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.