Framed

Our weekly Zoom meetings can often go on as late as three in the morning, far beyond the regular closing time of the pubs they are supposed to be a substitute for.  The same barman whose thankless task it was to have to encourage us to leave the bar using the sort of vocal persuasion that a parent might enlist to convince a reluctant toddler to eat a forkful of broccoli – if you leave tonight you can have ice cream tomorrow – can now only watch if we decide that we would like to have another beer and continue to discuss the issues of the day, such as the integrity of shoelaces or the ingredients of an aubergine pie.  I once referred to him as being amongst the ten best bartenders in Aulay’s, an observation which earned me some scorn, but what couldn’t be disputed was that he was the best barman on our Zoom calls.  One of his favourite phrases for ushering us out of the bar at the end of the night was to bellow that “we’ve all got homes we’d like to go to,” and now we were all in our own homes and there was nothing that anybody could do about it. 

Such was the case on a recent Friday night that came at the end of a week which was the coldest February week in Scotland for more than thirty-five years; though as is usually the case, Oban was spared the snow which had blanketed much of the rest of the country.  The nights were fierce, and I was thankful that I could log out of the virtual pub at 3 am and go straight to bed, avoiding the long walk home from Aulay’s or Markies that a Friday would usually require.  I was eager to disrobe myself of all of my garments and get under the warm duvet as quickly as possible and began tugging at my clothing as though there wasn’t a moment to waste, just like I had envisioned every other Friday, only in my mind there was always another person there with me.  In my haste I pulled my navy v-neck sleeveless sweater vest up over my head and unwittingly brought my glasses with them.  Before I knew it, the glasses were at my feet on the dimly-lit Portland oak laminate flooring in two perfectly individual pieces, and my heart sank.  I looked down in glum horror, utterly helpless for what could have been an eternity had it not been for the fact that it was cold and I was wanting my bed.

When I awoke the next morning it was with the sort of blissful ignorance that only alcohol can bring.  I was lying luxuriously amongst my 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets as bony fingers of winter sunlight were stretching across the bed, making a mental list of everything I would get when I went shopping later in the day but would have forgotten about by the time I was in the shower.  I thought about how many eggs I would poach for breakfast and what I would make for dinner; contemplated whether I would go for a walk in early or late afternoon; considered how much longer I could stay in bed before I would have to get up if I wanted to see all of the regular Saturday card of televised football.  Something about watching television triggered a terrible realisation within my brain and I shot upright in my bed, reaching for the glasses case on my bedside table.  I prised open the lid with all of the hesitancy of a small boy who lifts up a rock knowing that he’s going to find the earth underneath teeming with worms, and there I saw my glasses, broken in two right down the nose, folded neatly away as though they were a loved one being laid to rest.  They were looking so peaceful, so dignified.  My glasses were broken, and I couldn’t think of a worse thing that could have happened.

I had been with that pair of glasses since the beginning of 2016 and had seen so many things through them – some things that I could never have imagined I would ever see.  Together we had looked out upon New York City, Budapest, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and beyond.  I wore them to every game in the two seasons where I had a season ticket at Celtic Park and when I went to see Bruce Springsteen, U2, and The Gaslight Anthem.  For nigh upon five years they had gone everywhere with me, and when I realised that they were broken it was remarkable how the dread that came with wearing glasses for the very first time wasn’t anything compared with the fear of not having them at all.

I think I was maybe around 14 or 15-years-old when I was told that I needed glasses, and it was the sort of news that couldn’t be easily soothed by the red lollipop that was commonly handed out after visits to the optician.(i)  When I was in high school in the mid-to-late nineties it wasn’t considered cool to wear glasses.  There was still a stigma attached to anyone who needed corrective vision.   People who had two eyes were respected, admired and looked up to; those with four eyes, not so much.  You would have been as well turning up at the school gates with two heads or eight arms and legs.   I dreaded the prospect of wearing glasses.  Other kids I knew who wore them seemed to disappear after a while, as though the glasses were an invisibility cloak.  I found it hard enough as it was to fit in at school without putting a pair of glasses on my face.  

The greatest irony is that I was never a nerd when I was in high school, which is how those who wore glasses were generally perceived.  While I enjoyed English, history and modern studies, I was never especially studious in any subject – something which I regretted as I became older.  I spent a lot of my spare time writing out jokes or short stories which I would use to impress my classmates, and while some people did find them amusing, I was far too shy and introverted to make conversation beyond my little written notes, and I struggled to make many friends.  If I could do it all over again and go to high school now, I would almost certainly be a nerd – but then I would also be a 38-year-old man sitting in a classroom amongst a group of teenagers, and it would be just as uncomfortable as it was twenty-two years ago.

Waves of panic washed over me as I tried to figure out what I was going to do about my glasses.  I sent a photograph of the stricken spectacles to everyone I knew, seeking advice and probably a little sympathy.  One friend responded simply “don’t use tape” followed by no fewer than five exclamation marks, which quickly ruled out the only tool I had at my disposal.  I understood why she had offered that opinion, though, particularly when I have so little sex appeal as it is without wrapping my glasses in sellotape.  With my reluctance to further diminish any sex appeal – or specs appeal – I might posses, I had no other option but to go out and shop for something that would fix my broken glasses.  Stepping outside that Saturday morning was one of the most terrifying things I have done:  everything looked so different, as though being viewed through a glass of salted water.  They appeared blurry and somehow smaller, while the faces of people were indistinguishable.  Crossing the road seemed treacherous; I would have been as well putting on a blindfold and rolling a dice for all that I could make out the distance between the cars and where I was standing on the pavement.  Eventually I made it across the road and into Tesco, where the entranceway was choked with men who were studying the enormous display of Valentines flowers which seemed to be as tall as the ceiling, though there was no way of telling.  My brother had provided me with uncannily accurate directions for where I could find the superglue, and once I had finally broken free of the supermarket Romeos I was able to get my hands on the stuff I required.  I stood staring at the shelf for several moments, in the end having to bring the package almost directly up to my face in order to be able to read the text and be sure that I was buying the right product.  It wasn’t a bunch of red roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolates, but I was at least leaving with something useful.

With the two halves of my glasses reunited again at the bridge, it was possibly the closest I had felt to joy in a long time.  My surroundings made sense once more.  I wasted little time in going onto the Specsavers website to use their facility to order a replacement pair of glasses, after remembering that I had received an email from the opticians around November-time suggesting that I should schedule an eye test since it had been a few years since I last had them checked – an offer which I refused when I went online and found that the nearest available appointment wasn’t until after Christmas.  For some reason I was incredulous that I would have to wait more than four weeks for an eye exam, even though I had no plans for basically the next year.  Nevertheless, now that my glasses were fixed and I had some new ones on the way, I had assumed a new-found confidence.  I felt like I could do anything, even though Covid restrictions meant that I could essentially do nothing, and the best I could make of it was to go to Lidl on Sunday for the groceries I had missed the previous day.  It was beautiful being able to see clearly again, even the large sign in the middle of the foyer warning customers that they should “shop alone where possible.”  

While other people were doubtless enjoying romantic dinners of steak or oysters served with bubbly Champagne, I was shopping mainly for instant mash – which I had taken a lazy notion for to accompany a beef casserole – when I received a phone call from the local branch of Specsavers.  The woman on the other end of the line wanted to inform me that they no longer stocked the glasses I had ordered – my glasses – and that they had been advised of a cancellation that afternoon if I would like to come in for an eye test and to choose a new pair of glasses.  It was difficult keeping track of whether this was all good luck or bad. 

No less than an hour later I was picking up a blue medical mask and being led upstairs to the testing site in Specsavers, where I was asked to take a seat while the machines were being cleaned and prepared for use.  I was sitting with my hands clasped across my lap, almost like I was in church, not knowing who I was supposed to be praying to.  In my mind I kept replaying the scene on Friday night when my glasses hit the floor.  I had taken a jumper off over my glasses hundreds of times in my life and never once knocked them from my face, but I suppose there are some things you can only get away with for so long.  Following a few moments of contemplation, I became aware that in the background the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts was playing over the in-store radio.  It was a surreal feeling.  If somebody had told me that in 2021 I would be spending Valentines Day in the opticians waiting for an eye test whilst listening to Everybody Hurts, well, it would have seemed about right, really.

“If you feel like you’re alone

No, no, no, you are not alone.”

The song hadn’t finished when I was asked to come through to the first room, where it was explained to me that there were two machines which were going to measure various things:  the first would use a series of lasers to analyse the insides of my eyes, and the second would blow a short puff of air into them.  I didn’t understand any of it, still thinking about why Everybody Hurts would be playing in the waiting area of any medical facility.  The optical assistant used the first device to look deep into my eyes, telling me when I should blink and when I should stare straight ahead, like I was participating in a hostage video and being commanded to communicate using only my eyes.  She would frequently repeat the phrase “now blink like normal”, and I had no idea how to blink like normal when there was a laser trained on my eye; a sniper waiting for me to make the wrong move.  It just wasn’t possible.  Instead I felt as though my eyelids were fluttering like a miller moth stuck in a net curtain, and it wasn’t a surprise that I screwed up and the optician later had to take me back through to redo part of the exam.  I always floundered any time there was a woman looking into my eyes.

After the first part of the test was done, the optician appeared in the waiting area and she summoned me into her office, which was dark except for the white light being emitted from the eye chart on the back wall and the glare from the computer screen in the corner.  I couldn’t help from noticing that on the optician’s monitor were the x-rays of what I presumed were my eyes, though I had never seen them in such graphic form to be able to recognise them for sure.  They looked hideous, like two cooked beetroots had been left out of their juices for too long and become shrivelled and dry and red.  Upon seeing the images I felt certain that the optician was preparing to give me some bad news, and I became queasy.  Why couldn’t I just have taken my glasses off before removing my sweater vest like any other normal person does?  

The optician asked me if I am familiar with the anatomy of the eye, a question which under ordinary circumstances sounded like it could have been a brilliant lead-in to a killer line, but I was in no mood for flirtation when I could see over her shoulder how sickly my own eyes were looking.  I smiled nervously behind my medical mask and told her that I wasn’t familiar with the anatomy of the eye, and the optician educated me in the basics before talking me through what she could see in the x-rays of my dried-up beetroots.  We were looking specifically at images of my retinas, and as she clicked through the graphics talking about deep craters and wide valleys, I realised that she would have been as well talking about the surface of Mars for all I understood.  Once the optician finished delivering her dissertation, she announced that my retinas are in perfect condition, which came as a pleasant surprise to me considering what I was seeing on her screen.

As a way of making small talk before we moved on to the eye charts, the optician asked what had moved me to make an appointment, and I told her the tragic tale of how my glasses had fallen to the floor on Friday night and broken in two.  She seemed neither up nor down when confronted by the saga, presumably because opticians hear all sorts of ridiculous stories about how people break their glasses.  Maybe R.E.M. were right after all?  I was gradually beginning to feel better about things, at least until we turned to the eye chart and I could feel my anxiety building again when the optician asked if I could make out the top line of letters.  I didn’t want to disappoint her after she had been so complimentary about my retinas, but the truth is that the letters were indistinguishable and didn’t make any sense to me, as though straight out of the pages of a Russian novel.  When it came to the part of the test where I was asked to determine the difference between various lenses – “is this one better or worse, or just the same?” – I felt like I was mostly just guessing, similar to the way that when a crow picks up a cigarette from the pavement it is simply acting on instinct and can have no way of knowing what it is really doing.  Snap judgments were never my thing; I always needed time to procrastinate over all options before coming to a decision, and even then it was probably with some reluctance.  There was one lens where the optician even prompted me, asking “are you sure?”  And I really wasn’t.

Despite all of this, even though I feel as though I can hardly see at all when I’m not wearing my glasses, it turns out that my eyes are healthy and haven’t changed at all since they were last tested.  I felt relieved.  As I was waiting to be taken back downstairs to pick out a new pair of frames, I heard the optician telling her assistant about how I had broken my glasses by trying to take my jumper off over them, and for a moment it was like being taken back to high school.  While she was measuring my face for the glasses I had chosen, the optical assistant looked down at my spectacles, bound together by superglue, as they sat in front of me on the desk.  She asked me where they were broken and I pointed to the area of injury on the nose.  The assistant commented that she couldn’t tell they were broken when they were on my face and insisted that I had done a good job of repairing them.  She could never truly understand how I had suffered for my craft.

My new glasses are due to arrive in a couple of days and natural balance will be restored in my life.  I should have been feeling pleased about things, or at least contented, but instead, by the end of last week I was feeling overwhelmed by feelings of dread any worry.  I hadn’t experienced anything like it in well over a year, not even through all of the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.  It was difficult to understand why, and even more to know what to do about it.  On Thursday night my heart was thumping as though I had downed a dozen cups of coffee in quick succession and sat down to watch the final scene of the movie Seven.  My hands were clammy, albeit that was kind of welcome in the grip of winter, and my head ached with a sensation like it had been split open all the way down the middle from temple to chin, just like my glasses had been.  Glasses are easily fixed, though.  How do you superglue a broken person?  The best I could do was to go to bed and play the Limp Bizkit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, which was the first one I had bought when I was 17-years-old.  The fact that I used to like Limp Bizkit so much often makes me cringe now, but back in 2000 I listened to that album on repeat morning and night whilst worrying about how I was going to fit in tomorrow.  It made me feel about as tall as a supermarket display of Valentines flowers, and I knew that’s what I needed last week.  I didn’t want to listen to Limp Bizkit any more than I wanted a new pair of glasses, but was I feeling better, worse, or just the same for having played that particular album on Thursday night?  At a guess, I would say that I was better.

(i)  Citation needed.  I can remember getting a lollipop after visiting the optician, but nobody that I have asked does.  It could have been the dentist.

One heart is better than none

During any conversation on the west coast of Scotland, it is usually only a matter of time before the subject turns to the weather, as if it were written into the local council bylaws that it must be discussed at every available opportunity.  I don’t know if it’s because there isn’t much else going on in some of the small communities around here, especially during these last ten months of lockdown, or if the weather is just such a dominant and dramatic part of the landscape that it demands attention.  After all, when you see the distant snow-capped hills rising from the sea looking like Tunnock’s Teacakes with the tops sliced off, it’s hard not to tell everybody about it.  Whatever it was, the topic of the weather always lingered in the air.  There were some people who you could tell wanted to talk about nothing but the state of the weather, while for others it took a little bit longer, but like a gentle breeze coming towards the shore from the sea, it would eventually get there.

Although the veil was slowly being lifted on winter and the daylight was nudging towards the evening, lasting as long as five o’clock by the end of the first week in February, the winter would still bear its fangs, and for much of January the talk seemed to be about how cold it was.  It had been freezing for weeks, with the temperature according to the Met Office sharing a lot in common with me, in that we were both a struggling single figure.  I had heard others say in conversation that it was the most prolonged cold spell they could remember, and I even used the phrase a couple of times despite not having any evidence to back it up.  I never wrote such things in my notebooks – weather reports, essentially – instead focussing on something I had eaten or worn on a particular day.  Recently I had written about a small purple blemish the size of a sunflower seed which had appeared on my right cheek, just below the rim of my glasses and in a position where a face covering wouldn’t hide it.  I noted that it was typical such a thing would happen to me just before Valentine’s Day, but when I read it back I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference.  Other things I had scribbled into my book included a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, minus the mushrooms, and a congratulatory piece about how I had managed to get out of bed to perform a session of yoga on three mornings one week, an achievement which I attributed to the fact that I had put a fresh filter in the coffee machine the night before – but nothing about the weather.  So much for my theory that a pretty notebook would encourage me to write better.

All through the chilly winter, I was wearing a brand new housecoat around the flat that probably turned out to be the best investment I had made in 2020.  I wore the robe every night and it provided great comfort and warmth in the face of the dire cold.  The coat was a fluffy navy blue colour with red trim around the lapels, and the belt tightened the garment snug around the waist, in keeping with its brand name; snuggaroo.  On either side there was a pocket which was about the size of a fist, and for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom what people were supposed to keep in those pockets.  They were big enough for a packet of tissues or a mobile phone, maybe, but if the whole purpose of a housecoat is that it is an item of clothing to be worn in the home, then everything you need is presumably within reach anyway.  It bothered me more than it should any reasonable person, but that’s what the long periods of lockdown had done to us; giving us nothing but time to sit and think about the reason for there being pockets on a housecoat.  I concluded that the only sensible use for the pockets would be to use them to stage my own Punch and Judy show if the options on Netflix ever dried up, but fortunately things hadn’t become that desperate yet. 

Whilst pondering the potential uses for the pockets, it struck me that I hadn’t owned a housecoat since I was a small boy, and the idea of getting one for myself hadn’t once occurred to me in the years since.  The way I saw it, the only types of people who owned a housecoat were children and the elderly.  I had never heard of anyone in the hinterland between the two groups wearing one, therefore it followed that by becoming a man who wears a housecoat I was accepting my fate as an older man.  I didn’t care about that, though.  The coat felt luxurious, and there were times when I was strutting about my flat where I felt almost as though I was Hugh Hefner.  An appreciation of robes is where the similarities with the founder of Playboy magazine started and ended, though,  Rather than being a millionaire publisher who spends his time partying in an extravagant mansion in Los Angeles surrounded by beautiful models, I was a single man who was happy to be breaking even, claiming a 25% discount on my council tax for being a single occupant in a tiny flat on Combie Street.  As for what Hugh Hefner would have kept in the pockets of his robe, the mind boggles.

With a slither more light in the morning, it was remarkable how things just seemed that little better than they had been a few days before.  While the country’s Coronavirus vaccination programme started to pick up some pace, the brighter mornings were a bit like a vaccine for the soul, and along with the promise of a fresh filter in the coffee machine, I was finding myself able to get out of bed earlier to indulge in my morning routine most days.  As well as being able to do a session of yoga, I finally started reading the English version of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar.  The book did a good job of making me miss my own local bars even more than I already was, particularly Aulay’s.  Many of his passages reminded me of the warmth of the pub, which is what I think I was missing most of all.  Not only the companionable warmth of another drinker, but the physical warmth of the pub, especially those nights where it was so cold that someone would fire up the little halogen heater which sat in the corner by the door that took you from the lounge to the public bar.  I don’t remember the heater ever making that much of a difference, but at least it was always warmer than my flat would have been.  I came to realise that there were times when I was going to the pub for the heat as much as for the company.   

My breakfast bar was finally being put to the use that I had always imagined, and if I wasn’t reading a book in the morning then I was flicking through the latest issue of Private Eye magazine during my lunch hour or reviewing the rare items of post I would receive.  Usually the letters were just a notification that the cost of my electricity or broadband was going up, or it was yet another leaflet from the Scottish Conservative Party that went straight into the recycling bin, but in the last week I received a pamphlet from NHS Scotland about the new organ donor legislation in the country.  Basically, from 26 March 2021, anyone who is older than 16 will be considered to have agreed to be a donor when they die; an ‘opt-out’ system rather than the current process where people have to make their own decision to sign up to the register.  Usually in early February it was heart donations of a different sort which were being exchanged by mail, or at least it was for other people.  

I think most folks believed that the change in the donor system was for the best, and for perhaps the first time it got me to thinking about what would eventually become of my own organs.  I presumed that my lungs would be useless to anybody on account of the years I had spent as a part-time smoker in my twenties, and even though it was known that the liver could regenerate healthy cells over time, I didn’t fancy the chances of mine being accepted by the health service, even in an emergency; though I did at least hold out hope that maybe my liver would be displayed in a beautiful glass case above the bar in Aulay’s, next to the really expensive malt whiskies, the way some other bars kept shinty trophies or golf shields.  That would be when I knew that I had truly made it.  As for the kidneys, I never fully understood what it was they did, other than sharing their name with a variety of bean, and I imagined that there would probably be plenty of them going around.

After some consideration, I decided that my heart would be the most likely candidate for any organ donation after my death.  I liked to think that I had a good heart, even if I had no expertise in cardiology to support this belief.  In the days after receiving my pamphlet from the government, I found myself walking around Oban sizing people up as potential recipients for my heart.  It made a change from judging them for the way they were dressed, or how they were wearing their masks – if they were even wearing one at all.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be looking at people and thinking of ways I could convince them to accept my heart, but this time it was different; this was for their own good.  Over the week I began to worry that any procedure might be like one of those countless science-fiction plots where the brain of some maniac is transplanted into the head of an innocent host who subsequently inherits all of the evil traits of the psychopath, leading him to an unwitting criminal rampage, and the scenario played on my mind.  

I got to thinking about the poor sap who would eventually end up with my heart; how he would likely be a ruggedly handsome figure who has all of the most attractive personality traits such as charm, intelligence, a razor-sharp wit, and he always knows exactly the right thing to say.  All that he was ever missing was a good heart, and when the day comes that he receives one from a donor, he is filled with joy and hope; finally his ills have been cured and he will be able to live a normal life.  But slowly, like in a bad sci-fi movie, he realises that something isn’t right.  He has become the kind of guy who opens a Tinder conversation with the line:  “Usually if I make a match on here I assume someone has swiped in the wrong direction.”  He’s a romantic illiterate and his love life has suddenly been ruined, to the extent that any time he approaches a woman he is filled with the same apprehension he experiences on the one day a year when he wears a red shirt and he knows that eventually he’s going to have to put it in the washing machine, so once he takes it off he stuffs it down into the bottom of the laundry basket and forgets about it until he next feels like wearing red.  It is woefully obvious to him that the heart he has been donated is a lonely heart, and in time he is spending his evenings performing puppet shows with the pockets on his housecoat.