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.
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.