It had taken me half an hour to prepare a teriyaki beef stir fry and no more than ten minutes to eat it, such was the disparity between the science of cooking and the reality of gluttony. Other things didn’t keep me occupied for much longer. A session of yoga would take only twenty-seven minutes, the subsequent shower was maybe around ten minutes. I could stretch the two-minute walk to or from work out to twenty minutes if I tried, but when you are spending so much of your life in your own company, it becomes difficult to find new ways of passing the time and keeping things interesting.
Recently I had become fixated on a seagull which I could see waddling up and down the street across the road from my flat window. The bird carried itself with a demeanour which suggested that he was making it known that the little strip of tarmac between the Oban Grill House and the red Mossfield postbox was his territory. He owned that area, and night after night it was the only seagull to be seen.
Of course, my ability to tell one seagull apart from another was comparable to the way I discerned between basil, thyme and oregano – I couldn’t, so I used the dried ‘Mixed Herbs’ instead – and therefore it was impossible for me to know that I was seeing the same seagull every night. The trouble with seagulls was that, as far as I could tell, they didn’t have any distinguishing features or personality traits. No-one was dressing their webbed feet to match the colour of their thorax, and if one of them was then they were all doing it, like when I was sitting in Aulay’s before reading at The Rockfield Centre and a wedding party of around half a dozen men wearing suits walked up to the bar.
The more I watched this solo seagull the more I was finding myself wondering if it knew something that the other birds didn’t. One night I must have spent around fifteen minutes observing the seagull, though in bird years it felt like it was about four hours. It was patrolling the pavement outside the takeaway restaurant, all the way up to the red postbox, which it would stand on top of, staring intently at the entrance with its beady little eyes, eyes which were only ever good for staring. Sometimes it would puff out its chest and flap its wings over to the street sign which stood right outside the Grill House, all the time still staring. I had heard of the Leonard Cohen song Bird on the Wire, but this was a bird on the controlled zone parking sign. I started to ask myself if it was possible that the seagull had learned that people were particularly prone to blunder in that location and if that was why it persisted in hanging around there.
It seemed more likely that the bird was just a hopeless fool. That there was an occasion when it was swooping by and it happened to catch the scent of kebab meat in its beak and it was fancying its chances of picking up a tasty treat. It returned night after night, looking for that opportunity where someone wasn’t paying attention and could be caught unawares, when it could dive right in and pick up the pieces. The bird was just standing there on the pavement, or perched on the postbox, waiting for something to happen when all of the other gulls were down by the Esplanade where all the action was and they knew that some gullible tourist would eventually toss them a chip.
After something close to twenty minutes it occurred to me that the seagull was using the red mailbox the same way I leaned against the end of the bar in Markie Dans, waiting, ever hopeful that something might happen or that someone might talk to me, while everyone else had gone to The Lorne at the end of the night because they knew that it was open later and that there was more likely to be company to be found there.
The first Saturday of the new football season brought with it a fresh opportunity for excitement and distraction from single life with the weekly plotting of a coupon that would bring fortunes. It had been around three months since I last stepped inside a betting shop, and while most people had online gambling accounts, I was the type of guy who still enjoyed the feeling of walking into the bookies and handing over a five pound note that I knew I likely wouldn’t be seeing again. It was a lot like the way many of the people I knew had an online dating account, but I was still throwing the cheapest jokes I had at women at the bar who I knew would never talk to me again. Either way it was a gamble.
There was a very distinctive atmosphere in the branch of Ladbrokes I liked to visit. The air was thick with the smell of freshly brewed granulated coffee and burning bank statements. All that could be heard was the carnival sound of the fruit machines at the back of the room, each of them occupied by starry-eyed punters and emitting the very sound of joy. It was easy to understand how people could easily be sucked into choking the thing with every coin they had earned.
Every so often a countdown would begin on one of the multitudes of screens which were broadcasting live horse racing from some far off place like Doncaster or Wolverhampton, and the cast of older men who inhabited the place would make their way towards the cashier’s desk with their hastily scribbled betting slips. The bookies was only ever populated by elderly men who suffered from ailments as far apart as an unnerving cough and walking with the aid of a stick, and the fastest they would move on any day was when they were told that there were only two minutes until the next race started.
The few hours on a Saturday afternoon after my three football coupons had been placed were the most optimistic I felt all week. All I would see when the sheet was being fed through the computer and a receipt would be coughed out of the other end was money. The slender white piece of paper, which was often longer than my arm, would summarise your bets and calculate your potential winnings, though the ‘potential’ part of the deal never did mean anything to me. As far as I was concerned I had picked all of the winning teams on any given week and there was no way I could be wrong. Once my three bets had been placed and the receipt was safely folded into my wallet as though it was a bundle of twenties, I considered the winnings as good as mine. When leaving the betting shop I was visualising how I would spend the cash, like the results of the football later in the day were a minor inconvenience. I would go back to New York City, maybe invest in some fresh artwork for my bedroom, or buy a few new ties in order to help me stand out from the crowd.
It was around four minutes past three when Peterborough fell behind at home to Fleetwood Town that my first coupon began to fall apart. A few minutes later, Oxford were beating Sunderland and another coupon was in jeopardy. By the time Alloa scored against Partick Thistle a little after half-past three, the entire thing was going up in smoke. It wasn’t lost on me that I would struggle to find Alloa on a map of Scotland, just as I wouldn’t be looking out my NYC guide books for at least another week.
For much of the last few days of July various parts of Argyll & Bute had been issued with flood warnings following the forecasting of some serious thunderstorms, although for me the days remained to be a desert. A passing rain shower on Saturday evening influenced my decision to wear a leather jacket when I went out later in the night, and by the end of it all my cotton shirt was clinging to my back the way the claws of a seagull would grip onto a street sign.
After a walk to the bathroom which required a stream of apologies to get from one side of the busy pub to the other, I ended the night alone at the end of the bar in Markies. Chunks were playing their usual set in a room which was feeling more like a sauna only without the naked bodies, although it occurred that that may not have been a more uncomfortable sight than some of the other scenes around the bar. One woman was holding a small novelty rubber toy which had been moulded into the shape of a penis. She was presumably part of a hen party, and she gripped the length of the comedy gift as though it was a precious family heirloom which would come to be damaged in the hands of anyone else. It was the same way that another woman in the group was carrying a fishbowl that was as big as her head. It was three-quarters full with a drink the colour of a goldfish and it had three black straws dangling over the rim, although she seemed to be the only one who was getting anywhere near it.
I was standing against the bar as many people were beginning to leave for The Lorne. A lavishly drunk young man blundered through the doors, and although he was refused service, he was able to ask the barmaid if she had any cigarettes. When she advised him that she didn’t, he followed up by questioning whether she had a lighter. It struck me as an unusual thing to request in the absence of a cigarette, like walking into a DIY store and asking for a screwdriver after being told that they are out of screws. What was he going to use the lighter for if she had given him one?
The question gave me something to think about for a minute or so, but it was a brief distraction and I quickly lost interest in it. All I was really hoping was for someone to give me some company, throw me a chip so to speak, though the odds were against it.