Encore

The air was thick with the fragrances of a late November night.  It was either a roast beef dinner, chestnuts over an open fire, toffee, or chimney smoke coughing into the damp air.  It could have been all of those.  In the distance, the Cathedral bells could be heard ringing over and over again, their sound growing louder all the time, as though struggling to compete with the pipe band that was leading the reindeer parade through town; the fight between the church and commercialisation taken to the streets of Oban.  My brother and I were walking from his new flat to meet up again with our sister for the switching on of the Christmas lights, having spent the afternoon drinking mulled wine, in a family tradition we had started some years earlier.  Before the 2018 ceremony we celebrated the beginning of the build-up to Christmas with the festive flavours in my town centre flat, and it was debatable whether we had gone to my brother’s as a flat warming of sorts, or because of the memory of a whole unpeeled orange sitting in a boiling pot of red wine in my kitchen twelve months previous.  As the seminal Canadian pop poet Alanis Morissette once sang in 1995, “you live, you learn.”

The reindeer parade took place on 23 November

We were really pushing it to make the advertised time of six o’clock for the seasonal lights being illuminated, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at my watch.  When I checked my timepiece it was showing eleven-forty, though in those days it was always twenty minutes to twelve, no matter when I glanced down to my wrist.  The battery in my watch had died almost a week earlier when I wasn’t looking, and although I still made sure to wear the thing every day, I could never remember to have the battery replaced.  From our vantage point on the road running below McCaig’s Tower, we were looking out over the entire town, the mass of darkness broken only by a mushroom cloud of light around the station, where the festivities were taking place.  The view was like staring at a Christmas carousel on a mantelpiece, and the church bells were the music, letting us know that it was almost six.

Earlier in the day, I was standing in line at McColl’s waiting to top up my electricity key, because at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there was only one place in town with PayPoint facilities.  I had just invested in a new Christmas jumper, since the tradition we had introduced also required the wearing of dubious knitwear, and I was feeling pretty good about things once I had come across a tie that it could be worn with sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my bedroom.  Walking uptown to the newsagents was a study in how it would be to be invited onto a catwalk for a winter catalogue.  Every other person seemed to be dressed in a Christmas sweater, even the little brown and white terrier dog I passed outside the mobile phone shop was in a red and white knitted outfit. 

I was fidgeting with the plastic electricity key in my left hand as I waited, its halves of green and blue much less festive than the canine coat.  There were two people ahead of me in the queue, and when the older gentleman who was standing in front of me happened to look over the shoulder of his black winter jacket, he spoke with a voice which made him sound like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, both in accent and tone.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to me.  If I didn’t know better it could as well have been an accusation, but I recognised him and was in agreement that it had been a while.  I told him that it had been five years since the Co-operative supermarket had closed, which is where I was working the last time he laid eyes me.  His facial features were inscrutable, like an artefact from the Natural History Museum, but I was certain that he had spent those years believing that everyone from the Co-op who he hadn’t seen since the day it closed had died.

“It’s frightening how quickly time passes,” he whispered in another classic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking barrels line as he stepped forward to the front of the queue and I looked down at my watch and wondered how many lottery scratchcards he was going to buy.

From up high, the station looked like a Christmas carousel.

The official turning on of the lights was preceded by the ‘reindeer parade’, where a figure we are to believe is Santa is led through town by a trio of reindeer and a pipe band.  By the time we had worked our way through three bottles of mulled wine and a box of mince pies the parade had already reached the station and the reindeer were in a makeshift pen, happily munching on some straw.  None of them appeared to have a red nose, though under the spotlight of the Christmas lights it was clear that some of our faces were a little rosier than normal.  Around the area which was usually reserved for the taxi rank were a selection of fairground rides which attracted the attention of the young and the old alike.  There was a House of Fun which was taller than the clock tower, the standard spinning teacups, and an ‘extreme’ Helter Skelter, the frame of which was brightly-coloured and emblazoned with the animated image of two young women wearing bikinis.  It looked an unfortunate choice of outfit for a parade in Oban in late November, though the scene did leave me feeling much more smug about the warm new Christmas jumper I was wearing.

My brother and I left the parade for Aulay’s, where we stopped for a couple of pints of lager before eating dinner at our sister’s.  There was a steady hum of early evening revellers around the bar, where we managed to take our usual position close to the icebox, which was a spot where at least something managed to look cool.  Looking across at us from by the fruit machine was a woman whose coat was as thick as the fur on a reindeer, although darker in colour, and her hair was white and curled like an envelope which has been crammed inside a pocket for two weeks.  She wasn’t long in telling us that she was 73-years-old and enjoyed nothing better than coming to the pub on a Saturday night and talking to people.  That much was evident when the woman went on to compliment my brother on having a nice nose, the way that someone might pay homage to a homegrown vegetable patch or a bed of flowers:  it’s all the work of nature, but I suppose he helped it along the way.

Stood to the left of the woman was a similarly-aged man who she pointed to as being her husband.  I wondered what he was thinking as his wife once more emphasised how she thought that my brother had a very nice nose, particularly when his own snout resembled a slice of pastrami.  The more this woman was heaping praise upon my sibling’s sneezer, the more I was feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t mentioned mine, despite it having come from the same allotment.  I wasn’t especially wanting to be noticed by a 73-year-old lady at the bar, but it would have been nice, and I was expecting that her husband was feeling the same way.

I gazed across the bar at the elderly man with a sympathetic eye, the same way I looked at anyone who was near the fruit machine.  My elbow was pressed tightly into the surface of the bar as I spoke in his direction. “Don’t worry, I think your nose is fine.”  It seemed like a gentle, reassuring thing to say, but the gentleman glanced back at me in a manner that suggested he didn’t know what I was talking about, or as if to say keep your nose out of my business.  For a moment I considered that maybe I had read the situation all wrong, and the whole episode might just have been the couple’s bold attempt at sparking some renewed interest in their relationship.  They would go to bars, or any public space, really, and she would compliment younger men on their more appealing features in an effort to inspire some jealous passion in her husband before they took a taxi home together.  My brother was just a patsy, really.  Who knew if it was really the case, but it was an explanation that would keep everyone happy.

The figures on the side of the Helter Skelter were poorly dressed for a winter parade.

At my sister’s, we ate a meal of roasted duck and potatoes, before drinking some more mulled wine and playing a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, which revealed much about us.  Somewhere in amongst all that, the one-year-old daughter of my sister’s friend, who were both spending the night at the house, decided to walk for the very first time.  It was an emotional thing to witness happen, even if technically the baby had initially walked on her own feet upstairs when her mum was getting her ready for bed. In the excitement, she was brought back downstairs and convinced to perform the act again, in front of an adoring audience who had mobile phones poised.  In that sense, I hadn’t seen the girl walk for the very first time, rather it was like seeing only the encore at a Beyoncé concert.

It was a remarkable thing to be present in the room for, when suddenly for this little person the world went from being a very small space that was limited to places where she could be carried, to a place of never-ending potential.  The entire world was there, ready to be explored. As I was watching the first steps being taken for the second, third and fourth time, I was thinking about how it was probably a similar sight to how seeing myself walk away from the bar in Aulay’s at the end of a night would look.  The way that she first rose to her feet, shaky and looking very uncertain about it all.  There was a look of stern focus on her face as she took a few steps forward, away from the safety of her mother’s arms, and slowly began to realise that she could do it; her legs were working and her toes were more than just hilarious little things to play with.  She was growing in confidence with every step, building up an impressive head of steam, before finally collapsing onto her bottom in fits of laughter.  The only difference was that the laughter was her own.

Links:

November Rain: my Spotify soundtrack to the month of November

For anyone who doesn’t have access to Spotify, but does have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are the three songs I have been listening to most throughout November.

If I could, I would listen to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses all month long, but instead I settled for around three times a day:

I Can’t Think About It Now sounds like the best song Dire Straits never wrote.  The section from 2:34 to the line “the everlasting wisdom of a sports bar” is remarkable:

I will be reading ‘winter diaries of a single man’ from my notebook at the Rockfield Centre on Saturday 30 November. Event information can be found here.

A unicorn walks down the street

When word began to spread around the office on a Friday afternoon in November that Oban’s ninth annual Winter Festival would be starting at five o’clock that evening with a unicorn parade through the centre of town, the primary concern of most people was how they were going to get home from work when the busiest roads would be affected by the festive fanfare.  As someone who uses his feet to travel most places, my thoughts went directly to the claim that unicorns were going to be walked down George Street. The creatures we had only ever read of in fairytales or seen in Disney movies were going to be trotting past Boots, Superdrug and the bank where I had my mortgage.  All I could think about was how they were going to pull off such a feat, and why was the world’s media not converging on the town for the happening.  In my head I was imagining some kind of trickery; a small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head, for example.  In reality, that’s exactly what the unicorn turned out to be.

As a thirty-six-year-old single man I had some concerns about how it would look if I was walking my usual route home after work while there was a unicorn parade going on, yet at the same time I was anxious to see it happen, so I messaged my sister and asked her if she and my niece knew about it.  Fortunately they didn’t, and with giddy excitement and multiple renditions of Jingle Bells, we converged at a spot on George Street where we could witness all of the magic unfold before us.  One by one the lights in the stores along the high street were gradually turned out, like watching an awkward power cut which was lacking in confidence, in preparation for the Winter Queen to arrive on unicorn back and switch on their Christmas window displays.  Anticipation was growing, although for the younger ones around us who weren’t yet old enough to have developed that emotion, it was only restlessness.  In the distance, we could see the flashing of blue lights against the blanketed winter sky, and we knew that something enchanting was happening.  It wasn’t quite a Disney family favourite, but it was a unicorn receiving a police escort through Oban town centre.

Such was the wonder and mystique of the unicorn, nobody was quite sure which route the parade was supposed to be taking.  The official festival programme had suggested that the otherworldly beings would be guiding the Winter Queen down George Street and through to Station Square, despite it being not much more than a fifteen-minute walk for a mere mortal, but if you could ride on the back of a unicorn then why wouldn’t you?  Once the parade had passed us on George Street, my sister, niece and I walked the short distance round to Station Square along with all of the other enthusiasts of horned mythical creatures, where we waited for the procession to loop back around.  A few minutes had passed, though who knew how long that translated to in unicorn years, and some were beginning to show signs of impatience again when the parade had not reappeared as expected.  

A small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head

There were mutterings of, “they definitely said it was coming back round this way,” before the police escort was finally spotted on the corner of Argyll Square.  It was sitting stationary, as though uncertain, like a shy, rosy-cheeked elf.  Beyond the emergency vehicle we could see a fluffy spectre in white, and it was apparent that the unicorn parade was taking a left turn up onto Albany Street.  We wondered what was going on and why nobody knew the precise route of the pageant, but none of us was truly qualified to question the ways of the unicorn.  When the gathering had eventually made its way to Station Square and we were as close as I could ever have imagined we would be to the Winter Queen, we found ourselves merely feet away from a pair of unicorns.  For all those people who had ever told me that there was more chance of me seeing a unicorn walk through the centre of Oban than there was of me finding a woman who was willing to date me, it seemed they had been proven right.

Of course, the unicorns had the appearance of two little white horses which had become separated from a birthday party, their dishevelled wee hats having slipped down onto their foreheads.  And that’s what they were, to an extent.  The young children around us were thrilled to have encountered a unicorn in their own town, but I couldn’t help but survey the scene and wonder what the horses were making of it all.  How did they feel about wearing what amounted to an ice cream cone on their faces, like some once amusing internet meme?  Were they feeling comfortable amongst a large crowd, or were they like me, cold and worried about what they were wearing?  

Later in the night, at the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop, the winter festival was warming up with the traditional whisky tasting.  The store, which sat on the corner of George Street and Stafford Street and looked out towards the ferry terminal pier, was an intimate space that felt like standing in someone’s living room with its leather chairs situated by a well-stoked fire and tall oak shelves that could have been stacked with high-brow books, but were instead teeming with high-volume alcohol.

A whisky centrepiece

At £10 a ticket for six drams, the whisky tasting seemed like too good a value deal for a single occupant to miss, even if my appreciation of whisky was akin to a youngster’s love for a parade unicorn:  I knew that I liked something simple, like a Jameson, but stick a cone on a horse’s head and I would never be able to tell the difference.  The bottles were lined up at the front of the room, the way a piece of artwork hangs in a prominent place in a lounge, where all eyes are drawn to it, and we were told that the whiskies would be poured in 15ml measures to ensure that no-one would become too drunk before the sixth drink and that we would begin our journey with a couple of less complex blends as we worked towards the final bottle, which was a special and rarely seen thirty-year-old Bowmore.  It was a similar idea to if I was introducing someone to the music of the Irish four-piece rock act U2, in that I wouldn’t take them straight to Achtung Baby.

A young woman who had flowing red hair like a Disney princess and who came from the nearby island of Islay, meaning that her pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ went on for days and had a charming lyrical quality, stepped forward to guide us through each of the whiskies and offer her own tasting notes.  She inhaled the fumes from her glass and described such elegant fragrances as a hint of marzipan, yellow skin apple, light wafts of plum, liquorice and even leather.  Already I could tell that I was out of my depth as I glanced around the room and could see other people nodding along to the distiller’s sketch of what she was smelling, a look of quiet content drawn across their faces.  I was cradling my glass under my nose, contorting and flaring my nostrils like a manic little sniffer dog, desperately trying to catch a whisper of maple syrup, but the only thing I could smell was a future hangover.

I wasn’t much better when it came to identifying the tastes which were washing over my palette.  With each different glass, the distiller from Islay talked about tastes as wide-ranging as butterscotch, freshly-baked shortbread, ginger, smoked fish, grape, charcoal and strawberry flavour Haribo.  I was getting none of it, and for all I knew I could have been as well walking across the road and dipping my glass into the cold seawater.  This was no better evident than when a couple of us lingered around after the whisky tasting had finished, the way a peaty malt hangs on the tonsils long after the drink has been swallowed.  We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample the thirty-year-old Bowmore again.  There were only one hundred and ninety-one bottles produced from the cask, and the sole bottle for sale in the shop had been purchased for £350 that night. It was said that even to buy a single measure in a pub would likely cost around £50.  Being unaware of what had been poured into our glasses I turned to my friend and readied myself to make my most insightful contribution of the evening.

“You know, I think this is even better than the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” I said with the heady confidence that only the eighth whisky of the night can bring.

“This is the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” the bird watcher advised me.  Having spent £10 on a ticket for the event and received two whiskies with a value of around £100, as well as the others in the tasting, it seemed that no matter how much defeat would come, I would finish the night in profit.

Down the street, through the wreathed arch of The Oban Inn, I became involved in a conversation with a woman who was dressed from head to toe in tweed.  On her right lapel she was sporting a white badge which read “I love walking,” with the emotion being signified with a red heart symbol rather than a four-letter word.  I wondered aloud if she would have still felt that way now that Oban had a fleet of unicorns offering public transportation, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about.

The wreathed arch around the entrance of The Oban Inn

Undeterred, and feeling somewhat drawn to another soul who enjoyed wearing tweed in public places, I told the rambler about the evening I had just spent at the whisky tasting.  I explained that although I enjoyed a whisky, I didn’t know very much about the spirit, and I had spent the event feeling uncomfortable being amongst a group of people with whom I didn’t belong.

“Do you often feel uncomfortable?”  The woman asked, the expression on her face indeterminable through the haze of malt and barley.

My mouth took inspiration from her badge and ventured on a lengthy preamble.  “I start the day off feeling uncomfortable, plateau sometime around late afternoon, and then I go to bed and replay the events of my day and become even less comfortable.”  Finally, the words strayed even further off the beaten path when I returned to the whisky tasting and offered the insight that all I really knew about the whisky I had drunk was that I was about to go and splash around £50 of the stuff against the urinal.  I staggered off towards the men’s room and never heard from her again.  The profit on my winning night was diminishing all the time.

Spirits were still high on the first frosty Saturday of the Winter Festival.  The sky was a crisp marble blue, the kind of colour one could only ever smell with the aid of some whisky tasting notes.  The roads were slick with dew, the low hanging winter sun causing them to shimmer like crystals on a Christmas tree.  Into the cold air, I could see clouds of Bowmore leaving my system.  The streets were thriving with well-wrapped locals seeking the wealth of events on offer in the festival programme, while the distant yells of a town crier could be heard over the festive chatter and shop music.  In every corner, there seemed to be something different going on.  A craft market of local handmade goods – glass, jewellery and embroidery – brought colour to the Perle Hotel.  There were food markets in The View, with cheese, venison, chocolates, chutneys, foraged mushrooms, fish and other things that I should likely have been able to taste in a whisky.  Behind Oban Distillery, children were having their photographs taken with two Shetland ponies.

The local fire brigade was on hand offering passers-by the opportunity to sign up for a home fire safety check, where anyone who put their name on the clipboard would receive four free cinema tickets once the visit had been completed.  My sister filled the form in with enthusiasm, and standing a few paces behind I was compelled to put my name on the next line, lest the fireman be given the impression that my sister’s life had drastically hit the skids.  We were told that the cinema tickets would be given either as a package of passes for two adults and two children, or for an adult and three children.  I wondered how that could be useful to a single occupant whose days of feeling close to thirty came only at a whisky tasting.  When I thought about it more, the four cinema tickets I was bound to inherit were going to place a lot of pressure on the £25 Lorne bar voucher that I still had on my pinboard to work miracles, and quickly.  The voucher for the meal was due to expire on the ninth of January 2020.  It seemed more likely that I would witness a unicorn walking down the street.

Further information:
The 2019 Oban Winter Festival programme can be found here.

I will be reading winter tales of a single occupant from my notebook at Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 30 November. The event is part of the Winter Festival, and details can be found on the Facebook page here.

Searching for a happy medium

I had never been much of an enthusiast for pyrotechnics; they never sparked my interest the way they seemed to others.  The last fireworks display I could remember attending would have been when I was much younger, when our mum used to take us out to Mossfield Stadium and the fifth of November was always a cloudy and drizzly night.  As such, the squibs were invariably underwhelming and damp, and the most exciting thing about those occasions was sitting in the back of the car eating candy floss to the sound of raindrops crackling against the windows, while somewhere in the distance we were assured that there were some fireworks going off.  Since becoming a grown-up single occupant, the way I saw it was that if I wanted a great deal of build-up to a short explosion which would be followed by hours of disappointment and recrimination, I would have stayed at home self-partnering.

Instead, I was invited to watch Oban’s 2019 Guy Fawkes Night display with a trio of women who ranged somewhere between acquaintances, friends and pub quiz team-mates.  It was a more appealing prospect than spending another night pondering why my socks were taking longer to dry on the airer in November than they did in July or what had gone wrong with the tomato soup I had made on Sunday.  And besides, it was probably warmer than spending the evening in my flat.

Walking through the centre of town prior to the event was an exercise in surrealism, as songs by Dire Straits were booming from the mobile unit of the local radio station Oban FM.  The music could be heard almost the entire length of George Street, and we liked to imagine a scenario where Argyll & Bute council had decided to make the installation a permanent feature, where songs would funnel through the town all day, every day; a backing soundtrack to the hum of traffic.  Better yet, I interjected into the fantasy scene, it would be Dire Straits played on a continuous loop.  Everybody else would just have to learn to live with it.  Earlier it had been reported that the fireworks display had been made possible by funding through the non-profit community organisation BID4Oban and had cost £8,500, which wasn’t quite a case of money for nothing, but it was your kicks for free.

At Station Square, there was a selection of charity stalls and children’s rides for the locals to peruse and be entertained by before the night was due to ignite at seven-thirty.  Some of our group had decided that they wanted a hot drink from the snack van beneath the clock tower to help in fending off the falling temperature, so I stood in line and waited with them.  I was quickly struck by the aroma of cooking onions, which was trailing through the black sky like an undercover operative seeking out its enemy target, hunger. I was enjoying the fragrance of the onions whilst at the same time wondering why they never smelled that way when I cooked them at home, but then nothing was ever like it ought to have been in my kitchen.  I could practically smell the onions curling and crisping before me, when at home they were always sad and wet, like the Bonfire Night displays from my childhood.

The sound of the onions sizzling in the pan and the scent of them swirling around the atmosphere was dizzying.  I was standing taking it all in as the queue moved forward and my friends ordered their coffees.  On my right elbow, I felt a sudden, sharp nudge.  I turned to be met by a woman who was wrapped up as though she was prepared for an Arctic expedition.  She asked me if I was being served, at which point I realised that my friends were being handed their hot drinks and I would have been next in line if I was actually wanting anything.  I apologetically stepped to the side.  “Oh, no, I was just smelling the onions.”  The woman gave me a look which was the type of glare a person has after chopping a couple of onions, and I moved off into the night.

From the Oban FM position, a local councillor began the countdown to the beginning of the display, going from ten to one as these things typically do, and many of the crowd of people who were packed along the pavements joined him, some out of anticipation of the event, and others surely just trying to keep warm.  With the excitement at close to fever pitch, the countdown quickly reached one and everyone gathered to see what would follow.  Nothing.  There was stillness and silence and people waited some more.  It was like when I would talk to a woman at the bar and eagerly wait for the moment where I could use the hilarious joke I had thought of and the tension would never combust.

Unlike my pub encounters there eventually was a spark, and the sky over the bay was lit up by a series of fireworks from the Railway Pier.  It was bright and emphatic, and over much more suddenly than anyone was expecting.  Some around us were disappointed and wondered was that it?  But it soon became evident that the whole thing was a joke designed to mimic the disastrous display of 2011, when a technical error led to the entire arsenal of pyrotechnics being set off at the same time.  The farce was immediately christened Obang and the video was since watched more than a million times on YouTube.  As far as humour on a cold Tuesday night went, it was mildly more successful than my pub puns.

In the downtime between the joke display and the actual fireworks extravaganza, we decided to walk towards the North Pier in search of a better vantage point.  As we passed the radio broadcast van we could hear that they were no longer playing Dire Straits, but instead, the airwaves had been taken over by a domineering instrumental number which was heavy on the brass and sounded like a military-style anthem from a Soviet-era state.  Inexplicably, the music seemed to be growing louder the further away from it we travelled and I could feel my shoulders straighten and my steps develop into a march. I wondered if we should expect to see a large red flag rolling down the facade of the buildings along George Street, or if a brown bear was going to be paraded through the centre of town, but I remembered that they were still carrying out some resurfacing work on the road and it would have been silly to allow a bear to trample all over that.

A site less thrilling than the fireworks was visible over the North Pier some time around 2am on Saturday morning

The North Pier was busy with those who had taken up position for the original display, though we were fortunate enough to find a prime spot outside the Italian style restaurant Piazza.  Inside we could see tables of people, predominantly couples, who were enjoying plates of food and bottles of wine as they were waiting for the nights’ entertainment to unfold before them on the stage offered by Oban Bay.  Some of our group praised the forward-thinking and planning of the diners who had reserved their tables to coincide with the fireworks display, ensuring that they could eat their dinner while savouring the squibs from the warm environment of a restaurant.  I preferred to see it another way, liking to imagine that a hapless man had thought to take his girlfriend out for a romantic and peaceful meal on a Tuesday evening in a restaurant with a beautiful sea view, completely oblivious to the date and any notion of Guy Fawkes night.  The happy couple had sat down at their table, perfectly positioned by the window, totally in awe of one another and excited about spending the night alone with nothing but the other’s company.  Suddenly the North Pier was beginning to fill and the entire town was standing in front of the windows, obscuring the postcard view.  A series of loud explosions were going off in the distance and it was becoming difficult to hear the sweet nothings being spoken across the parmesan.  On the other side of the restaurant was a young couple on their very first date, after months of an aching courtship, and the lad was sitting thinking to himself, “how the fuck do I top this?”

Oban’s 2019 display was widely regarded as being one of the best in recent times.  I was still thinking about it when I went to Aulay’s the following night after another miserable attempt at winning the Lorne’s pub quiz.  With a pint of Tennent’s Lager in my hand, I was questioned by a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn-Bru over whether on a previous occasion I had written the word fizz or frizz.  I assured her that there was no rogue ‘r’, although I began to wonder whether it would be more accurate to say that her hair had the qualities of the hot end of the sparklers I had seen around town the previous evening.

She reminded me of our last discussion in the pub, when she had complimented the effort I was putting into the colour combinations in my outfits and had suggested that she had been looking at scarves that could suit me.  The woman, who was out celebrating her birthday, reached into her bag to fish out her phone, which she used to bring up the website of the designer Rory Hutton, whose pocket squares she assured me would bring an extra dimension of colour to my attire.  I was viewing the rainbow of accessories with the same kind of wonder I had for the way the sky had been illuminated a night earlier, but the prices which were listed alongside the items seemed higher than a rocket reaches into the air, and I couldn’t think of a circumstance where I would like myself enough to spend so much on a pocket square.

The conversation at the table continued to my ongoing ineptitude with the opposite sex, when the flame-haired woman offered the suggestion that I should think about dressing down now and again as some girls may be reluctant to talk to me because a man who is wearing a suit can appear intimidating.  I scoffed at the idea that anyone could be intimidated by a man sporting a pink pocket square and reminded her I had a tendency to feel nervous any time there was a woman within a one hundred yard radius. “Besides,” I argued, “I can wear jeans on a weekend and it makes no difference.”

She stuck to her task, like a pyrotechnic determined to get over a false start and set the sky ablaze.  “Well then maybe you need to find a happy medium,” the woman advised.

I leaned across the table, knowing immediately how I wanted to respond.  “Are you saying that I should seek a psychic who will tell me all the things that I want to hear?”

As far as jokes went, it was my version of Obang, but I could tell from her reaction that the countdown had reached one and she was still waiting for something to happen.  At the end of it all, I was going to have to wait for the opportunity to put the theory of a happy medium into practice.  By Saturday I had been struck down by a cold which had come on as quickly as a rocket explodes in the sky.  I was burned out and in bed by ten o’clock, watching the hardly uplifting but classic movie The Silence of the Lambs.  My nose was streaming, barely likely to capture the essence of any onions.  Wrapped in a grandfather-like jumper, absent of all colour, it was a scene which wasn’t going to be intimidating anyone.

They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.