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.
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.