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: