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.
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…