Absolute Beginners

“I like the way you dress.  Where did you get your shoes?”  I’m never asked this sort of question when I’m on my way home from the pub by a woman, so it figures that recently when I was stopped on the bridge at Airds Crescent by someone who wanted to comment on my outfit, it was by a guy who was so wasted that it was impossible to say whether it was from alcohol or drugs.  He couldn’t stay still, as though he was being operated by a video game controller, and if I wasn’t already dizzy from Aulay’s then I might have been from trying to keep up with him.

My sartorial suitor complained that he can never find a good pair of shoes; that every pair he buys immediately becomes scuffed and eventually the sole falls apart within a few months.  Where he was going wrong, he seemed to believe, was that he wasn’t spending enough money on his footwear.  “How much should a good pair of shoes cost?”  I considered telling him about my experience in Rogersons a few months ago when I approached the counter with the brown shoes he was so admiring of and the saleswoman commended me on my choice.  She mentioned that the shoes had been treated with a special waterproof spray, as though she had done me a personal favour, and I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time.  But I could see what she was talking about on every rainy day since when the water would disappear from the tops of my feet virtually right away and they would appear as though I had never been outside at all.  Then I asked myself why this guy who was probably high on drugs would care about waterproof spray, and I realised that my idea of good shoes was probably different to his anyway.

These types of characters only ever seem to turn up in my life on a Friday night, and usually they disappear just as soon as they make themselves known.  Like the bloke we met in Aulay’s last Friday night, for example.  I was in a group with the Plant Doctor and some other marine biology types, as usual, when we were joined by an older gentleman who didn’t have anywhere else that he could sit.  This guy had a fluffy goatee that matched the nest of white hair contained beneath his flat cap.  Each ear had a silver ring hanging from the lobe, while we learned that he was originally from the town of St Helens in Merseyside.  Everything about him looked and sounded like a local radio DJ from the 1970s.

Whilst the Plant Doctor and I were trying to organise our gameplan for the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy on Sunday, the would-be radio DJ insisted that he had no interest in watching the football, instead claiming that the true biggest match to take place at Wembley Stadium this year would be the rugby league Challenge Cup final featuring Castleford Tigers and St Helens the following weekend.  He was very proud of his hometown and enjoyed speaking about how much the rugby meant to the place, though I was having some difficulty participating in the conversation since the would-be radio DJ was extremely hard of hearing in his right ear, which of course was the side I was sitting at.  Whenever I tried asking him a question about St Helens or rugby league he would shake his head and say that he couldn’t hear me, before craning his neck and cupping his hand around his good ear, the bar light reflecting off the earring making it look like a tiny fish dangling from the end of a line. 

Most of all he recalled some of the many famous musical acts he had seen perform in the Liverpool area back in the day:  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie.  Bowie was his favourite, “a real showman.”  The night when he played the song Space Oddity was clearly one of those life events that a person doesn’t forget, similar to your wedding day or the birth of a child – or at least I would imagine it is.  The most memorable event in my life recently was the discovery that I could wear my brown shoes in wet weather without the risk of the leather having an unsightly appearance of melted treacle. 

When the would-be radio DJ returned from placing his second order of the night, he was followed by a barman who was carrying two pints of Caledonian Best.  Apparently this is what he does when he knows that he has almost had enough for the night – he buys his last two drinks together.  I didn’t understand it, especially when the table service in Aulay’s is so prompt.  Leaving one of your drinks to warm to room temperature is one way of ensuring that your pint of Best wouldn’t be at its…finest.  While he was working his way through his pints of dark beer, we learned that the man’s wife had passed away a few years ago, and ever since he has just been travelling around the country to keep his mind off it.  The Plant Doctor had met him on his last trip to Oban, but this was my first encounter, and I was wondering how costly it was going to be when he pulled his phone from his pocket in an act of drunken confession.  He swiped his way through some screens before holding the device out across the table to show us that he had been pinged by the NHS Track and Trace app as a close contact of a positive Covid case five days ago in whichever town he had last been to during his travels.  

It was interesting to see the screen, more as a novelty than anything else since I had never seen what happens when a person is pinged by the contact tracing app.  There was a timer that counted down the days, hours and minutes remaining in your ten-day period of self-isolation, like when you click one of those online quizzes asking you to name all the players who have scored in European Championships finals.  “I can’t self-isolate,” he told us.  “I’m on holiday.”  Somehow in the back of my mind I could almost hear the next words to follow:  “and playing now we have Night Fever by the Bee Gees.”

It wasn’t a conscious decision for me to play some David Bowie the following morning, he simply featured on the most appealing of Spotify’s Daily Mix playlists as I was plotting a shopping trip to Lidl before meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Roxy’s coffee shop.  Bowie had never captured me in the way that he had the would-be radio DJ, though I usually enjoyed what little of his back catalogue I had heard.  Absolute Beginners, the full-length eight-minute version, was the third song to play from the playlist, meaning that I had made my way around the store and had reached the self-service checkouts by the time the dramatic opening of the song kicked in.  I was immediately hooked.  

As I was scanning the items from my basket – a bottle of orange juice, a pack of four Greek yoghurts, a jar of pickled gherkins – I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.  The line “as long as we’re together the rest can go to hell/I absolutely love you/But we’re absolute beginners” slayed me.  I was on the verge of being a wreck as I made my contactless card payment of £22.36, and by the time I reached the exit I felt as though I could cry.  I was short of breath, my heart was racing and my eyes were welling up.  I loved the song, but I hated how it made me feel, and as I was striding towards the bedding plants in the foyer it was easy to see me collapsing face-first into the Sweet Peas.  Of all the things to have happened in my life, this would be the most difficult to explain.  Fortunately, I was able to make it beyond the Begonias and into the great wide open where I removed my mask like the most hapless of superheroes and everything was suddenly washed away.  It was hard to know why I was affected by the song in such a way, especially when my Last.fm account shows that I have listened to it a further 24 times since the incident and I’ve felt nothing but peaceful enjoyment.  On reflection, the only explanation for the intense reaction seems to be that it was a manifestation of my concern over the supermarket being out of stock of one-pint bottles of semi-skimmed milk thus forcing me into buying the blue-topped variety.  I don’t dislike whole milk, but I’ve never responded well to change.

In keeping with the strategy the Plant Doctor and I had agreed on, I arrived in Aulay’s early on Sunday to make sure that we could get a table for the Euro 2020 final later that night.  He is almost always the first one of us to get to the pub, and he disputed my ability to get us a table when it really mattered, which had me determined to prove him wrong.  It was a game that everyone was going to want to see, and when I arrived at 3.30 there was just one table left by the bar in the public side of the pub, although some opened up in the lounge later and we were able to move.  The Wimbledon tennis final was on TV, so it’s not like I was just drinking to pass the time.  Some guy at the back of the bar announced that day’s Covid numbers in the way of a typical pub discussion where sporting statistics are casually thrown around, like Novak Djokovic winning 79% of his first-serve points, or being successful in 20 out of his 30 Grand Slam final appearances.

It was shortly after the Plant Doctor turned up that we were able to find a seat in our favourite side of the bar, at a well-aired table at the rear of the lounge.  There was quite a haughty feeling from having a position by the door where we could watch people come in, knowing full well that they were going to be turned away.  Around the bar, a palpable nervous tension was rippling through the atmosphere in the hours before the game, entirely different to the buzz of excitement felt before Scotland played England a few weeks earlier.  People were genuinely worried that England might win the tournament.  When we were joined just before kick-off by two young women who had featured in a couple of our recent drunken adventures it was all we could do to lighten the mood by making a wager on the game.  Each of us offered our predictions of what the final score would be, with the winner being given the opportunity to buy a round of drinks of their choosing for the table; sort of picking everybody else’s poison.  When England scored after two minutes, all bets were off.

England were still leading 1-0 at half-time when our group grew in size with the addition of two characters who do the bidding of Her Majesty – a VAT man and a postman.  It was possibly the first time that I’d watched a game of football in their company and we were all rooting for the same team.  Eventually Italy pulled themselves back into the contest, and the final was decided by a penalty shootout, an outcome which didn’t do anything for anybody’s nerves.  I had never appreciated before how watching a penalty shootout is like listening to the David Bowie song Absolute Beginners for the first time.  Even when Italy won, it wasn’t something that any of us could really enjoy; it was more of a relief, like when you have made it past the Begonias and you can breathe again. 

A chiropractor and a carpet fitter walk into a bar

My single occupancy has what might best be described as a ‘lived in’ scent to it.  It isn’t bad or good, neither a stench nor a fragrance, it just exists.  The flat is a small one, four little rooms crammed together into a tight space like a block of Shredded Wheat, and a whiff in one room will soon spread to all the others.  In the morning the place smells of shower gel and Joop! Homme; by afternoon the fumes of passing traffic have wheezed in through the open bedroom window, and at night the dominant aroma comes from whatever I have prepared for dinner.  It is a classic Potpourri, though ironically I have always had a deep mistrust of actual Potpourri.

For a while, I liked to burn heaps of incense that I had bought in jars from a specialist bookstore in London until a friend asked me why my flat smelled like there was a funeral service being conducted.  It is the kind of thing that is difficult to forget about once you’ve heard it, and matters weren’t improved by my failed attempts at keeping houseplants alive over the years.  Other than experimenting with some scented candles that had been gifted to me during the original lockdown, I just learned to live with the ‘lived in’ bouquet around my flat.  It wasn’t something I ever spent much time thinking about, at least not until Lidl had an offer on reed diffusers recently.  I didn’t really know what a diffuser is or how one functions, but since there is still a lot of time to be spent sitting around at home with nothing better to do while most of the country is in Coronavirus protection level 1, I decided to buy a couple and figure them out for myself.

The diffuser isn’t very much to look at.  You wouldn’t make it the centrepiece of your living room, which is why I ended up hiding mine by the side of the television.  The diffuser I bought resembles something you might see on a table in a craft gin bar:   a small glass jar with a clear liquid filling it and eight wooden sticks which are poking through a gap in the silver lid like straws.   Apparently the sticks – or reeds – are porous and act to draw the fragrant oil out of the jar until it reaches the tip, where it evaporates into the air in my living room.  Even as I stared at the thing from across the room, I just couldn’t see how it would work; but it clearly is since now when I inhale during my yoga practices it is like crawling open-mouthed through a field of lavender.  Now I wonder if the cotton variety is going to give me an insight into how it is to be suffocated with a pillow.

Basking in the brand new essence of my living room, I got to thinking about how the diffuser hadn’t really transformed my life in the ways I was hoping.  I mean, sure, the place no longer smells of a funeral mass, nor even of exhaust fumes or that evening’s garlicky pasta dish, but it was hardly like baking a loaf of bread or learning how to play an instrument.  Other people seem to have made some real use of their time during these various lockdowns.  At least a dozen of my contacts across social media appear to have become committed Munro baggers.  My sister has taken the leap of starting her own business and is finally teaching fitness classes in person again.  While it is difficult to imagine that I would ever have bought a diffuser in ordinary times, there’s just no way of convincing anyone that unscrewing the lid of a jar and dropping eight reeds into some pungent liquid is any kind of achievement, even if I can now tell them about how the droplets evaporate in the air to create a pleasant smell.  I don’t feel guilty about it or consider it a waste of time, however.  Apart from the ongoing threat of a deadly airborne virus, my life feels as close to normal as it ever has been, which is to say that it is simply an ongoing succession of events taking place between Sunday and Thursday while I am waiting to go back to Aulay’s again, and that’s just the way I like it.

When I returned to Aulay’s, it had been a week since some guy had threatened to bite my nose off during the Scotland versus England Euro 2020 game, and since then Scotland had been eliminated from the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Croatia.  I had put the dispute to the back of my mind by the time the following Friday had come around, only to walk into the pub and find the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete sitting in the company of the big bearded bloke’s companion from that fateful night.  What were the chances?  This guy seemed a decent lad, though, and he confided in us that his friend had received a piece of bad news before the football started and that as a result his behaviour during it was out of character.  These things happen, I suppose, but really, it sounded as though you wouldn’t want to be around this guy when he receives a parking ticket or if the bin men refuse to uplift his recycling because a glass bottle has found its way into the wrong bin.

Oban was shrouded with mist on Thursday morning

Geordie Pete vanished like a benevolent spectre through the night shortly after some distant members of his family had been turned away from the bar on account of there being no tables, presumably to go in search of them for a drink elsewhere.  After a while, the older couple who were sitting at the table next to ours called it a night, and the Plant Doctor moved into their seat before it had a chance to cool.  He wanted to save the space for Geordie Pete and his family in the event that they all came back, but it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be returning.  It’s the same with everybody – there comes a time when you have to accept that a loved one has gone and they aren’t coming back.  So when the Plant Doctor saw that a couple of guys were being turned away because there were no available tables, he vacated the space he was reserving and ceded it to the men, who were thankful to have a place to drink.  The two of them were fantastically handsome; so strikingly good looking that I almost felt ashamed to even be sitting near them.  Even in the gloomy light of the bar, they appeared to have a sickeningly healthy glow about them.  You could just tell that their home didn’t smell of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning.

In time we learned that they were visiting Oban for the weekend from the Borders – one of the men is a chiropractor of Taiwanese origin from Galashiels, and the other owns a floor fitting business in Hawick.  They have been using the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to discover more of Scotland, which seemed like a good idea to me.  I became involved in a conversation with Hawick about the Common Riding festivities which take place through many of the Scottish Border towns during the summer months.  The Common Ridings commemorate a practice from the 13th and 14th centuries in which an appointed townsperson would go out on horseback and ride the town’s boundaries to protect against raids from the English or rival clans.  Each town has its own little traditions, and I found it fascinating, not only to hear about how drunk people would get but also about the pageantry and colour of it all.

Meanwhile, across the table, I could hear as the Plant Doctor asked Galashiels how the two men had met.  It was a bold question, I thought, but not an unreasonable assumption.  Galashiels looked ready to respond with what was sure to be a powerful and romantic anecdote recounting the events leading to this handsome coupling when the perfect joke occurred to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting.  

“Let me guess!  Galashiels had an accident at work and asked Hawick to help him hide the body under the floorboards?”  

They both smiled, but it was a smile I recognised well; an uncomfortable sort of smile.   It was obvious that neither of them knew what to say to that.  Why is it that I can’t help myself from saying stupid things when I’m around beautiful people?  Galashiels later asked the Plant Doctor when it was that he first realised that he is gay, and he seemed surprised when the answer was that the Plant Doctor isn’t gay.  It could even have been disappointment.  Had the two men been under the impression for the entire time that we were talking that the Plant Doctor and I are a couple?  And if we were viewing Hawick and Galashiels as this magnificently handsome pairing, then how were they seeing us?  This is what happens when the Plant Doctor decides to wear a shirt as opposed to his usual holey t-shirts.

While cases of Covid continued to rise in Argyll like in the rest of Scotland, including the Borders, people around Oban were becoming concerned about the numbers.  As is usually the way in a small town, stories of the virus were spreading faster than the actual illness, and by the end of last week people were talking about there being hundreds of cases in Oban when the true figure was less than 40, which was still higher than we had maybe ever seen.  These things get whipped up quite quickly here.  After hearing of a couple of positive cases from some of the pubs I decided that it would be a good idea to get myself tested, as a precaution more than anything else.  Although I felt perfectly healthy after a Monday morning session of yoga during which I inhaled yet more evaporated droplets of lavender, by the time I was booking a PCR test online I was overwhelmed with dread.  Even though I didn’t feel sick or have any reason to believe that I was, I felt as though I could be.

The Covid test site at Mossfield Stadium car park effectively amounts to a series of tents.  This was the same place that I went to the shows as a child, where I would ride on the dodgems and eat pink candyfloss, but you wouldn’t have known it from looking at it now.  After you have had your appointment QR code scanned by a man who is shielded behind a plastic screen you have to sanitise your hands, and you practically sanitise them after every little thing you do while you’re in the various tents.  I was guided through the testing process by a friend who I had once described as being amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s, and while we had since joked about the remark, it was hard to escape the suspicion that he was quite enjoying this.  First you are handed an envelope which you open and are asked to carefully place the contents on the table in front of you.  Inside there was a swab, a test tube, a small plastic bag for rubbish, and a tissue.  Looking at them laid out before me was as though I had just been caught shoplifting from Boots and was being forced to own up to my crime.

You hold the cotton swab against your tonsils for ten seconds, which you have to count out in your head yourself, before being instructed to place it up your nostril “until you experience some slight resistance.”  I found that phrase incredible since ordinarily, the resistance comes before I even think of sticking something up my nose, but I suppose I should have considered it generous that I was at least offered the option of which nostril the swab went in.  After all that is done, you put the swab into the test tube, which has some kind of medical solution in it that didn’t look unlike the oil in my diffuser, and then seal it up in a bag.  I could scarcely believe that my life had brought me to this.

My nose was sensitive for hours after the test, and it was difficult to stop thinking about what would happen if the result came back positive, even if it was the most confident I was feeling about a test since my Higher Modern Studies exam.  I received the result by text message at eight o’clock the following morning, right after I had done my yoga.  My heart was racing when I heard my phone ping from the next room.  This was when I realised how bad an idea the message preview notification on the home screen of your phone is.  The words stopped right before the part of the message where it told me the outcome.  I felt a wreck having to open up my phone to get into my messages just to find out that I don’t have coronavirus.  The rest of the text is pretty bland, advising you that you should still wash your hands, adhere to social distancing, and wear a mask; all the things we’ve become accustomed to doing over the last sixteen months.  Would it have killed them to put a wee ‘congratulations’ in there, or even a ‘thank you for doing your bit to help protect society’?

I was given two boxes of seven lateral flow testing kits from the centre, and I’ve been testing myself fairly frequently since.  Not necessarily out of any worry that I could have the virus, but I figured that if I have the things then I might as well use them, similar to the attitude I have towards the jars of dried oregano or thyme I keep in the cupboard.  I quite like having that peace of mind before I go to the pub on a Friday or visit my dad, though there’s something that doesn’t sit right about poking a swab around my nose in the same space in my kitchen where I cut onions and prepare bowls of overnight oats.  It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when I don’t feel uncomfortable conducting one of these tests, or anxious as I wait 30 minutes for the result to show, but I suppose that it is just another of these things that we’re going to have to get used to in life, like a ‘lived in’ smell or a stupid joke made in the company of a beautiful person.