someone who should know about these things had recently advised me that whiskey is best consumed sour and without sugar, and this trip to Dublin convinced me of the merits of that argument.  The only trouble with my enjoyment of this tonic – other than a single measure proving to be so small that I soon decided to double up – was that I found myself drinking a lot of it.  And more frequent visits to the bar resulted in my wallet becoming choked with coins due to my inability to tell the separate pieces of currency apart by sight.  I was always finding it easier to hand over another pink note rather than force a barmaid to watch me attempt drunken mental arithmetic as I fished around the coins in my wallet for the correct change.  

Back at Duke Street, when my wallet was still relatively light, I spied that three of the American visitors were female and approximately of my age, if not younger.  One of the ladies caught my eye in the sense of being physically attractive to me, but in reality, all three were pretty pleasant in comparison to how I must have appeared to them.  I made it my goal that by the time we reached the next bar on the tour I would have imbued myself into their company, like a slice of lemon in a glass of Jameson.  After a stop at Trinity College where we discussed Oscar Wilde, we walked to a pub the name of which would completely escape my memory by the end of the night.  This bar had multiple rooms and the group dispersed to explore the different floors; I simply wanted to drink Jameson.  As I stood at the bar watching the barman inexplicably pour a single shot of whiskey into a large glass I became aware of the fact that the American who appeared physically attractive to me was standing beside me waiting to be served.  This was my opportunity.  

The question might be asked:  how could I possibly talk to this attractive American woman at a bar when I couldn’t bring myself to open a conversation with a woman on a plane?  But I could, for two reasons.  I was still in admiration of the confidence of the shy pisser the previous day, and I was drunk.  So I feigned ignorance and asked her if she was on the literary pub crawl.  It was an abysmal opening line, but it was better than nothing at all.  Within a few brief lines of conversation, I had learned that she and her friends were from Boston, at which point I speculated that she must have a little Irish in her.  It was another poor line, particularly when I am not even Irish, but it didn’t prevent the American from revealing that one of her friends had also attended the U2 concert the night before.  She wasn’t a particularly good conversationalist, but by the time we reached the next bar on the crawl, it didn’t matter.

I drank another two double Jameson’s at the third bar on the route.  Its name would also remain nameless in my mind by the end of the night, although it was the subject of a quiz question at the conclusion of the quiz when we learned that its former name was ‘The Monico’.  The Americans sat at the far end of the bar and didn’t acknowledge me and I didn’t feel any haste in wanting to talk to the poor conversationalist again.  So I drank my whiskey and waited for the cowbell that would signal the end of our allotted twenty minutes in this particular bar.  As I rose to my feet and left at the sound of the ringing of the bell one of the Americans asked me if I was the Scot who had been at the U2 concert the previous night.  I looked around and was fairly sure in deducing that she couldn’t have been talking to anyone else, so I engaged with her.  

We talked all the way to the next and final bar on the tour, Brendan Behan’s.  We made a pact that seeing as we had a limited grasp of what was actually happening, literature wise, on the tour we would not take the end of tour quiz seriously and instead offer joke answers to the questions in the hope of winning the booby prize of a miniature bottle of whiskey, as opposed to the star prize of a t-shirt.  Unfortunately she betrayed me and answered a question seriously, though I maintained her favour by insisting that Oscar Wilde excelled at ten pin bowling and Bono was one of only four Irish men to be nominated for a Nobel Prize in literature (that wasn’t so much of a joke answer as Bono was nominated for the Man of the Peace prize in 2008.)

By the end of the tour, I was invited by the three Bostonians to sit with them and join them for a drink.  We discussed U2, a little, at least, how it might feel to discover that you have inadvertently turned up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers, the Claddagh ring which the American I was most enjoying talking to was wearing and the Scottish accent.  I walked them back to their hotel, which was far, far away from where I was going, via a stop at the statue of Oscar Wilde, which one of the Americans had to climb over a locked gate to get a photograph with.  On the way to their hotel, the American with the Claddagh ring who attended the U2 concert and I walked several paces behind the other two Americans, talking nonsense and making each other laugh.  She gave me a guided tour of Dublin whilst putting on the worst Irish accent I have ever heard, and we both discovered the only bar in the whole of Dublin which sells Guinness.  Even though I had no idea where I was it was the finest walk I have taken.

As we reached their hotel in the middle of nowhere in Dublin 2 I suggested to the American with the Claddagh ring that we take in a drink together at a nearby bar.  She seemed enthusiastic and tried to convince her friends that one more drink wouldn’t be a terrible idea, but they were travelling to Belfast by bus the next morning and she ultimately convinced by her far too sensible companions that it would in fact be a terrible idea.  It was just another example of the north taking from the south of Ireland, yet this failed flirtation didn’t seem quite as bad as some of the others experienced over the weekend.  Instead I walked a few feet to another nameless bar and indulged myself in a few more double Jameson’s on ice with a slice of lemon as I contemplated the night and the weekend I had just been a part of, which truly was a terrible idea on account of the fact that I reached the airport with around fifteen minutes to spare the next morning.

This post was originally published on 24 July 2017 and can be viewed in its original form here

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The nights I was having difficulty with language

New Year rings in the opportunity for renewal and arrives with a breath of optimism.  All around there are people promising great things to better themselves, making exciting plans for the weeks and months ahead and revelling in the ‘New Year, new me’ mantra.  For a while after the hands on the clock crawl past midnight it is as though anything is possible. It is in this sense that New Year is a lot like getting a haircut, only without having to listen to the barber’s banter for fifteen minutes.  There is nothing like a new haircut to allow a person to feel revived and enthusiastic about the opportunities in store; nothing except the New Year.

I was thinking about this on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, when I was hunched over the pristine porcelain of my toilet bowl, vomiting for the second time in as many hours.  My life was flashing before my eyes as another heave brought more of my guts to the water below me. If New Year is like getting a haircut, then New Year’s Day is the hairs that are trapped down the collar of your shirt after they are trimmed from your head.  It wasn’t even that I was hungover so much, although I had been drinking rum with a tall and wild-haired student from the University of St Andrews and his bespectacled girlfriend until five in the morning. I woke up on the first day of January with flu-like symptoms – a consequence of a rainy walk home a few nights earlier, I presumed – and they lasted until the fourth, by which point a healthy dose of my New Year optimism had been blown into most of the contents of a box of Kleenex.

The ten-second countdown to midnight started abruptly, as though the bar band had been lost in song and suddenly remembered why everyone was there.  By the time it ended and 2019 had arrived, there was a mass exodus from the pub by people who were keen to watch the fireworks explode against the black blanket of a winter sky.  When the celebrations started I found myself surrounded by swathes of people I didn’t know, and in keeping with previous New Years, I didn’t receive a kiss at the bells, although I have never liked to go too far on the first date anyway.

Amongst the drunken revellers who were clustered around the bar, I spotted the Italian doppelgänger version of my brother, and I approached him to wish him the best for the coming year.  He was accompanied by the smoking Frenchwoman, whom I endeavoured to talk to.  She was telling me that she had returned to Oban from Paris earlier that day, and in my never-ending quest to gather as many mundane details about a story as possible, I asked – or at least attempted to ask – how she had travelled back to Scotland.  I wasn’t looking for much; just modes of transport, weather systems encountered, anecdotes of awkward aircraft seating, interactions with train station baristas, airport security snafus, that sort of thing.

Against the backing track of the bar band, who had returned from their break and were in full swing with rambunctious ceilidh music, and with Jameson clinging to my tonsils, I was finding it difficult to make myself heard.  I tried changing my line of questioning, tried moving the words around, like when my dance moves aren’t quite working out and I try to involve more shoulder action, but it was futile.  The smoking Frenchwoman tilted her head and spoke.  “I don’t understand a word you are saying,” she hummed in a flawless French accent, her use of English unquestionably more effective than my own.  She left with a cigarette clutched between her fingers, and I was considering the ways that I could have made a worse first impression in a new year.

After spending much of New Year’s Day asleep on my father’s couch, I was determined to make my first homecooked meal of the year a delicious one when I was making dinner on the second.  I happened upon an appetising recipe for a chilli prawn linguine dish in that days Times newspaper, and I was looking forward to trying it.  In the afternoon, I walked the short distance along the road to the Lidl supermarket to purchase the small list of ingredients I was needing to make my evening meal.  Almost everything was readily available, although they were out of spring onions.  I considered the merits of going to one of the other stores which are nearby to finish my shopping, but in the back of my mind I knew that there was an onion or two in the back of my kitchen cupboard, and presumably the only effect of substituting spring onions for onions would be to make my cuisine slightly more mature.

I decided to take the lazy option and use onions in my recipe rather than walk all the way to another supermarket just for a bunch of spring onions, but the judgment weighed on my conscience for the rest of the night.  I was reluctant to let it trouble me too much – there is no use crying over sliced onion, after all – but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how I was only two days into the new year and already I was following the same pattern as in 2018:  settling for what I already have instead of going for what I really want, and not making the effort to go and find the ingredient which will give my meal the flavour it needs.

On my first visit of the year to Aulay’s Bar, there was a complimentary pint of lager being offered to each of the ‘regulars’.  In addition to the pocket diary and pen which was handed out on Hogmanay, it was a generous gesture which left me thinking about whether it was the first time in my life that I had ever been considered a regular at or to anything.  I was basking in a sense of achievement when the plant doctor then revealed that he had returned from his Christmas trip home with a gift for me from his mother.  He reached into the pocket of his jacket, which seemed deeper than a regular pocket, and withdrew a Tupperware box which had inside it a neatly ribboned bag.  In the bag were five gingerbread figures:  four men who were each wearing glasses and were finely tailored in matching ties and underwear, and one gingerbread woman who had an ample bosom and a delicious red smile.  It immediately became the sweetest gift I had ever received, both literally and in terms of kindness.

I took the Tupperware box home at the end of the night and proudly spread the gingerbread people out across the kitchen counter, admiring the handiwork in their little personalities.  I began to imagine which of the gingerbread gentlemen would be first to make romantic headway with the gingerbread girl.  It was already noticeable that she was keeping a further distance from the baked figure which most closely resembled me, and I was wondering if he had said something on the way over.  I thought about the awkward tension there must be inside the Tupperware once I had carefully packed them all away again.  This should be when things are at their most intimate and exciting, when the lid goes back on and the lights go out and the possibilities are endless.  But the gingerbread representation of me had already made some sarcastic comment or arduous pun, and now he was going to have to watch as the other three gingerbread men made the girl swoon with their sugary charisma.  I wondered if it was best to just put myself out of my misery and eat the gingerbread me, but there was something uncomfortable about the idea of biting my own head off.

In Markie Dans, amidst the double celebration of an engagement and a thirtieth birthday, our crew was aware of a tall girl who was dancing alone in the corner of the dancefloor.  We observed the scene and realised that, for whatever reason, people just weren’t wanting to dance alongside this girl.  After some time the three of us each approached and broke out some moves of our own.  The not-so-tiny dancer turned out to be a Brazilian soap retailer who was fun and friendly and simply seeking friendship.  She told us that she felt other girls were reluctant to talk to her because they felt threatened by her, and the plant doctor and I looked at each other and expressed empathy with her trouble with girls.

“And guys only want to fuck me.”

Immediately the dancefloor became like a scene from a lame western movie, where the cowboys are all involved in a standoff and have holstered their weapons.  Our dance moves became much less sexualised, although mine started out that way and stayed the same.

The dancing Brazilian soap seller told us her name and after around seven arduous attempts by me to get the pronunciation right, with each one further aggravating her, we agreed that I was never going to make it sound right and that it would be in everybody’s interest if I stopped trying.

With all of us on a first name basis, and most of us with the ability to annunciate them, the four of us returned to my flat for beer, incense and music.  Although Wah-Wah was inevitably played, the scene was more like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as we exchanged stories of romantic misery at four o’clock in the morning.  In many ways it was the same old new year, though all of a sudden my decision to use onions instead of spring onions wasn’t seeming so terrible.