Scene from a sci-fi movie

Even without access to a calendar, it is usually pretty easy to tell when summer has properly arrived on the west coast of Argyll.  The people who were wishing for the snow to disappear in January have turned their attention to praying for cooler temperatures. Washing lines become populated day after day with every wet material imaginable hanging alongside regular items of washing:  bath mats, wetsuits, dog beds.  After a day or two of sunshine, the skin seen around Oban begins to resemble a Dulux colour chart, with shades ranging from ‘fresh from the teat of a cow’ to ‘medium rare steak’.

In my flat the climate had been lifted from its natural Arctic feel to something nearing cool.  Early in the day the light was crashing through the windows at the front, illuminating every room, while in the evening it was shining into the kitchen, making everything warm.  Even late into the night the sun was still there, making the buildings across the street the colour of an apricot as it was setting.  By the end of the week the heat in the kitchen had become so unbearable while I was preparing dinner that there reached a point where I was considering the merits of cooking shirtless.  The debate was one of comfort, allied to the concern that olive oil may spit and splutter from the frying pan.  In the end, as in all situations, I thought it best to keep my shirt on, mostly because I was nervous about the hummus.

In contrast to the agitating evenings in the kitchen, the summer mornings were warm and uplifting, like the embrace of a friend not seen for a while or the first shot of Jameson when it hits the back of the throat.  On George Street, a group of six or so tourists was huddled closely together by the traffic lights outside the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop.  From a distance it looked like a scene from a sci-fi movie, where the population of a small village has dropped everything they were doing and gathered to look skyward at some unidentifiable presence as it hovers on the horizon.   As I advanced closer to the group whilst on my morning walk to work it was evident that they were looking up Stafford Street, beyond the red chimney of Oban Distillery, which when caught on the right day can give the appearance of the burning end of a cigar, and to McCaig’s Tower on the clifftop above.  They were gazing at the eternally unfinished structure the way I look across the bar at a woman I like – with wonder – and it quickly became clear that they didn’t know how to approach it. 

I was listening to Yo La Tengo when I tried to snake around the group unnoticed, walking at least six inches onto the road in order to avoid their dropped jaws.  I had almost walked past all six of the tourists when the last guy, who was maybe the third oldest in the group, gesticulated in a manner which suggested that he had something he wanted to say.  I slowed my pace and withdrew my earphones just as the chorus was coming, in time to hear the man ask “how do we get up there?”

His accent was unmistakably Italian, which was enough to tell me that he should be taken seriously.  I always get anxious when a stranger stops me to ask for directions when I am in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I am torn between being the person who genuinely wants to help another human and the one who isn’t local and who doesn’t really know where anything is, aside from a handful of bars.  But in Oban I can pretend that I am assured and confident when approached by strangers with broken English who don’t know any better, so I turned and pointed down George Street and directed the collective to “take the next right and then follow the road all the way up.  You should see it signposted on the way.”

The Italian nodded the way a person does when they want to indicate that they have understood what you have just told them, and I continued on my morning walk with a warm glow which was in keeping with the sunshine on my back.  As the day went on I found myself becoming increasingly worried about the advice I had dispensed.  I was sure that they knew what I was meaning when I was pointing to the right, but the rest was just pot luck.  How would this group of six people know that what they were looking at from the pavement was McCaig’s Tower?  That name could as well read pancake with bite marks on a street sign for all the Italians knew.

I kept going over my words through the afternoon.  The more I thought about what I had told the tourists, the more unsure I was growing.  What if they translated that to mean ‘and then you take out your safety goggles and rock climbing equipment and scale the rock face until you reach the base.’?  After a while I was checking Twitter and news articles, looking for reports of six Italian tourists who had become lost, presumed gravely injured, as they tried to climb an unmarked path to McCaig’s Tower.  There was nothing in the news, and by the next morning I could only presume that the sight seekers had safely survived their climb.

By Saturday the weather had been broken by a tumultuous thunderstorm, one so ferocious that it shook the flooring of my flat and reverberated like a memory.  I was preparing for my third reading at the open mic event Let’s Make A Scene, an idea which six months earlier had been floated amongst friends as a joke but had since become something that I looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure, the same way I feel about going to the barber, when I know that my hair will look better once it has been cut but there is the inevitable itch from hairs trapped under the collar of my shirt to contend with.

Throughout the entire day I was feeling sick from nerves.  My anxiety was eating me from the inside, and I was feeling like a group of Italian tourists, unsure of what I was doing, where I was going or why.  It seemed to only be a matter of time before I would be in the bathroom throwing up, and my main concern was that it should happen before I changed into my black shirt.  The longer the day went the more my nerves were rumbling, as intense as the rain hitting the pavement outside.  Still, I stuck to the same routine I had gone through before my previous readings and listened to The Midnight Organ Fight twice before opening a bottle of beer.  After packing my notebook and a quarter bottle of Jameson into my satchel I began changing into my suit, the uneasiness growing within me.  I was reluctant to venture too far from the bathroom mirror, not for reasons of vanity, but because it was close to the toilet.

My nausea seemed to have developed a shyness it had never shown before, though, and despite my best intentions, I couldn’t get it out.  It was not unlike the scene I had witnessed the previous night in Aulay’s, when a man whose fingers were inexplicably bloody couldn’t tear open a plaster.  After several increasingly frustrated attempts he eventually resorted to using his teeth.

A tattooed marine biologist asked if I feel that I perform better after being sick.  I hadn’t thought about it before, though it was a difficult question to answer when all I had known was vomiting from nerves before reading to an audience.  We agreed that even if I wasn’t sick on this occasion, I would have to be able to do it all again once more to have a fair and accurate sample.  If nothing else it gave me a pretty good opening line later in the evening, although maybe not so much at the bar.

There was scaffolding almost as tall as the building itself wrapped around the old Rockfield primary school as the refurbishment inside continued on to its next phase.  In the hut, the fading embers of a June night were casting strands of light through the tops of the windows, fraternising with the fairy lights at the front to create an ambiance and a warmth which was unlike previous events, where it usually feels like you are in a cool and intimate underground night spot that is so trendy that most people don’t know it is there yet.

The room was quickly filling with people, many of whom had not been at a Let’s Make A Scene before, some who had not been in a while, and one elegant string plucker who was, sadly, making his last appearance.  Even though I had turned up with the intention of reading to a room full of people, I could feel my stomach tensing as I watched them actually arrive.  In order to avoid my nerves turning me into the drunken blur I feared I was at the previous event, I requested an earlier slot in the set.

In the end, the reading seemed to go as well as these things can, although the joke about the British band Dire Straits that I had been working on for around four years only succeeded in drawing groans.  Not long after I had finished my piece, the Subway Girl turned up hoping to hear me perform.  I felt sad that she had missed it, especially when my nervous reluctance would ordinarily have forced me to go on much later, but I couldn’t help but feel very happy that she had thought to come at all.  I was able to enjoy the rest of the performances by the much more talented poets and musical acts whilst basking in the warm glow of achievement, triumph and whiskey.  It was a feeling, I thought, similar to the first time you see the view from McCaig’s Tower.

The Fine Art of Self-DestrucJune – My Spotify playlist for the month of June

For those without a Spotify account, the following is a song I have listened to around a hundred and one times in the last thirty days…

The Fine Art of Self-Destruction

Although the trains between Oban and Glasgow generally operate between meal times, there always seems to be an instinctive need to snack when travelling on them.  I have never known why it is, but when you look around any table on the 12.11 service you will see them decorated with pretty paper Costa bags, Subway sandwiches and large bags of Kettle’s crisps.  And these are all people who probably ate a large lunch before they boarded the train.  There’s just something about the prospect of spending three hours enclosed in a boiling metal container that has people stocking up as though they might never see food again.

In my modest backpack I was carrying three peaches and two bananas.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a peach, though it seemed unlikely that it had been within the current century.   Despite my lack of recent peach experience, it caught my eye whilst shopping in Lidl that they had the fruit on offer at 59p for a punnet of six, which if nothing else would at least finally provide me with a retort to the question of what can you get for ten pence these days?  If anyone should sarcastically ask that in the general area of my presence, I could tell them:  “well, actually, you could get yourself a peach and still have a penny change.

I approached the checkout with a basket filled with peaches, bananas, four cans of Budweiser and a few other items which I wasn’t going to need until after my train journey.  The queue was unusually long for a Monday afternoon, or at least it was longer than I had imagined the line would be, having never actually shopped at three o’clock on a Monday before.  It was when I eventually reached the self-service till, having scanned each of my items through the system, that I became much more aware than ever before of my need to make contact with the card reader, even when making a contactless payment with my debit card.  I was feeling a sense of unease, perhaps even embarrassment, when I realised that not only was I touching the device with my purple plastic debit card, but I was holding it firmly against the screen until the payment had been recognised.  It was clear that I was substituting my emotional need for intimacy, for contact, for a £9.87 payment for groceries.

On the train, I unpacked the fruit from my luggage just as the others around me were placing their own food on the table.  The white-haired woman sitting opposite me unveiled a sandwich that was the most tightly wrapped in clingfilm I had ever seen.  The wrapping job was perfect, as though it was a tourniquet holding a wounded salmon together until it could make it into surgery.  Watching the whole thing, I couldn’t help but feel shame about my own use of clingfilm, which is so loose that it resembles a Club 18-30 holiday.  By the time the sandwich had been unwrapped, it was obvious that the salmon had not made it.

At the table across the carriage, a middle-aged couple whose accent depicted a Yorkshire charm became involved in a dispute with one another when a third party at their table pointed out that their sodden Costa bag was leaking coffee onto the surface.  The woman hastily removed two cups which were stained with brown from the bag while her other half sighed, his face as stern as a weather-beaten granite statue.  “We’re going to have to get rid of these coffees ASAP,” the man said, speaking the final part of his sentence as though it was a word, rather than the initialism most people commonly use.  Other than drinking the coffees, I couldn’t see what their options were.

Jesse Malin performed The Fine Art of Self-Destruction at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on Thursday 20 June

As I was unpeeling my banana, the passenger sitting next to me was using the Spotify app on his mobile phone to listen to the greatest hits album by Midge Ure.  He pressed play as the train was leaving the station in Oban, and by the time it had reached the first stop in Connel fifteen minutes later, his earphones were coiled on the area in front of him, alongside his phone and his glasses.

Around an hour had passed since consuming the banana when I was beginning to feel the need to eat again.  I hadn’t purposefully left it so long before thinking about having the peach because I was looking forward to it, the way I’ll sometimes leave my favourite song until the last selection on the jukebox, but more because I was feeling anxious about eating a peach in front of other people.  It’s not that I didn’t know how to eat a peach, just that it had been so long since I had eaten one that I had forgotten how to do it without looking like someone who hasn’t eaten a morsel of food in five months.

With the peach sat on the table staring back at me, I was reminded of a similar situation I found myself in some years earlier on the same train when I was sitting opposite a mother and her son, who was no more than five-years-old and who had peeled the skin from an orange in one attempt and in the fashion of an elephant’s trunk.  I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the two satsumas I was carrying in my bag.  My anxiety was justified when I began peeling the first of the satsumas and it turned into an arduous demonstration of my method of stripping old wallpaper from a wall, taking at least eight tries at removing all of the orange peel.  I felt disillusioned, and even though the young boy’s head was buried in a colouring book, I was sure that he was silently judging me.  Not only that, but he was probably staying within the lines, too.

I was keen to avoid a repeat of the orange peel incident and ensure that I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of my fellow passengers, particularly when I could recall that a good, ripe peach has the potential to be very juicy.  It was this that was troubling me, in addition to the furry texture of the skin, which was key to my uncertainty over how the fruit should be eaten.  I used the Safari browser on my phone to Google the phrase “how to eat a peach,” and the first result was a WikiHow page which offered the helpful advice that a peach is eaten like an apple.  Confidently I sunk my teeth into the skin and found that the fruit was not entirely ripe.

My first calling point in Glasgow was MacSorley’s on Jamaica Street, a city centre bar which had reopened the previous Friday following its closure in 2018.  I had a faint memory of a busy night drinking in there with a wild-haired friend some years earlier, and it seemed like a good location to while away a couple of hours before the Jesse Malin gig I was attending later in the night.  The bar was the brightest I had seen anywhere, with late afternoon sunlight falling in through the impressive stained glass windows and an entire solar system of spotlights sparkling from the ceiling.  A selection of music was playing over some speakers, though the volume would suddenly go from being very loud to barely audible, in the way of a conversation in the pub, and I was left tapping my foot to a beat I couldn’t quite hear.

The couple along the other side of the bar from me was keeping a more steady volume, and they seemed to be involved in a dare which had challenged them to speak exclusively using words that were four letters long.  After a drawn-out dispute over the technicalities of saving a photograph from a WhatsApp message to use as a screensaver, the couple asked one of the barmen for suggestions of a drink that the raspberry-haired woman could try as an alternative to vodka, which seemingly is much too easy to drink and doesn’t last nearly as long as a pint of lager.  The barman poured various schooners of Heineken, Amstel, fruit ciders and Neck Oil IPA, and despite the latter drink’s pleasing elderflower fragrance, the woman decided that she would have another vodka after all.  I was watching the scene unfold with interest and the cynic within me wondered whether it was all an elaborate rouse to score some free drinks, rather than a genuine concern over equity.

My observation of the couple had provided a brief distraction from my ongoing curiosity regarding the dish of blueberries behind the bar, beside the wedges of lemon and lime.  I couldn’t determine what use a blueberry would have in a pub, and I was thinking about it so much that it was all I could do to ask the barmaid when it came time to order another beer.  The young woman behind the bar had a stature that put me in mind of a cocktail stick, and I worried that my question would knock her over.

“I can’t stop looking at the pile of blueberries there.  What kind of drinks would you use them in?”

“I’m not really sure,” the barmaid bristled.  “No-one has ever asked that.”  Considering that the bar had not yet been open for a week it didn’t come as a surprise to me that no-one had asked about the blueberries, though it seemed inevitable that they would in time.

The barmaid’s striking pink eye shadow must have mirrored the colour of my cheeks when she suggested that she would ask her supervisor about the blueberries.  After a few moments she returned with a tall man who had a beard which implied knowledge and wisdom.  The barmaid told her supervisor about my blueberry query, and suddenly my vague attempt at flirtatious banter had turned into a full-scale investigation.  I sunk into my barstool the way my heart had been sucked into my liver as the barman explained that sometimes people like blueberries with vodka and lemonade, or occasionally in gin or combined with a daiquiri.  Now the music gets louder, I was thinking as they walked away.

Before I left MacSorley’s for King Tut’s I made use of the bathroom, where I discovered a large chalkboard on the back wall of the men’s room.  The board was headed ‘The Graffiti Wall’, and it was presumably a device installed to prevent people from inscribing telephone numbers on the doors of cubicles with suggestions of a pleasant night.  On top of the hand dryer, which was adjacent to the Graffiti Wall, sat two pieces of white chalk, and as I was drying the water from my hands I was feeling the urge to make my own addition to the board.  Hands up if you like to pee seemed in keeping with traditional toilet humour, but I became worried about the integrity of the writing equipment and thought better of handling it.  The Graffiti Wall seemed like a good idea all the same, though, and as I walked to King Tut’s I spent some time considering how it would be used in Aulay’s Bar.

Although Jesse Malin had played his debut album The Fine Art of Self-Destruction in full in November 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of its release, and there wasn’t any obvious reason for doing it again eight years later, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear it performed live once more.  The Fine Art of Self-Destruction was one of the seminal records of my budding adulthood.  It came at a time when I was learning about the types of music I enjoy and the bands I was wanting to spend my time listening to.  The first ten tracks on the album* were perfect, and the eleventh song, Xmas, was sometimes quite good to listen to around the month of December.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a way of appearing to be part museum and part advertisement at the same time.  Three-quarters of the walls around the bar have been decorated by a variety of tour posters dating as far back as the early 1990s from bands such as Pulp, Supergrass, Manic Street Preachers, and The Strokes.  The stairs leading up to the concert venue itself have been adorned with the names of many of the acts who have played at Tut’s over the years.  Meanwhile, the area of the bar nearest the entrance is a parade of posters and leaflets advertising the upcoming bands and artists who are aspiring to become the latest addition to the exhibition on the opposite walls and on the stairway.

As the bar was filling up prior to the doors to the venue opening at 8.30, I was glancing around the museum-like portion of King Tut’s, becoming increasingly convinced that I might be the youngest person in the entire room, and if not the youngest then I was certainly in the most youthful 5%.  I was beginning to perform a quick head count of my fellow gig-goers, but after a while it seemed that I would be more efficient counting the number of heads without grey hairs on them.

When I am at home and in Markie Dans it usually seems to be true that everyone around me is getting younger, but the opposite was the case at my recent experiences of attending gigs, where everyone else looked to be getting older.  I found myself scouring the scene around King Tut’s trying to spot the twenty-year-old version of myself:  the guy who fifteen years earlier was travelling to gigs in the city by himself, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt which invariably was a combination of black plus one other colour, with a dark suit jacket decorated with novelty badges bearing amusing slogans and superhero logos, although the Batman and Superman buttons were soon claimed by girls who I would never see again.  I couldn’t find the young adolescent version of myself in Tut’s, however, and if he was there he must have done a better job than I ever did of finding company at a gig.

During my brief time in Glasgow I was gradually becoming aware of a new habit I seemed to have been developing where I would use the word perfect as a prefix to ‘thank you.’  An example of this would be when I was asked how my stay was by the young man on reception at the Euro Hostel upon checking out on Friday morning.  My room in the hostel was on the ninth of nine floors and had a single bed which required to be made up from the small pile of linen sitting atop the mattress on my arrival.  The bathroom was small – so small, in fact, that it almost made my own bathroom at home seem luxurious. It was so compact that they had to plumb the wash hand basin outside the bathroom.  When asked how I enjoyed my night in the Euro Hostel, I replied:  “It was perfect, thank you.”  It wasn’t the first time I had heard myself use perfect in this way, and when I said it again in Aulay’s later that evening I couldn’t help but feel that it was a very high standard to be setting.  Where can you go after a pint of Tennent’s Lager and a £5 all you can eat breakfast in the Euro Hostel has been described as being perfect?

Over the course of a few months the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had, through means of either romance or sickness, dwindled to just a lonely heart.  I walked into Aulay’s wearing a black sleeveless v-neck sweater over a burgundy wine shirt and a navy blue tie, even though I had spent most of my day on a train rather than in the office.  Over the course of an hour or so groups of implausibly young looking people were arriving in the bar, apparently on their way to the high school leaver’s dance, which was being held next door in the Royal Hotel.  Many of the youngsters were dressed in outfits far more colourful than I had ever dared to dream of wearing, while their ID cards were forcing the bar staff to perform mental arithmetic much faster than I was capable of.  I was discussing the idea of a leaving dance across the bar with the moonlighting banker when I remarked that they never had anything like that when I was in school.  As soon as the words had left my mouth I realised that it was the perfect thing to say if I was hoping to convince someone that I was getting old.

I was still reeling from my realisation regarding my increasing age when I stuttered through the bar to the men’s bathroom, where a lone silver-haired patron was finishing up at the urinal.  I slunk over to the far side of the short steel trough and unzipped my trousers in a fashion which I hoped would not attract any attention.  Steam was barely beginning to form when a voice belonging to the only other man in the room piped up.  “£3 a pint just to pish it away.”  There was a brief pause, and in the silence I couldn’t find it within myself to dispute his understanding of the human digestive system.

“And then they expect us to wash our hands?  Fuck them!”  The silver-haired man stormed out of the bathroom in an act of rebellion against hygiene that I had become all too familiar with during my time in the bars, though I supposed that at least this man had given a reason for his uprising, even if I couldn’t be entirely sure who the they that he was referring to were.  I was staring ahead at the empty tiling before me, hoping for a Grafitti Wall that would stop people from talking to me at the urinal.

Towards the end of the night I found myself in Markie Dans, which was quieter than usual for a Friday in June.  A bar band was playing the last of its set to a floor which was slowly emptying.  Of the collection of people who were still scattered around it seemed obvious that if I wasn’t the oldest person in the bar, I was in the upper 1%.  It was an experience entirely different to the previous night, almost like the feeling you get when you have used the last sheet of kitchen towel and you know that there is still an oily pan needing to be wiped clean.  I wasn’t feeling at ease with it and left for home, where there was still a single peach left in the fruit bowl, sitting amongst a bunch of evergreen bananas.  By the end of the week the peach was just like everything else.  It had finally ripened and grown old.

Listen to The Fine Art of Self-Destruction by Jesse Malin here

*Cigarettes and Violets didn’t appear on the UK release of The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, although it features on the Spotify version.

Time after time

Over the years I have gradually come to accept that after every success I enjoy there follows a myriad of small defeats.  If it wasn’t bad enough that I woke up on Monday morning to find that my street had been affected by a power cut, meaning that I wasn’t able to shower or iron a shirt, the loss of electricity also meant that many of the clocks in my flat needed to be reset once the power had eventually been restored.  

There were a few moments of blissful ignorance on that dark morning when my eyes peeled open not to be met by the street light forcing its way through the bedroom curtains, or by the glaring display of the alarm clock on the bedside table, but instead by nothing.  There was something calming about the emptiness of it all.  Ignorance was soon displaced by confusion, and then swiftly by despair when I reached for the switch on the bedside lamp and it failed to shine any light on my predicament.  I was lying in bed running through my morning routine in my head, and how it would all be ruined by the lack of energy.  If the lights can’t even be bothered to do anything then why should I, was my thinking.  I accepted that I would be forced to trim my stubble in near darkness.  Next I would ordinarily shower, but as my shower was electric that would be out of the question, so I was weighing up the twin options of not making any effort at all or using my shower gel to wash at the bathroom sink, and which of those would carry the least ignominy.  I decided that it would be better to wash, reasoning that at least a sleeveless sweater vest would hide most of an unironed shirt, but nothing could distract from a complete absence of personal hygiene.

For the better part of a year I had been training myself how to live in an environment where there seemed to be no fewer than three different time zones in operation.  It never seems to matter what you do with the clocks in the place where you are living; there is always one which moves at a different pace to the others, similar to how shoelaces operate when there is always one end of the lace which is longer than the other when you go to tie them in the morning.  

I had been tormented by this particular difficulty on the left foot of my pair of black brogues for several weeks.  It almost seemed as though the right half of the laces was an Australian redback spider, the female of which is known to eat its mate in order to strengthen itself and its offspring, and it had successfully overwhelmed most of the left half.  By the Thursday following the power cut, the length of the right lace was so great that I had no option but to pull the whole thing out and start again.  As I was threading the shoelace through the last eyelet, pulling it tightly to secure the laces in their place of newly equal length, the thread snapped right off in my hand.  I couldn’t help but think that this would never have happened to the Australian redback spider.

Although the system of clocks in my flat was complex and delicately balanced, it was only ever confusing to visitors, not least when the clock in my bedroom was an hour fast in the few months before British Summer Time officially arrived.  I, on the other hand, had come to learn that if the digital display on the coffee machine in the kitchen was reading 8:26am, and the alarm clock in the bedroom was showing 9:30am, then the brass clock on top of the mantelpiece and the watch on my wrist would be telling me that it was around 8:33am – give or take a second or so – which would be broadly similar to the time on my iPhone, which everybody knows is the international standard for time.  I had a system that worked for me.  By the time the electricity supply had been restored in the evening, I had no idea what time it was.

The defeat of the morning I couldn’t shower and iron a shirt or the disruption of my carefully managed arrangement of time was not the cause of the first anxiety attack I had suffered in a while, nor were the more minor defeats of making a gravy that was much too thick for the mince I had cooked for dinner one night or the day I bought a bottle of mayonnaise to replace the one which was running empty in the fridge, only to arrive home and discover that I had already purchased one and it was sitting in the condiment cupboard.  I looked back a year in my notebooks and realised that it had been a year to the week since I had the first anxiety attack I was aware of and I wondered if this was just a reflex, the way parents become sentimental when the first birthday of their child is approaching.  After all, I had been feeling reasonably content about things following my day in Edinburgh and the triumph I had recently experienced at the primary seven quiz night.  A year earlier I could at least explain why I was feeling the way I was, but like my notes which have been handwritten after eight pints, this one was more difficult to understand.

The islands of Lismore and Mull were consumed by mist one June morning

As one day stumbled into another, the sense of anxiety had me feeling like the left side of my shoelace or the distant islands of Lismore and Mull which had been consumed by mist on a still morning in June.  I tried everything I could in an effort to make myself feel better.  I listened to my favourite music, burned my most pleasing mix of incense, and one night I even started watching the critically acclaimed television series Chernobyl.

I felt as though there was a kaleidoscope of butterflies loose in my stomach, all with a woeful sense of direction, when I set out on an evening walk along the Esplanade with my mouth as dry as a Monday.  Within little more than a hundred yards of one another I witnessed two people who were sketching the same scene.  I looked over the shoulder of the first artist to see that he was lightly outlining the figures across the entire bay:  the masts of fishing boats on the sea, the hilltops of Kerrera, St. Columba’s Cathedral.  The second sketcher, further along the pavement, was drawing on a smaller pad and she was focussing on a more narrow view, using her pencil to add much more detail with shading on the islands and the church.  I had no way of knowing if the two people were together, but I imagined that they were using their pencils and paper as a substitute for mobile phones, travelling around town to sketch all the sights they encountered, and that the artist who was scribbling thick blocks of leaden grey was simply adding a filter to her pictures.  It was as though she was looking through my eyes.

The weather turned out to be a lot better than many locals had been fearing for the weekend of Oban Live, Argyll’s largest outdoor music festival.  The town was dressed in its finest wear to attract the adoration of visitors, similar to the effort I go to on a Thursday when I spray my coffee table with glass cleaner and dust the dado rails in the living room in case someone comes back to my place on a Friday night.  As well as two nights of live music at the town’s Mossfield Stadium, there were various fringe events taking place around the bars, and that was where I spent most of my time.  Everywhere was thriving in a busy carnival atmosphere, yet for all the smiling faces I could see in Markie Dans as Chunks were playing, I felt as though I was the only person there, standing alone at the dark end of the bar.

An Oban Live car & bus drop “of” point…

The same wasn’t true in The Lorne, where out of nothing it looked as though two young women were about to become involved in a fight over me.  I only knew one of the girls, a bronzed blonde, and couldn’t fathom why she had become so animated when the rival female walked – perhaps a little forcefully – through the group of people I had found myself amongst at the back of the room, which included an inebriated VAT man.  The girl briefly stopped short of me before continuing to walk by when the bombastic blonde intervened.  She was making it clear that she was unhappy about something, and at some points in the confrontation there was as little distance between the pair as there was between my mouth and my glass of Jack Daniels, which was being held to my bottom lip in a sort of nervous excitement.  I wasn’t wanting to see anyone get hurt, but at the same time my heart was thumping in a way which was much different to the earlier attack of anxiety I experienced.  In the end the situation simmered without so much as a slap, and when the question was asked about what caused it all, the bombastic blonde responded that “she was giving him a funny look.”  I was pleased to have gotten any kind of a look.

Things were a lot more sedate at the rest of the Oban Live fringe events.  In Aulay’s the Brexit guy bought us a round of Kraken rum to celebrate his birthday, while our table became involved in a heated discussion about omelettes.    I was telling the friend of the plant doctor about my recent trouble with shoelaces and he put forward a theory about the stress created by the eyelet each time the lace is tied causing it to lengthen.  It made sense at the time, but when I was thinking about it the next morning while I was brewing a pot of coffee, I was really wanting to know how my clocks were already varying in time by a minute.

A false alarm

Despite living next to one of the busiest roads through town for more than a year, my flat was always very quiet and tranquil, sort of like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, but without the difficulty getting in and where instead of a man who changes out of his suit and into a pair of red underpants in order to gain superhuman strength, there resides a man who changes into a suit to feel better about himself.  The only sounds that would typically be heard in my place were the faint ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece or the siren of an ambulance in full throttle, and nobody can really be too annoyed by the inevitable passing of time.

It could have been any regular Monday night when the silence was broken.  I had gone through my usual nightly routine of cooking dinner followed by doing the washing up, which always takes longer than the actual eating of the meal, no matter how few utensils are used.  I spent some time thinking about my shirt and tie combinations for the rest of the week whilst browsing Netflix, before I finally settled on going to bed.  I had started reading Bill Bryson’s book The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid the night before, having rented it from the library the previous Friday, and I was hopeful of finishing the first chapter.  Ordinarily I am capable of reading more than 29 pages in a sitting, but I had become distracted by the return date sheet on the first page when I noticed that I was the first person to have taken the book out in more than a year.  I tried to keep reading on but every time it was the same thing:  I went back to the loose sheet and examined the dates again and again.  People had been renting the book fairly consistently for more than fifteen years, and then no-one had for a year.  All I could think about was why they had stopped reading this particular book, and question why there was a tomato sauce thumbprint on page 21.

I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth whilst trying to avoid making eye contact with my reflection in the mirror when I heard it for the first time.  The chirping sound was dim and distant to begin with, as though a small bird had somehow made it into my impenetrable fortress and was trying to alert me that it wanted out.  I ignored it and carried on readying myself for bed, though the sound was becoming louder and more pronounced.  Soon I became aware that the chirping was originating from just over my left shoulder outside the bathroom, on the ceiling, inside the smoke detector.

The battery in my smoke alarm shared some of the properties of the book I had been trying to read, in that it was difficult to get into and it hadn’t been taken out in more than a year, since before I had moved into the flat.  I had never even considered the possibility that the battery might one day need changing, and of course, it was in keeping with the way of life that the thing would be nearing the end of its lifespan at eleven o’clock on a Monday night, when I didn’t have a spare battery and all of the shops had closed for the night.  I finished getting ready for bed against the backdrop of a chorus of battery chirping, resigned to the fact that it was going to be this way until the morning.

From my bed the sound of the battery wasn’t so incessant when it was muffled behind a closed door, almost sounding like a bird which has woken up too early and sings shyly, because it still wants to sing for the love of it and demands to be heard, but it is careful not to waken everything else so early.  With the battery still crowing in the hallway, I nestled my head into my pillow and tried with all of my might to ignore it and get some sleep.  Gradually over the next hour the sound of the beeping was becoming louder and more irritating.  The beeps were coming faster and closer together, making them increasingly difficult to forget about.  Before long I was lying in my frustrated sheets thinking about the beep test we were forced to undertake in around the first or second year of high school.  In this physical examination, teenagers were expected to run between two points which were marked by cars, with the object being that you had to reach the car before a pre-recorded beep sounded.  You would continue to run back and forth between the cars, with the beeps blaring closer together each time, until you could no longer run.  At the time I wasn’t sure if they were testing our physical endurance or our resistance to torture, and even now I still can’t decide.

I was probably curled into the fetal position as the beeps continued to sound in the hallway and the dread I had felt years earlier returned to me.  On the day I took part in the beep test it was a misty and damp morning, in either spring or autumn, they were both the same.  I could see myself standing four or five kids from the front, watching these wet, exhausted souls sprint from one car to the other, anxiously knowing that I would have to take my turn soon while secretly hoping for a fire alarm or some other kind of minor emergency.  I was reminded of my hairy teenage legs, as hairy as they were when I was thirteen as they are at thirty-five.  The beeping continued, growing louder and louder.  In my mind I was getting closer to the front of the line.  The cars were being brought into view.  Everyone in the entire year was about to see me run. Eventually I had had enough and I got out of bed in search of the stepladder.  It was a minute after midnight.

The only screwdriver I owned was too large to be pushed into the slot

With a screwdriver in hand, I scaled to the summit of the stepladder.  Even from the very top, the Victorian era ceiling in my flat was difficult to reach, particularly when I was barefoot and in boxer shorts, which has surely been nobody’s attire of choice for household DIY.  As I examined the screeching device overhead I noticed an inscription on the cover which advised that it would be in the interest of my safety for me to turn the smoke alarm off at the circuit before attempting to remove the cover.  I swivelled 180° on the ladder to the circuit board behind me, which I opened to discover that the smoke alarm was on the same switch as the lights.  It seemed like an awkward design quirk, even more so when it left me in complete darkness whilst semi-naked on top of a stepladder at five past midnight with a screwdriver in my hand and a persistent beeping emanating from the smoke alarm.

After a minute or two spent pondering the thoughts of the person who would be responsible for writing up the results of my post mortem should the situation have gone any further awry, I located my phone and used the torch to guide me to the slot at the top of the cover.  Amidst a flurry of chipped paint which was falling around me like confetti in a bleak parade, it was becoming clear that the only screwdriver I owned was too big for the slot.  By now the battery’s chirp had taken on a childish taunting tone and I was left in a position similar to just about every scenario in my life:  hoping for the best.  I was feeling hope in the way that I often walk towards a crowd of people who are huddled at a traffic light waiting to cross the road.  The cars continue to move past, one after another, and it begins to feel as though ten minutes must have passed.  Eventually it becomes obvious that nobody in the original group of pedestrians had pressed the button, and they were all simply hoping that the traffic would stop.  The lights at Argyll Square are particularly bad for this phenomenon.

As a last resort I used a kitchen knife, which turned out to be the perfect size for making an entry into the slot.  It was one of those knives with a three-inch blade that has no immediately obvious purpose, though in this case it was the ideal tool for removing the cover of a smoke detector.  Although the sense of relief and achievement was quite a heady cocktail, it wasn’t until I was back on the ground with the alarm in my hand that it occurred to me that the idea of removing the battery from my smoke detector at night would be like when you are drunk and you think it is a good time to clip your fingernails.  

When I thought about it, it stood to reason that if my smoke detector would start beeping at 11pm when I don’t have a replacement battery and nowhere is open, and if the alarm would share the same switch on the circuit as the lights in my flat, and if the only screwdriver I owned would be too big for the job of unclipping the cover, then the night I removed the chirping battery from the alarm would be the night there would be an unexplained fire in my flat.

I decided that I wanted the solitude of sleep more than I feared disaster, and I safely reattached the alarm the next day with a new battery.  After that I was sleeping peacefully for the rest of the week, and by the end of it I was even dreaming.  In one unconscious scenario, it seemed that I was a part of a group of three people who had joined an indoor running club in Glasgow, along with my friend who specialises in constructing sandwiches and a guy who was short, skinny and geeky in appearance.  In the real world I had never met this guy and didn’t even know for sure that he existed, but in my dream he was an excellent runner and easily won our race.  During the run I was aware that I was being chastised by my friend for cutting corners around the track in a crude attempt at cheating, and it was this scene that stuck in my mind when I awoke in the morning.

Naturally I wanted to message my friend to tell her that she had appeared in my dream, and naturally she was eager to find out the meaning behind my attempt at cheating to win a race in the dream.  According to her internet research, a dream featuring running represents a desire to escape reality, while cheating in a race could be an indication of stress.  The response was a lot heavier than my expected reason for the dream, which was that I was still disturbed by the beep test.

An empty wine bottle struggled valiantly to reach the shore in what seemed like a metaphor for something

In one of those strange twists that life often throws up, such as finding that your smoke alarm and lights share a switch, my friend and I ended up forming a team at a quiz later that evening.  The family-friendly quiz was being held to raise funds for a primary seven school trip to Ardentinny, which it turns out is much closer than I thought it was when I was in school wondering how they could afford to take pupils to one of those far off places where the government only ever send people to go to war.

I arrived shortly before the scheduled start time of 7pm, and when it was nearing ten past and I was halfway through my pint of lager, I was beginning to wonder if I could suffer the ultimate indignity of being stood up at a children’s quiz and being forced to compete as a solo participant.  She arrived shortly after with the rest of our team, which my friend named The Dream Team.  Although I am quite sure that it wasn’t intended as a pun on my nocturnal vision, it was nice to think that it could have been.

The Dream Team went on to triumph over the other nine teams in the quiz, though our win was probably largely owing to the knowledge and sobriety of our ten-year-old team-mates.  It felt good to experience success for a change, even after everyone around me was winning bottles of wine or champagne in the raffle while I won two different prizes of bath soap.  But more than the victory, it was a relief to know that I hadn’t been subconsciously craving an escape from reality or suffering from stress over a battery, a high school beep test or any personal trauma.  It had been a false alarm.