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 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.
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.
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…