The different uses for a comb

In my experience it wasn’t rare for a major high to quickly be followed by a crushing defeat, but ordinarily it would be me who was suffering the rapid fall from grace, and it usually wouldn’t come around as suddenly as the swift setback I had witnessed in Aulay’s around an hour after the pub quiz in The Lorne, where I had suffered a small defeat of my own.  Three members of the four Unlikely Lads had reunited after the brief flirtation with success two of us had enjoyed a week earlier when we formed a winning alliance with the Bawbags who weren’t away on holiday, and for a while it was looking like our quiz joy might continue when we found ourselves in the lead at the midway point.  I was already allowing myself to think ahead to how I could spend the prize of a £25 bar voucher on a second date, even though I had yet to find a woman who would accompany me for the use of the voucher we had previously won.  However, our team endured a torrid round of questions on siblings, registering a pitiful return of three points, and the whole thing went downhill from there.  It was a lot like the frequent challenges I faced with my own brother, who was always much better equipped for attracting the opposite sex than I was.

Aulay’s was quiet on Wednesday night, much quieter than it apparently had been the night before, when legend has it that an eve of funeral gathering ended with a wild bar brawl.  There weren’t more than three patrons in the lounge bar when I walked in, and I was beginning to wonder if the only people who go to the pub on a Wednesday night are those who are lonely.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, where there was ample room for me to consider where the evening’s quiz had gone wrong over a beer while I embellished the diminutive barmaid with the story of my bar voucher and how I was hoping to use it to attract a date.  In the meantime, a couple who were half-Scottish and half-Australian entered the bar, and they quickly became involved in a conversation with one of the three folks who were there before I was, an older man who had travelled from a nearby island in the Outer Hebrides.  It wasn’t long before the new acquaintances were serenading the sparse bar with drunken Scottish lullabies.  

Pints of lager, measures of whisky and orders of vodka and Irn-Bru were finding their way to the table in the corner in quick succession, and it wouldn’t be long before the lyrical infused libations were requiring some accompaniment in the form of music.  I wasn’t witness to what happened next, but I was able to savour its effect and I could easily picture the scene when the Glasgow born male of the aforementioned couple told the story after the event.

Volunteers collecting from the bay near Dunstaffnage Marina under an approaching storm

As the couple were sitting at the comfort of their table, their island companion reached into the pocket of his jumper, which was the colour of a Mentos wrapper, for a packet of cigarettes.  He shook the cardboard carton like it was a pepper mill, though instead of granulated peppercorns there were around thirteen Silk Cuts tumbling onto the surface of the table, which was wet with pools of Tennent’s Lager.  The cigarettes were swimming in rivers of gold while the man from the Outer Hebrides was carefully separating the silver paper lining from the inside of his empty cigarette carton.  Neither of the pair was at all sure what he was up to, and it wasn’t any clearer when he withdrew his black comb from his inside pocket.  He proceeded to attach the shiny paper to the hair straightening tool, fashioning an unlikely instrument, and he provided the most unlikely backing I had ever heard to a pair of pub singers.

The comb harmonica had a similar sound to that of a duck call, and after a few minutes of the man breathing into the thing, I found myself glancing towards the entrance of the pub, wondering if a flock of ducks might waddle in, and everyone would look at one another in search of the punchline.  It was ridiculous, and yet at the same time sublime, and his newfound friends were in rapture to his device, celebrating every note he produced.

The impromptu performance continued for some time, the Glaswegian man singing his folk songs and the islander accompanying him with his musical comb, until the plentiful supply of drinks that the couple had been replenishing him with caught up with the islander.  Suddenly the female of the group called out.  “He’s being sick on his shoes!” Apparently it was just the vodka and Irn-Bru repeating on him like the two notes his instrument could play, but it was enough to cause some alarm at the table.  Within a matter of minutes, the distant islander had gone from the high of being regarded as a hero for his virtuoso instrumental interlude, to the bitter defeat of vomiting on his shoes in the pub.  It was the visual equivalent, I thought, of how it would be to watch myself try and talk to a woman.

A scramble for paper towels ensued, and the old man was looking lost as he watched the whole thing unfold around him.  The woman wiped the orange fluid from his shoes, which were the black of faded tarmac on a busy town road, and once he had taken some time to compose himself, he slipped the comb, still shrouded on one side by the silver cigarette paper, off the end of the table and began playing it again, as if nothing had ever happened.  I couldn’t help but admire him for his resilience and his devotion to the cause, whichever cause breathing into an old comb might be.  There had been many a time when I had been sick in a pub and immediately left to go home, albeit I was in the modesty saving surroundings of a public bathroom.  This was something I had never witnessed before, and I was struck by how humble it all was.  How nice it would be if everybody could handle adversity like this.

Autumn would always arrive like an artist’s stroke on canvas; with wonderous new smells and curious sounds, with exciting hope and it was all so full of colour.  All around town things were changing with the season, nothing more so than the leaves on the trees.  Amongst the diminishing green, there could be seen different shades of all sorts, from regal gold to burning amber, from aged rust to crisp red.  As dusk was settling in over Oban bay, the headlights of cars would whizz by on the Esplanade, looking like fireflies with somewhere to go.  And yet, amongst it all, everything still felt blue.

The cold air troubled my newly exposed ears as well as the sea

By the penultimate Saturday in October I could no longer be sure if the temperature had taken a significant drop or if the sudden cold feeling around my ears was because I had just been for a hair cut.  It had been at least nine-and-a-half weeks since I last had the hairs around my head trimmed, and they were becoming increasingly difficult to fashion into a respectable look.  When I first walked into the barber’s shop the couch was almost full, but one of the guys was waiting for his friend in the chair, and besides, we weren’t having our weekly family breakfast at Poppie’s, so I had nothing better to do than read the sports pages of the Daily Star and occasionally feign interest in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia on the old television in the corner whilst waiting my turn.

Nobody else had taken a seat on the couch since I had arrived, and it seemed that this was a theme of the morning.  Whilst sitting in the barber’s chair I received a lesson on the economics of cutting men’s hair for a living.  “I’m probably fifty quid down today because the rugby is on and there doesn’t seem to be many people coming out,” the barber said to me over the buzz of his clippers as I stared ahead at the blurred reflection of what I assumed was myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t be sure when I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  “But on Wednesday I could be fifty up…someone will always need their hair cut.”  I was reluctant to nod with a blade so close to my scalp, but I understood what he was saying.

I shuddered each time the barber ran his comb through my hair, though I wasn’t sitting there for very long.  “Slip on your glasses and tell me what you think” is a phrase I could imagine being said in many situations, but I had only ever heard it in the barber’s chair.  As the barber brushed away the stray hairs from around my collar he admired his own handiwork, proclaiming the hair cut the best he had ever given me.  I could see the look of bemusement on my own face when I put my glasses back on over my exposed ears.  Does this mean that he hadn’t been doing his best work over all these years?  And all those people who had noticed my previous hair cuts, had they only noticed them because they weren’t so good?  I couldn’t stop going over those questions in my mind as I was surveying his snipping, struggling to see what was different about it.

A week had passed and I was still settling into my new hair cut when Let’s Make A Scene was cancelled not quite at the last minute, but certainly at the last hour.  I had already showered and changed into my suit for my reading, so I carried on to Aulay’s regardless. A sense of awkwardness quickly came over me when I was standing at the bar wearing a brown tweed suit as people funnelled in to watch the big fight on television, and I only really began to feel comfortable later in the night when strays from a Halloween party arrived and I was no longer the only person wearing costume.

The marine biologist barmaid from Aulay’s had been keen to listen to my set at the open mic event, and when she returned to the other side of the bar later on Saturday she arrived with her boyfriend and a friend whose scarf immediately caught my eye.  I was in such a rush to compliment her on the neck-warming apparel that I immediately forgot her name when she was introduced to me.  Even when I was talking to her, it wasn’t the midnight mascara around her eyes that I was thinking about, but the cashmere around her collar.  

I tried to make conversation with the young woman around all of the usual things, and I learned all about her studies and her reasons for moving to Oban, where she had come from and some of the places she had travelled to further her research.  But I still couldn’t take my mind off the scarf, and I could tell that things were going awry when I asked her about the hurricane evacuation procedure in Costa Rica.  Seemingly people from the coastal areas were moved inland to cramped farmhouses, and it was only a matter of time before she initiated an evacuation procedure of her own.  I couldn’t resist asking about the scarf any longer.  It was made up of two or three different colours, and I was keen to know her view of what they were.

“What would you say the predominant colour on your scarf is?”

“Purple,” she said, unwilling to elaborate on whether it was lavender, lilac or mauve.  Whatever interest I had been able to hold for the girl lasted about as long as a hair cut, and she soon moved into a discussion with my more interesting friend.  I never saw the scarf again, and I was left wondering if this was how it felt to be sick on your shoes in the pub.  Worst of all, I wasn’t even carrying a comb to overcome my defeat.

The tenth playlist of the year – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of October

For those who don’t have access to Spotify, but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three favourite songs from the past month.

One of my favourite songs by the popular alternative rock band from the 1980s and 90s, R.E.M…

A reminder of how great a song sounds when you haven’t heard it in a while and it sneaks up on you…

The best cover of a song by The Carpenters…

Diaries of a 36-year-old single man

It was difficult for me to pinpoint precisely when I started to get old, but I reckoned it was probably around the eleventh of October nineteen hundred and eighty-three.  It started out as a slow process, a gradual crawl that wasn’t really going anywhere in particular, that one day learned how to walk and over time let me know that it could run if it really wanted to, but for the time being it didn’t have all that much enthusiasm for breaking a sweat.    

Things were beginning to change by the time the second week of the October of 2019 arrived.  I had put my second load of laundry of the week into the washing machine before I left for work on Tuesday morning.  It wasn’t a large load:  a few pairs of socks, some boxer shorts, a bath towel, a kitchen towel and a dishcloth, but I liked the idea of getting it out of the way and having a full colour chart of socks to choose from for the week ahead.  By the time I had arrived home at the end of the day and put the small load through another spin cycle, I couldn’t remember if I had thrown one of the little laundry gel pouches into the machine before I started it on its way.  I was glancing at the cupboard where the detergents were stored with a wistful look, the sort I had given across a crowded bar often enough, one which said that I didn’t really understand what was going on or how to resolve it.  There was no way of me knowing whether I had washed my socks or just made them soaking wet, and suddenly, as I was draping my red and yellow cotton socks over the rungs of the clothes airer, 36 wasn’t feeling all that far away.

Almost three years had passed since I turned 33, when I was just happy to have reached the age that Jesus was reported to have been when he died.  At the time I considered it something of an achievement to have outlived our Lord and Saviour, and when I was thinking about it again in the days before my thirty-sixth birthday I realised that it was probably still the most significant thing I had done in the intervening years.  I had tried boasting about this to a friend over a pint in Aulay’s when she pointed out that Christ was famously resurrected two days following his crucifixion, and neither of us could remember what became of him next.  I was being forced to reconsider everything I had done between the ages of 33 and 36 and whether living to an age which was older than Jesus ever managed was really that much of an achievement anyway.  He was a man who had sacrificed himself and died for all of our sins, after all, though the way that he came back to brag about the fact sounded a lot like the way someone buys a round of drinks at the bar and then spends the rest of the night telling anyone who will listen that he has.  I would know because I’ve done that.

There were two pub quizzes taking place on the nights before my birthday, and I was hoping that if I could no longer use the fact that I had been on earth longer than Jesus was as my greatest achievement in life, then I could at least be a part of a winning quiz team.  The half-term holidays meant that many people were away in places where the conditions were more favourable than the cold rain that had been falling in Oban, so the raven-haired quiztress and I joined the remaining members of the Bawbags to form The Unlikely Bawbags, although anyone who had known me would not have considered it unlikely that I could be a bawbag.

The silver-haired host of the Lorne’s pub quiz had recently returned from a trip to New York City, which meant that many of the questions had a distinct theme.  If there was one subject that I could be more of an insufferable know-it-all in than I was on Budapest, it was New York City following my travels there in 2015 and 2016.  We scored a perfect ten in the picture round, which featured NYC landmarks, and followed that with nine out of ten in the round which was dedicated to the Big Apple, where the only gap in our knowledge was failing to identify that if you put lox on a bagel you are eating cured smoked salmon.  After three rounds we were in the familiar position of being tied for the leadership, although I was in the unfamiliar role of having correctly answered a question about the nationality of a Celtic player, at the third time of asking.  In spite of a sketchy sport round, we were able to recover in the New York-themed music round to win the quiz by two-and-a-half points.  While lording it over the three teams we had vanquished to claim the £25 voucher for a bar meal, we liked to imagine the envy that the absent members from our two regular teams would be feeling from their sun loungers when they learned the news that we had won.

Our triumphant team, which had been re-christened as Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady, was brimming with confidence going into the Oban Inn’s quiz the following night, although immediately something seemed off.  As I was rubbing an itch from my nose I caught the stench of what smelled to be fish on the tip of my thumb.  It wasn’t present on any of my fingers and I hadn’t touched any sea life, so it was a mystery where it had come from or what it was, and the question was troubling me for much of the night.  

A further distraction from the questions I should have been focussing my attention on came when the rest of my team-mates made the generous offer of giving me sole custody of the £25 voucher we had won from The Lorne, with the suggestion that I should use it as a means of enticing a woman to join me for dinner.  It seemed to me to be the type of gesture a person makes when they know that they will probably still get something out of it, like opening a share size bag of M&M’s and offering some to your friend who suffers from a dairy intolerance, or offering to buy a round of drinks when everybody in the group has a full glass in front of them.  My team likely knew that I wasn’t going to be successful in finding a woman who would accompany me to The Lorne for a bar meal, particularly when the voucher came with an expiry date of January 2020.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up scenarios where I might be able to at least make the offer, and the lines I could use to make it appealing.

“The voucher is only valid for food, so we’ll have to pretend that we’re enjoying ourselves.”

“Would you like to eat £25 worth of food in The Lorne?  Good. The only thing is that you’ll have to spend some time with me.”

“They say that it’s feast from a fiver, but how about we feast for five fivers?”

“I may not have the natural charm, wit, charisma, intelligence or rock star looks that you’re looking for, but I can tell you that the World Trade Center is 1,776 feet tall.”

“If we have a good time, perhaps we could go on a second date once I win another pub quiz?”

Nothing I could think of sounded right.

We were feeling pretty confident and clever following our achievements the night before, but we soon found the Oban Inn quiz to be quite challenging, and while in the corner of the room we could see Scotland losing 4-0 to Russia in a European Championships qualifier, a table of three eggheads were winning the quiz by more than 30 points.  Even though we ended up finishing third, and were a question away from claiming the second-place prize of a bottle of wine, Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady had encountered a bump in the pub quiz road.

The eleventh of October arrived and I was still no further forward in realising the significant achievement of my life.  Oban was rainy and blustery on the day I was turning 36, as though the howl of age itself was biting at my face.  Along the seafront, the tide was high and wild, and all sorts of debris was floating on top of the bay, which was as dark as a broken slate.  There were discarded plastic bottles swimming amongst the seaweed, a tub of Ariel Laundry 3 in 1 pods, dozens of empty crisp packets, a white bucket and a tennis ball which was well worn.  It was as though the contents of a bin had been carried from the shore in a great gust of wind.

For the first time, my birthday suit was the subject of discussion; more specifically, the colour scheme of the shirt and tie I had elected to wear on my birthday was being talked about.  One of the younger women at the office suggested that my pale yellow shirt and bright pink tie gave me the appearance of a birthday cake.  It wasn’t the look I had in mind when I was getting dressed in the morning, and when I thought about it, I was feeling more like a four-day-old birthday cake which had been left sitting by a radiator.  Later, in Aulay’s, a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn Bru complimented me on my look, which I was beginning to accept did have a hint of marzipan, and she intimated that she had been admiring for some time the attention to detail which always went into my outfits.  She said that she had recently seen a handwoven scarf which she was considering buying for me, and I confessed that I wasn’t certain that 36 was the right age to be introducing a scarf to my attire.  How would it interact with the tie?  Where would I find the socks to match?  

Elsewhere in the bar, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was reunited in its full form for the first time in a long time, though some of the group were no longer as lonely as others.  The Brazilian belly dancer pressed a kiss onto my moisturised forehead, leaving a lipstick print which meant that from my head to the socks on my toes, I was colour coordinated.  Meanwhile, the Polish scientist with a moniker was celebrating the removal of a cast from her drinking arm.  I was hopeful that there would be such a steady stream of people arriving into the bar who both knew me and that it was my birthday that I could go the entire night without needing to put my hand into my pocket to buy a drink, but there eventually reached a point in proceedings where my Catholic guilt got the better of me and I was forced to buy a round of drinks, although I was quick to let everyone know that I had done so. 

It was like old times when the plant doctor and my brother returned to my flat after Markie Dans had called last orders, when I was simply a 36-year-old man, rather than a man who was turning thirty-six.  We drank bottles of beer and listened to music until it was almost daylight again.  When I eventually made it to bed, there were the crowns of discarded Budweiser tops all over the place and Pistachio shells strewn across the oak flooring.  I was feeling like a tennis ball adrift in a web of seaweed.  The plant doctor had fallen asleep on the couch, which wasn’t the sleepover I had been wishing for on my birthday, though it at least didn’t come at the expense of my £25 voucher for The Lorne.

I had certainly aged by no more than a year on Friday, but I had largely recovered from the experience by the time I met with the rest of my family to take the 6.11 train out to Connel for a birthday dinner.  We were sitting at a table watching the plush green countryside roll past through rain splashed windows, while from the corner of our eyes we were looking out for the ticket inspector who had promised to come back to us so that we could purchase our £3 fares for the journey, though we had an unspoken hope that he wouldn’t have time to return before the train made its first stop, which was our destination.  Things were looking promising when the wheels screeched to a slow stop by the platform of the small village’s station, and we carefully disembarked from the train with the spring of triumph in our steps.  As an act of larceny it probably wasn’t up there with Ronnie Biggs, but we were feeling good about our free journey all the same.

When you get off the train in Connel and leave through the station car park, there are two paths that you can follow.  There is the dark shaded path to the right of the exit which ends directly behind the Falls of Lora Hotel, where we had our dinner reservation at 7.30.  The other path, on the left of the car park, takes pedestrians down onto the main street of the village and finally out to the A85, which is the main road to and from Oban, and from where it is around a three or four-minute walk to the main entrance of the hotel.  As the rain was starting to fall from the dark sky again, hitting off the ground and bouncing back up again like a thousand ping pong balls, we decided to walk down the path to our left.  By the time we reached the Falls of Lora the four of us had been soaked through, and any feelings of success from our complimentary train ride were running down our faces and dripping onto the ground around us.

We took a table close to the great warmth which was being produced by the wood-burning stove in the centre of the bar, attempting to dry out as we whetted our lips and waited for the two members of our party who had decided to drive out from Oban to arrive.  The place was like sitting in someone’s living room, comfortable and with all sorts of quirky and interesting things to look at.  There were pencil drawings hanging on the walls, ornaments of cats and other creatures, and a large, framed cicada which was mounted on the wall near our dinner table and which looked like it could easily overcome a roll of flypaper or even a sturdy tennis racket.

My sister reached into her bag and brought out a board game, which she had taken to keep my niece amused.  Three Little Pigs was more of a problem-solving puzzle game based on the children’s story about a wolf with a troublesome appetite.  The challenge was for the player to build three houses onto the board around the endangered pigs to keep them safe, in keeping with the 48 challenges outlined in the booklet.  It was like a jigsaw, with the pigs and the wolf positioned in ways that required the colourful blocks with the houses to be rotated and placed so that they would all fit together on the board.  The puzzles were designed for children between the ages of three and seven to be able to complete, and my sister decided that it would be a good idea to test my ability to protect the little pigs.

I took possession of the board and analysed the positioning of the pigs and the whereabouts of the wolf.  I confidently placed the first green block on the board, safely housing the first pig.  This is child’s play, I thought, as my three-year-old niece watched on.  My brow furrowed in consternation as I realised that the placing of my first block wouldn’t allow all of the pigs to be rescued, and I sheepishly removed it.  I looked again at my niece, with it slowly dawning on me that the puzzle wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I manipulated the pieces in all the different ways I could think of, but still they wouldn’t fit.  It took me much longer than it reasonably should have to find the correct solution, maybe as long as ten minutes, and when my sister took the board back to give my niece another shot at a new puzzle, she completed it with much less of the drama.  I could outlive Jesus and win a pub quiz, but I still couldn’t outsmart a three-year-old.  Thirty-six was shaping up to carry on where thirty-five had left off.

In addition to reading A lion’s roar, I will be sharing an anecdote from my fifteenth birthday at The Rockfield Centre’s Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 26 October.  Full details on the event can be found on its Facebook page.

Ambulance blues

The infant days of October arrived on the west of Argyll with a tranquillity which made a fool of those forecasts that a week earlier had been predicting lashings of rain and wild winds as the dying howls of Hurricane Lorenzo were approaching the country.  Those early pen strokes through the calendar were greeted with temperatures which forced some to rethink their choice of jacket, although I had already reverted to my long black winter coat and nothing was going to change my mind.

My early evening walks along the Esplanade were being conducted under skies which were largely free from clouds.  It was a time of year when at quarter past five the sun was already beginning its slow and uncertain descent back into the waiting water, its procrastination and unwillingness to dive straight in being vaguely similar to my own reactions when there is a girl I like at the bar.  The great golden bulb was hanging low in the sky, shining brightly into the eyes of pedestrians with the type of intensity I would experience further along my route on Combie Street when I was walking towards a woman who had unknowingly activated the torch app on her smartphone.  It was the first time I had ever seen anyone do that on the street, and it made me feel better about the photograph I had taken minutes earlier of the setting sun which had been distorted by the appearance of my thumb in the bottom left corner.

Everything was still and peaceful in those early evenings, and I enjoyed marvelling at the colour of it all.  The water, in particular, was as though a toddler had spilt a palette of paint on a carpet and repeatedly trodden through it barefoot, spreading it all over the place with wild abandon.  

All of a sudden the fragile peace was shattered as an ambulance emerged from the distance and came screeching down the seafront.  There isn’t anything like a passing ambulance to grab the attention of people on the street who have been minding their own business.  You can’t help but stop and take notice, wonder where it is going, what kind of incident has taken place and who, if anyone, has been hurt.  As the vehicle approached its sirens were becoming so loud that the sound pierced through the saxophone from the new Huey Lewis & The News track I was listening to at the time.

It came to a stop a few hundred yards ahead of me, outside the Great Western Hotel, beneath the tall and wide windows of the cocktail lounge.  Its blue lights were flashing against the rice pudding-coloured stone of the building, and the back doors of the emergency vehicle were pushed open, suggesting that there was some activity.  As I was walking past the hotel, which can be dated back to the 19th Century, I could see that many of the tables by the window in the lounge bar were occupied by guests who had largely, I presumed, been born in the middle part of the 20th Century.  What a terrible way to start a holiday, I was thinking to myself as I craned my neck to get a good look at the ambulance which was doubtless waiting for the arrival of some poor casualty.  You get yourself a relaxing drink and a great window seat with a spectacular view of the sun setting over Oban bay and an ambulance comes along and parks right outside to spoil the whole thing.

Although I wasn’t likely to be in need of an ambulance, I had been suffering from a dose of the cold for much of the week and I was feeling pretty miserable for it.  There was nothing that would make me feel more hopeless than the need to blow my nose into a tissue every other minute or to be unable to smell when I had overcooked the chunks of chorizo in a chorizo and prawn jambalaya I had been preparing for dinner.

My health predicament wasn’t being helped by the dipping temperatures of the season and the fact that my flat was never the warmest, or even the coolest, place in town.  The first thing I would do when arriving in from the evening chill was to put on a jumper to combat the rampant cold air, as opposed to the warmer summer months when the climate in my place rarely merited so much as loosening my tie.  My flat had a problem with temperature, and it was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t get to grips with the idea of storage heaters.  I would come home at six o’clock and the pair of them would be as cold as the other side of the pillow that people were always citing as an example of something that is cold, though in my place both sides of the pillow were as cold as everything else.  Yet when I awoke at five o’clock one morning and got out of bed to use the toilet, the heaters were the warmest I had ever felt them.  It was doing me no good when 5 am was a time that I would usually be in bed, wrapped warmly in a 2000 thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, and I soon realised that my understanding of how storage heating works was on par with my understanding of how to talk to women.

In spite of my waning wellbeing, I still found it within me to wheeze along to Aulay’s on Friday night.  With the oncoming October school holidays, amongst other things, the bar was the busiest it had been in a while.  I was just happy to feel some warmth.  I nursed a pint of Tennent’s Lager whilst waiting for my brother to turn up, the voice of the large gentleman over my right shoulder booming along to the soundtrack of the random mix of dance tracks which the jukebox was toiling through.  He was from North Ayrshire and was visiting Oban for the second successive weekend, regaling his younger, local companion with his tales from back home.

“I can go into any pub in Saltcoats and walk up to any girl and pull them.  It’s dead easy. You’d love it there, pal.”

It came as a surprise when I finally turned around to take a look at the character that he wasn’t a dashing George Clooney type figure, but more of an early-career John Candy.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where it would be easy for me to walk up to a woman in a bar, let alone talk to her or take her home.  I should have been paying more attention to his words, see if I could pick up some of the expert tips from the Ayrshire Uncle Buck, but instead I was hesitating over an offer to join a couple of young ladies I knew at their table in the corner.

The table was populated by employees of a local primary school, and there was tremendous excitement and giddiness amongst them for the beginning of the half-term break, which some of the women were looking forward to spending in places as far apart as New York City and Mallorca.  One of them was dressed in a striking black and white specked suit which was putting even my own considered sartorial combination in the shade.  For the first time in my life, I was feeling suit envy, and I was finding a different way of wanting to be inside a woman’s clothes.

A silver-plated headband was being passed between two friends like a crown, though it was silver of a different variety that was finally catching my eye.  The more I was looking around the table, the more the sight of jewellery on fingers was becoming evident to me. It was almost like having an Olympic flag unfurled before me, and right at that moment, I could understand how it would have felt to be sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Great Western Hotel, admiring the view as the sun was setting over the bay, only to have an ambulance pull up in front of the window. 

The Oban Games are held on the fourth Thursday of every August

On the way back down the Esplanade towards Markie Dans, I encountered a recently graduated teacher who I had vaguely come to know through previous intoxicated interactions.  She was travelling in the opposite direction from my brother and I, on the other side of the road, though I couldn’t help but see her hair, which was the shade of a sunset, though not the type that blinded a person, like an iPhone torch.  It was softer, more subtle.  She chastised me from across the desolate street for having neglected to write the story of our earlier meetings.  We had entered into the kind of non-contractual agreement that you come to with people in the pub, whereby I had given her a brown note to save her walking all the way to a cash machine to pay for a taxi home, and she compensated me with a glass of whisky when she next saw me in Aulay’s.

In the months since that whisky, the teacher with the sunny disposition had graduated and was already thinking about her next achievement.  By this point, she had already graduated twice in life, but for her, that wasn’t enough.  I asked her if there was a maximum number of times a person could graduate, and although she didn’t know the answer, she said that she was wanting at least three.  I continued on to Markies, where I found myself thinking how great it would be if someone could teach that kind of positive attitude.  If anyone was going to graduate three, or four, or five times, it was probably going to be her.

Like in Aulay’s earlier in the night, Markie Dans was busier than I had seen it in weeks.  The place was full, and I was having a better time of it than on my previous visit, when I learned that I had an intolerance to Jägermeister when it is taken without the bomb of Red Bull.  I enjoyed catching up with some friends and having a fish dance with my aquatic hip-shaking partner.  By the end of the night I was walking home alone, though, with my head in a fuzz and my nose in a Kleenex.  On George Street, the towns main thoroughfare, I walked under a banner advertising the Oban Highland Games, which had taken place on the fourth Thhursday in August.  It occurred to me that my search for romance was becoming strikingly similar to the council’s promotion of the summer games, in that it was still happening long after it was obvious that it was over.  If I was being optimistic, I would at least surely have better luck with the storage heaters.

I will be reading A lion’s roar and some other bits and pieces at Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October.  Full details can be found at the event page here.