That a man will attract some interesting looks when he walks into the bar holding a fern is just one of the lessons I learned on the recent occasion of my 39th birthday. Of course, it isn’t every day that a man appears in Aulay’s carrying a leafy houseplant in his hand, but the eyeballing me and my fern took was something else, as though I was drunk driving into a handicapped space. Sure, the scene had an element of farce to it, with me trying to navigate the busy bar to find a spot where I could rest my large birthday gift that wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s view of the football, but you’d think that people had never seen a 39-year-old man lovingly cradle a fern the way some of them were acting. Maybe it was when I sat the ceramic pot down on the end of the bar and one of the leaves made a beeline for a glass of vodka and coke that things threatened to take a turn. Eventually, it was decided that on the floor by the coat rack was the best place to store a fern until closing time.
On the face of it, the fern was a thoughtful present from my friends, but it felt like a cruel joke. The fact that I can never keep a houseplant alive is almost as notorious as my ability to kill a flourishing interaction with the opposite sex. All they had done was pass down a sentence on an innocent plant. Some might say that by thirty-nine a man ought to be capable of showing some form of responsibility, and my friends clearly felt that I had a better chance of that with a fern than a female, but I wasn’t convinced.
A Tuesday afternoon is not my usual slot for getting my hair cut, though sometimes the head has to rule the heart and you are forced into breaking some habits. My hair had grown into an unruly state that needed tending to before we went out for my birthday dinner in the evening, even if it was at the expense of the barber’s projected Saturday takings. There’s always a fantastic story when you get into the barber’s chair, no matter what day of the week it is. This time he told me about his recent holiday in Italy, which has resulted in an ongoing dispute with a popular package holiday operator. In an effort to raise awareness of his struggle and to force the agent into refunding him the money he feels he is due, the barber is in the process of using the GoPro footage from his travels to produce a protest vlog of sorts. It sounded extravagant, the means he was going to when most folk would simply fill in a form. I wasn’t sure about it. Something about the idea of a video blog made me uncomfortable. What is it with people having the need to put every aspect of their lives online?
The responsibility for organising the night out in celebration of my 39th birthday was taken into the hands of The Algaeman and the only person who I have ever seen pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern. As far as I understand it, the sole condition they attached to their guest list, aside from that they would be our usual circle of friends, was that the invitees should be female. Therefore it seemed pretty damning that the only women they could convince to join us for dinner were my sister and niece. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t thrilled to see them. Everybody had a great time, and I could tell that my niece especially enjoyed having a larger than usual audience to play to. She would wander between us like a trick-or-treater, performing for the gallery and seeking a response. Her favourite game on this occasion was to unclip the gold chain from her purse and show us all how it could wriggle between her hands like a worm. It was the sort of act that had endless amusement for a six-year-old, but for the rest of us, there was a limited shelf-life. I foolishly suggested that, since the chain had clips at either end, it could be used to curate a pair of handcuffs. Little did I realise that my niece would heartily take my advice. With a relish I have seldom seen in anyone so young, she untangled the web of golden worms and wrapped the chain around my wrists, clasping it shut at either end. As a jailer, she had done a pretty lousy job and my hands would still have been free if I wanted them to be, but there’s an unwritten understanding that you play along with these things. I wrestled and struggled and proclaimed my innocence against the crimes I had been convicted of. Then the waitress appeared with plates filled with pizza and pasta, and I sensed a way out of my predicament. She placed a “Rio” before me – a pizza topped with all of the meats you can imagine – and I took my chance.
“Would you happen to have the keys for these?” I pleaded, holding my bound wrists up in the air.
“No.” The response was blunt. Not only was the rest of our food served by a much older and definitely more masculine employee, but we didn’t see the waitress anywhere for the rest of the night. There was a part of me that was feeling guilty for making the handcuff remark. Amongst our table, we imagined her fleeing to the city of Glasgow and beyond upon hearing my line, quitting her job and everything. I felt terrible about it. There will never be any way of us knowing why her shift ended at that exact moment, but much like with all of the games my niece will play, it is easy to join the dots. Perhaps there is a lesson there about the jokes you can attempt when you are 39.
Outside Bar Rio, on our way to Aulay’s to watch Celtic play RB Leipzig in the Champions League, the gang presented me with my fern. I cannot think of an instance where I have felt both so touched and terrified at the same time. I have been gifted a houseplant in the past, but that was a succulent which didn’t require much care or attention – and still it died within months of being introduced to the environment of my home. The fern was different. It was big, easily the size of a newborn baby, and a living, breathing being. While it was nice that my friends trusted that I would be capable of looking after something so green, it has to be remembered that most of them are scientists who have been trained to consider the chance that all outcomes are possible, no matter how unlikely. If there is a 98% probability of a houseplant dying within four months of falling under my guardianship, they’re going to look at the 2% prospect of it living for a year.
As far as the likely outcome of certain events goes, the Algaeman’s decision to drink his first-ever (and consequently second) cocktail was as predictable as the fate of my fern; a joke made to a waitress; a Celtic game in the Champions League. When he first joined our group early in 2022, the Algaeman had a fresh-faced innocence about him. He used to boast about how he had never experienced a hangover, though by summer that claim was flushed down the toilet when he arrived at work one Saturday resembling Linda Blair’s character in the Exorcist movie, only without the Satanic chanting. We all knew how a dalliance with Passion Fruit Martini and a Strawberry Daiquiri would go, but sometimes you have to put your belief in that 2% chance. Of course, on this occasion, the overwhelming odds proved to be correct once again, and the Algaeman was asleep on the table before half-time.
The thing about youth is that these setbacks are quickly brushed off as if they had never happened, and within minutes the Algaeman was leading a further presentation of birthday spoils. A chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” barely rippled beyond our table as the group lit a ceremonial Colin the Caterpillar candle and stuck it into the flesh of a half-ripe mango. It was a beautiful homage to the night a few of us were served a platter of sliced mango in the public bar, still the best time we have had in Aulay’s. Next, I was presented with a copy of the book Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which was another callback to a historic episode in the bar. Inside, the paperback cover was signed by all of the people with whom I spend the majority of my time: the bar staff in Aulay’s.
It wasn’t long after Celtic’s inevitable defeat that the jukebox was switched on and we could get down to business. If there’s one thing we do well as a group, it is feeding pound coins into the jukey. On the face of it, it seems an easy thing to do, but there is almost an art to playing the right song. It would be easy to revert to your favourite Ryan Adams track or to request No Pussy Blues by Grinderman on repeat, but in a pub full of people who don’t share your taste in music that can quickly come across as obnoxious. Not many folks can balance this quite as well as our own jukebox Romeo, who has an uncanny knack for pulling out the most obscure and yet perfectly-timed tracks, mainly from the nineties. Jimmy Nail, George Michael, Coolio, Limp Bizkit, Backstreet Boys. On this occasion, it was another boy band, Blue with their hit One Love. I’ve often longed to have the command of the jukebox that he possesses. His unflinching ability to find the ideal mood music on the touch screen has earned him the nickname Dirty Finger. He’s the Bond villain that you find yourself rooting for.
While I was busy keeping an eye on my fern by the coat rack and Dirty Finger was slipping silver into the slot of the jukebox, the Plant Doctor became engaged in conversation with a man who was wearing the green jersey of the South Africa national rugby team. The guy was only passing through Oban for a couple of nights and had a keen interest in science, which made it easy to see why he was so eager to talk to a group of blokes who are in the field. Since he invariably became part of of my birthday night, we asked him to sign the inside of my book, where his signature took up almost the entirety of the back cover. He even used the loose leaf on the other side of the last page to write down his email address.
Perhaps with hindsight and the benefit of my 39 years of experience, I should have known that there was more to Randy Ron when he began talking to us about how all women are nothing more than succubus who are only interested in sucking the souls from men. “Domineering soulsuckers” is the phrase I believe he used. It’s the sort of thing that someone says and it sticks in your head for days afterwards, particularly in this instance where it’s clear that if all women are looking for is another soul to harvest, I am wasting my time making stupid jokes about handcuffs. The pieces really fell into place when we were all going our separate ways at the end of the night. I gathered my fern and was left alone with Ron, who was hoping for an after-party. I explained to him that I was working in the morning, so I walked him to the taxi rank, where he was seeking a ride to a destination in town he wasn’t familiar with.
“Can you tell me how I get here?” He asked, handing me his phone, which was open on a text message he had received from a guy who had provided him with an address, followed later by the information: “I’ve just gone to bed but the door is open.”
When we all reconvened in Aulay’s on Friday night, a handful of days older than 39, the rest of the gang was curious to know how I had gotten on with Ron and if I had been able to “shake him off.” It was an odd question when I hadn’t thought of him as being a nuisance in any way.
“He seemed to have taken a shine to you,” they said. “He even asked Dirty Finger if he would mind him going home with you.” I was shocked, and more than a little annoyed. I mean, here’s this guy who was presumably attracted to me, yet he’s arranging a rendez-vous with somebody else the entire time. Of all the lessons I learned during the week of my 39th birthday, discovering that I can’t even be hit on by a guy was the harshest. If it’s true what they say about life beginning at forty, then I have finally entered the embryonic phase of my existence. If I am on the cusp of a period in my life filled with new and exciting experiences, I’m not saying that I want any of them to be with gay men, but it would be nice if they could at least hit on me right.
I will be reading excerpts from my notebook at Let’s Make A Scene at the Corran Halls, Oban on Saturday 29 October. The link is below if anyone feels like checking it out.