The night I was told I smell like old books (a second reading)

It was the twenty-first of November – I knew this because it was Wednesday, and it always rains on the day the blue recycling bins are emptied.  The morning was remarkable only for the way it was like every other morning: I woke up as a single in a double bed, trimmed my stubble to a fine 1.0mm, showered, stood bare-chested in the kitchen as I ironed a shirt which was the colour of a custard cream biscuit, ate a handful of blueberries and drank two small glasses of orange juice; because I liked to get my vitamins and my bright colours early in the day.

Fully dressed and ready for work, I was approaching the door of my flat when something struck me as being peculiar and out of the ordinary.  In the close, snuggled in against the bottom of the stairs, was a baby’s buggy – or, at least, a buggy which belonged to the parents of a baby.  Its transparent plastic hood had amassed a collection of pearly raindrops, and on the thin layer of fabric at the back of the seat were three polar bears of varying size, coloured white, black and minty blue.  The bears looked friendly and happy, as though they knew that their only purpose in life was to look in reverence at the back of this baby’s head, and they were doing a good job. Cradled between the purple handlebars was a marshmallow-coloured blanket which looked like it would provide great comfort and warmth.  The blanket had little pink tassels that dangled loosely along the ends, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would look against my navy blue suit.

I was standing in the cold concrete surroundings of the close, the only light provided by a streak of winter sun which was shining through the glass pane on the back door, illuminating this baby’s buggy which had become the object of my curiosity; the lead actor on the stage of my life at that moment.  Nobody in my block of flats had any children, as far as I was aware, and the youngest living being was a one-year-old golden retriever who lived with her owners on the second floor, and I was feeling certain that she could be taken on walks without the aid of a pushchair.  I couldn’t imagine where the buggy had come from or why it was sitting outside my flat, especially when Christmas was more than four weeks away and I hadn’t indicated to friends or family that the gift I was cherishing the most was a buggy.

As the week developed, there was an increasingly cold wind which was ripping in from the sea, the kind that rattles in your bones and leaves a person feeling like they need to pee.  On my nightly walks along the Esplanade, I was finding that my hands were making for the pockets of my coat regularly, in search of warmth and in an effort to assure myself that I was still in command of my functions.  In Aulay’s, as I was entering into a debate with a bald-headed man about the percentage of a pint of lager which should be made up of the foamy head, a pair of women who were wearing woolly hats were ordering a measure of whisky each, and at that moment they were maybe the warmest people I had ever laid eyes on.

Downtown in the Oban Inn, a woman who was some years beyond middle age – if it is assumed that she won’t live to be a hundred – was dancing by the side of the bar with great gusto and enthusiasm, even if not entirely with rhythm.  She informed us that her father had recently died and that all she wanted to do was dance.  I was finding it difficult to judge a person’s ability to dance given the circumstances.  Over the shoulder of the middle-aged dancer, the one man bar band was preparing to resume his set, and as he sat on a chair alongside his pale electric guitar he was looking like a drawing a young child would produce if it had been asked to sketch the saddest man in the world.  His eyes were sunken shaded pencil outlines, and his mouth could have been a golf umbrella.

A short while later, in a bar along the bracing seafront, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was claiming to have cut my hair when I was little more than a small boy.  I didn’t remember her face, but she seemed trustworthy and I decided that I would believe her.  After all, I thought to myself, who would it really benefit to invent such a story?  The hairdresser was beginning to embellish me with further details when I could just about see the cartoon thought bubble appear above her head.  “I always knew he would struggle to keep his hair,” it read.

In a booth close to the door, my brother and I were talking to a couple of young women who we had met whilst stood at the bar.  The girl sitting closest to me had canary blonde hair that rested upon the top of her head, which was the size of a boulder.  Her facial features looked like they had been carved out of stone, the sort an archaeologist would spend an age studying.  She was a close talker who liked to speak almost directly into the eardrum.  Each time she leaned in to say something, her hair would wave across my cheek and I was picking up a distinctive scent which I couldn’t quite identify.  I speculated that it might be vanilla, and suggested this to the girl who had a face which vaguely resembled a rock, believing that vanilla is an inoffensive fragrance.  She didn’t dispute my sense of smell, and once again leaned into my ear.

“You smell like old books.”

To that point I had never been told that I have the aura of antique literature, and being that it was something I was not used to hearing, I misheard the words she originally used.  I don’t know why the question that I next asked occurred to me, but it was the only response that I could think of.

“The kind of old boots that someone might have died wearing?”

The girl’s stony features had the look of confusion you might usually see on someone who has happened upon a single slipper by the side of a busy road.  Her hair brushed my face once more, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about, before repeating that I smell like old books and that she found it comforting.

With it cleared up that I have the fragrance of words which go to the soul, rather than leather which goes to the sole, the archaeologist’s dream asked me if I had ever considered how sexy it would be for two people who work together in a library to hook up after a time.  I told her that I had not spent any time contemplating that particular scenario, though in my mind I was thinking how I would find it sexy to get with another person in just about any situation.

She sat closer to me as she started to elaborate on the fantasy she had in mind.  The young woman asked me to picture how it would be to work as a librarian, and I told her that I had no trouble conjuring the image of finding a way to make females stop talking, since it was a field I happened to be an expert in.  In her workplace ballad, the two participants would have been working in the same library for years but rarely crossed paths, which seemed terribly unlikely to me, but I was in no position to tread on her artistic license.  One day, she said, they would be returning books to the same section of the library, and their hands would touch as they were placing the books back on the shelf.  She illustrated this by touching my hand as she spoke.  I could tell that she was finding the idea of the saga quite stimulating, and I should probably have taken the role play more seriously.

“Which section of the library were they in?”  I asked.

“Why does it matter?”

“I like to paint a picture.”

“Oh, alright.  Non-fiction, I suppose.”

“So there was friction in the non-fiction?”

The girl with canary blonde hair took her hand from mine and suggested that I should get another drink, her words delivered in a manner which made it clear that not only were we not on the same page, but we were barely even in the same library.  Whilst at the bar I encountered a couple of friends, and once they left I found myself standing next to the fresh-faced homosexual.  It was the first time I had seen him since the night a few weeks earlier where he had suddenly appeared just as I had found myself in conversation with a young woman who seemed to have taken a liking to me.  I had never met the guy before, but he turned out to be a long lost school friend of the woman’s, and the pair of them sat on the end of my bed for several hours, reminiscing and catching up on lost time whilst I was drinking whisky in the kitchen.  As a gesture of good will, and a display of there being no hard feelings, I offered to buy him a drink.  The entire process of getting a round of drinks for our table took around ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I returned the two girls had moved elsewhere.  The fresh-faced homosexual joined me, and I reminded him of our initial encounter a few weeks previous.  He laughed and denied that he had ‘cock blocked’ me, though in an absurd twist of fate he had unwittingly contributed to my failure on this occasion, too.   Instead of learning what happens after hands touch in the non-fiction section of the library, the fresh-faced homosexual and I were talking until closing time about his time as a trainee chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, and about the planet Mars.

In the small hours of the morning, I returned to my flat to find the baby’s buggy still sitting in the close.  I was beginning to feel like it was haunting me, as though someone had left it there as a cruel play on the Christmas story.  Instead of a baby being bestowed upon a virginal woman, an empty buggy had been presented to a single man who can’t be very far away from regaining his virginity.  It was either that, or I had new neighbours.

This post was originally published on 25 November 2018.

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