Ocean Spray

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT PHOTOGRAPHIC CONTENT

The stormy weather continued into another week in Oban, with rain so relentless that it barely took a break, not even for coffee.  The winds weren’t vicious enough to be christened with a name this time, although they were wild all the same.  Without causing any noticeable disruption or damage, all the storms really achieved was to make me aware of how desperately in need of a hair cut I was becoming.  It had been more than nine weeks since my last visit to the barber’s, and things had reached the stage that by the time I had taken more than a few steps in the blustery conditions, my hair had been blown all over the place, leaving me to resemble a troll doll, only more unkempt and with a much less colourful barnet.

A walk by the sea felt like the most adventurous thing I had done in several months.  There is something dangerous and exciting about the water.  I was listening to the Lenny Kravitz song Can’t Get You Off My Mind as I was striding along the Esplanade one evening, maintaining a slightly better balance than my hair.  Waves were crashing into the shore again and again, sending claps of foam up into the air, the water caressing my cheek like the wet kiss of a salty lover.  It was the most intimate thing I could remember feeling, and yet all it could make me think of was the popular cranberry juice.

February was fast becoming a miserable month.  The incessant rain and cold temperatures and dreich skyline; the soggy soles and the feeling that it might never end; the loneliness of it all.  Increasingly, I was finding myself plotting an escape.  For several months I had been thinking about taking a trip to the Serbian capital Belgrade, mostly because several travel guides had named the city as one of the most inexpensive to visit in Europe, but also because they seemingly know how to party in Belgrade.  The more I researched the trip, the more it was beginning to flourish into an all-encompassing experience.  I bought three books – a DK Eyewitness travel guide, a guide to Balkan train journeys and a history of the former Yugoslavian state – and soon I was considering how I would add Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia to my itinerary.  The latter was a country I was becoming increasingly eager to see, even though my base knowledge of it was as a place that was being bombed to smithereens every time I saw the evening news when I was ten-years-old.

On nights when I was sitting alone in my flat with the wind whistling down the chimney, I found myself spending hours watching YouTube travel vlogs featuring boisterous Canadians or excitable Aussies showing viewers the sights of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Mostar or Sarajevo.  It was all I could do to get myself through those bleak nights to become immersed in their narrative, living vicariously through their experiences.  In the daytime, all I was thinking about was following in their footsteps through the streets of Belgrade.  I had seen so many videos that it almost felt as though I had been there myself, but it wasn’t enough.  I didn’t know how I was going to get there, or the route I was going to take around the four countries, but I decided that I would set off in May and see where the railway took me.

Dubrovnik seemed a long way away when I was sitting at a table in the Oban Inn on a wind ravaged Friday night.  My brother and I had staggered upon the plant doctor and two of his friends, who were also similarly scientific in nature, and we joined them in the corner.  I had previously met the man from Swansea University, and we quickly resumed our discussion from last time on the trials of shoelaces which inexplicably shorten over time.  The question of why one side of the laces always ends up longer than the other was begging to be answered, but it never seemed likely over drinks in the pub, especially once our group’s attention had been grabbed by a scene that was unfolding up at the bar.  Our eyes weren’t drawn so much by the emergence of what would colloquially be described as a plumber’s crack when the broad-shouldered man sitting on the stool by the bar leaned forward, but more by the presence of the hand belonging to the woman who was presumably his partner as it rested inside the opening at the rear of the man’s jeans.  It was a public display of affection, verging on a public display of penetration.  We had been sharing a bag of pork scratchings at our table, but this was a pork scratching of an entirely different variety.  To our amusement, we began speculating on the conversation between the couple, imagining the phrases the woman might have been using as her hand disappeared into the void.  It didn’t seem to matter which way we looked at it, it couldn’t have been comfortable for anyone.

By the time we had left Markies at closing time, the wind was agitating Oban bay with increasing force.  The plant doctor and his friend were concerned about my unsuitable attire, struggling to comprehend why I had gone out for the night wearing little more than a suit which was as black as the night.  They each unbuttoned their large winter jackets and held them wide open by the tails, like great golden eagles ready to soar.  In an act of camaraderie that would surely have appeared unusual to anyone who witnessed it, if the streets weren’t completely empty, the two men created a coat shelter around me as we walked alongside the seething tide.  I disputed the need for it.  After all, I contended, a little wind never hurt anyone.  But the scientists were having none of it, and they continued to frolic around me with their jackets outstretched, shielding me from the worst – although not all – of the conditions.

Off in the distance, we could see the wind taking hold of a large dumpster from the side of the Oban Inn and dragging it out into the middle of the road.  Since it would have been an obvious hazard to any oncoming traffic, and because we were good, concerned citizens, the three of us used our combined drunken powers to push the vessel back up onto the pavement, where we held it in place whilst trying to secure it with a block of concrete.  The wind was howling at our backs, lifting the heavy lid of the bin back and forth, like the jaws of a crocodile.  Next thing I knew, the lid was snapping down on my fingers, which had carelessly found their way onto the lip.  

All of a sudden everything was warm, my hand feeling like a distress flare had been set off somewhere at sea.  It was beaming.  I immediately shook it back and forth in that senseless and ultimately meaningless way people do when they have their hand banged against something.  It did nothing to help, though I presumed that the throbbing sting would disappear before long.  When I next looked down at my fingers there was blood streaming down the length of two of them, and I was once more reminded of cranberry juice.  The plant doctor suggested that my middle finger might need stitches, but since it was almost two o’clock in the morning and I was tired, I continued home and went to bed after hopefully sticking a couple of plasters to the wounded parties, praying that when I awoke the next day I would still have all of my digits intact.

On Saturday morning I was awake much earlier than I normally was after a night out.  Even without my glasses, I could tell that the two plasters had assumed an entirely different shade to when I had first applied them.  The index and middle fingers of my right hand had become much chubbier than the others, and at the base, they were the colour of blueberries which have been crushed into a perfectly good sheepskin rug.  There wasn’t much pain, but my hand was practically useless.  For a few days, at least, the rest of my life was going to be consigned to the same fate as my romantic life had been for years:  it was going to be a solo venture conducted entirely with one hand.  

I had to rely completely upon my left hand to take care of everyday tasks that I ordinarily wouldn’t have to think about assigning to a specific hand.  Tying my shoelaces, fastening my belt, buttoning my jeans, brushing my teeth, holding a knife, going through the self-service checkout in the supermarket, opening a can of lager, holding a glass of Guinness.  None of it could be done with my right hand because of my useless fat fingers.  I was feeling like a child who was learning for the first time how to use those funny looking tools at the end of their arms.

Since I was up anyway, I decided to take the opportunity to go to the barber’s, if for no reason other than to prevent the wind from having the joy of messing up my hair again like it had my hand.  It was the first time I had gotten a haircut out of spite.  After trimming my locks to a length that would be out of reach of the elements, the barber asked me if I wanted anything taken off the eyebrows.  It wasn’t an unusual question to be asked in the setting, but I couldn’t remember how old I was when the barber first posed it.  At what age do a person’s eyebrows begin to grow so unruly that they need to be trimmed by a professional every other month?

My hand was pulsing beneath the black cloak as loose hairs fell around me and the shop was gradually filling behind me.  The barber told me that the previous Saturday had been his quietest one on record, and this one wasn’t looking much better.  “What are you doing in a place like this?” One man said cheerfully to another whose hair was defiantly thin on top.  Invariably the discussion in the room turned to the weather, and it was said that the long-range forecasts were predicting that the strong winds, rain and even snow would last for at least another ten days.  I was cradling my wounded fingers in my left hand, thinking about how miserable it all sounded.  Belgrade and Bosnia couldn’t come around quickly enough.

This week I have mostly been listening to:

A portrait of Valentine’s Day in Oban

Storm Ciara hadn’t long ceased from battering the country with gale-force winds when Storm Dennis came howling in on its tail.  In February, storms on the west coast of Scotland are a lot like buses in London:  two or three come at once, and you never know where they’re going to go.  I couldn’t recall exactly when the Met Office began the practice of naming storms, but when the country had gone from Ciara straight into Dennis, it sounded like an underwhelming Jane Austen novel.  

When the first storm landed the previous weekend, there weren’t many people around outside braving the elements.  I had made the short walk to Lidl for some parmesan cheese and the only thing I encountered was some leaves that were dancing across the pavement like drunks during the last song at a wedding reception.  On the other side of the street, someone had left three blue recycling bins sitting outside their block of flats; an invitation for catastrophe.  One of the bins had been blown over by the wind at least twice, on one occasion causing a load of cardboard to be carried off towards Argyll Square, reminiscent of the opening scene of a film depicting a dystopian future.  I presumed that somebody’s Alexa wasn’t talking to them that morning.  Why else would you put your bins out in the middle of a storm three days before they were scheduled to be emptied?

Between two storms

 

In my living room, the sound of the wind wheezing down the chimney made me think of asthma and it was unsettling, though not as painful as when the finale of the first of the winter storms arrived a day or so later and I was caught in a hailstorm as I was walking home from work along the Esplanade.  The hail was the size of pumpkin seeds and started to fall as I was rounding the North Pier.  It rarely ever comes just as you are reaching the front door of your building.  By the time it stopped a few minutes later my cheek was surely the same shade it turns whenever I have tried talking to a woman.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does.  Nothing except maybe Valentine’s Day.

The fourteenth of February was never a day of great significance for me; I rarely felt inclined to celebrate the patron saint of lovers and the Hallmark greeting card company, though Saint Valentine was also recognised as the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, plague and travel, which just seemed like a reckless portfolio of jobs to assign to the same person.  However, like birthdays, anniversaries and New Year, it was always a date that served as a mile marker in life’s journey.  By the reckoning of my own internal odometer, I was on a streak of around eight or nine years of uninterrupted loneliness on Valentine’s Day during which I hadn’t received so much as a card or a heart-shaped piece of chocolate.  By far the most prolific period in my life was the few years in primary school when on the morning of the fourteenth the postman would deliver to our house a red envelope which had within it a card from a secret admirer, though since the sender appeared to share the same handwriting as Santa Claus I was always suspicious.

I wasn’t expecting anything different on the Valentine’s Day of 2020.  The evening before had seen a peaceful calm between the two storms where it could easily have been mistaken for a midsummer’s night had it not been for the biting cold and the snow on the hilltops of Mull in the distance.   I was walking along the seafront after work, where I saw a woman who was sitting on one of the benches with a box of chips balanced on her knee.  I presumed that she was a tourist, on the basis that a local probably wouldn’t sit so close to the shore on such a chilly night.  In her hand she was holding a book – although it might have been a mobile phone – while behind her, on the short stone wall which surrounded the little grass verges along that part of the Esplanade, was a crow.  The bird was standing in the shadow of the bench, waiting patiently in the seemingly vain hope that a chip might fall from the precariously positioned polystyrene and onto the ground where he could pick it up.  It looked to be a game of hope more than anything:  without anything other than someone else’s cruel luck, the crow was going to go hungry.  When I witnessed the scene, it made me think that it was how my own Valentine’s Day was destined to be.

Since the fourteenth fell on a Friday I was feeling hopeful that anyone who was out in the bars during the night without an obvious partner was single.  There was bound to be an anomaly here or there, but otherwise it seemed like a safe conclusion to reach.  With that in mind, I had been thinking of what I was hoping would be the ideal line, in the form of the traditional Valentine’s Day verse, in the event that I should find myself talking to another person with a similarly lonely heart.  When the prose suddenly came to me I was giddy with excitement, and it was all I could do to try the quartet of lines out on unsuspecting colleagues around the office during the afternoon.  Almost all of them were either married or with a partner, so I figured that they would be experts in the matter.  One by one they unanimously announced that the verse was terrible and that I would be better off considering a different approach, but by then I had memorised it and it was all I could think of.  I still believed that with a little work it had the potential to be a success with a fellow single occupant.

Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
Though I never received either
And obviously neither did you.

In response, one colleague swivelled around in her chair to look at me.  On her face was painted a look that resembled the outcome if you were to ask an artist to sketch puzzlement, bemusement and dismay.  She claimed to have a much better line that would practically guarantee success.  It was a line that my colleague and a group of her friends had passed on to their male friend to use while on a night out in Edinburgh.  The story went that he was lauded by all of the girls he recited the line to for his great sense of humour, and that sounded like something I would like to hear for myself, so I asked her what the line was.

“Were you brought up on a farm?”  The initial question asked.
“No.”
“Well, you sure know how to raise a cock.”

Although in my thirty-six years I had never been especially good at reading women or putting myself in their shoes – though, after all, I wear a size twelve – I was feeling fairly certain that opening with borderline misogyny wasn’t the way to go.  Most people agreed that my original verse was probably more suitable than the faux chicken pun, though it was suggested that neither would be appropriate to use.

Sandbags were lined in preparation for Storm Dennis

 

There wasn’t an obvious presence of love in the air in Aulay’s, although there were a few adoring glances being cast toward pint glasses.  Early in the night there was an unusually high quota of bald men; in parts of the pub the hair count matched my Valentine’s card count.  The plant doctor was standing at the bar wearing a black t-shirt which had animations of peeled bananas spotted all over it.  He was with his work colleague, the Czech marine biologist, and our discussion came around to chat-up lines.  Once again my verse was dismissed for its folly, and we began exchanging alternatives, one of which centred on the premise of me asking a woman to touch my navy blue tie and prompting her to guess the material it was made of.  After several guesses which would inevitably be wrong, I would interject and inform her that it was “boyfriend material.”  None of this was impressing the Czech marine biologist, who questioned why there was any need for a chat-up line at all and why I couldn’t just talk to a woman.  I reminded her that the last time we were speaking, at the Distillery before my reading in September, I had spent the better part of fifteen minutes telling her about my socks.  She was familiar with the occasion and acknowledged that it might be better for all concerned if I didn’t say anything at all.

The night developed like any other Friday in the pub.  One man, who walked in with the distinct scent of oil clinging to his person, was refused service from the bar staff, and when he questioned why he wasn’t being allowed to buy a drink he was told that it was because he looked drunk.  The man glanced down at the large item of luggage he had removed from his back and defended himself.  “You’d look pished too if you were carrying this bag.”  It was the sort of line that just hangs in the air like an empty crisp packet caught in the wind.  I wondered what could possibly be in the bag that was making it so heavy that it would give a person a look of intoxication.  Sometimes this place was like a continuous episode of The X-Files.

The plant doctor and I were feeding pound coins into the jukebox; finally a Valentine that would respond.  We curated a soundtrack that was in keeping with the mood of the day, playing songs such as Heartattack And Vine by Tom Waits, Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams, and Kashmir.  The latter enticed the man who was sitting at the table in the corner with his wife, and who seemed to be drinking at a ratio of two drinks to every one of hers, to make his own trip to the jukebox, where he engaged in a Led Zeppelin-off with the plant doctor.  They both reached for some deep cuts, and if I wasn’t in the mood for love, I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin, who were a band I had never really paid much attention to.  I promised to seek out their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, if only because when I was in New York City in 2016 I had made a point of finding the building which was featured on the album cover.  The conversation brought me to look through the photograph library on my phone for the picture I had taken that day, only to realise when comparing it with the actual album cover that I had only captured half of the building.  It was yet another thing to add to my bulging emotional baggage.

I had somehow only captured half of the Physical Graffiti building in NYC in 2016

 

I left the Led Zeppelin-off and made my own pilgrimage to Markie Dans.  It was after midnight and the streets were deserted, without a soul or a lonely heart to be seen.  In the doorways of some buildings along the Esplanade there were sandbags which had been laid in anticipation of the arrival of the week’s second big storm.  Nobody was taking anything for granted.  There was disco music in full flow in Markies, and I was able to catch up with a couple of friends.  The young women were out as part of a collective who were referring to themselves as “single shambles”, and it sounded like a group I was meant to be a part of.

One of the girls I knew invited me to join the rest of the single shambles at a house party after the pub closed, and despite always feeling socially inept at such gatherings, I agreed to go.  The apartment building seemed new, clean and much too nice for a wretch like me.  I spent most of my time there standing in the corner of the room with a can of Dark Fruits cider in my hand, resembling the well-dressed but awkwardly shaped antique ornament that you can’t find the right place for.  I occupied myself by studying the plants which were lined along the windowsill.  There were four or five of them, and they appeared to have things like red peppers and green beans growing in them.  It was a nice touch.  I left for home once I had finished my can of cider.  It was just after four in the morning and the wind was beginning to pick up, while the pavements were slick with freshly fallen rain.  Valentine’s Day had passed for another year and there was a new storm about to crash onto the coast.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does…

This week I have been mostly listening to:

“Happy new year”

It was Monday night when I had finally been able to enjoy a cup of coffee in my own home after remembering to buy a jar after work.  I had used the coffee machine on Sunday afternoon when my need became desperate after I had once again forgotten to replenish my supply of the instant stuff and I refused to go back out as a matter of principle.  Sometimes a person has to take a stand, even if it is against their own capacity for memory.  The coffee machine was like a lot of other things in my kitchen that seemed like a good idea when I bought them before becoming a single occupant, but which had rarely been used since.  A wine decanter, a cheeseboard, a packet of quinoa.  I still had a glass container which was three-quarters filled with ground roast coffee – French, I think – and I decided that it would be worth brewing a fresh pot since it was there, though it turned out that the machine was probably in need of cleaning, because the water tasted kind of stale in the end.

By the time the first week of February had arrived, things were starting to look a whole lot better.  The days were lazily stretching out beyond five o’clock, a phenomenon which the consensus opinion suggested was quite early in the year when it was considered that we were still in the depths of the winter season, and the extended daylight helped to bring a healthier complexion to things.  It was like meeting a friend who you haven’t seen in a while and they are sporting a brand new haircut.  Although the fading light in the early evening closely resembled a candle which has burned all the way to the bottom of its wick and was flickering its last breath, it was still enough to turn vague shadowy figures into fully formed silhouettes.  For the first time in the year it was possible to stroll along the Esplanade and see couples out walking their dogs along the shore, with just enough light for the ducks to be alert and keep a safe distance.

The ducks were wise enough to keep a safe distance from the dogs.

 

The two sets of traffic lights on Argyll Square were always my most used, even more than the one just along the street from me, which I never really liked.  Even in early February, I reckoned that I must have used the lights on the square at least a hundred times.  On one of those occasions, as I crossed the road at the first of the lights to the narrow island in the middle of the road, I witnessed as two gentlemen embraced in the middle and shook hands.  They were older, the sort of age at which the hair is white rather than grey, and at least one of the men was sporting a beard.  It was possible that they both had facial hair, though it was difficult to tell from the way that the man whose back was to me had his face obscured by the other’s bold red waterproof jacket.

As I walked past the pair, I could hear them exchanging a “happy new year” against the din of slowing traffic, and it seemed a small mercy that the light had turned red, as I would likely have been too preoccupied to notice any cars coming towards me.  Just as there had been some surprise at how early in the year the evenings were becoming lighter, I found myself bewildered at how late in the year people were wishing others all the best for 2020.  I had assumed, and even expected, that the cut off had long expired; that the latest such a greeting could be passed on was at the end of the first week of January.  Any mention of it after then just seemed like attention-seeking.  I was reluctant to say anything after the third of the month, since in the digital age so much could change in three days that it might as well have been a year anyway.

I think that what was really bothering me about the belated happy new year was that it seemed to be impossible to rationalise where the line would be drawn.  If it was acceptable to some to offer the happy new year even after a twelfth of the year had passed, then what else were they making up for in that meeting on the square?  I spent quite a bit of time considering the question and drew a scenario in my mind where the two men had happened upon one another at the traffic lights for the first time since the June of the previous year.  They started off with a happy new year and worked their way back through all of the events that had taken place since they last met.

“Merry Christmas.  Did you spend yours with the family?”

“Well, actually, Mary and I converted to Judaism in September, so we celebrated Hanukkah last year.”

“Wait, what does that mean for Halloween?”

“Oh, we thought it would be a laugh to go as Catholics.
It was your seventy-fifth birthday in October, wasn’t it?  Happy birthday!”

“Thanks.  We had a party at the golf club.  I wanted seventy-five helium balloons around the place, but by the time we had paid the hire fee, my state pension was only going to pay for forty balloons.  Nobody understood why I still bought them.”

“You always did like balloons.”

“How was your summer holiday?  I remember last time I saw you that you said you were taking a cruise for your anniversary?”

“We went to Islay for a week.  It rained every day.  We decided that we would stay on the mainland in future.”

Although in the first month of the year I had solidly stuck to my resolution to not make a New Year’s resolution, I was still at least harbouring one ambition for the year, which was that our breakaway pub quiz team The Unlikely Lads would finally win.  Most of the time there were three of us in the team, and while we had pretty successfully cemented ourselves as a regular feature amongst the top three on the leaderboard, we had really only ever come close to winning once or twice.  There was a revolving door of occasional support characters who would come along now and again to support our cause; people of various nationalities, heights, genders, and depth of facial hair.  We were happy to accept anyone who could help us to clean up the points we were spilling, though privately we agreed that we shared the hope that our very first win would come on a night when it was just the three original Unlikely Lads.

On this occasion, the first quiz in February, two of us had each invited a friend along to join us, and one of them had encouraged another couple of medical students to participate, the sum of which left us with one person more than the traditional pub quiz team limit of six.  Negotiations ensued as to the separation of our inflated team into two outfits, and a couple of voices raised the possibility that although we were different teams, there was no reason why we couldn’t assist one another by exchanging answers to difficult questions across the tables.  I had been reading Misha Glenny’s book on the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early nineties and found myself with a taste for conflict, so I argued that if our team was being forced apart, then it would be with the blood and brutality of the wars in Serbia and Croatia.  We had to treat the quiz competitively.  It struck me that no-one else was taking things quite that seriously, but the three of us who were sitting closest to the next available table moved, and I found myself in competition with the other two Unlikely Lads.

As the quiz was beginning with the picture round, which featured daytime television personalities, our infant trio was joined by yet another medical student who had been sitting on his own at a table waiting for the rest of his team to arrive, only they never showed.  He was familiar with the other student in our team, who was a stranger to the bird enthusiast and me, so it didn’t feel awkward.  Rather than christen ourselves with a moniker which made it clear that we were a second-string Unlikely Lads, we named our team The Transition Zone, which was supposed to be some sort of Brexit joke based around the fact that the United Kingdom had left the European Union the previous Friday and was now in a year-long ‘transition phase’, but nobody else in the pub seemed to care about our humour, or know that we were in a transition phase of our own.

A glance behind the scenes of the Lorne pub quiz.

 

Our team immediately felt like two pieces of Lego that just clicked and fitted together.  From the first two rounds, which were scored together as always, we had established a fairly healthy lead, and from there we suspected that something special was about to happen, at least as far as pub quizzes went.  When most of our original group had reunited and were sitting together in Aulay’s later in the night, the girls admitted that they had felt sorry for the male medical student who was eventually stood up by his team and gone on to join my splinter group.  They sounded sad and genuinely sympathetic, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever studied me at a bar and felt such sensations.  Albeit there was a difference in the scenarios when this solo guy had gone on to experience success when he found himself part of a winning pub quiz team.

I initially felt great joy and satisfaction when it was confirmed that The Transition Zone had progressed into the unfamiliar role of quiz winners.  There was a sweetness in beating the team we had been separated from, as though we had given them a glimpse of what they could have had, but after the wave of euphoria had washed over me I felt sadness that I hadn’t won the quiz with The Unlikely Lads and the two people I had suffered defeat with every other week.  Much like when I had finally gotten the cup of coffee I was craving, the water was sour, and I was going to have to wait for another time to fulfill my unspoken New Year’s resolution.

This week I have been mostly listening to:

Plenty of fish in the sea

For some people, the final few days of January and the beginning of a new month was proving to be too difficult an idea to conceive of.  Often the phrase “I can’t believe we’re at the end of January” or “how is that a month of the year gone already?” was heard, in the manner of a mantra repeated by that small band of people who remained unaccepting of the Gregorian calendar.  It wasn’t only the passing of one month into another that folk seemed to be struggling with.  Even the day-to-day passage of time was an issue for some, as was evidenced by an encounter I had experienced in the toilet in Aulay’s on a Saturday night.

When I walked into the compact space, which like the bathroom of most pubs in Oban was only large enough to hold a handful of men at any one time, there was one fellow standing at the far end of the urinal, while the solitary cubicle behind him remained unoccupied.  The man had long straggled hair, similar in style and shade to that of a Highland cow, and a beard to match.  Although he was tall, his shoulders were slouched, as though he had been spending hours playing a video game, and he was looming precariously over the silver trough.  Ordinarily I would have taken the sanctitude of the cubicle when it was available, but on this occasion I was feeling confident that I had drunk enough lager to overcome any of my usual reluctance to urinate in the presence of another person.

Still, there was that indeterminable period of awkwardness when you are standing next to a stranger at the urinal where you are wondering – worrying – whether there is going to be a forced attempt at conversation.  I always preferred to be left to focus on the task at hand, the way I would reach the self-service checkout in Lidl and pray that the scanner would correctly establish the weight of my carrots without the system having to call for assistance when an unexpected item was detected in the bagging area and I would have to talk to the man who eventually appeared.  As I was finally beginning to relax into the situation at the urinal, the man to my left spoke to me, his voice sounding almost exactly as I would have expected.  He asked how my night was going, and I had no option but to politely reciprocate.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January

The hairy man’s shoulders suddenly straightened and he appeared at least four inches taller as he told me that he was having a good night, but that he was “fucked.”  I understood what he meant and assured him that it was fine, that’s what Saturday nights were for.  I hoped that would be the end of it and continued to look ahead, minding my own business, when he spurted out a sequence of words which I couldn’t be sure if they were a question or a statement.  “It’s Saturday?  I didn’t know it was Saturday.  I thought this was Friday?!”

I knew that it wasn’t Friday because I wasn’t wearing a tie and my socks weren’t matching any other item of clothing I was wearing, though I felt only the need to assure the gentleman that it was definitely Saturday.  “Monday is going to be a shock for you,” I noted as he tickled his hands beneath the cold water tap before approaching the hand dryer.  The stranger acknowledged that he wasn’t looking forward to the beginning of the week, and we reached an agreement that these things are somehow always realised when standing at the urinal.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January.  It didn’t amount to very much and had practically all melted away long before midday, but that didn’t stop people from worrying about it and the subsequent cold temperatures which had been forecast.  The pavement between my flat and Argyll Square was already grey and wet by the time I had left for work, though there were a couple of patches which crunched underfoot and threatened to present danger, while on the other side of the street I observed a similarly suited man who was walking with his arms outstretched, as though attempting to complete a walk across an invisible tightrope.  His trepidation was making me nervous, feeding into the anxiety I felt when confronted with snowy and icy conditions which had developed several years earlier during the last extremely cold winter in Oban.

It was 2010, maybe 2011, when the town was besieged by snow in the early part of December.  It was a Sunday afternoon when it all started, and by the following morning the pavements were like a surface Torvill and Dean would have practised their routines on.   I was working in a supermarket at the time that was around a fifteen-minute walk from my home in Lower Soroba, which was really just a part of town for people who didn’t want to admit that they were living in Soroba.  I had somehow worked myself into a position of management in the store and that required me to work a variety of different shifts, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night.  On this particular winter morning, it was my responsibility to open the store, which meant starting work at six o’clock.  The scene was as cold and dark as anyone could imagine for the hour, and by the time I had crossed the road from my home to the pavement which ran all the way to the entrance of the local primary school, I had fallen on the ice for the first time.

The rain was horizontal, as though someone was standing by the side of the shower cubicle with a hairdryer

I slipped another twice before I reached work.  The second instance wasn’t very far from the first, along the pavement overlooking the Lorn & Islands District General Hospital, where I was beginning to think that I might have been better off taking myself.  After that I was able to maintain my footing more like an adult male, even if not quite an adult penguin, for around ten minutes, until I went crashing to the tarmac for a third time at the crossing outside Oban High School, with my destination visible in the distance.  By the time I reached work my pride was almost as bruised as my tailbone and I had a freshly developed fear and loathing of snowy winter conditions which surpassed even my phobia of umbrellas.  The bottom of my back was in agony, and I had to throw every brand of painkiller that we stocked down my throat to be able to get through the day.  There was no way I could go home, not with what was essentially a sore arse.  Some things a person just can’t live down.  For every winter since I dreaded the forecast of cold weather.  The sight of a snowflake falling from the sky would have me thinking back to December 2010 and the pain in the arse I experienced, and I’d know that there was no way that my footwear was any more appropriate than it was that day.

It was fortunate that the ‘big freeze’ some had predicting never materialised on the west coast, and by the middle of the week there was nothing but rain.  At times the way the downpour travelled through the wind gave the appearance of how I imagined it would look if you were trying to take a shower and, for some reason, someone was standing by the side of the cubicle with a hairdryer aimed at the stream on full power.  Although that makes it sound quite dangerous, was it really any more of a risk than going out on the snow-covered pavements was earlier in the week?  Nevertheless, there reached a point where I wasn’t as concerned about the conditions underfoot as I was about the entrance to my building.  Before the end of the last year someone had fixed the hinge on the front door, since it never seemed to quite close all the way.  The fully functioning door only lasted a few days, however, and the new hinge was since seen lying on the concrete behind the door.  It was even worse than it had been before, and now the door wouldn’t close at all without being physically pulled behind you as you left the building.  As was often the case with these things, different people went to varying lengths to make sure that the door was properly closed, such was society in 2020.  The saga began bothering me more than the slush on the pavements outside and the fear of falling that it provoked, especially since I lived on the ground floor and was, therefore, left more exposed than anyone, though that wasn’t really what troubled me.  I couldn’t stop from wondering who had fixed the door in the first place, and why they weren’t as worried about it now that it was more desperately in need of repair than ever.

My mood wasn’t being helped by the fact that for five days straight I had forgotten to buy instant coffee, and by the end of the week the glass jar which usually kept the stuff was completely empty.  I liked to transfer as many things as I possibly could into storage jars, mostly because I thought that it looked better than having lots of different packages sitting around my kitchen, and also because I wouldn’t know what to do with the space otherwise.  Instant coffee, ground coffee, tea bags, pasta, olive oil, and vinegar were amongst the goods usually transferred straight into these jars, and once I’d gotten into the habit of doing it, I would begin to feel a real anxiety as soon as any of the jars neared emptying.  It didn’t seem as irrational as my phobia of umbrella spokes, but it was close.  I didn’t like the way that they looked so void and lifeless and stripped of their purpose, like my romantic interests.  The real kicker was that I had run out of coffee to help me fend off the anxiety.

An empty coffee jar

On Friday afternoon the sky was the colour of an unwashed plate after a chow mein dinner, and it had started to rain lightly when I was talking to the Polish scientist with a moniker for the first time in a while.  She was smoking a cigarette to pass the time as she waited for an appointment to have her eyelashes done.  Of all the things that people would spend their time waiting for in life, I never thought that I would meet someone who was waiting for their lashes to be treated.  The scientist told me that she would be leaving for Aberdeen on Sunday, where she was going to spend a month “listening to cod” for research purposes.  Apparently the fish had already been transported up north and were waiting for her in a large concrete container.  I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to listen to cod, but I knew that even if I asked her to explain I wouldn’t have understood anyway.  I told her, half-jokingly and half-hopefully that 2020 was going to be the year where I would finally meet a woman who could stomach my company.  She beamed and didn’t completely laugh off the prospect, suggesting that if I really wanted to meet a woman then I would be better off moving from Oban to a city like Aberdeen or elsewhere in Scotland where there are more people.  Already the hamster turning the wheel in my head had woken into action.

“I suppose it’s like you’ve been saying…there is plenty of fish in the sea up there.” 

The Polish scientist looked at me with a glaze in her eyes that resembled the snowy hilltops of Mull in the distance, like she didn’t know what I was talking about, though I suppose I had never mentioned any interest in fishing to her.  I had never really put much consideration into the thought of living anywhere other than Oban, but when Aulay’s was as empty as the coffee jar on my kitchen counter later in the evening, I had plenty of opportunity to think about it.  I wondered if it would really make much difference being in a large city with a bigger and more diverse population when my ability to talk to people was akin to my footing on ice.  It seemed unlikely, and I never had much desire to live somewhere else, but it was probably a good idea to leave the door open to the thought of trying something different.

Links & things:
This week I have mostly been listening to this miserable ditty by Radiohead…