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.


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