On the exterior of the building in which I had been a single occupant since January 2018 was a plaque dedicated to the Scottish writer Iain Crichton Smith, whom the bronze plate recorded as having lived in the block of flats between the years of 1958 and 1980, a few years before I had even entered anyone’s conscience. Whenever I remembered to look at the memorial on my way home the thought of it would haunt me for days. Not in the way of the female ghost I once suspected was haunting my bedroom by leaving the door wide open in the middle of the night as a demonstration that even the spirit of a woman who has been dead for decades doesn’t want to be spending any time in my room, but it was more casting a shadow over my own achievements whilst living in the building.
The plaque recognises Crichton Smith’s life as a teacher, poet and novelist, and with there being a one in six chance that I was living in the same flat he was when he had thirty-three pieces of work published, it was a pretty hard act to follow for a guy whose finest accomplishment in recent times had been discovering this his shoes were mid tan rather than brown.
Anyone of a particular vintage in Oban would speak of Iain Crichton Smith as being a warmly liked and respected teacher, while I was occasionally told by strangers that I was dressed like a physics teacher. He was regarded as being a prolific and inspirational writer who won several literary prizes and was honoured with an OBE, while in 2019 I began to read my own tales of romantic woe to around thirty people in The Rockfield Centre. If someone could have lived a life like that for twenty-two years in my flat, I would think whenever I saw the memorial outside, then why was I finding it so difficult to so much as find a use for half a tin of coconut milk?
The plaque plagued me for days. I was lying awake in bed for hours every night, the humid July air causing me to cast my covers aside the way people everywhere had been opening the covers of Iain Crichton Smith’s novels for years. I was feeling consumed by a sense of hopelessness as I stared at the dark ceiling considering the words that might be on my own plaque years after I have left the flat. SINGLE OCCUPANT; COLOUR CO-ORDINATED; UNTRUSTWORTHY WITH PLANTS.
Almost as unsettling as the dedication to the famous local author was the way that tourists would sometimes pause on the pavement outside the window of my flat. I would often be going about some trivial task, cleaning the glass on my coffee table or replenishing my stock of tealight candles, when a group of people would suddenly come to a stop. It always worried me that they might be looking through my window, as if anyone would really ever want to see what was going on in my living room. The longer they were standing there, the more it would trouble me and I would become conscious of my eating technique or the way that I was sitting. Only when one of the tourists framed the lens of a camera across the street would I remember that people sometimes liked to take photographs of the church which splits the road in two. It had never occurred to me until I moved to that part of town that this church might be considered a point of interest for tourists, just like I had never known that Iain Crichton Smith lived in the building across from it. I supposed that, at least until I moved in there, the home of a well-known local author would be a sight of significance once upon a time, a place of real importance, a lot like the church once was.
By Friday I had endured three nights of broken sleep and everything seemed to be weighing on my mind, like there was a dedication to disappointment engraved onto my thoughts. In Aulay’s, the plant doctor offered the suggestion on behalf of his brother, whose initials would also make him a doctor, that we all try the drink that the two of them had enjoyed on their recent holiday in Spain. With nothing to lose we accepted the drink, which was made with Baileys, Amaretto and ice. The cocktail didn’t have a name that anybody knew of, so we christened it a Tough Paper Round, which proved to be prophetic by the end of the night.
The Tough Paper Round was smooth, warming and very easy to drink, with a taste that was somewhere between marzipan and white chocolate Buttons. Out of curiosity I later typed the ingredients into Google and found that it was a measure of coffee away from being an Orgasm, which I often took to be the case with most things in life.
There was still a stifling warmth in the air when I was walking home from Markie Dans on Friday night after several pints and three drinks of Tough Paper Round, although once again without the orgasm. I returned to my flat drunk with despair, and for reasons that weren’t immediately clear, I decided to sit on the floor of my kitchen, in the corner between the washing machine and the fridge. It seemed to me that I had been spending every Friday night with the hope of ending it by waking up in bed next to someone cool, but when I awoke at 5.15 on Saturday morning on the floor beside the refrigerator it wasn’t really what I had in mind.
Nothing about the days leading up to my fourth reading at Let’s Make A Scene were what anyone could consider to be ideal preparation. I had changed my mind about the material I was going to read three times, I completely scrapped nine handwritten pages of one of those pieces, and the pink tie I had been planning on wearing turned out to be a slightly different shade of pink to my socks. I was dreading it more than I had worried about any of my other efforts at The Rockfield Centre, the feeling similar to the morning that you leave the flat for work without a jacket because the sky is blue and every other day has been warm, and then it is raining by lunchtime.
In an attempt to make myself feel better and more comfortable, I decided to wear the silk boxer shorts that I usually saved for special occasions. The underwear felt nice against my skin and contributed to me becoming more relaxed about things as the night went on. I was feeling so relaxed, as it goes, that there came a moment when I was sitting in front of the room reading from my notebook that in my mind I had to question if I was wearing any underwear at all. The thought was troubling and distracting, though I continued with the reading, which seemed to go well, and it was a relief when I later went to the bathroom and found that I was definitely wearing boxers.
My strive to find some self-esteem before reading at Rockfield led me to the same place it always does when I met with some friends in Aulay’s. The diminutive barmaid was pulling pints and doing her best to reach the top shelf when she told me that she had recently been reading some of my blog posts and that they had inspired her to write her own blog about her experiences as a young mother. I found it very flattering that someone would read my words, let alone be influenced by them. It struck me that a blog about the tears and the triumphs of motherhood would be much more important and valuable to others than my stories of inept interactions with women and my struggle with keeping houseplants alive, and I felt pleased that I could in some way have inspired that.
The quality of the acts taking part at Let’s Make A Scene had been rising consistently for months, and in July there were no fewer than four new artists performing original material. It was sometimes daunting when I would see how good some of the acts were and I knew that I would have to follow them, and even more so when I couldn’t remember if I was wearing underwear. One of the best musical acts on show were the traditional acoustic duo The Blue Moon Travellers, who announced that they will be launching their album on the 21st of September in the Oban Distillery. Before the night got underway, the female vocalist of the pair asked me if I would be interested in reading from my notebook at the launch event. It was an unexpected and cool occurrence, like waking up on the floor next to the fridge, only pleasant.
I immediately accepted the offer, even though I knew that it was going to give me something else to dread in the future. The vocalist went on to say that “of course, there would be a fee,” and my naivety in such situations caused me to scoff at the idea.
“I couldn’t accept money! No-one should have to pay to listen to me.”
It was later in the night when I realised the error of my ways and the thought dawned on me that the Oban Distillery may not approve of my stage prop of a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey and I would have been better off demanding a clause that at least gave me a measure of Oban whisky as compensation.
At the end of it all I came to accept that there are some ghosts which are easier to ignore than others and I don’t have to pay attention to the plaque outside my flat or worry about what Iain Crichton Smith did when he was living in my building. I could exist on my own terms and maybe even add another word to my own future plaque. ALRIGHT. I was a measure of coffee away from being good.
If you don’t have a Spotify account, the following are the two songs I have been listening to most during July. I have played Get Out by Frightened Rabbit at least four times every day for weeks:
He Would Have Laughed is the most incredible piece of music I have heard in a while. The section after the line “I can’t breathe with you looking at me” makes me shiver: