The night I read from my notebook

After a Valentine’s Day where the only mail I received was a Bank of Scotland envelope addressed to somebody else, I began to make a more concentrated effort to add a little more excitement to my life.  Although it isn’t a place I would ordinarily turn to for laughs, I was drawn to the obituaries section of The Times newspaper.  If I can’t lead a glamourous and thrilling life, I thought, the least I could do would be to read about people who had.

Being a man who has a penchant for matching the colour of his socks to his tie, it was the life story of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld which took my interest.  The German, who revitalised Chanel in the 1980s, was renowned for his eccentric dress sense, and it resonated with me that the same way people observed Lagerfeld’s trademark uniform of dark sunglasses, crisply starched white shirts with large stiff collars, black trousers, belt buckles encrusted with diamonds, fingerless biker gloves, and chunky rings on every finger, around bars in Oban they will ask “why’s that man wearing a pink handkerchief in his pocket?”

When Karl Lagerfeld died on 19 February 2019, he was unmarried and without children.  He was said to have once lamented the fact that laws prevented him from marrying his beloved Birman cat, and legend has it that much of the designer’s £150million estate will be inherited by his feline friend.  This was on my mind for many of the proceeding days as I was studying the fruits of my life and the wealth I would leave behind to bequeath upon another being.  I was considering, firstly, who would receive my personal belongings.  Much like Karl Lagerfeld was, I am a single occupant, and although I don’t have a cat I do house a family of houseplants, though I suspect with my track record in the field of keeping plants that it is unlikely that they will live longer than I do, even if they are cactus plants.

Even if I could determine someone who would inherit the possessions I would leave behind, it would hardly constitute the “fortune” that Lagerfeld was alleged to have written into his will for the cat.  I began to take a mental inventory of my worldly goods, though it didn’t take me very long to determine that all I would have to entrust following my demise would be eight bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, a multitude of notebooks, silk ties in nearly every colour, and a library card.  It was difficult to say whether the whiskey would be my legacy or the end of me.

With the monthly Let’s Make A Scene event at The Rockfield Centre approaching at the end of the week, I went from reading the obituaries to reading through my notebooks for material I might want to narrate to an audience.  Although I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where anyone would wish to listen to my socially awkward and anxiety-riddled ramblings, it seemed that the performance could be the exciting new thing I was looking for.  I began piecing my notes together into a newly written piece, like the saddest jigsaw puzzle anyone has ever undertaken.

As the week progressed I was sitting in my living room reading my words aloud, in a sort of practice for the night itself, given that I am not a naturally gifted public speaker, despite the appearance my attire suggests.  My audience was four cactus plants, and I was struggling to know what kind of tone I should be taking.  I worried that the cacti were finding the material dry, and their reactions remained muted.  Not quite hostile, but prickly all the same.  I remained unperturbed, however, assuming that the response of those in attendance for my first reading would closely resemble that of a few nearly dead houseplants.

My nerves were growing like Japanese Knotweed as Saturday neared.  The day before the event, I was feeling so unwell that I could only drink four bottles of beer in the evening, and I couldn’t even make it to Aulay’s.  My Google search history became a portrait of desperation

How do people speak in public?

Coping with nerves of public speaking

Which types of food help with nerves?

How do you maintain eye contact when there are girls in the room?

The internet proved to be a useful tool with many helpful resources, and I read several articles which, even if they may not have cured my particular worry, did at least make me feel better that there are other people who have difficulty with talking to strangers.  One of the more common and popular techniques suggested is for the speaker to imagine that their audience is naked, and while it seemed like a bold move for a man who struggles to talk to a woman in the scenario where the ultimate goal is usually to undress her, to the extent that he disintegrates into a puddle of saliva and Jameson, I thought that I would adopt the strategy at The Rockfield Centre.

Prior to the open mic event, I met in Aulay’s with a group of friends who were also attending.  It was the first time that the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had assembled in its entirety since some of its members had become considerably less lonely, and the gathering resembled The Beatles post-1970, although the only rancour between us would likely be the argument over which of us is George Harrison.  I managed to drink a pint of Tennents Lager before I was beginning to feel the sickest feeling I have ever felt.  A crippling unease was gripping me the way I had earlier seen my two-year-old niece take hold of a small cuddly toy in Tesco, and like the teddy in her gasp, it was proving impossible to shake.  I couldn’t look at anyone around my table or participate in the conversation, and the loud deranged, drunken ramblings of a man at the bar only unsettled me further.

I have vomited in the bathroom of just about every bar in Oban, with the exception of Aulay’s.  Nobody has ever presented me with a certificate to mark this achievement, but it is one which I valued all the same.  I have often heard it said that a person should not shit on their own doorstep, and it usually confused me that anyone would ever need to be told that defecating in their doorway anyway is a bad idea, but it logically follows that one should not be sick in their favourite bar.  It was that conclusion which was driving me to ignore the nausea that was beginning to crawl up my esophagus like a spider inching its way up a drainpipe with nasty intentions.  If I didn’t think about it maybe it would disappear, though that flawed way of thinking is why I still have a navy blue tie with a conspicuous stain which has been making it unwearable for months.

Not before long, I was striding through the bar towards the bathroom with the false face of a man who was determined to pee, not wanting it to be known that I was about to become the shameful sort who vomits before eight o’clock on a Saturday night.  A welcome relief washed over me when I nudged open the door and saw that the cubicle was vacant and wasn’t being used as a second urinal, as it often is.  I locked myself away, hostage to my own stomach, and hoped for the best.

I was standing starting at the still toilet water and nothing was happening.  This isn’t how being sick in the bathroom of a bar usually works.  It is meant to be involuntary and uncontrollable; the result of an ill-advised shot.  Instead, I was looking into the bowl with a feeling of desolation.  I decided that I would try urinating instead, if for no other reason than to give me a purpose for being there.  Maybe this is what happens when you become 35.  Maybe the body develops new ways of telling you that you need to pee.  Once I had flushed and I wasn’t feeling any better I was becoming angry with myself.  If you can’t even throw up, how are you going to speak in front of an audience of people? I questioned myself.

Eventually it happened.  I don’t know what brought it on, but I was crouching by the toilet pan, almost embracing it like a nervous lover, and it was the cleanest spew I had ever released.  A crack team of DNA specialists would have struggled to prove that I was ever in the bathroom, though I wasn’t necessarily feeling any less nervous for it.

Let’s Make A Scene was once again an unpredictable night with many varied and interesting performances, showcasing a great depth of local talent.  There was poetry on the theme of weather and the sea, a touching retelling of a first visit to the memorial in Amsterdam which pays tribute to the victims of the Holocaust who were gay.  One act initiated a wild debate over the merits of spending £6000 on dental implants, whilst we were treated to a smartly funny standup routine which focussed on veganism and utilised a PowerPoint presentation.  A smartly dressed man played piano and Bond themes and made some quips.

When it came time for me to get up to the front of the room – the last act of the night, like the headline slot at a festival, only without the material or the stage presence of a headline act – I had been drinking several cans of Innis & Gunn and any lingering nerves had almost been drowned by drunkenness.  I walked up with my satchel and took a seat in front of around twenty or thirty people, and I could suddenly feel around a dozen moths in my stomach, fluttering furiously against a dusty lampshade.

I removed my suit jacket and swung it over the back of the folding chair, in an act which wasn’t nearly as debonnaire as I was imagining it would be.  I unzipped my satchel and reached for a blue notebook and a 35cl bottle of Jameson which was being opened for the first time, the sound of the seal breaking and the whiskey lashing against the inside of the small wine glass provided the most dramatic moment of the night.  My right leg crossed over my left, acting as a book stand for the notebook, and I looked up at the audience with the intention of picturing them naked.  Then I glanced around the room and saw my brother.  I decided to change tact and instead look at the others in the room as though they were dressed in exactly the fine wear they had arrived in, and instead I was going to imagine that I was nude.  At least then, I thought, the experience would be as awkward for the audience as it was for me.

The reading went on for approximately thirteen minutes.  Nobody cried, least of all myself, and some people even laughed when I was hoping they would.  By the end, I was feeling a euphoric sense of relief and something which I suspect was even almost approaching enjoyment.  It was one of the most triumphant things I have ever done.

In the bar afterwards, still basking in my glory, I saw the Subway Girl, and experiencing a confidence which comes to me as easily as regurgitation in Aulay’s, I went up and talked to her without nervously waiting for her to notice me.  Along with her brightly-outfitted friend, we drank Jack Daniels in my flat until close to five o’clock in the morning, and although I had long since accepted that the sandwich artist was never going to be Lagerfeld’s cat, the night I read from my notebook may have been when I realised that there are plenty of good people in my life who will ensure that my eight bottles of whiskey are shared long before they are written into a will.

Firing an arrow straight into Cupid’s stupid little eye: My Spotify playlist for the month of February

Valentine’s Day Mascara

When I left for work on the morning of Valentine’s Day the postman had not yet delivered to my street, and I was able to deceive myself for a few more hours into thinking that I might return to find a red envelope or two in my mailbox.  A year earlier I had just become a single occupant and moved into my new flat, a circumstance which I had used to convince myself was the reason why none of my suitors or secret admirers had been able to send a declaration of their love through the post, even if it didn’t necessarily tally with the previous thirty-three years of empty postboxes.

Although I did not receive a Valentine’s card in 2018, I did send my first one since whenever my last courtship ended.  The recipient was the then red-haired barmaid, who became a formerly red-haired barmaid and who would later become a red-haired former barmaid.  A few days prior to the event she jokingly suggested that I should send her a card, and because I am a man who rarely backs down from an opportunity to humiliate himself in front of the opposite sex, I took this as a challenge.  

For days I was agonising over the literature I would use on the inside of the card, which was probably decorated with an animated teddy bear or a puppy or something which similarly suggested a tacky attempt at romance.  I was searching for a verse which would be light-hearted enough to be in keeping with the joking nature of the endeavour, though with enough charm that the barmaid would be made aware that I had a favourable impression of her.  Eventually, I settled on four lines which I wrote in my finest scrawl and felt confident captured the sentiment of the occasion.

Roses are red
Violets are blue
You pull a great pint
Can I pull you?

Satire and seduction proved not to make successful bedfellows, and like a bad meal, the card was spoken of once and never again.

The mailbox which is positioned on the wall outside my front door is immaculately white and looks like a house which was designed by a fabulously drunk and deeply flawed architect, with its long and thin streak of windows stretched across the eaves of the property and a small door which is no shape for any reasonable person to use as a point of entry.  Most of the time it lies empty, but when I arrived home after work on Valentine’s Day I could see the pointed edge of an envelope protruding from the slot.  A sense of intrigue captured me and I placed my bag of shopping between my ankles and reached for the key to open the box, feeling the way I would imagine a treasure hunter does when they happen upon a rare antique chest.

I opened the mailbox as far as the hinge would allow, studying the envelope forensically, more in hope rather than expectation, the way a dog watches intently as a sausage is being eaten.  I took the large white envelope between my thumb and index finger and quickly became aware that it was a communication from the Bank of Scotland and that it was addressed to my neighbour across the landing.  With my hope dashed, I fed the envelope through the letterbox on my neighbour’s door and accepted that at least someone would be having a more underwhelming Valentine’s experience than my own

The light in my kitchen had begun to flicker the previous evening, the way electrical fittings do in horror films when something ominous is about to occur.  Within moments of it being turned on, it suddenly fell into a darkened obscurity, like an anticlimactic Valentine date, and I was left standing in a dim kitchen where the only light was provided from the floodlight in the yard behind the garden.  I had just returned from the shop and felt certain that I wasn’t going to be the victim of a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, so I decided that I could survive a night without a light in the kitchen.  For a while, I was considering that I could inflame a few tealight candles and line them along the breakfast bar, though I dismissed the notion as being much too intimate for a solo dining experience where the only item on the menu was a frozen lasagne.  Maybe if I had had the time to construct the dish from scratch I would have indulged in candlelight, but a single man eating a frozen lasagne on Valentine’s night was probably best kept in the dark.

After eating the second most tasteless lasagne meal I have had in recent times, I went out to Aulay’s to watch the football, where I believed that if I couldn’t spend the night with my beloved, I could at least enjoy it with beer lovers.  I arrived at the bar prior to the game kicking off, armed with the knowledge that as well as being the patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, Saint Valentine is also the patron saint of plague and epileptics, which made spending the night amongst the unwell of a bar population seem fitting.  The lounge was sparsely inhabited, six stems short of a dozen red roses, and the football was doing little to spread the love, the result only adding to the defeat of the day.

When I awoke in the harsh light of the following morning, I was reminded of my need to get a new lightbulb for the kitchen.  In a bedraggled state, I was forced to iron a baby blue shirt in near darkness, though nobody commented that I looked any different from usual.  In the evening I went shopping for the item I was needing which would allow me to eat reasonable meals and iron my shirts in a civilised manner.  In the entranceway of Tesco was a display of flowers of various colours, some of them matching the palette of my own outfit.  Next to the floral island of unwanted Valentine’s goods was a sign which was indicating that there was ‘75% off the marked price’ and it struck me how the existence of reduced roses and cheapened chrysanthemums was a lot like that of a single occupant in Argyll & Bute.

The day I joined the library

It was around 12.30 on Friday afternoon when Michael Bolton’s How Am I Supposed To Live Without You was playing for the second time in as many hours that I was beginning to question if I was really making the most of my day off work.  I had been able to prise myself out of bed at a respectable hour in the morning and had great intentions for all the things I wanted to achieve with my free day.  After eating a banana, I swept the oak flooring throughout my flat, something I had been wanting to do since I spotted some dust and debris as I was leaving on Tuesday morning for my trip to Edinburgh.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the troubles I had been feeling were in part attributed to the nagging thought of those crumbs sitting unchallenged on the wooden surface. How different my week could have been, I was thinking to myself as I ran a sweeping brush over the floor.

Once satisfied that my residence had been restored to some kind of order, and with the baggage I had been carrying over the preceding few days carefully packed away, I decided that I would go for the haircut that the unruly hairs on the back of my head had been demanding for weeks.  A meteorological phenomenon was gusting along the coast at the exact moment I stepped outside, and by the time I had made the short walk to the barber shop, I was drenched.  My misfortune was all the opportunity the barber needed to indulge in one of his favourite points of discussion, and as the hairs were beginning to tickle around my neck he was speaking heartily of the weather forecast.

Since I became the single occupant of a town centre flat I have grown accustomed to the convenience of many of the local amenities.  Even on a rainy day, my favourite barber is only a few minutes walk from my home, my favourite bar is equally as close and the supermarkets are but a stone’s throw away for someone who has a decent arm.  It had recently occurred to me that another service which is close to me, but which I had never made use of, is the local library.  I hadn’t been a member of the library since my days in school, when the book borrowing building also happened to be located across the road from the house I grew up in.  With the threat of an afternoon of little else but eighties power ballads in front of me, I decided to make my first visit to the new library building.

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting as I approached the blue and white signage which, either ironically or ingeniously resembling the logo of the social media conglomerate Facebook, marks the front of the library.  Unlike when I see a girl I have long admired in a bar, this was a relatively spur of the moment decision which I hadn’t spent months contemplating and reciting lines in my internal monologue in preparation for.  I walked through the entrance and into a bright, large open plan space, where a bespectacled woman greeted me from behind the desk.  I finished drying off the droplets of rain which had fallen onto my glasses and grandly announced that “I am here because I want to register to join the library.”  Factually, it was undoubtedly one of the most accurate statements I have ever made, though like when I finally talk to a girl in the bar it seemed to take her by surprise, as if she hadn’t heard those words in a while.

The librarian composed herself and reached for a pristine white clipboard which held in place several sheets of untroubled paper.  Like a competent plasterer, I filled in the spaces, and soon I had become a member of the Argyll & Bute library.  I began to browse the fiction titles, eager to make immediate use of the laminated card I had been presented with, the way a newly qualified driver wants to go out in their car after being awarded their licence, or a 35-year-old man goes to the library after having his hair cut.  My initial walkaround brought me to find a book by the British author Alan Bennett, which I had been considering buying when I saw it the previous day in Edinburgh.  I picked it up and took it back to the counter to be stamped, the feeling of making my first borrowing being every bit as strong as one might imagine.

In celebration of my successfully saving £8 by loaning a book I had almost bought twenty-four hours earlier, I continued walking to Lidl, where I went grocery shopping.  To my dismay when I strode purposefully into the store, I discovered that the chain has disposed of the small shopping baskets which were suitable for a single man who shops for the goods he needs on a daily basis and were instead only offering the much larger baskets which many customers lazily lug around behind them, in a manner which gives me the sort of unreasonable fear I ordinarily have of umbrellas.  I had no alternative but to resign myself to their wishes and awkwardly carry a much larger than necessary basket around the store, giving myself a much smaller appearance than those past occasions where I would storm through the aisles like a powerful giant.  In the end, I bought a box of ten large eggs and carried them to the self-service checkout where I had to stretch to reach them from the bottom of the basket.

On Saturday night I took my new haircut to the Oban Inn, where I excitedly spotted a man who bore a striking resemblance to the character of Niles Crane from the television series Frasier.  It is very rare that I am able to place a lookalike, and I was feeling pleased when I pointed this out to my brother and he agreed that the man did look a lot like Niles.  It was barely possible to stop myself from glancing over my shoulder at the short, blonde-haired man, and I cursed my fortune that this event should not have occurred on a Friday, when I would have been wearing a pocket square in my pocket which I could have used to ask the lookalike to dust his seat in the way the germophobe Niles would on the show.  

Instead, I had made the unusual decision to wear a jumper to the bar, having been sporting the knitwear earlier in the day to provide warmth against the wild wind which was still sweeping the area.  Although the jumper was producing a genteel and elderly contrast to the hint of youthfulness which came with my new haircut, I was feeling comfortable wearing it in public.  It was only when we entered the busy hive of the Oban Inn that I was beginning to sense that I had made a tremendous blunder.  Drinkers were swarming around the bar, and I was feeling warmer than I had in a long time.  I found myself in conversation with a Lush Puppy, and as I was telling her about my idea to read from my notebook at a future Let’s Make A Scene event, I was wondering if my jumper was acting as an extractor fan to the rest of the room.

Through the night I had heard stories of some people in town who had been attending a performance by a hypnotist.  The thought of such a thing momentarily raised my spirits when I was considering the possibility that the stage performer might have hypnotised some unsuspecting member of the audience into believing that it would be a good idea to date a man who was wearing a khaki jumper, the way that some people are convinced to cluck like a chicken.  I soon came to realise that even if this had happened, and there was a woman somewhere in town who was carrying a subconscious desire to become romantically involved with a warmly dressed man, I didn’t know what the trigger phrase was.  It proved that I was incapable of getting a woman to fall into a trance, let alone break out into a dance.

After the bars closed the rain was beginning to fall again.  On the cold walk home I was once more listening to How Am I Supposed To Live Without You by Michael Bolton.  When I arrived back to my flat, all of the warmth offered by the jumper had disappeared.  I turned on my bedside lamp and climbed into bed, another night where the only Smut was on the bedside table rather than in my bed.

The tennis racket reservation dispute (aka Brian Fallon @ Usher Hall, Edinburgh)

I always like to make a great drama out of taking my seat on the train.  Even if nobody is watching the scene as I unload my vast supply of travel companions into the small space before me, it gives me a tremendous sense of purpose.  On this particular morning, I was experiencing an exuberant rush of energy, which was supplemented by the session of yoga I had been able to get out of bed for, and the power walk to the train station I had been forced into when I once again mistimed my morning, despite living closer to the station than ever before.  I expect that my cheeks must have taken on the appearance of undercooked bacon with the physical effort exerted and from the frosty February air as I plonked my baggage onto the empty seat next to mine.  From the bag I extracted a silver flask which had been filled with approximately a cup and a half of coffee, an A3 notebook and a pen to record any observations I felt I had to make, a set of earphones, a Tupperware box which was packed with two bananas, two small oranges and some broken up pieces of rye crispbread, and an empty sandwich bag which would be used to discard of the loose peel.

I was feeling pleased with my organisation, and when the train pulled away from the pale platform and Pearl Jam was playing on my Spotify playlist, I opened up the Tupperware to eat the first of my bananas.  The oranges rolled out of position as I removed the greenish-yellow shape, and it took me a few attempts to snap each of the four latches on the sides of the lid back into place along the lip of the container.  Across the aisle of the carriage, I could see the young woman who was seated opposite me shudder with each failed attempt at securing the snacks.  Her face contorted into a soft fury as she glared at me from the corner of her eye.  I was beginning to feel anxious that the box would never be properly closed, that the woman with hair the colour of a late winter afternoon would erupt into a volcanic rage by the end of the journey, and that the crispbread would become soft and inedible.  Eventually, the lid was fastened safely into place, and the woman opposite me alighted from the train at its first stop in Connel. Commuters hardly ever get off at Connel, and I wondered if the woman had decided on a different mode of transport owing to my lack of tact with the Tupperware.

The snow-peaked fields on the west of Scotland had given way to an icy fog which was leaking profusely by the time I arrived in Edinburgh.  It seems that the city’s cobbled streets are always slick with rain, which really makes a person think when they are leaving a bar after wiling away a few loose hours in the afternoon.  As I was sitting in the corner of Brass Monkey reading the last couple of chapters of A Confederacy of Dunces, I studied a young university-type as she approached the bar.  She enquired to the barman who, according to the observations of native drinkers in the pub, had recently had a haircut, about the possibility of reserving space for seven members of The Fresh Air Society, who were due to meet at 7.45 the following evening.  I kept my head in my book, but my eyes were straining upward towards the young woman.  I found myself hoping that the society’s fledgling meeting would run late into the night and I could chance upon them after Brian Fallon’s performance at the Usher Hall, for the woman seemed to have a quality which I couldn’t quite describe.  She appeared to be a very new and welcome vision.

I was still thinking of The Fresh Air Society on the day of the show when I returned to Glasgow to meet with my two gig-going friends.  We arranged to assemble for drinks in The Ark, a bar which is close to Queen Street station and seemed reasonably priced.  I was the first of our trio to arrive, and although the place was remarkably busy for four o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, I was able to find a table.  All of a sudden a great sound could be heard rattling against the roof of the building, like handfuls of gravel being tossed against the window of a lover to attract their attention.  I turned to look out into the beer garden, where hailstones were furiously lashing the canopies.  A sense of relief that I had made it into The Ark when I did flooded over me as I watched the hail continue to fall.

The girls were running later than planned following an incident where a loud-mouthed woman fell up a flight of stairs in a piercing studio, and I went up to the bar to order myself another drink.  I removed my black leather jacket and folded it over my stool to indicate that the table was occupied, giving the seat the appearance of a sloppily dressed child.  When I returned with a beer in hand, one of the other stools around my table had been furnished with a rucksack which had the handle of a tennis racket protruding from it.  Soon a young lady appeared and informed me that I was sitting at her table.  I told her, with great pride, that I had been sitting there since before the flood, and the look on her face implied that she didn’t know what I was talking about nor care for my sense of humour.  I lifted my buttock to show her the leather jacket I had used to mark my territory, an act which seemed to speak more honestly to her.  I apologised and claimed that if I had not been waiting for two other people I would have gotten up and given the table to the girl and her boyfriend, though I wasn’t sure if I was saying that to make her feel better or to absolve myself.

I could sense the cold stare of the couple from somewhere else in the dimly lit bar for the entire time I was sitting at the table by myself.  Even when the kaleidoscope of hair arrived and vindicated the story I had told, I felt unable to put my jacket back on, despite the increasing chill around the place.  It was the penance I had to pay to make it clear to all onlookers that my jacket was a legitimate placeholder.

After a series of drinks which increased in strength over the hours, from beer to wine to Jagerbombs, the three of us split a bottle of pink gin between three bottles of Sprite and took the train to Edinburgh.  We arrived at Usher Hall pleasingly intoxicated as Brian Fallon was taking to the stage, where the frontman of The Gaslight Anthem was performing a solo acoustic show.  His ninety-minute show spanned the majority of his career and was enjoyable, although some parts of the set left me feeling underwhelmed, like a steak dinner you have been looking forward to and it is only after eating it that you realise you have forgotten to cook the onion rings.

The night ended in Shakespeare’s, where the answer to the question was to beer, and we enjoyed a final drink before the girls with the spectacularly coloured hair caught the last train back to Glasgow.  The rain had stopped by the time I left the bar, though my black leather jacket was still wet and my stomach was in ropes.  My day had been riddled with an anxiety I couldn’t understand, and the walk along Princes Street to the hostel I was spending the night in took more than an hour, according to phone records.  By the time I had reached the other side of the city it was too late for me to venture to Brass Monkey as intended, and the chances are that no responsible bar person would have served me anyway.  It was a sorry end to the night, when all I had been looking for was a breath of fresh air.

The day religion found me

The motivation to get out of bed and perform thirty minutes of yoga in the morning was proving to be scarce as January was fading into a frosty February.  Each day the first of my nine alarms would fill the bedroom with its shrill sound from the bedside table, and my first thought as my eyes flickered into life was to question what kind of an idiot would set an alarm for six o’clock in the morning.

Every morning the same tired routine was played out amongst the theatre of my crumpled bed sheets.  The 6am alarm was silenced and I turned onto the other pillow to face away from the offending technology, hoping that if I wasn’t looking at it, it wouldn’t screech again.  Inevitably it would, though, and I was forced to silence another alarm. I sank into my mattress and realised that if I was going to follow through with my goal to read a few pages of a book and do half an hour of yoga before work every morning I would have to get out of bed and make a cup of Earl Grey tea, but I could tell from the brief foray my hands had made to the bedside table that the room was much colder than the world beneath my sheets was. 

The alarms continued to furiously sound, each one more jarring than the last.  It was becoming a game of cat and mouse, where I was reluctant to be beholden to the alarms I had set for myself, despite knowing that a session of yoga would be better for my body and mind than lying lazily in bed.  As the week progressed, it was increasingly obvious that like the way you can lead a horse to water without being able to convince it to admit that it has a drinking problem, it is also true that you can set a series of nine alarms between 6am and 8am, but you can’t force yourself to get out of bed and face the world again.

As the mercury mirrored my motivation and continued to drop, my experimentation with soup recipes was reaching new levels of desperation when it came to utilising any loose ingredients in the kitchen without having to go out shopping for more.  I chopped up some onions, leek and garlic – the process of which caused me to scratch the point of my thumb with a knife – and seasoned it all in a pot with some thyme.  The resulting soup made for a pleasing and warming lunch on the following three days, though when I went to bed later in the night and could sniff the aroma of my soup, it brought a level of confusion I ordinarily feel when something I have said makes a girl smile.  Despite it being occupied by a thirty-five-year-old male, my bedroom is generally an odourless environment, so to find the air fragrant with soup was an unusual event.

I was going about the business of undressing myself for bed when my mind was busy with thoughts concerning the scent of soup in my chambers.  I couldn’t fathom how the smell could linger through from the kitchen into the bedroom; the only reasonable explanation I was capable of conjuring was that the ghost which I had briefly believed to be haunting my bedroom in the months after I moved into my flat had returned.

In a meticulous, distracted manner the buttons on my grey shirt were unfastened while I considered the re-emergence of my spirit company.  She had never before carried with her an essence of freshly boiled soup, and it seemed a remarkable coincidence that she would do so on a night where I had made a new batch.  I straightened the rainbow of dress shirts which were hanging in the wardrobe before getting into bed with a book.  The words were failing to register with me as the soup-smelling ghost dominated my thoughts.  It occurred to me that the timeline of my block of flats could point to the apparition being from a war-time era.  She possibly used her ration book to make soup for starving servicemen, in the way I used the restricted goods in my fridge to feed a hungry single man.  All she did with her life was to make soup for other people, and the stench would cling to her and define her character the way Joop and old books did mine.

My inability to read was similar to my lack of motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and I turned the bedside lamp off.  I was lying in my bed staring at the darkness where the ceiling would usually be when I remembered how I had stripped the clothes airer in the kitchen of dry and creased shirts earlier in the evening after I had boiled a pot of leek and onion soup.

A frozen scene outside Oban

During the week, I promised a friend that, along with another acquaintance, we would help her to move a bed between two rooms in the apartment she was about to move out of.  The view from the window of the living room was amongst the most sublime I have seen in Oban.  The sky was settling into a peaceful dusky blue as the last ferry of the day to Lismore was floating across the water against the backdrop of frost-tipped hills.  It was the type of scene an American or an Australian might find on their doorstep on the reverse of a written missive from a travelling relative.  High and to the right, McCaig’s Tower could be seen standing over the town, illuminated in fluorescent light.  It was a landscape which could not be compared to that on offer from my own living room, of the Oban Grill House and a weather-battered red postbox.  

Across the street, the entire top floor of an office block was being renovated, with two or three workmen busily crafting a bland and soulless environment.  The walls had been painted an unblemished white and dust sheets were covering a variety of furnishings.  It was either going to become a dental surgery, or we were unwittingly witnessing the scene of some criminal cover-up, like the meth houses in the television series Breaking Bad.

In the bedroom, we began to move the base sections of the bed.  Between two of us, they were light and easily managed, even after I had once again missed my session of yoga in the morning.  The mattress was propped against the wall, and through a glimpse from the corner of my eye, it appeared to have a small, although not completely insignificant, bloodstain.  I was focussing my attention on lifting the base of the bed in a way which wouldn’t scrape the paintwork of the rented apartment, trying not to acknowledge the splatter of blood on the mattress.  It was none of my business and surely easily explained, like the time I leaked blood all over my kitchen and bathroom when I cut my finger on a tin of tuna.

My effort to ignore the blood on the mattress was compromised when my friend asked me not to worry about the stain as we came to lift the mattress into the other room.  Suddenly it was all I could think about.  The booming base of a funk song was playing from the small speaker in the kitchen, and I began to wonder if this was how the scene across the street had started.

The longer the week wore on, the more strained my interaction with other people was becoming.  When drying myself after a morning shower, I discovered the first two strands of silver to appear amongst the wispy black hairs on my chest.  It was an unremarkable find, considering that I am not a television star from the 1970s who relies on such things for success, but it left me feeling aged and cantankerous nonetheless.  Even though I had been gifted an excuse for the lack of morning motivation I had been experiencing – the grey hairs on my chest invariably meaning that I am getting old and, as a consequence, finding it more difficult to get out of bed – I was unhappy when I left the flat on Saturday morning.

Outside my door, I could hear the chatter of two elderly women, their voices elegant and superior, like those I remember hearing on the steps outside the Cathedral after Sunday Mass.  The sound carried so loudly that it seemed to me that they were standing in the close of my block, but as I stepped outside I came to realise that the women were on the street, and I was ambushed by a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the entrance to my building, like a bird who unwittingly lands on the snout of a crocodile.  They immediately began to interrogate me on which number I live in, their idle stance suffocating me and rendering it impossible for me to move aside so that they could see the metallic 42 on the front of the door.

Their virtuous voices continued to question me on my living arrangement, demanding to know if my home was on the left or the right of the floor and whether I was living on the middle floor.  I told the two women that I do not live in the middle, but that I was feeling like a Stealers Wheel song.  They remained unperturbed and asked me again which number I reside in.  I had been waiting for more than a year for a woman to show an interest in the flat I am living in, but I had never imagined that I would have to lie to get out of the situation when it finally arose.  I excused myself and told the two Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was running late for a coffee date with a friend.  Any true God would have known that I don’t meet friends for coffee, but rather tend to catch up over a beer, and that I was only leaving my flat to buy sausages.  Nevertheless, the women parted like a sea and allowed me to pass, my deceit of another deity complete.

When I returned home on Saturday evening after spending the afternoon at my dad’s I was still feeling aggrieved by the grey hairs and Jehovah’s, when my favourite sandwich artist offered to drop off a six-inch Sub on her way home from work.  When I opened the door to her, I was greeted by the brightest smile I had ever seen in my doorway, and I was pleased when she handed me a baguette rather than a bible.  Five minutes of banter about mayonnaise were enough to make the ordeal of the week seem worthwhile.  I returned inside to my own company and to reheat the sandwich and watch a film about singing gunslingers on Netflix.  The scent of microwaved meat permeated through the flat, and at least this time I knew that it wasn’t the ghost of a war-time cook which was haunting me.