The night I read from my notebook for the second time

When you are a single occupant you eventually have to get used to the fact that everything has to be done yourself.  Meals are only ever cooked for one, there is never any dispute over whose turn it is to polish the decorative mirror on the mantelpiece, recycling is a job that only you can do again and again, while romance is an awkward endeavour which only ever takes care of itself.  On Easter Monday I was finally forced to accept that nobody but me was going to clean the conspicuous stain which had been haunting my navy blue tie for months.

I had been planning my outfit for my second reading at Let’s Make A Scene since shortly after my debut spoken word performance and long before I had started to consider what I would actually be talking about.  In my mind, I was already wearing my brown tweed suit with a navy blue tie, socks, and pocket square, because I find it easier to match the colour of accessories to a suit than I do to decide which pieces from my notebooks are suitable for reading in front of people.

Washing a tie is not something I had attempted prior to Easter Monday, though the one thing I did know about laundering the garment was that they are not machine washable.  I learned this the hard way when my favourite burgundy tie acquired a Merlot stain and I thought I could throw it into the washing machine along with the rest of my regular clothing.  An hour or so later I returned to the load to find that the burgundy tie had been decimated, its fluffy innards were torn out like an especially cruel vivisection.  It was almost enough to put me off the spin cycle for good.

I wasn’t entirely sure how a person goes about the task of washing a conspicuously stained tie by hand, but I was relieved and surprised to find a bottle of Persil Silk & Wool in the cupboard under the kitchen sink which I had obviously bought at some time in the past for one reason or another and forgotten about, in the same way people buy bay leaves or string.  I filled the sink with hot water and a speculative amount of detergent before submerging the navy blue tie in the crackling water.  It quickly rose to the surface and took on the appearance of an unusually dapper twig in a children’s paddling pool.  I had no idea how long the tie should be in the water, but I figured that because the stain was a few months old it should be longer than I would normally expect, so I kept it in the sink for two hours.  When I eventually fished it out, it was the wettest thing I had ever held in my hands, and it took most of the week before it was completely dried.

By Thursday evening the sea was a mirror, and the sky had become the face of an angry child.

On the morning of Let’s Make A Scene, I awoke without a hint of the anxiety which had plagued me before my first reading at The Rockfield Centre a couple of months earlier.  I was feeling strangely confident, which worried me because it wasn’t at all like me to feel good about anything.  All I could think of was the story of Icarus:  even if I didn’t have wings to melt, I had a newly cleaned tie that I wasn’t wanting to scorch.  

It was around an hour before the open mic event when I was in my bathroom and finally felt the relief of being brought down to earth by an overwhelming urge to vomit.  I was free to approach the rest of the night as a new version of my old self, and the best thing about it was that I hadn’t yet put on my tie.

My revitalised nerves led to me being the last person willing to perform their piece on the night; this one being about my trouble with talking to girls.  Under the glare of a dozen fairy lights which formed something resembling a fractured spotlight, I began by telling the story of the time the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s suggested that I should seek lessons in how to talk to girls.  The purpose of the anecdote was to lead into an elaborate pun about how my search took me to the local branch of the book chain Waterstones, where I struggled to find a self-help book on the subject of talking to girls and was eventually forced into asking a store assistant if she would assist me in locating the self-help section.

A hush fell over the room, not too dissimilar to the sound I had heard any time I had tried to make a witty play on words in an attempt to impress a girl.  I didn’t know what to do.  I had been thinking of the self-help book line the way other people think of their favourite recipe for a homemade pasta sauce, or of their first child.  I loved it.  Although the rest of my spoken word performance went on to be fairly acceptable and it seemed to achieve a few laughs, I couldn’t stop thinking about the part where it had flopped.

The following day I was wondering where the high I had felt after my first reading a couple of months earlier had gone, and if every other new thing I tried to do would only be an attempt at chasing that high, like watching the original Ghostbusters movie and then watching the next two.  I could hardly conjure the desire to leave my bed, let alone go outside my flat, but I was hungry and had little in the way of proper food in my flat, and nobody was going to go to the supermarket for me.  Feeling like a tie just removed from the washing machine, I sloped around the aisles of Lidl and picked up what I considered to be an adult grocery shop.  At the self-service checkout, my minimal momentum was halted when the scales in the bagging area couldn’t recognise the weight of a packet of chillis, as the Tears For Fears song Everybody Wants To Rule The World was playing from my playlist.  I was standing waiting for an assistant to acknowledge my plight and help me when I realised that maybe it wasn’t all that funny after all.

My sountrack to the month of April: How A Resurrection Really Feels (an Easter playlist)

The night of the handshake

Good Friday started with the sort of hangover which only ever comes from stopping drinking before midnight, the type that is somehow worse than those experienced after you’ve been up until four o’clock in the morning and you awaken on the sofa wearing yesterday’s suit.  If this was how Christ felt after taking a chalice of wine at the Last Supper, I thought, then crucifixion was probably a welcome relief.

In a bid to resurrect my health I took a long walk by the sea after getting a hair cut which only succeeded in helping me look around six weeks younger.  It was the warmest day of the year to that point, and everybody and their dog seemed to be out enjoying the sun – even those without dogs.  I was walking with a hungover gait which I expected was giving the impression to passers-by that I was suffering from some serious ailment.  Near the war memorial, I was quickly overtaken by a couple who were wearing matching green lycra running gear.  They were the kind of outfits that I imagined were probably not so much an expression of their love for one another, but more like an obligation which comes from a his and hers Christmas gift given by a friend.  They had likely told loved ones that as a new couple who enjoy doing every waking thing together, they would accept presents which they could use together, such as a certificate for a day at a spa, or a pair of concert tickets, never expecting that they would be forced into taking up running as a hobby.

Nearer the centre of town, people were lined along the walls looking across the water towards the ferry terminal pier, where a small fishing boat which had sunk the previous morning was being raised from the bay.  The symbolism of this happening over Easter wasn’t lost on anyone – or at least it wasn’t missed by people who think about such things like I spend my time doing.  Most others were more interested in details like who the boat belonged to, where it had come from, how it had sunk and whether anybody had been hurt.  That was all anyone had talked about in the barbershop, anyway.

The sunset at the end of a day of beautiful spring weather presented an opportunity for a lineup of a different variety on the seafront as swarms of people were jockeying for position for the best photograph.  Couples were posing for selfies in front of the setting sun, as though the sinking star was any other prop, like those cardboard figures with their faces cut out you find at an amusement park.  Just another object in the shadow of their affection.

It was Friday night, and although I had been happily lounging around in jeans during the day, I changed into a suit – without the jacket – in keeping with the carefully crafted appearance I had been putting together for four years.  The diminutive barmaid in Aulay’s looked at me curiously and asked if I had been working.  When I told her that I had been off for the day, and pointed out that I was dressed in casual wear, she laughed hysterically.

“But the only difference is that you’re wearing a sweater vest?”  She said in the manner of a question, before laughing again.

I had a tinge of trepidation when I arrived in Aulay’s that night following the events of twenty-four hours previous, when I accidentally befriended my brother’s pub enemy.  If we are to accept that the concept of having a pub enemy exists, and that such a nemesis is a figure who constantly seems to have a presence when something goes wrong, despite your best efforts to not acknowledge them, then my pub enemy would be the fresh-faced homosexual, the diminutive barmaid’s would be the top shelf where the malt whiskies are kept, and my brother’s pub enemy would be the Brexit Guy.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, my brother and I found ourselves in conversation at the bar with a pleasant and soft-spoken man who had blonde hair to match the tanned complexion of his skin.  My attention drifted when the subject turned to politics, though I was soon aware of my brother’s tone becoming animated in the way it does when he disagrees with something.  The soft-spoken man didn’t stick around for long after that, and it transpired that despite living in Colombia for half of the year, he was in favour of Brexit because it would curb the number of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work.  Every time we saw him in Aulay’s after that night he was referred to as the Brexit Guy, and we never talked to him.

I couldn’t be sure how I ended up speaking to him the night before Good Friday, but I presumed that it was a drunken accident, the way someone picks up the wrong jacket or drinks a rum and coke instead of a Jack Daniels.  Once again I found him to be pleasant and softly-spoken, though in the back of my mind there was a pang of gnawing (Catholic) guilt that if my brother could see the scene he would be disappointed by my interaction with his pub enemy.  When it reached the point where the Brexit Guy was offering to buy a Jameson for me, I had to come clean and remind him of the incident a year earlier before I could accept the whiskey and at the same time force the diminutive barmaid to confront her own pub enemy.

The Brexit Guy remembered the confrontation well and implied that he feels awkward every time he sees my brother and me at the bar.  This made me feel strangely powerful, that for the first time in my life I was intimidating another person, even if it had all been the work of my brother.  I imagined that the Brexit Guy viewed us as figures similar to the Kray twins, unlike most other people in Aulay’s who see us as something closer to the Chuckle Brothers.

I was able to accept a drink from the Brexit Guy when he confessed that he was very drunk on the night in question and was probably taking a contrary opinion to my brother’s because he enjoys winding other people up when he has had too much to drink.  I wasn’t sure how much I believed his story, but he seemed genuine and I, myself, have often considered the sporting merits of taking an opposing view to my brother, though have never had the guts to see it through.  On Good Friday the Brexit Guy again approached me at the bar, and we were chatting when he told me that he felt the need to apologise to my brother.  He called across to him and extended a hand, in place of an olive branch, which my brother shook.  Brexit Guy apologised for “being a dick” in that initial meeting, and my brother conceded that he had probably been a dick too.  It was an Easter miracle that I had brought these two pub enemies together.  Not quite the resurrection of Christ, but closer to the raising of a sunken fishing boat.

By the time Easter Sunday came around, many of the faces around town had been reddened by the weather, and some in Markie Dans had been reddened by a day spent drinking.  The bar was busy and had developed its own micro-climate.  There were people crammed into every corner of the room, like the way that when you open just about any kitchen cupboard in the country there is a stash of novelty Cadbury’s mugs which have been gathered over the years, decorated in the style of chocolate bar wrappers such as Double Decker, Wispa or Caramel.  The mugs are only ever used in emergency situations, the occasions where the number of guests overwhelms the stock of proper cups.  I had recently looked in my dad’s cupboard and seen no fewer than seven mugs, which allowing for breakages probably amounted to around three Easter’s in our home.

Under the bar lights, a group of young ladies were organising themselves into formation for a pub selfie.  Following much direction the girls were ready for their moment, and after a pause one of them broke from the pack and approached me.  She had long brunette hair which was tied up into a tail, while on her back she was carrying a grey bag which was the size of a tortoise shell.  I wondered if she had noticed my youthful haircut, or whether she was going to comment on my black checked shirt, but instead, with a European accent, she asked me if I could take a photograph of the group.

When I returned the phone to the brunette with the bag I was waiting for the critique of my lack of focus and disappointing flash when I asked the girl where she was from.  “I’m over here from Germany,” she said. “Bavaria. Most people sound exhausted when I tell them I’m German.” I couldn’t really understand why this would be people’s response.  Underwhelmed I could see; disappointed even.  But exhaustion implied that the energy had been sucked from the very beings of those who had asked the same question I had, and that just seemed a bit of an over-reaction.  I assured her that I wasn’t exhausted to learn that she is German and, on the contrary, quite liked her accent.

“You think my accent sounds German?”  Asked the Bavarian brunette with the bag, her tone laced with something between disappointment and exhaustion.  She went on to explain that she is studying American English and had been listening to her American friends in class in the hope of using their dialect to disguise her German accent.  I told her that I couldn’t hear any American in her voice, and finding the expressions of the girl to be increasingly like the James Joyce novel Ulysses – too difficult to read – I eventually gave up trying.

There was a full moon sitting resplendent in the sky over the bay as I was walking home in the early hours of the morning, the largest substitute for company I could see anywhere.  I was thinking about the miraculous events of Easter weekend as I rounded the North Pier, the historic happenings in Jerusalem and the handshake between pub enemies in Aulay’s, and I accepted that it was always going to be too much to make a German girl smile.  I realised that it was probably for the best when I began to consider the his and hers gifts we might have one day received, and that I could have ended up wearing a bag as large as a tortoise shell.

The day of the spring clean

The infant days of April arrived with a sense of spring that was carried over the town by the warmth of a big, bold sun which bathed in the still sea.  When walking through George Street there were dank leftover oozes of winter when the sun would disappear behind the buildings, which for a few days made it difficult to decide how heavy a coat should be worn.  Until midweek I was persevering with my long black coat, wary of the chill that was still liable to creep up on a person.  This reminded me of the way that my niece always likes to hide behind the curtain in my living room when we are playing hide and seek, and I have to pretend that I don’t know that she’s there.

There is a legitimate vibrancy about the place when the sun is out.  Everything is brighter and everybody seems happier.  Though as much as I really want to enjoy the more pleasant climate of the season, I have found that spring only makes me feel miserable.  More specifically, hayfever is misery.  With the choked sinuses, the red eyes and the constant feeling of tiredness, hayfever can make spring seem like the beautiful friend you have but who you can never get as close to as you would like, because it only ever stings.

It cannot be emphasised enough how much of a pain hayfever is.  It is an ever-present nuisance throughout the finest months of the year; an irritant which for most of the time won’t leave you alone, and which you can do nothing about.  It is an allergy to joy.  Yet it isn’t overwhelming enough for a person to complain about, at least my hayfever isn’t.  It isn’t like the flu or a complete breakdown of the immune system.  It is a fly which you can’t swat.

Oban was a sight in all of its spring splendour.  The sun was casting shards of light onto the sea like it was a George Noble disco.  Families were strolling along the Esplanade with ice cream cones.  Heavy winter jackets had been replaced by loose clothing, such as t-shirts.  The al fresco areas of coffee shops and bars were bustling.  On the pavements there was a hive of activity as dozens and dozens of disoriented pedestrians were ambling in no particular direction.  They were all of a certain vintage and each of them had the appearance of someone who had been walking for several hours for no discernable reason.  There was a dazed look on their faces, and it figured that they had likely come off the cruise ship which was docked in the bay and was the size of a small island.  

Having made land for the first time in hours, or possibly even days, everything the tourists saw was new and wonderous.  Everywhere they looked there was a fresh photo opportunity:  the green hills cradling the town, the sky as blue as a carpet, a fishing boat crawling across the water, a seagull eating a chip, an empty Tesco carrier bag agitated by the breeze.

The sunny days were stretching long into the night, making it possible to enjoy a beer in daylight late into the evening.  I met with the bird watcher and a departing rugby playing accountant in the beer garden of the Perle Hotel, where the price of a Fyne Ales Workbench IPA was broadly similar to its ABV percentage.  It was after eight o’clock and as we were drinking our pints the setting sun was being returned to the lonesome ocean. The location was serene, despite the beer garden only being separated from the town’s transportation hub by a wall which was not much taller than an Ottoman.  Relaxed holidaymakers were rolling their luggage into the hotel behind us.  Nearby, tourists were strolling under a sky which was purple, amber and all of the shades at the warmer end of a colour chart.  Groups of schoolchildren were walking by, revelling in the freedom of another evening of their half-term break.  “Your dick is tiny,” one of the girls shouted down the street at a guy she knew, presumably.

The girl in question congregated on the other side of the small wall with another girl and one of the boys who was in the company of the lad with the allegedly inadequate appendage.  They were maybe around thirteen or fourteen-years-old, though with my eyes it was difficult to be sure.  Their conversation was not discreet, and it soon became clear that a picture of a penis had been sent from the boy to the girl on the mobile phone app SnapChat.  I was thinking about how the most salacious thing I had communicated through social media was a request for the best place in town to buy shoelaces, after the pair on my black shoes had snapped in my hand, leaving one end shorter than the other.

It was an unusual place to be considering it, but I was finding myself in a moral tug of war as to which of the parties I had most sympathy for:  the girl who may have been the victim of an unsolicited dick pic, or the boy with the pensive penis which might have been goaded into action.  Although the decision to send such an intimate image through SnapChat was at best questionable, I was equally concerned with the issue of who had made the girl an authority on dicks.  There were all sorts of reasons that the image may have been underwhelming; an unflattering filter for one, or a sense of artistic creativity which had not yet been fully developed.

The question of the teenager’s method of seduction was bothering me.  I couldn’t help but wonder if the photograph had been the culmination of a lengthy flirtation process, or if the boy had made a bold, balls-out decision to send a picture of his penis to a girl in the hope that it might impress someone.  It seemed to me that the latter scenario would be a mistake.  Even if SnapChat images disappear after a short period of time, the taunting over the size of the image was likely to last much longer.  It would potentially define his high school years, whereas when I make a stupid joke to a girl in the pub the feeling of futility only lasts until the next stupid joke.

The extended hours of sunshine were bringing light into parts of my flat which had only ever existed in perpetual darkness, as though shining a spotlight on my cleaning.  Suddenly I was made aware of a layer of dust on the foot of the mirror in the corner of my bedroom, and of a cobweb on the fireplace.  It was an opportunity for a literal spring clean, and as I went about the task I sneezed repeatedly and loudly.  On my knees, I thought about the stories the passengers from the cruise liner would have to tell their friends when they eventually returned home from their travels.  They would wax lyrical about the sunny shores and the scenery on the west coast of Scotland.  They would recall the busy town they had visited and the insults they thought they had heard the teenagers trade, though couldn’t be sure because English isn’t their native language.  Then there was the man in the long black coat whose eyes were red as though from crying at the arrival of spring.  Of all the unusual things, hating spring has to be up there.

The night I spilled the secret about when a guy guesses a girls age

A cruise ship the size of an island was docked off Oban

The communal close inside the entrance of the block of flats where I have been living for the last fifteen months is an unremarkable area. like the buttons on a shirt:  they serve a purpose, and the whole thing would fall apart if they weren’t there, but nobody ever really pays much attention to them.  The door into the close is painted the sort of green you might find on the cover of the menu in a restaurant which was once popular fifteen years ago.  The blue and white walls are cracked with age in places and some of the paint has peeled to reveal flecks of red underneath.  There is little in the way of lighting in the narrow corridor which leads to the staircase, as though designed to make it as challenging as possible for people to make their way home.  At the foot of the stairs, on the landing outside my door, is a pushchair and a pram, which I have come to think makes the toddler who they belong to something akin to those families in the better off parts of town who drive two cars.

It was the Monday morning after the Saturday where the plant doctor and I had attended a flat cooling at my brother’s place that something more remarkable was to be seen in the close.  A flat cooling is the term given to a party or a gathering of people in a home shortly before the occupant moves out;  the exact opposite of a flat warming.  It was a great source of debate as to which of us had coined the phrase flat cooling, but whoever it was, it was certainly one of our better ideas.  This particular Saturday in March was the second party we had held for my brother.  Traditionally a flat cooling ends when two people have fallen asleep on the couch and the third participant – not so much the winner as the lesser of the losers – is left to let themselves out.  On this occasion we drank beer, ate pork scratchings and listened to music until I was the last man standing, leaving the rest of the dozing flat coolers at around 3am.

Two days later, as I was leaving my flat to go to work, I encountered a lengthy note which had been taped to the back of the green door.  It was sprawling down the woodwork like an ancient scroll being unfolded, and it was reporting some pretty dire news.

“I’m sure we weren’t the only ones disturbed by our 5am visitor on Sunday morning,” it began.  This was the first I was hearing of an incident in our usually quiet close.  My first thought was:  oh, those poor people, imagining that the disturbance had taken place outside the flat of the family with the young child.  My second thought quickly followed: could that have been me?  I felt fairly confident that I had gone straight home to bed, rather than arrive back in the close, climb two flights of stairs and fall asleep outside the door of a neighbour, but I couldn’t completely rule it out, particularly when there had been an occasion in the previous twelve months where I had spent the night in my bathtub.

A redacted version of the sprawling note

Over the proceeding days the inside of the door became a hub of communication as new pieces of paper were attached with suggestions of how the block could best deal with the intrusion, the way that a concerned owner plasters a lamp post with posters of a missing kitten.  A vote was proposed with four selections: to re-enable the secure entry system; for the Yale lock to be fixed and everyone would use their keys to get in and out of the building; for nothing to change; or that there was no preference.  Of the six flats, five voted for the don’t care option, while one occupant went for the secure entry system, with the added note in parenthesis that they didn’t care either way.  It probably wasn’t an election that would break the Brexit deadlock, but within a week there was an electrician on the scene.

The original secure entry system for the building was connected into the circuit of my flat, and to reactivate it the electrician required access to my board.  As he was working the wiring, myself and an upstairs neighbour were standing by, static, and observing. The electrician began to focus on the timer and the question of whether we would want the system to be effective all of the time or only on weekends, when we might be more likely to receive unwelcome visitors.  “Do you get many late-night calls?”  He asked us.  I laughed.  “If only.”  I was immediately beginning to question if I had made a huge mistake with my vote and wondered whether an unsecure entry might have been what I was looking for.

Although I felt sure that I hadn’t pissed in the close a few weeks earlier, I was aware that I was needing to use the bathroom when I was in Aulay’s recently.  I strode through from the lounge bar to the men’s room with the sort of confidence that only a man who is desperate to use the toilet can show.  At the urinal there were already two men stationed at either flank of the stainless, although soon to be stained, steel.  I made my way between them and was standing directly over the drain, which at least was giving me something to focus on.  Ordinarily I hate finding myself next to another man at the urinal, let alone between two men.  There is always either the awkward attempt at conversation or the awkward attempt at pretending that the other person doesn’t exist.  This time, however, both of them left at exactly the same time, and I was left wondering what I had done to upset them.  While I was feeling a quiet relief at having the entire urinal to myself, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by a sense of dread that something had happened between the moment I had walked into the bathroom and when I had begun the act of expelling urine that had driven those two men to leave.

Upon leaving the men’s room and returning to the lounge bar I was beckoned by a table of half a dozen or more girls, one of whom I knew and another who recognised me from a meeting one night two years ago.  The girl, whose hair was the colour of a moonlit midnight sky, wasn’t particularly familiar to me, and when I asked her how she remembered me, she responded simply “because no-one dresses like that.”  It occurred to me that most men probably want to be remembered by women for their appealing physical attributes, their charming personality or because they were able to make them smile and laugh, while I have reached the stage where I am happy to be acknowledged as the guy who carries a pocket square which is the same colour as his socks.

The table of girls were out celebrating a birthday, I believe, with the female whose age had increased by a year that day expressing delight when I suggested that she looked younger than her years.  It was a throwaway remark made in the dizzying realisation that each of the girls before me was alluring in their own ways while I was a skeleton with hair dressed in a tweed suit.

Before I knew it I had six or seven girls asking me to “guess my age.”  Even when I confessed that I often have a habit of supposing an age younger than what I truly think, either as a form of flirtation or from a fear of offending, another girl would ask me how old I think she is.  The longer the charade went on, the more ridiculous my guesses were becoming.  It was getting to the stage where I had to walk away from the table before I was accusing someone of being too young for the pub.

As glamorous as the table of girls were, they had nothing on a sandwich artist who I saw the following night in Markies.  She was wearing an elegant black dress, the sort you would more likely see at a dinner party than in Oban on a Saturday night.  I have never before commented on an outfit she has worn, but as a person who is no stranger to an extravagant outfit in the pub, there was nothing I could do to stop myself from complimenting the dress.  It wasn’t just the dress, though.  She had these eyes that were like champagne, the sort that would go straight to your head if you stared at them for too long.  I couldn’t put an age on them.

At the end of the night, I put my earphones in and made the gentle walk home along the seafront.  When I arrived in the dark close of my flat I stopped myself and made sure that I was going into my place of living and not climbing the stairs.  Alone like any other Saturday, I opened a bottle of beer and eventually fell asleep on the couch.  It was more of a flat freezing than anything.