This is still life

It occurred to me recently, some time on a Saturday night, I think, that nothing ever really changes.  I get out of bed at the beginning of the week, brush my teeth and do my hair, and go back to bed when the week has finished.  In between, there are a series of events which repeat themselves in a loop, like a fairground ride – though more often it is something slow and safe, such as the teacups, rather than the Big Dipper.  It was when I was standing in The Oban Inn debating whether a puddle of beer on the surface of the bar looked more like an angel or a map of the country of Ireland as viewed by a bat that I decided that I could do with a day or two away from the town.

The puddle in the Oban Inn looked either like an angel or the map of Ireland turned upside down

With a rucksack three quarters filled with my most precious belongings and a change of underwear for two days, I made a midweek trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh:  two cities which I have seen enough of for them to no longer wow me, but which are affordable and close enough for a single man who relies solely on train timetables to travel to.  If nothing else, it was at least going to give me something grander to look at.

On the way to Edinburgh, a Spanish woman wearing a red knitted jumper was bounding from one end of the carriage to the other taking photographs of the countryside, the way I urgently leap up from my sofa if I think I have forgotten to switch off the towel rail.  To me the scenery was unremarkable, nothing I had not seen before, but to this tourist everything was new and worthy of capturing forever.  Frolicking lambs, horse boxes, green hills looming on the horizon, an ambulance with its blue lights flashing, road signs, an advertisement for a vintage car show, a heavy goods lorry.  I was worrying for the health of her phone once she saw the sights that Edinburgh had to offer

The warm, cloudless sky in the west was growling with grey the further east we travelled.  Out of the window on the left, the sun could be seen hiding behind a sprawling white cloud, giving it a crackling pink hue, like dropping a rose petal into a glass of Alka Seltzer.  On the right side of the train, the clouds were ominously black, and it was as though the sky had been split in two.  Switching my attention between the pair of opposing views put me in mind of the moments shortly before I decide to go up and talk to a girl at the bar and I can foresee the two potential outcomes:  the idealistic blue sky scenario where she smiles at my jokes and we hit it off like the sun nestling behind a cloud, or the imposing black clouds which loom large and only spell trouble.  Soon the sky erupted and a mighty rain cascaded down against the windows of the train, the drops as big as passion fruit seeds.  For a few minutes all anyone could see was rain.

In Glasgow I had visited some of my favourite bars for a few early afternoon beers, although at one o’clock Nice N Sleazy is more nice than sleazy and in Variety I was the only patron.  Edinburgh demands a more cultured approach, however, and I decided that I would go somewhere I had never been before and take a walk around the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The Scott Monument sitting against a blanket of grey clouds

While I have often enjoyed visiting art galleries, I have never really known how to react to art.  I always preferred words because they tell me how I should be feeling, and I know where I stand with words.  With paintings and photographs there is a lot more room for interpretation, which is troublesome for me when my interpretation of things is often wildly different to what was intended; something which has become increasingly evident the more I try to wear pink socks to match a tie which everybody else insists is coral pink.  One painting which featured, amongst other figures, Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus, carried the description that the woman was displaying remorse and repentance, when to me it looked like she had drawn the short straw.

As I worked my way around the various displays, I was spending more time reading the descriptions on the cards positioned next to the artwork than I was studying the actual art, though even they did not prove terribly helpful.  In the gothic room, I was vexed by such phrases as “the suggestive tying of a garter” and “the placement of a glass jug indicating that the sitter was a glassmaker.”  All I could see was a man who cared deeply about fashion and a clumsy mistake, like when a selfie is botched by a thumb which has crept over the lens of the camera.

The employees of the National Portrait Gallery were floating across the floor without it being immediately obvious what they were doing.  In the section dedicated to Scottish art, an expressionless bearded man, dressed in the uniform of a white shirt with an emerald green tie, was sitting on a chair which was backed against the wall.  It was as though his features were sculpted from marble, and only his eyes could move as he observed the room.  Although I was looking at a piece by David Wilkie, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if the people working in the gallery ever become bored with seeing the same things every day, the way the rest of us suffer the mundane things in our own jobs such as spreadsheets or grinding coffee beans.  In my mind’s eye, I could see the man turning up for work at nine o’clock in the morning, buoyed by a walk under pale blue sky, and he reports to his supervisor to find out which room he has been assigned for the day.  “Rembrandt again,” he sighed to himself, his wispy white beard ruffled with disappointment.

Near the Van Gogh, a pair of employees in matching tartan skirts were discussing their imminent lunch plans.  One of the women was scheduled to take her break at one o’clock, while the other was going to have to wait until two, although she was meeting her boyfriend at Yo Sushi and it was probably going to be worth the wait.  I had worked my way round to the portrait of the Three Tahitians, by which time I was feeling like the man who was caught in the middle of the woman offering indulgence with the mango and the second woman in the painting, who was offering convention with the wedding ring.

The only piece of art which really grabbed my attention was the 1708 work by Thomas Warrender titled Still Life;  a portrait of a random collection of the artist’s belongings, amongst which were a quill, a comb, some playing cards, and a baby blue bow tie.  I was entranced by the picture, which was presumably the 18th century equivalent of me lining up a small pocket notebook, a Zebra Z-Grip Smooth pen, a pocket square and a bottle of Joop! aftershave and taking a photograph with my phone.  I was staring at it until it went black, completely immersed in the whole idea, until somewhere in the distance a mobile phone went off, and the owner took a call on loudspeaker.  On the other end, a woman with an elegant and well-prepared voice was asking if the recipient of the phone call could spare a few minutes to take part in a survey.  The person with the phone, whose face I never saw, disappeared into the next collection, and it didn’t take much to guess what their own Still Life portrait would look like.  At times of intense loneliness, I have often thought about the way that the whole world can feel like our own enclosed space, and this seemed like another of those instances.

With culture firmly in mind, I thought that I would retire to my favourite bar in Edinburgh, Brass Monkey, to consider all that I had seen.  On my way there I walked past a man on North Bridge who was dressed in a robe which was the colour of a baboon.  On his head he wore a red beanie hat, while his dark beard was dishevelled and stained with shades of grey.  He was standing on the pavement ranting loudly at passers-by, with it becoming clear as I approached that the subject of his discontent was Robinson Crusoe. It wasn’t obvious what his trouble with the character was, but he seemed upset by it all the same.  Further up the road on Infirmary Street, a large group of people, presumably on a walking tour, were stopped outside Cafe Nero listening to a man speak.  Meanwhile, on the nearby stoop of an empty premises, a man was wrapped in a blue nylon sleeping bag.  Life is insecure, and hope full oft fallacious as a dream.

I was reviewing my notes in Brass Monkey when my attention was caught by something I had never before seen at a bar.  The barman sat a glass which was around two-thirds filled with ice on the bar in front of a man who was of average height and wearing a grey t-shirt.  Next to the glass was a green bottle of Schweppes tonic water, which the man proceeded to pour into the glass, which I presumed to have a measure of gin or vodka on the bottom.  Floating on the surface of the drink, cradling the blocks of ice like a buoy at sea, was what appeared to be an egg – still in its shell and all.  The more I looked at the scene the more certain I was that I was seeing an egg garnishing an alcoholic drink.  I waited for around twenty minutes to find out what would happen when the man reached the end of his beverage, as to that point all he had been doing was drinking around the egg as it bobbed against his hairy upper lip.  Finally he was on the last mouthful of his refreshment, and I was eagerly anticipating the moment where he was surely, I imagined, going to crack the shell against the rim of the glass and down the raw egg.

Is this an egg?

Instead he ordered another drink – the same again – and when he finished the first, he set the glass aside with the egg still intact, before pouring a fresh bottle of tonic water into the second glass, which also had what seemed to be an egg floating in it.  The process was repeated all over again, and it struck me that I would have been as well looking at an impressionist painting in the National Portrait Gallery, because I couldn’t understand any of it.  Why was the egg in the glass?  Why didn’t he break it?  Was it even an egg?  If it wasn’t an egg, then what was it?  I asked an Italian waiter each of these questions later in the evening and he only stormed off uttering words in his native tongue which sounded like they were indicating confusion.

Even though I had only been out of town for two days, I returned to see that Aulay’s Bar had been painted on the outside.  The coat was so fresh that the fumes could still be detected inside the bar, though the smell was probably no more intrusive than the regular fragrances that linger around a pub.  Over an intoxicating pint of Tennents Lager, the plant doctor and I resumed our usual topics of conversation as we discussed which of us would be more likely to be my brother’s best man if there was ever a scenario where he was getting married, Paolo Nutini puns, the merits of whether a disagreement is a £5 argument or a £10 argument and later in the night we both received a goodnight kiss on the cheek from Geordie Pete, which we agreed had a familiar feeling.

For a change of scenery we ventured to the Balmoral after watching the Scottish Cup final, where there were more people than the last time I had drank in there years earlier, and the carpet wasn’t nearly as sticky.  On my left-hand side appeared a woman who was a lot younger than everyone else in the bar.  Her hair was the colour of shaded sunlight, and she ordered a pint of Magners Cider.  The barmaid was a quick server, leaving me little time to consider my options.  As she took the glass in her hands, I blurted out the only thing I could think of and asked how her day was going.  The woman was having a good day, and our conversation seemed to be developing well.

In the space of a few minutes I learned that she was twenty-six-years-old – which was older than I had guessed – and that she was visiting Oban from Glasgow for the weekend with her mother, as it was a town they had come to often when she was younger, and she had promised to take her mum once she returned from a year living in Australia.  It was all I could do when she mentioned this fact to let her know that I had recently watched the Australian film Wolf Creek, which was based on a true story about a group of young travellers who were abducted and brutally tortured by a psychopath.  The woman didn’t respond to this piece of information, and instead took her drink and returned to the company of her mother at their table on the opposite end of the room.

I left the Balmoral a short time later, while a steady rain was falling from the bleak sky.  After a week during which I had a brush with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Da Vinci, I was still going to bed at the end of it all, waiting to get back on to the teacups to start it all over again.  I had seen the blue sky, but I was still searching to understand the meaning of it all.

May I make a playlist? My Spotify soundtrack for the month of May


Kevin Carter, skins and a beard off

Our relationship had lasted a few days short of sixteen months, which is around a year and a third longer than most of my typical relationships.  During our time together we had both grown and matured into different versions of ourselves, and my environment was certainly healthier for having Sally around.  Sally and I had seen some sights in those sixteen months.  There were the impromptu flat parties with booze and music and dancing, the nights when I would return home from the pub and fall asleep on the sofa wearing my suit, the repeated airings of the nineties TV sitcom Seinfeld, the hours I would spend practicing reading material to an otherwise empty room.  She was always there.

Sally was a houseplant named after the Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because she was a plant and she was incapable of dancing – and it eventually came time for me to accept that we could no longer be together.  For longer than I could admit she had been looking the way I had been feeling:  tired, drooping, unloved.  Nothing should look like that.  It took me a few days after I had made the decision to dump Sally for me to actually get around to the business of putting her into a bin bag.  It seemed harder than it should have been to get rid of a houseplant.  Finally I stood Sally in a white bin liner, feeling that was the most respectful way of ending our relationship, though her tall branches were still protruding through the handles of the bag, making it difficult to tie up the loose ends.

Buying myself a houseplant seemed like a good idea at the time.  I thought that I could get into a routine of watering a plant the way I go about my other daily habits, like colour coordinating the shirts in my wardrobe or moisturising in the morning; it was just something I would get used to doing.  After a couple of years of using a particular brand of moisturiser, I had taken the decision to change to a cheaper product.  In my mind, why would I spend £4 on something when I could pay £2 for almost exactly the same thing and use the change to buy beer?  

When the time came for me to use my new cost-efficient choice of moisturiser, everything seemed exactly as it had been before.  After stepping out of the shower I applied the cream to my cheeks, forehead, and neck, and it wasn’t any different to anything else I had put on my face.  Then I caught a sniff of the fragrance, which was immediately familiar.  It reminded me of someone I had once known very well, and I was struggling with the idea of having that memory linger on my skin every day when it is difficult enough that is already under my skin.  But I’m a single occupant and I couldn’t afford to dump an entire tube of moisturiser just because it provokes old memories, so I was forced to keep using it.  I suppose that these things are like the stubble on my moisturised face:  I have to take the rough with the smooth.

Under the blue skies of May, things were beginning to be seen in a new light.  On the shore, I was walking with my niece when we happened upon what, from a distance, appeared to be a beautiful act of nature as a crow was enjoying a meal of a freshly caught fish.  As we were nearing I pointed the scene out to the three-year-old, thinking of her fondness for cute animals doing adorable things.  “Look at that hungry bird,” I enthused.  It was only as we were getting closer still that it became clear that the large black crow was feasting upon the carcass of another bird, and that the victim’s head had long since been claimed.  I had to act quickly to divert my niece’s attention from the looming horror, challenging her to find a seashell somewhere off in the distance, far from the sandy dinner table.  Meanwhile, a man – presumably a tourist – was taking pictures of the slaughter as it continued, desperately snapping away on his professional looking equipment.  I was wondering what the photographer had expected he would capture on his camera when he left his hotel room that morning.  A buoyant spring sky, churches bathed in sunshine, boats ferrying passengers to the islands across sparkling crystals in the sea, an act of avian cannibalism.

Earlier I, along with my brother, had taken our niece to the Driving Smarter Energy event at the Corran Halls, where there was an opportunity to test drive electric cars and learn about different ways we can make our homes more energy efficient.  As neither of us knows how to drive, we had attended simply because I had learned that there was a bouncy castle and face painting, and it seemed like an easy way to burn off a chocolate high.  We were the only people in attendance at the time, so while my niece was running from end-to-end on the bouncy castle, I was forced to make conversation with the man who had organised the event about electrical charging points around Oban.  For an educational enterprise about finding a more sustainable use of energy, it seemed like a tremendous waste.

Outside, in the foyer of the hall, after the bouncy castle had been exhausted, I found myself talking to a pair of council employees who are the mothers of two people who were in my class in primary school.  Their attention had been caught by my sister’s daughter, in the way that people are always surprised by how much a child has grown and they struggle to believe that the infant can really be the age you claim that they are, like there would be something to be gained from lying about my sister having a three-year-old daughter who is still growing taller.

The women were especially incredulous about the appearance of my brother, while it was agreed that I have “always looked the same,” which seemed unlikely when I had more hair and less stubble in primary school.  In the end, I put it down to being one of those generic things that people say when they haven’t seen you for a long time and I didn’t argue it.  I asked the women how their respective children were doing, and when one mother responded that her daughter now has a girl who is eleven-years-old, I took on the role of the disbelieving.  It occurred to me that a girl I had gone to primary school with has a child who is the same age I would have been when I last saw that classmate in school.  The friends I had grown up with have husbands and wives, they have families and some live in cities, while I’m walking along the shoreline taking pictures of a man who is photographing a crow eating a headless bird.

It was some time later that the plant doctor, my brother and I were walking down into town after spending a few hours in Lower Soroba drinking beer in the fading sun.  We were three men in our thirties playing songs by the band Wings from my mobile phone, the way trendy car stereos thump loudly as they pass.  A group of teenage girls were walking towards us.  It was impossible to think that they were considering us to be cool.  As we passed the girls, one of them asked if we had any skins, the type of question a teenager only ever asks of a person they think is old.  I was never asked for a cigarette by someone younger when I was in my twenties, not even when I was smoking them myself.  I felt a compulsion to respond that “between the three of us there is quite a lot of skin,” and knowing full well that the girls weren’t enquiring about the body’s largest organ, it came as no surprise when we were told to fuck off.

Things were being viewed differently in the bathroom of The Oban Inn too, where I witnessed a young man emerge from the cubicle and stagger across to the sink where he made an attempt at washing his hands, before vomiting into the clean white porcelain.  He washed away the remnants of his body’s revolt and, just as he was readying to walk away, he turned and spewed again.  “Got to make sure it’s all out,” he was heard to say to no-one in particular as I was standing at the urinal questioning how he had not known that he was going to be sick when he was in the privacy of the cubicle.  I could only imagine that it was similar to when I return home from a shopping trip to Lidl and remember that I haven’t bought spinach and orange juice, which was the reason I had went out in the first place.

On Saturday night Markie Dans seemed to have an unspoken dress policy of only admitting bearded men, though somehow I had managed to sneak past the bouncers with my roughly stubbled and smooth-cheeked features.  I was talking to a girl in a polka dot dress when I was surveying the fuzzy-faced scene all around me, and being that we were in a minority of people whose faces weren’t dressed with hair, I encouraged the girl to rate the beards before us.  It was the first time any of us had participated in a beard off in the middle of a busy pub, though there were simply too many beards to comment upon.  I had the scent of moisturiser still clinging to my nostrils, it was impossible to shake.  Whether it was a beard off, skins or a photograph, it seemed that all I was doing was searching for a seashell.

The night of the jukebox consternation

Although with spring the days were growing longer and lighter, they were also becoming lonelier.  It seemed that in the last year I have become a lot like the Conservative Party, in that I have developed a difficult relationship with May.  If it is true that April showers bring May flowers, then I should be expecting to inherit a lot more houseplants for me to kill in the coming months.

Recently I have been substituting an absence of actual friendships for imagined acquaintances I’ve been making in the street.  These relationships were not random in the conventional sense, in so much as the people involved were strangers who I had been passing on my way through the town on a near daily basis for several months.  There comes a point when you are seeing the same people every day that in your mind you start to feel like you already know them.  Even though you only see them for those same few seconds each day, you begin to build a story of their routine in your head.

There is the man who is shaped like a large free range egg.  I pass him almost every morning when he is carrying two or three shopping bags which for some reason I always imagine are filled with those packs of a dozen rolls.  I have yet to figure out why a person would need so many rolls, but the timing of our meetings suggest that he is the first person in the supermarket when it opens and that he empties the entire bakery section of rolls, therefore depriving everyone else.  This has caused me to take an immediate dislike to the character, which no matter how harsh it seems, I have been sticking to rigidly.

At the station, a woman gets off the bus from out of town at the same time each day.  She is usually quite smartly dressed in a long skirt and heels, and her professional attire leads me to think that she probably works in an office, though her hair sometimes has an indescribable quality which reminds me of a scarecrow.  Often she is seen carrying a cotton bag over her shoulder, the type one might keep clothes pegs in.  Silently I judge this, as it doesn’t really match anything that she is wearing.  The first thing she does after disembarking from the bus is to light a cigarette, I expect probably more out of an addiction to nicotine than from the treacherous rush hour bus journey through Oban.  I have never seen the woman without a cigarette in her hand, and it is usually a pretty good indicator of how early or late I am for work by how much of it she has smoked.

On a morning at the end of April, a large lorry was taking up an entire lane of a road which straggles off the square as it was unloading a delivery to one of the nearby shops.  The cigarette smoking scarecrow was finding it difficult to cross the road due to her inability to see any oncoming traffic in the other lane.  From the side of the road that she was hoping to reach, I could see that there were no cars approaching and I crossed with confidence.  As I reached the lorry I looked at the stranded smoker, and feeling secure enough in our imagined friendship to attempt actual communication, I assured her that “it’s alright to cross, you’re safe.”  The smoker didn’t seem to have reached the same stage in our relationship, though, and she smiled out of the other side of her cigarette, in a way that said I don’t know who you are.

It was the same look of ignorance that I imagined the charity collectors for the National Deaf Children’s Society saw on my face later in the week.  They had been stationed outside Boots for several days, though I had not passed them due to my habit of walking on the opposite side of the street, which is closest to the sea.  When I found myself striding towards them on Friday evening, I had beers on my mind and my music was turned up loud in my ears.  As I was approaching the donation-seeking duo I could see the woman’s lips moving as she held up her hand in an effort to attract my attention.  I waved in return whilst mouthing the word “sorry” as I continued to walk on by.

A display in Poppies Garden Centre, near Oban, put me in mind of the phrase “April showers bring May flowers.”

Later on Friday the local amateur football club Oban Saints were playing in their first major final as they contested the West of Scotland Amateur Cup in Hamilton.  The public bar in Aulay’s was packed full of sports fans cheering on the team from afar, as the match was broadcast live on the big screen thanks to the efforts of the entrepreneurial local startup Oban Live Streams.  It was a rare sight to see everyone in the bar cheering for the same team, rather than against Celtic.

Things were looking hopeful early in the second-half when Saints marched into a 2-1 lead, and although the promise of victory didn’t last long, the town threatened to have a new hero when Cameron Hill scored his second goal to make it 3-3 and take the final to extra-time.  The goalscorer’s name was being chanted around Aulay’s by drink wet voices, though eventually the valiant effort of the local team succumbed to Bannockburn AFC in the additional thirty minutes and the final ended 6-3.

In the lounge bar, the plant doctor and I had each contributed £1 to the jukebox in order to have our preferred playlist of songs heard.  The usual mix of The Smiths, Neil Young, and R.E.M. serenaded the humming bar, and the plant doctor and I greatly enjoyed our selections.  After around twenty-five minutes of musical bliss, the jukebox returned to playing a random mix of music, as it does when there are no other songs waiting to be played.  The first song it played after our £2 outlay was a Punjabi track which had a hint of the sound of Shakira.  It turned out to be a favourite of the Polish scientist with a moniker, and the plant doctor and I were left feeling umbrage and considering the fairness of the jukebox system.

Despite the incident with the jukebox, we returned to Aulay’s on Saturday, where we watched Celtic win their eighth consecutive Scottish Premier League title.  The noise which roared from the public bar any time Aberdeen threatened to score suggested that, as ever, there was a significant majority hoping to see Celtic lose, which only made the victory more enjoyable.  I had grown up in the nineties, when seeing Celtic win a trophy, let alone a league title, seemed about as likely as me finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night does now.  These days when Celtic win are not to be taken for granted, and they are celebrated with pure joy when they come around.

In Markie Dans, there were celebrations of a different sort.  The dancefloor was pulsing with a wedding party, and one particular woman who was dressed in a becoming ghostly white dress had caught my eye.  I thought that I could dance closer to her, hopeful that my moves would attract her attention, but before I could so much as sway my hips in her direction, she was gone.  Like an apparition in the night, she had vanished in the blink of an eye.  At the end of the night, I was left to go home to the solace of yet more imaginary relationships without finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night.  Some things never change.