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.
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.
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.
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.