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.

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