You say Elyounoussi, I say Elhamed

When I returned to Oban from my trip to Budapest, everything was just as I had left it five days earlier.  The entire flat had a chill in the air, in keeping with the dipping September temperatures, and in the kitchen sink there was a cup three quarters filled with stale dishwater and topped with a ringed coffee stain a few inches from the rim, like the tidal mark you find on the walls by the sea.  A damp red and white striped tea towel which had questionable shades of grey was lying discarded on the kitchen counter. The scene was one you might expect to find if someone had been called away to attend to a drastic emergency; news of an accident or a kidnapping.  I was reminded that I had left in a rush that Monday morning to catch the early bus, and immediately I was back in the old routine of cursing my decisions.

It was the longest I had been away from home since I became a single occupant more than a year earlier, and it seemed like a weird sensation the way that it felt as though I was moving into a new place all over again.  In my absence, the surface of the oak flooring had gathered small pockets of dust and other unidentifiable debris in areas, while the whole place carried the scentless smell of somewhere that has been uninhabited for a while.  After a few hours of procrastination, I unpacked my rucksack of all the things I had taken with me, many of which I didn’t need anyway, and I tried to figure out where they should go.  

The washing machine was soon filled with a week’s worth of travel wear, and my next mission was to visit the supermarket to replenish my supplies of milk, fruit and food.  I had arrived home to a fridge which was as empty as the day I moved in, with the exception of a tub of butter and a jar of Dijon mustard which was looking as tired as I was feeling.  Everything else had been used up in a mad dash before I flew to Hungary, the result of an inherent mistrust that food wouldn’t possibly keep to its expiration date if I wasn’t around to check on its health every time I opened the fridge door, as though the remaining portion of cheese, a bottle of milk and packet of meatballs would reunite to get one over me by spoiling when I wasn’t there.

Oban Distillery on the morning of 21 September

Nine months had passed since the idea of me reading in front of an audience had been conceived as a joke amongst friends, the thought being that the most socially awkward of us would sit before a gathering of people at The Rockfield Centre’s monthly open mic night dressed smartly in a suit and read stories of ineptitude from his notebook while someone else played a ridiculous instrument in the background, like the triangle or the panpipes, and no-one would quite be able to decide if the entire act was deliberately absurd or just a complete shambles.  As it turned out, nobody in our group owned a triangle, and our attempt at an artistic exhibition went the way of all of my romantic endeavours and I was left to perform as a solo act.   

Even though I had only done it on a handful of occasions, I had recently been invited to read at the launch of the local acoustic duo The Blue Moon Traveller’s new album, and despite the ferocious anxiety which greets me when I attempt to do anything in front of other people, I accepted the offer.  By the time I arrived home from my trip to Budapest, there was less than a week to prepare for the big night and I was trying to keep myself as occupied as possible in an effort to hold my nerves at bay.  I cooked a large pot of goulash, making use of some of the paprika I had brought back from Great Market Hall, and the aroma of spiced beef and potato and carrot was clinging to the washing and everything else in the flat for days.  Later I participated in the pub quiz in The Lorne and watched the latest two IT movies, which between them totalled more than five hours in run time and distraction time. 

Although we had made an unremarkable start in the first two rounds, our team, which was as much three ladies and a tramp as it was The Unlikely Lads, was developing an increasing confidence that we were about to experience our breakthrough pub quiz victory when we scored a maximum of 18 points from the round of questions on Hungary.  The tremendous gain saw us surge into joint-first place at the halfway point, and we were finding it easy to visualise our eventual win, the moment when our little breakaway outfit would finally be rewarded with a £25 bar voucher.  A wave of excitement and optimism was sweeping across the table, along with waves of Tennent’s Lager down our throats, but I was struggling to get over a blunder I had made in the previous general knowledge round which I feared could be the Vesuvius question repeating itself all over again.

The silver-haired host had asked us to name the nationality of a footballer Celtic had recently signed, and I snatched the pen from a team-mate’s hand with the assuredness that only a person who knows the answer can legitimately display.  I wrote Israeli on the corresponding line and took a mouthful of beer to congratulate myself on my contribution.

When the answer sheet was returned to us after it had been marked at the end of the round there wasn’t a tick next to the word Israeli, and I was wondering how the quizmaster could possibly have made such a mistake.  I was listening with interest as he went through the questions once more, this time revealing the correct answers alongside them. Eventually he reached the one I was desperate to hear.

“What nationality is the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi?”

I realised immediately what had gone wrong.  In my exuberance, I had misheard the name Mohamed as Elhamed, ignored the rest of the question, and taken it to be in reference to Hatem Abd Elhamed, the Israeli international footballer, rather than Mohamed Elyounoussi, the Norwegian.  I was kicking myself, and the longer the quiz developed into a three-way fight for the prize, the more I was worrying that my error, which was the equivalent of lunging in with a two-footed tackle in footballing terms, was going to cost us.

In the end, it wasn’t only hearing the name of the Celtic international which proved to be our downfall.  In the slim 3 point defeat, we also failed to identify which musician collaborated with Michael Jackson on his song The Girl Is Mine, or calculate the total numerical value of three Scrabble tiles, amongst other cracks in our pub quiz knowledge.

The Michael Jackson tree, outside the hotel in Budapest where his fans gathered hoping to see him during his stay there in 1993

We finished joint-second, and although the win we desired would have to wait another while yet, we were in the mood to celebrate our achievement, or nearly achievement, so we walked round to Aulay’s for one last drink to end the night.  As we were approaching the doors to the lounge bar it occurred to me how I had spent countless nights inside the pub hoping to find female company and it would never happen, with tales of failure becoming my thing, like wearing matching socks, ties and pocket squares, when all around me there were people meeting other people and being happy about it.  This time I was about to stride into the bar with three women who most people would kill to be seen with, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about it.  The door opened with the kind of dramatic swing you would ordinarily see on the silver screen, and the four of us walked inside to find the bar completely empty.  I would have been as well walking in with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for all anyone would see or care about it.

My efforts to distract me from any nerves I might have been feeling about my forthcoming reading led me to binge-watching the two newest IT movies over two nights.  I had never felt much of an inclination to see the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a murderous clown until I was invited to the cinema to view the newly-released second chapter with my friend who constructs sandwiches, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  I was asked to go along as a friend who could be grabbed and punched at the arrival of any particularly frightening scenes, and that was enough to have me searching my subscription streaming services for the first film.  Even if my awareness of what was happening was flimsy at best, it seemed that the least I could do would be to make an effort to familiarise myself with the story, sort of like when someone in a passing car is enthusiastically waving at you and you can’t fathom who it is, but you give a conciliatory gesture in case it is someone you know.

When I arrived at the Oban Phoenix Cinema on Friday night with a bottle of Coca-Cola which had its chemical balance transformed by seven 25ml measures of Jack Daniels I was considering how I was surely the least likely figure a person would turn to in the situation of anxiety caused by scenes from a horror film, or anything, really.  It would be like crafting a scarecrow out of seeds and fat balls.  Nevertheless, I was happy to be invited, even if the second chapter didn’t produce nearly as many scares as I would have liked.  Indeed, the most harrowing part of the three-hour movie came after around ninety minutes when I had finished my stash of Jack Daniels and coke and I found myself in an increasingly desperate need for the toilet.  I was reluctant to leave my seat through fear of missing a truly terrifying scene and failing in my role as a stress punch bag for the night, so I valiantly held out until the closing credits.  The feeling of relief was one I had rarely experienced.

On the last Saturday of summer, the sky was a sapphire blue shade and the clouds had been scared off by a vibrant warm sun.  At station square the final producers’ market of the season was taking place, where there was on offer an abundance of local meats, cheeses, handcrafted goods and talk of how it was a good day for it.  It made for a busy scene by the glowing harbour.  I was walking aimlessly through the bustle, free of my usual weekend hangover but filled with the growing recognition that later I would have to read in front of an audience.  Even a killer clown couldn’t save me now.

Despite having lived in Oban for all of my thirty-five years, I had never been inside the Oban Distillery, where the town’s most famous and most popular export had been produced since it was built in 1794.  It occurred to me that this would probably be like living in New York City all your life and never seeing the Empire State Building, or being a Parisian who had never stood next to the Eiffel Tower.  My whisky of choice wasn’t even Oban Malt.  It was always Jameson, which I supposed made me like the Italian who prefers the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper:  I enjoyed the local product, but I liked it better when it was bottled elsewhere.

A placard the day after the Global Climate Strike in Oban

Although I had never been on the inside of a whisky barrel, my first impression of the interior of the bar at the Oban Distillery was that it was probably quite similar to drinking inside an old cask.  The intoxicating fragrance of malt barley was hanging in the air, to some the very essence of love itself, while everything in the place was wooden. The flooring was oak, the bar, the tables, the seating, the walls were all made from wood.  At £5 for a bottle of Guinness Hop House 13, even the prices wouldn’t bend.

As well as the microphones on the stage, gathered around it was an array of audio and visual recording equipment, the sum of which was probably similar to the number of people who had previously listened to me read.  If the price of a bottle of beer hadn’t already made me feel queasy, then the constant stream of people entering the room was really making me nervous.  The bar was beginning to fill up with folk I recognised, some I sort of recognised, a couple of former work colleagues, but mostly with people who I didn’t know at all.  By the time the evening got underway, there were around a hundred spectators squeezed into the whisky barrel, and I was feeling sick over it.

A small group of regulars from the Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights were in attendance, and it was the Czech marine biologist who didn’t have a ticket but who had blagged her way in who I remember talking to first.  She complimented me on my suit, and nothing made me dissolve into a puddle of self-deprecation like someone saying something nice about me or my choice of outfit, especially when it was a woman with an accent.  I thanked her and proceeded to list all the things I had made a special effort to do on that day for the occasion of reading aloud to people I mostly didn’t know.  “I thought it would be a good idea to shower for a change.  I trimmed my stubble.  I decided that I would comb my hair.”  I couldn’t pinpoint precisely where it had happened, but I knew that I had said too much.  “Please…don’t give me any more details,” she said as she walked away towards the oak bar.  

Before The Blue Moon Travellers could perform the first of their two sets of the evening, we were provided with a safety demonstration by an employee of the Oban Distillery.  He informed us that as the place was still a functioning whisky distillery there was a possibility that something could go horrendously wrong and some piece of machinery could explode during the single occupant’s performance, and if you need to make an emergency exit, either in the event of physical disaster or emotional catastrophe, the fire exit is located here.  Or at least that is what I heard him say.

The more I watched Jim and Sheila of The Blue Moon Travellers handle their initial set of cover material with grace and professionalism, the more I was worrying that I was in over my head.  Sheila’s voice owned the room, while Jim’s guitar playing was so good that even my brother commented on it, and he had never mentioned anyone’s string plucking in Oban.  As the duo were nearing the end of their first performance of the night, it was all I could do to go to the bathroom and seek refuge in the unblemished porcelain surroundings.  I wasn’t feeling sick enough to throw up, but I always liked to pee right before I was due to read, if only to give me one thing less to worry about.  I took the only free urinal at the far left of the trio, and all of a sudden the thing that I was most nervous about getting out from within me wasn’t my words.

Before I knew it, I went from performing to a theatre of one at the urinal to sitting in front of a room of around a hundred people, trying to juggle my thick navy blue notebook in one hand with a green plastic party tumbler filled with Chilean Merlot in the other.  The choice of drinks ware was intended as a joke to accompany the piece I was reading, but the only joke turned out to be my attempt at turning the pages of my book without spilling red wine on the dry white sheets.  The chair felt as though it was the tallest I had ever sat on, rising so far from the ground that my feet could barely touch the oak floor.  I was like a toddler who was reading to an audience of adults for the first time, and after the opening couple of paragraphs, I was forced to rest the wine on an out-of-reach wooden ledge, as much for the sake of my trousers as for comfort.  It was the first time I read without the stage crutch of alcohol. 

From the tall seat behind the microphone, the only sound I could hear was the constant chatter which rustled across the room from the bar like a golden leaf down an empty street.  To me it sounded like everybody in the place was talking during my set, and although I was later told that the noise was only coming from the bar area, it was unsettling.  Still, I persevered with reading my material, like a drunk who is determined to walk home despite everyone insisting that he takes a taxi, and I was feeling hopeful as I approached the point where I was going to make a second public attempt at performing my favourite joke.  

I had once before read the story about the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s and how she on more than one occasion advised me that I should receive lessons in how to talk to women, which in turn led me to seek out a self-help book in Waterstones on the subject of talking to women, but it was proving difficult to find and so I approached a sales assistant and asked her to assist me in locating the self-help section, and the punchline received little reaction.  This time there was around a hundred people in attendance, and I was hoping that at least two or three of them would give me the laugh I had been craving.  I told the story again, and for a moment, even the sound of chatter from the bar fell silent.

Despite having to endure the farce of sitting through my own round of applause after I had finished reading because I had forgotten to mention my Diaries of a single man Facebook page and I wanted to get the plug in, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself after I gave up the stage for The Blue Moon Travellers to showcase songs from their new album Into The Blue.  The relief was unlike anything I had ever experienced, greater even than when everyone else had vacated the urinals earlier in the night.  As the night developed, I was approached by a clutch of people who wanted to tell me how much they had enjoyed my piece, and once again I was feeling awkward in dealing with compliments.  If there was one thing that made me nervous more than reading to an audience, it was having to actually talk to people.

Firstly a woman walked up to me as I was finishing the last dregs of the bottle of Chilean Merlot.  She was sweet and humble, and I had actually noticed her amongst the crowd when I was performing my reading.  I thanked her for her kind words and told her that she had caught my eye from the stage because she reminded me of Beetlejuice.  The woman seemed affronted, her eyes narrowed with a look that was a cross between confusion and annoyance, the kind I might have flashed at the pub quiz when our answer sheet was returned without a tick next to Israeli.  I noticed the woman’s displeasure and clarified my comment, assuring her that I was referring to her shirt, which had black and white stripes like the suit worn by the character in the Tim Burton movie, and not to her hair, which was not white and unruly.  Even the friends in my company couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

Later I found myself in conversation with a woman whose hair was the colour of Chardonnay, uncorked it flowed past her shoulders and over a scarf which was presumably worn for purposes of fashion rather than warmth.  I noticed that her fingernails were the colour of the Parma Violets sweets that I could remember from childhood, though at the time I couldn’t recall where I had seen the colour, and it was impossible to concentrate on talking to her when I was so distracted by that absent detail.

Despite my inability to communicate in a normal manner with people, the night was one of the most triumphant I had experienced.  I was feeling flattered and even happy with the way things had gone, as though I had achieved something. It was a good feeling, but even after it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Beetlejuice remark.  I could have said anything else in that moment and it would have been better; I could even have asked her the nationality of the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi.

Links and things:

Wake me up when this September playlist ends: my Spotify playlist for the month of September

For those without access to Spotify, the following are the two most significant songs from the last month.

I will never be able to hear the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry again without thinking of a wildly drunken Hungarian man in a bar in Budapest:

Digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea…

The Blue Moon Travellers can be found on Facebook here.
I will be reading from my notebook at the Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October. Full event details can be found here.

A tale of two cities (part three)

The first part of this story can be read here
The second part of this story can be read here

One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company.  While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter.  All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them.  The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes.  But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.

In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended.  Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth.  This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.

Budapest’s Great Synagogue

The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street.  Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue.  Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.

On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side.  In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

The House of Terror

There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.”  I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true.  After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?

The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine.  My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke.  It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey.  Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection.  Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.  

At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary.  Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in.  I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck.  In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly.  It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.

Szent István Bazilika

Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary.  The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044.  For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950.  Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all.  A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.  

There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first.  I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot.  They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it.  The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn.  It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.

I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond.  The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state.  I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted.  I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself.  Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes.  In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.

Hősök ter

If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better.  While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did.  The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey.  It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below.  I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything.  As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me.  While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp.  For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.

Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away.  It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking.  My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day.  I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process.  I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side.  I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.

When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke.  My aches were beginning to mount up.  Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked.  Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination.  The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry.  It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down.  Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.

Great Market Hall

Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.   Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see.  Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors.  There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer.  Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps.  You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.

The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms.  The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets.  They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004.  I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.  

On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of.  It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women.  I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.

My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor.  On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone.  She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian.  Yo a Stevie.  And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English.  I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer.  She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.

The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home.  She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency.  I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.”  She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password.  The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.

Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer.  I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there.  So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins.  Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing.  She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat.  I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch.  I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette. 

The Hungarian Parliament building

I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning.  The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me.  I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.

“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long.  I was eating a chippy.”

“I haven’t been here too long.  Sorry for disturbing your chippy.  What did you get?”

The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls.  I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.

I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later.  The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool.  He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s.  The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.

“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar. 

“It was maybe around two years ago.  You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”

The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to.  I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me.  She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim.  He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans.  I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.

I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell.  She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee.  Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl.  Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert.  I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room.  Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed.  Already I was missing Budapest.

The full version of this story can be found here

A tale of two cities (part two)

The first part of this story can be read here.

I had written four Hungarian phrases into the first page of my notebook in order to help me get along in Budapest.  The variants of good morning/afternoon/evening, the word for ‘thank you’, how to ask someone whether they can speak English, and in the event that they couldn’t, “kaphatnék egy sört.”

It took me until eleven o’clock on my first night, and my second drink in Budapest, to find a pint of beer which worked out at the equivalent of £1.51 and was, therefore, better value than the £1.69 I had paid for a bottle of water at the branch of WH Smith in Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow earlier in the day.  The pub was on the next street from my hotel, and the first thing I could see when I walked in was a popcorn machine sitting on the bar facing the open doors.  Inside, the barman was sweeping the floor with a hard-bristled brush.  He looked as though he had been working there, brushing the same floor, since the Stalin era.  His complexion was cement-like, grey and brooding, while his olive coloured apron was the most colourful item in the place.

The dusty old bartender was the fourth person I had encountered in Hungary, after the woman at the BKK ticket desk in the airport, the man on reception at my hotel when I checked in and the waiter at Gettó Gulyás, where I was served my first – and best – bowl of traditional Hungarian goulash, and he was the first who didn’t speak any English.  I tried out my version of good evening, which by now was already beginning to sound like I was trying to get the attention of a Spanish Steven.  Yaw aeshtayt was how I had, phonetically, written the phrase in my notebook, but even I could hear that it was coming out of my mouth more like a “yo a Stevie.”  A smile cracked across the features of the barman.  I imagined that it was his first experience of smiling since around 1991, and it was warming to see.

Almost all of the local people I encountered in Budapest had a very good knowledge of the English language, and often my trouble was more with understanding them than the Hungarians understanding me.  On the first morning of my trip, I walked across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to see the Buda side of the city.  Originally Budapest was three different cities – Buda, Óbuda and Pest – until they were unified in 1873.  While linked by several different bridges across the Danube River, the Buda and Pest sides of the city have very distinctive features.  Buda is more residential, quieter and is set upon rolling hills, where Buda Castle and Matthias Church are found.  

The chalk-white towers at Fisherman’s Bastion

The chalk-white Neo-Romanesque towers of Fisherman’s Bastion is where I spent a large part of my first day.  On my way up the winding stairways, my progress was often stopped by the couple ahead of me.  The woman was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be her partner’s photoshoot project, her red hair bleeding against the white stone.  While I could see the attraction, the panoramic views of Budapest from the lookout terrace were much more appealing.

It was when I returned to the area which I had been gazing down on from up high that I experienced my first real difficulty with language.  I had ventured on to Három Holló, a speakeasy bar which had attracted my attention whilst researching my trip online when it was described as being a hub for Budapest’s “socially sensitive, musically-inclined, left-wing intellectuals.”  I had aspirations of being at least one of those and turned up just as the seating was being arranged for what looked to be some kind of performance.  The pint of American Pale Ale I ordered was almost twice the price of the Borsodi I had enjoyed the previous night, but as a socially sensitive intellectual, I couldn’t be seen to be complaining.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Szent István Bazilika

I took a seat in the corner of the room with my notebook, and it wasn’t long before the place filled up and a woman was reading to an audience at the front of the bar area.  The performance was entirely in Hungarian, and I couldn’t be sure if it was poetry, drama or spoken word, though the absence of laughter from the group was leading me to think that it might have been a Hungarian female version of one of my Diaries of a single man readings.  The more I was drinking from my beer, and the longer the performance was going on, the more awkward and uncomfortable I was beginning to feel.  There was an attentive silence in the bar, no-one was going to order drinks and nobody was leaving. How sensitive would it look if I got up and waded through the entire audience to leave, or if I was to make one of my efforts to attract the attention of a Spanish Steven at the bar?

It was impossible to even judge from the tone if the performance was anywhere close to being finished.  I was nursing my beer, trying to make it last as long as possible, when two young females entered the bar and sat at the only available seats left, which happened to be at my table in the corner.  I could scarcely believe that such a situation would arise where two beautiful young women would sit at my table in a hipster bar. They were obviously reluctant to potentially interrupt the live reading by ordering drinks for themselves, and then it occurred to me that I couldn’t talk to them, or at least attempt to talk to them, even if I was feeling brave enough to try.  It was a scenario where the only red face I had was from the heat of the sun I had been walking in all day.

After twenty-four hours in the city, I had picked up a habit of trying bad Hungarian on barmaids who ended up having perfectly good English.  This manner made itself most known when I visited Szimpla Kert, which is Budapest’s most iconic ruin pub.  When I first became aware of the term ruin pub, I thought of the condition I have been in when leaving Aulay’s on any given Friday, where I have been ruined by Jameson.  In actuality, a ruin pub is a bar which has been created in an old derelict building, where the furniture is second-hand and everything has utilised as little renovation as possible.  They were popularised in the early 2000s when more and more buildings in Budapest were falling into a state of disrepair after the end of Communism a decade or so earlier.

Szimpla Kert

Szimpla Kert had numerous bars spread out over three or four different floors, many of them having different themes or atmospheres.  It was at one of those bars that I thought I was being smart when I tried to impress the barmaid by asking for “a sört of beer.”  Apart from my phrase literally translating as me asking for “a beer of beer,” the Hungarian word sört is supposed to sound similar to the English word sure.  The barmaid looked at me with incredulity.  “You want a shot of beer?”  She questioned.  I thought it better to offer my apology in my native tongue and accepted a full pint of beer instead.

Although Szimpla Kert was a stunning sight to behold, it felt a lot like being in one of the “Irish” pubs that every city seems to have, where they are crowded with English stag parties and everyone is at an incredibly high volume of drunkenness.  After exploring the multiple layers of the ruin pub, I returned to the area around my hotel, which was less populated with tourists.  Across the square, I found Imperial Pub, which like the place with the dusty barman the previous night, was a quiet watering hole for locals.  Three men were sitting at the bar as I entered, and the woman who was pouring their pints spoke nothing but Hungarian.  I was able to make it clear this time that I was hoping for an entire glass of beer, and upon hearing my voice the youngest of the men spoke to me in English which was almost although not quite as broken as my Hungarian was.  He told me that he had spent the previous summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke, which was one of those places that I always knew existed, but I was never entirely sure where it was or had met anyone who had ever been there.

To emphasise that his story was true, as if my reaction had somehow suggested to him that I didn’t quite believe that he had once worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, he extended his right arm across my chest, where he pointed out a gruesome burn which was across the bone of his wrist and was the colour of modestly milky coffee.  I presumed that it was healing.  In an effort to make conversation I asked the Hungarian with the burn scar how he had enjoyed his time in the United Kingdom, but it turned out that his grasp of the English vocabulary extended as far as to literally tell me that he worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, and our exchange fell flat.

Regardless of there being only one common strand between us, that being that the Hungarian had briefly lived in Basingstoke and I had heard of it, he offered to buy me a shot of his liquor of choice, which was Jim Beam apple flavoured whiskey.  I hadn’t learned the phrase for “no thank you, I don’t enjoy apple flavoured alcohol” and so over time I ended up with two of the things.  I bought him a beer in return, by which point I had become a sort of musical carousel, an object which nobody really quite understands, but that they take an interest in any way because it is new and emits a peculiar sound. 

A second member of the party shuffled closer to me.  He had asked the barmaid to play some songs by the rock band Guns N’ Roses through her YouTube screen, which had been linked to the bar’s speaker system.  I found it fascinating that even though he didn’t speak a word of English, this man was delighted to hear Axl Rose’s voice, while I too was thrilled to be able to listen to the music.  He was speaking at me with emphatic Hungarian, and I was talking back to him in English.  We didn’t understand a word that the other was saying, yet when it came to the guitar solos and he was wildly strumming his hand down the imaginary guitar on his torso, we both knew exactly what it meant.

A tale of two cities (part one)

It was six o’clock on a Monday morning and I had been up and out of bed for around eighty minutes, which when added to a week of nights that had been merely peppered with incidents of sleep meant that I was feeling a lot like a wet bath towel.  I could hear the rain falling onto the already sodden tarmac outside, and even though the streets were almost entirely deserted, I was still forced to confront one of my worst fears – a pedestrian carrying an umbrella.  I never really understood where my fear of umbrellas had come from.  Usually it follows that these things are the result of some childhood trauma, the way that an entire generation of people developed a phobia of sharks after the 1975 movie Jaws, or how my own difficulty with talking to girls came after many red-faced rejections.  But umbrellas were different from great white sharks and women. There was never an incident with a spoke to speak of.  It didn’t seem reasonable that whenever I saw a person approaching me with a rain-splattered umbrella held over their head I would have this uneasiness in the pit of my stomach that one of the sharp metal spokes was going to spear me in the eye, having already broken through the lens of my glasses.

As the bus was leaving a dark and wet Oban, I was feeling tired and miserable, and I wasn’t really sure why I was sitting there.  Two nights before, I had read from my notebook at The Rockfield Centre, and while the performance itself didn’t seem that bad, there were only around sixteen people there to hear it.  The numbers would have made for a great dinner party, but not so much an open mic event. While it was a nice feeling that the small number had been swelled by the late arrival of some of my best friends who had made a spur of the moment decision to come along, the experience didn’t do much to alleviate my recent feelings of loneliness and of there not being anyone I could talk to who would understand me, which had resulted in my decision ten days previously to book a solo trip to Budapest.

In the Ryanair non-priority boarding line at Edinburgh Airport I found myself involved in a discussion with an older Scottish couple, involuntarily, as a conversation in a queue usually is.  The older man looked like Santa Claus, bearded and with a jolly belly, and sounded like Robbie Coltrane.  Our flight had been delayed by approximately thirty minutes, although there was no indication of this anywhere around the airport.  John wasn’t upset about the wait to board the flight, although he reasoned in a passive aggressive manner that it would only be fair to those passengers who had the potential to become annoyed that some announcement should have been made as to why we were still waiting at the gate.  “If you’re standing on the platform at Milngavie and the non-existent train you are waiting for isn’t going to turn up, they at least have the decency to tell you.”

John and his wife were on their way to Budapest to join a fourteen night river cruise.  This would not be the couple’s first excursion on a cruise ship, and he regailed me with the story of a previous holiday where an Australian radio personality of modest fame was due on board to perform a DJ set for the holidaying guests.  The tale went that because this presenter had encouraged so many elderly Australians to join the cruise, his cabin was rewarded to him for free.  The first night of sailing departed without any live music, and the following morning the expansive breakfast lounge was buzzing with hushed speculation.  According to John, no-one from the crew on board the ship was allowed to confirm it, but the Australian disc jockey had died of natural causes. As the tall, booming, Father Christmas-like figure reasoned, of five thousand passengers on any given cruise ship, it is likely due to the demographics of the guests that at least one of them would perish each week.

Upon hearing this story, moments before we were about to board our flight to Budapest, where John and his wife were going to join a cruise on the Danube, I found myself worrying that I could inadvertently have become the last person John would ever talk to.  All he wanted was to pass the time whilst waiting to board his plane by talking to a stranger about which cities have the best hop on sightseeing bus tours, and the whole time I was hoping that he would turn to his left and tell it to his wife instead. And now he might be the one in five thousand who dies in a tiny cabin on the river. 

To make matters worse, the gentleman’s parting words as we were opening up our passports and slowly advancing forward in the line were to say:  “I hope you find yourself sitting next to the person you’re looking for.” As though he wasn’t Santa Claus at all, but rather he was a wise old wizard who could tell just from the shape of me that I was a single occupant seeking company.  As it turned out, I was in the middle seat of the emergency exit row, in between a man who minutes after take-off had disembarked his feet from his brown loafers and ordered a hot chocolate and two Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and a senior woman who was on a golfing holiday and had in her hand a copy of the Daily Mail.  He wasn’t even going to get his final wish, though it was difficult to reason that I would have deserved to benefit from it anyway.

Budapest would prove to be a leafy city, this being the pick of the trees

Three hours later our flight arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport.  It was thirteen hours after I had left Oban, although with the addition of a Central European hour it was technically fourteen hours.  I saw John and his wife in the line at passport control and was relieved that he had at least survived the flight. Although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock at night it was dark, which was earlier than it had been falling dark back home.  Whilst waiting for the bus into the city a light rain was falling from the sky, caressing the lens of my glasses and dripping down my face.  I huddled inside a shelter, away from the weather and the threat of any oncoming umbrellas.  

Hard to believe it isn’t butter

It was always a tremendous source of amusement amongst our family when we would make our weekly visit to Poppies for breakfast on a Saturday morning and the dish with the small portions of butter would arrive at the table.  There would typically be around four or five of the little golden rectangles, and it was always a race to see which of either my niece or our father would notice them first.  Dad had the advantage of experience and the fact that my niece was usually distracted by whichever object was her favourite toy on that particular day.  A cuddly cat, a colouring book, building blocks, a sponge scouring pad.  Though she undoubtedly had the cuteness factor in her favour, and if she happened to spy the butter before anybody else, she was pretty difficult to beat.  

Their motives for wanting the butter were quite different and went far beyond simply garnishing a slice of toast.  My niece sometimes liked nothing better than to peel open the little golden parcel as though it were a present on Christmas morning, but what was hidden inside was no surprise to her; she knew exactly what it was and she wanted to eat it.  Even when there was a plate full of hot, fresh toast sitting on the table in front of her, all she wanted to do was to stick her fork into the smooth yellow blob and lick it. Sometimes she wouldn’t even need the fork.  Our dad, on the other hand, liked to gather a portion or two of butter and carefully wrap it in a red napkin which, after a quick look around the coffee shop, would be safely stashed away in the pocket of his jacket.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of heists, but it would require great care all the same.  No-one wants to take a gunshot wound on a bank robbery, just like nobody wants a grease stain from melted butter on their favourite jacket.

To begin with, none of us could really tell why dad wanted so much butter.  There had been plenty of discussion in the news of people stockpiling goods before Britain left the European Union at the end of October, but they had been talking about cans of tuna fish and baked beans, toilet rolls and medicines, rather than restaurant-sized portions of butter.  So one day we asked him.  He told us that he likes to collect them in case of a situation where he has run out of butter.  “You never know when you might need them.” It was essentially the same reason he would always give for the boxes of old VHS tapes he kept stored in various locations around the house.

I dismissed dad’s hoarding of butter portions as being unnecessary, wondering why anyone would go to such a length when butter isn’t exactly like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or a date on a Saturday night.  It isn’t difficult to find.  Sure, I would sometimes jump the gun and buy a bottle of washing up liquid before the one under my sink had been completely finished, and I always liked to make sure that I had a second tube of moisturiser in the bathroom cabinet, because nobody wants to be caught short and forced into spreading Lurpak on their cheeks, but otherwise I liked to keep my household supplies sensibly stocked.  At least that was the mighty impression I had of my own management when I got out of bed on Sunday morning to prepare an omelette.  

My omelettes were always very basic in their ingredients, although there would be enough of them to feed two or three single occupants if necessary.  It was rare if my brunch didn’t use bacon, there was usually an onion, too, and the grated cheese was piled high enough to cover a small molehill.  On occasion, there might be a red pepper thrown in if I wanted to spice the omelette up or I didn’t know how else I was going to use it.  The ingredients would be softened in a frying pan while I beat together a number of eggs which was typically dependant on how hungover I was feeling on any given Sunday.  Once the bacon pieces and onion chunks had been cooked, they were tipped out onto a plate and the frying pan wiped clean, ready to welcome a significant portion of butter, which would be melted to cook the eggs in.  At least that was how it usually happened every other weekend.  But on this particular occasion, I came to realise that I had used the last of the butter and forgotten to replace it.  There’s a handy reminder when it comes to preparing an omelette that to make one, you have to break a few eggs, but there is nothing to help you remember that you also need to buy butter.

While the butter tub-shaped gap on the middle shelf in my fridge remained, under the kitchen sink there were two bottles of Fairy washing up liquid.  For more nights than would probably be considered dignified, I was unscrewing the red lid of the original bottle and running the tap in an attempt to rinse out every last drop of green soap.  I refused to move on to the new one until I was satisfied that I had gotten my money’s worth.  In thirty-five years I had never considered what value for money might be from a 99p bottle of washing up liquid, but it turned out that it was filling it with water until the amount of bubbles spilling forth resembled a children’s birthday party.  

When it finally came time to flip open the top of the new bottle, I was greeted by a fragrance which was strikingly similar to supermarket bought apple juice, the sort you might find in the breakfast lounge of a Travelodge or a Premier Inn.  I glanced down at the plastic container in my hand, realising that in my haste to grab a bargain from the special offers section in Lidl I had picked up a bottle of apple orchard scented washing up liquid.  I had never been in an apple orchard, but I felt fairly certain that it wouldn’t smell like apple juice which had been caught consorting with paprika in my kitchen sink.  For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea of flavoured washing up liquid.  If the purpose of using such a thing was to clean debris from dinner plates and associated kitchen utensils, then what good would adding apple do?  It would be like bathing in Chardonnay or using margarine to moisturise my clean face.  I didn’t want anything to do with the scented soap, but I had paid for it and one use certainly wouldn’t be value for money, so I persevered, resigned to the fear that everything was going to taste of apples for weeks.

The view of Lothian Road didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in Edinburgh

Even at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I went in search of an escape, I was finding it difficult to avoid the irritants of day-to-day life.  It wasn’t so much the flyerers or the insanely busy streets that I was being troubled by.  Even the older couple from Yorkshire who walked into Banshee Labyrinth, which frames itself as being the most haunted pub in Edinburgh but where the only spirt I have ever encountered came from a bottle behind the bar, and complained about the price of their drinks in the city centre didn’t bother me.  Indeed, I found my own spirits momentarily lifted when I watched the comedian Peter Brush perform for the third year in a row and his joke about the time he thought that his acting career was on the verge of taking off when he landed the role of understudy to the part of Godot in a school production of the Samuel Beckett play received the kind of reaction some of my own favourite jokes get.  I was one of three people in the small chamber room who laughed out loud, mainly out of sympathy and a recognition of the comedian’s plight of having his well-crafted joke fall as flat as a glass of breakfast apple juice.

My irritation came when I was sitting in the beer garden outside Brewdog enjoying a pint of their light Dead Pony Club IPA, which tasted a lot better than the name suggested and was a refreshing drink in the warmth of a late August afternoon.  The outdoor seating area was almost the entire length of the pavement and offered views of Lothian Road, which probably didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in the city.  Nevertheless, I soaked it in like I was looking out at Edinburgh Castle or the Scott Monument, organising my thoughts and contemplating where Peter Brush had gone wrong with his Godot joke, and me with my gag about searching for a self-help book in Waterstones.

At the table across from mine, a couple arrived and sat down with their craft beers.  No sooner had their buttocks touched the bench than both of them had a cigarette in their mouths, like synchronised swimmers, shrouded in smoke.  Clouds of nicotine were coughing across the narrow courtyard and I was cursing under my breath, which was more than the smokers would be capable of, I thought.  Their presence was irritating me more than it should have, especially considering that they were smoking exactly where they were supposed to.  What upset me most was the knowledge that five years previously I would have been the asshole lighting a cigarette in an area where nobody else was smoking, completely oblivious to their discomfort.  It occurred to me that you never really know how annoying something you are doing can be to other people until you are no longer the person doing it.  I suppose it’s a lot like being part of the couple in a room full of single friends.

A week had passed when I walked into Aulay’s.  The rain was falling briskly outside and the Dundee derby was playing on the television screens.  It was like any other Friday night.  In the corner of the lounge bar, underneath the televised football, was sitting a young woman whose hair was curled and the colour of midnight.  Her skin was like crushed olives and she had exactly the type of face I liked in a person: symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  From her ears were hanging two large brass earrings which were the width of a champagne flute.  She was wearing a top that was camouflage coloured, yet I couldn’t help but see her.

I was standing at the bar with Brexit Guy and Geordie Pete, the latter of whom was waxing lyrical about the majesty of St James Park and telling me the story of how he went there to watch Newcastle play Arsenal in 2011.  The visitors raced into a four-goal lead inside half an hour, and Pete decided that he had seen enough so he left the stadium for the Irish pub which sat on the corner of the Gallowgate, in the shadow of the massive stands nearby.  He was leaning against the bar watching the afternoon’s football scores come through on the TV.  Newcastle scored.  Then again.  And again.  The game Geordie Pete left finished 4-4 and was regarded as one of the most remarkable English Premier League games of the modern era.  I couldn’t help but relate the story to my own romantic interests, though I couldn’t be sure if I was the Geordie Pete, the Newcastle or the Arsenal.  All the same, it was a distraction from the girl in camouflage.

In the meantime, as I leaned across the bar to order another pint of Tennent’s, I heard an unfamiliar voice speak into my left ear.  It was soft and complimentary and welcome.  “I really like your suit,” the voice soothed.  “You don’t see a brown suit often enough.”

I dipped my mouth into the frothy head of my pint and turned to face the tweed enthusiast with something approaching a smile.  “It’s probably my favourite suit,” I said, attempting to curry favour with the tall bald-headed man who I recognised as having been sitting in the company of the camouflage girl.  The gentleman’s head seemed to have been shaved bald out of a consideration for fashion more than as any kind of natural progression.  We exchanged pleasantries and he returned to his table with drinks for himself and the camouflage girl.  I was left standing at the bar feeling like a frying pan without a portion of butter, or a man who had just had an enormous puff of cigarette smoke blown into his face.

An august playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of August

The following two songs were my most listened to through the month.  Unknown Legend was perfect for my feelings of restlessness, the way that reality collides with fantasy.  The song always gets me.

Funeral Beds builds to an epic climax.