It wasn’t until around nine or ten days into the new year before I was fully over my dose of the flu, and the main takeaway that I had from my period of sickness was how difficult it was to find a way of coughing with elegance. Some people I know could easily stifle a sneeze and make it seem effortless, but a cough always seemed to appear more suddenly and as though it had come as a surprise to the victim. A sneeze could be disguised and few people would be any the wiser, while anyone with a cough was destined to be detected. In early January, the sound of my own coughing was closely resembling that of a 72-year-old smoker pushing an elephant up a flight of stairs. At times I even felt like I was the elephant. “Are you sure you’re alright?” Concerned observers would ask, covering their sandwiches and other belongings as though I was exhaling nuclear waste.
I couldn’t be sure how long it was that the cough lingered around in my system, but I was able to clear the mantel place of its Christmas decorations a lot more easily than I cleared my chest of its congestion. The way my flat had been dressed for the festive season could generously have been described as modest, sort of like someone who has been invited to a party they don’t really want to attend and so they don’t put much care or thought into what they wear. That there were four women in my flat two days after Christmas and none of them made mention of the decorations on the mantel place said it all.
I had coughing fits that lasted longer than the time it took for me to climb the stepladder, fetch a small brown wicker basket from the first shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bedroom wardrobe, fill it with three novelty plush figurines and then return it to storage; Christmas decluttered in a few steps.
On the night before the general waste bins were scheduled to be emptied for the first time in the year, I was lying in bed listening to the wind as it wheezed between the three vessels outside my bedroom window. It was late, and I couldn’t help questioning the wisdom of putting the bins out in such stormy conditions. From where I was in the relative warmth of my bed, it was difficult to tell just how wet or windy it was outside, but that didn’t stop me from imagining bins toppling over up and down the street, bags of rubbish strewn all over the place, the pavements reduced to a windswept carpet of crap. There was nothing that I could do about it, though; or at least there wasn’t anything I was willing to do. I wasn’t going to get myself out of bed just to wheel the bins out onto the pavement at seven in the morning, which was when the lorry would usually empty them, and that was probably the first time I accepted that sometimes a storm, like the flu, is something you just have to let pass.
The first full week of 2020 ended with a full moon in the sky. On one particular night between the storms, which was so calm and still that the woman in Poppies Garden Centre remarked that she believed it was the beginning of spring, the scene was spectacular. The great big moon was sitting high on the canopy of a black sky, so crisp and flawless that it was as though it had been painted on. From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble, like the ones I could remember playing with as a child, or those I had lost as a grown-up. It was a great opportunity for taking photographs, and one of those moments when you could be thankful that if you had a mobile phone in your pocket, you had pretty much every piece of technology you could possibly need. I always enjoyed snapping pictures, especially on the west coast of Scotland where there was a postcard waiting to be created on every turn, though photography always frustrated me. My imagination was always better than my actions, sort of like any time I ever went to attempt conversation with a woman. I never knew which was the right angle to come from, or how to frame the subject I was focussing on in such a way that it would seem appealing. The end result never looked the way it did in my mind.
A vicious rain had returned to the sky by the following day, making the town no place for a camera lens. I had been looking forward to my first drink of the decade ever since my flu had been downgraded to an irritating cough, and in an effort to show that I had learned from the last night of 2019, I went out wearing a thick black coat over my grey suit, and a pair of shoes which were bound to resist the torrent of rain. Even by the time I had made the short walk from my flat to my spiritual home of Aulay’s, my coat was soaked and felt like it had gained a couple of pounds in weight from the rainwater, while I opened my wallet and prepared to lose a few. It would have been tempting to remark that the pub was the busiest it had been all year, but the truth was that there was a funeral party in which had been drinking since the afternoon, and the place was more full than I had seen it on a Friday night in a while.
All around me were mourners who were dressed in black gowns, black ties and white shirts that were becoming as crumpled as the drunken bodies they were on. As I glanced around the room, pockets of people huddled around tables in conversation, memorialising a loved one, I was growing increasingly reluctant to remove my large wet coat and hang it on the rack as I had been intending. Underneath it, I was wearing a navy blue shirt and a bright, bold orange tie, the sort that would put the moon in the shade. I was uncomfortable and began worrying about how I would explain my outfit if anyone from the funeral party queried it. “But did you see the matching pocket square? It can’t be disrespectful if it’s stylish…”
I clutched the wet lapels of the black coat around my body like a comforter, trying to cover all evidence of the orange accessories, though there was nothing stopping anyone from spying the socks. The pub was so busy that it was difficult to find any room to breathe around the bar, and I was getting hot in my three layers of clothing. My appetite for lager was diminishing, while my body seemed to be rejecting the suggestion that I had fully recovered from the flu. It was taking me the better part of two hours to work my way through a pint, even the new pint on tap in Aulay’s – Drygate Bearface Lager – was something that I could hardly contemplate drinking.
Amongst the mourners were around four or five young women who were Irish and the only bright spot in the night, aside from my tie, which nobody could see anyway. They were all wearing identical black dresses, which looked decidedly like they were fashioned from crepe paper, and their hair was as dark as the night sky. Their accents were indecipherable, though one Irish lass had these eyes that betrayed the sorrow she must have been feeling. They stole my attention the way the full moon had the previous evening, and I was soon considering the etiquette of talking to a woman at a funeral party you aren’t even part of.
It seemed a preposterous thing to even consider, and even the more assured guys in my company agreed that it was, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was really any more outrageous than the idea of me talking to a member of the opposite sex at any time. Was there really anything that I could say in this woman’s moment of grief that would make things worse? The plant doctor and I discussed it for a moment and concluded that my attempt at talking to the Irish woman could actually work, and there might come a time, perhaps the following morning, where she would come to regret the terrible mistake she had made, and that was how things could get worse.
In the end, in a scene which was laced with more irony than opening your kitchen drawer and finding ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, the woman who had been the subject of my attention turned out to be the only one in the funeral party who was there with a partner. For once I felt relieved that things turned out almost exactly as they were in my mind.
And you came in dressed like a train wreck.”