The fine art of Valentine’s week

In my time as a single occupant, I have found a variety of ways of spending Valentine’s Day.  Over the years, the date in the calendar set aside for celebrating the patron saint of beekeepers, plague, and epileptics has seen me dining alone on a frozen lasagne, drinking at the bar, loaning books from the library, and listening to Everybody Hurts play in the waiting room of Specsavers.  For most people, the fourteenth of February is the most romantic day of the year.  For me, it is just Tuesday.  

This year I was determined to do Valentine’s differently.  In many ways, I had no choice.  My current mortgage deal is due to expire at the end of the month and needs to be renewed, a task I had been ignoring for several months after the UK government sent the economy into a tailspin with a catastrophic mini-budget just days before I received the letter from my bank reminding me that I would need to arrange a new mortgage before 28 February.  I waited until after dinner before getting down to the job at hand.  After all, I assume that is when most of the hot action happens on a Valentine’s night.

My mobile banking app advised me that the entire process of renewing a mortgage can be completed online, which while convenient seemed terrifying to me.  The idea that the next few years of my life could be determined with a few swipes, in the same manner as ordering drinks from the app in Wetherspoons or playing a game of Candy Crush, is absurd.  Yet there I was, scrolling through the numbers of deal after deal whilst listening to a podcast about the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It hardly felt real considering how important a thing it was, and after no more than ten minutes I had agreed to a new mortgage.  Ultimately, all I truly took from the night is that the Royal Bank of Scotland’s 4.34% is the greatest amount of interest I have seen on Valentine’s Day in a long time.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I would likely have felt depressed about the absence of romance from yet another Tuesday, but I know better than that these days. I think that I’ve seen enough from other people to understand that being in love is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. As ever, this realisation came over a pint of lager in the pub. It was around a week before I renewed my mortgage when I was in the Oban Inn with Geordie Dave and the Nut Tax Man that I saw how fragile the act of celebrating a date with grand romantic gestures can really be. The bar was quiet for a Friday night and we were easily able to get a table in a prime location. We were approached by the bloke who was sitting by himself at the long table in the middle of the pub. He was dressed in a thick navy checked shirt and a deerstalker hat and had thin yellow tufts of hair on his face, similar to the balls of fluff a kid might stick to an Easter bonnet.

His glass was left behind on the table as he gestured towards us asking if we would watch his drink while he stepped outside for a cigarette.  These sorts of requests are always difficult to refuse when you are sitting directly in the eye-line of the item concerned, even if you’re the sort of person who obsesses over these minor details and worries that it’s all a ruse and the owner will never return.  To add to that, the would-be huntsman picked up two plastic bags of shopping from under his table and placed them next to ours.  As a reward, he invited us to help ourselves to the packets of crisps he had at the top of one of the bags.  It was a pretty foolish offer to make to three guys who had been out drinking all night, for his entire haul of savoury snacks was quickly devoured.  It struck me as unusual that someone would buy several single packets of crisps instead of a multipack, especially when he also had a couple of six-pack cases of sparkling water.

When he returned inside from smoking his cigarette, the crisp-sharing stranger joined us at our table, where we were able to learn more about what makes a man who buys single packets of crisps tick.  We discovered that he was visiting Oban for the weekend with his girlfriend to celebrate their first anniversary.  They had met at a karaoke night in a pub in Dumbarton, though he couldn’t remember which song either of them performed, which seemed a key piece of information in the story.  For their first date, they went to a Wetherspoons pub in Glasgow city centre before going for dinner.  The experience was too much for our new companion.

“I’ve never seen so many people in one place,” he told us.  “There were more people in there than there are in the town I come from.”

Following drinks in the crowded bar, the dating duo ventured forth to their dining destination.  The fella told us that they went to a fancy restaurant, which naturally led us to ask which one.  “I don’t remember the name,” he said, “but my girlfriend is vegetarian…so it was probably Italian.”

What brought me to recognise the frailty of celebrating a significant date such as a first anniversary or Valentine’s Day was the fact that this guy was spending his evening with a trio of unknowns and not with his partner, who we were told had found the bed in the couple’s hotel room so comfortable that she wanted to stay there, insisting that he go out by himself instead.  Although the couple would have an entire Saturday together in Oban and the guy was masking any disappointment he might have been feeling very well, the first night of his anniversary weekend away can’t have been any more memorable than spending Valentine’s evening renewing your mortgage.

When I’m not organising my household finances, one of my favourite pastimes is seeing live music.  On the fifteenth of February, I took the train to Glasgow to see one of my favourite artists, Jesse Malin, perform a concert to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of his debut album The Fine Art of Self Destruction.  I’ve been listening to that record since at least 2004 and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Jesse play live.  It has to be upwards of 20.  This time I went to the show with my Glasgow gig buddy Laura, which usually means that things are not going to be entirely straightforward; and so it proved to be the case.  We never meet up with the intention of the night going awry, but there’s an implied inevitability about it when you’re introducing Jagerbombs to the mix at tea time on a Wednesday.  You should never act surprised if you release a fox into a chicken coup and suddenly find that your feather allergy is playing up.

Before we met for the fateful pre-gig drinks, I made a solo pilgrimage to the Thundercat Pub and Diner on Miller Street. The place was recommended to me by friends for its Chicago-style deep dish pizza pies and American staples, and it was all I could think about for days before I finally made it there. When you walk down the short stairway into the restaurant, you are met with bright neon lights and smooth soul music. It feels like walking into every roadside diner you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. I was led to an open table on a raised platform that must have had me looking like the worst centrepiece on a Christmas dinner table. As someone who has dined alone in enough establishments to know, it’s becoming clear to me that it must be an unwritten rule of hospitality that solo diners are situated in the spot that will draw the most attention to our plight.

I already knew what I wanted to eat from my days of salivating over the prospect, though looking over the menu again had me second-guessing myself.  It’s times like these when I wish I had a second stomach and another bank account.  I stuck with my gut instinct and ordered a deep dish pizza with black pudding and chorizo topping.  When the pizza arrived at my table it became abundantly clear why they are described on the menu as being “designed to share”, because the base was as thick as my fist.  By the time my enormous portion of food was delivered, the previously vacant table adjacent to mine had been filled by two young women.  It’s ridiculous how often this happens when I am about to tuck into some messy finger food.  What must they have made of the sight of a pizza the size of a small island nation being carried to my table as I sat there with a pint and a half of Brooklyn Lager in front of me is anybody’s guess.

As soon as I began to slice the pie with the pizza cutter, thick blobs of tomato sauce went squirting all over the place.  My table was starting to resemble a crime scene, and I was certain to be caught red-handed.  I picked up a slice of the pizza, which I imagined was almost as heavy as a newborn baby, and brought it to my mouth.  Wiry strands of mozzarella cheese dangled from the roughly-cut edges, while a couple of cubes of chorizo leapt towards the wooden board below for temporary safety.  Meantime, the two ladies at the next table were discussing booking a holiday to Croatia in September when the temperature hopefully shouldn’t be as hot, though it might depend on what Beth says since she is already going to Tenerife during the summer.  I couldn’t bring myself to look in their direction the entire time I was there.

It must have taken me twice the length of time it usually would to waddle down Argyle Street to The Solid Rock Cafe where I met my gig-going companion.  I felt bad about leaving behind a slice of pizza, but just couldn’t get through it all, and I was beginning to worry that my antics were disturbing the other patrons.  Laura and I have always met in the Solid.  I’m not sure how that started since I’m not your archetypal heavy metal guy, but I believe at one point they used to play some Gaslight Anthem on their rotation.  I was into my second beer and standing at the bar amongst a sea of black leather jackets and Iron Maiden t-shirts when she arrived with two of her classmates from college.  At the time, I couldn’t fathom how she was able to pick me out from the crowd so easily, but on reflection, I was probably the only person to have ever drunk in Solid Rock dressed in corduroy.

The four of us went downstairs to find a space to sit by the snooker table at the rear of the bar. What caught our eye more than anything down there was the carpet that they had covering half of the floor. It was a deep blue shade of tartan and looked like it belonged in a museum rather than a heavy metal bar – either on the floor or as part of an exhibit of things that went out of fashion in the 1980s. The Solid Rock seems like the least likely place in Glasgow to find a carpeted pub, purely on account of it being the bar I would most expect to see a drink spilt in. I don’t know if any of this contributed to our decision to start taking shots at an hour when most people are eating dinner, but before long there were glasses of Jagermeister and Sambuca alongside our pints of lager and cider. I can’t stomach the sight of Sambuca at the best of times, and it wasn’t any better here. Laura’s friend is Slovakian and had recently been offered a modelling opportunity in Manchester, despite in her words having the body but not the face for it. She used to only drink vodka until her new boyfriend introduced her to Sambuca. “I fell in love with him and Sambuca,” she told me, which was enough to give me two reasons not to like the guy.

Our other companion was also downing shots of Sambuca as well as pints of dark fruits cider.  He had vowed to only go out for one drink after work, but he’s young and isn’t to know about the inevitability of having a drink with Laura and me.  After numerous rounds, the young man disappeared to the bathroom for a while.  We were alerted by someone leaving the men’s room that the guy seemed to be having some trouble in there, and being the only other male at the table it was left to me to find out what was going on.  I tentatively walked into the toilet to find our friend locked in the cubicle.  The floor resembled the sewer scene in Ghostbusters 2, with a river of pink cider and Sambuca-infused slime trailing across the tiles to the stall.  From behind the closed door he assured me that he was alright, and sure enough, he returned to the table a few minutes later as if nothing had ever happened, with the sort of swagger that a person usually has when they’re debuting a slick new outfit.

It could hardly have been eight o’clock by the time things started to unravel. Soon the Slovakian sparked up a cigarette at the table, which somehow went undetected by the barmaid who came over to clear the empty glasses from around us. We had earlier predicted that Jesse Malin would be taking to the stage at around nine and so agreed it would be a good idea to be at Stereo by then. As the hour approached, we still had nearly full pints in front of us, so the ladies simply put the glasses inside their jackets before we walked out. We walked up Hope Street necking pints of Budweiser, and it came as no surprise when we arrived at the venue to have the gentleman who checked our tickets inform us that Jesse Malin had been playing since 8:15 and we’d missed half of the gig.

My time in Glasgow wasn’t all shots and slices.  Before I’d even made it to Stereo to hear the back half of The Fine Art of Self Destruction I had been matched with two women on Tinder and another on the Bumble dating app.  It was an unprecedented level of interest which had me considering how different my romantic life would be if I lived in the city.  For better or worse, I felt that honesty was the best policy, so I messaged each of the women and told them that I was only in Glasgow for the night and actually live in Oban, adding that Oban “is not a million miles away (it’s only 93.)”  The two Tinder women unmatched me immediately, but the lass on Bumble was unperturbed.  We continued chatting for much of the night when I returned to my hotel room after the pubs closed, and things seemed to be going well.  She had U2 listed among her favourite bands on her profile, and our conversation was littered with laughing emojis from her side.  It was beginning to feel like she could be the one.  I learned that she plays the guitar, and her favourite song to play is Stay (Faraway, So Close!) by U2.  It is a fantastic love song.  Despite this, she hasn’t practised the track in a long time, leading me to comment:  “It sounds as though you’re an Edge without a Bono.”  My match told me that it was one of the best dating analogies she had ever heard, and she even went as far as to agree to come with me to my next gig in Glasgow in March.  Our interaction had slowed by the time I was back in Oban the next day, though, and by the end of the week we were like a couple celebrating their anniversary weekend away.  Although I might not be one for commemorating a significant date such as Valentine’s Day, I’m beginning to think that I might buy myself a card if a woman ever talks to me for any longer than a week.

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The final cut

I first noticed it on Thursday following the first Lorne Bar quiz of the year.  I was sitting on the end of my yoga mat putting my socks back on and looking every bit as limp as the fern on the coffee table to my right.  Because it had been more than four weeks since I last took part in a pub quiz, I had just about forgotten how much of a struggle the hangover can turn the next day into.  Often I would forgo my daily yoga practice on account of it, persuading myself that I was ‘too tired’ for a 30-minute exercise.  My intention, if not my resolution, is to get better at sticking to my movement routine – mostly because I have found that days with yoga are much nicer than days without yoga, and the hangovers last longer without the mindfulness of half an hour on the mat.  Effectively, I am trying to get in touch with my inner peace rather than my inner pissed.

My socks were coral pink and still a little damp from the rain, which forced me to immediately change out of them. Whilst peeling the socks from my feet again, I caught the distinctive whiff of smoke passing my nostrils.  It was a peculiar thing to smell in my living room.  While I could feel the burn from my side planks and tree poses, I knew that they weren’t sizzling that much.  In the hallway, the aroma was so pungent that it could have been coming from inside my flat.  For a moment, I was forced to convince myself that I hadn’t started smoking again.  It was only a few beers after the quiz I kept telling myself, like it was a meditative mantra.  Minds were only put at ease once I opened the door to my flat and found that the entire close smelled like a Marlboro production plant.

Usually the scent of cigarette smoke is inoffensive to me.  In many ways, it is the thing I miss most about being a part-time smoker.  The rest of the habit I found to be pretty disgusting and ultimately pointless, but I really enjoyed the smell of tobacco on my fingers – especially the morning after a night out.  I could have lain in bed for hours savouring the space between my index and middle fingers.  Sometimes it seemed a real pity to have to shower and lose everything that I had worked so hard for hours before.  These days I find myself walking behind people on the street who are smoking and positioning myself in their slipstream, waiting to catch a puff of that sweet second-hand cigarette smoke, only to get a mouthful of wet melon or cotton candy.  It is often tempting to wish for the vapers to walk into traffic.

In truth, my understanding of the physics of cigarette smoke is as paltry as the next person’s. I don’t know why the fragrance is so strong in my flat. There have been smokers living in the block before, but never anything like this. Considering that there was not a hint of smoke before I took to the floor for my yoga practice, it was remarkable that it would be so pungent less than thirty minutes later. They had to have blown through an entire packet of the things to create this much of a stink. You never get a neighbour’s batch of freshly baked bread or a homemade curry wafting under the door, at least not on Combie Street. What’s all the more difficult to comprehend is how the smell can be so overpowering in the living room and the hallway and for there to be no trace of it in the kitchen or the bathroom, the two rooms that have windows looking onto the garden. I also can’t smell it in the bedroom, but then nothing has ever been smoking in there.

I purchased a pre-owned copy of a book which has a warm birthday greeting for Margaret. I think this now makes me Margaret.

If there was one positive to come from the unseemly smoke saga it is that it at least served to take my mind off the other matter which has threatened to consume the early part of my 2023.  At the tail end of last year, my barber announced that his wife had accepted a new job in Dundee and the couple would be moving there in February, therefore closing the barber shop that he had opened in its current location more than thirty years ago.  The news was swirling around my head like a cloud of nicotine.  Some days it was all I could think about.  Apart from the few years in late childhood and early teens when most boys seemed to get their hair cut at home, I have always gone to the same barber.  It isn’t that he necessarily snips sideburns better than anybody else in town, that his scalpside manner is more entertaining, or that he keeps the best selection of newspapers for people to read while they’re waiting.  Visiting the same barber for a lifetime is one of those things that men seem to do, the same way that we use only one butcher, trust the same tailor, or call on the same electrician.  Mostly it is through laziness dressed up in the guise of “ach, he’s always done that for me.”

Throughout my adult life, I have never had to think about where I would get my next haircut.  The laziness that I inherited from being born a male means that there has only ever been one person I could entrust with that job.  Now my entire world has been blown up, it feels as though everything is all over the place, like my hair after a walk along the Esplanade on a February morning.  I don’t know where to begin looking for someone to cut my hair.  It’s not as if there can be an audition process – once a haircut has been fucked up, you’re forced to live with it until the next one.  Apart from anything else, Oban these days seems to be suffering a dearth of traditional barbershops.  There are plenty of hair salons and Turkish barbers, but very few old-school barbers.  One of the guys who we play football with on a Monday night is a Kurd who works for one of the many Turkish barbers in town and I have considered taking my short back and sides to him, but I worry that it is enough being skinned by him on the football pitch without being skinned in the style that Turkish barbers are known for.

I went for my final cut on the morning of the latest Let’s Make A Scene open mic night, where I read a piece concerning the storage of my herbs and spices that sparked an intense discussion around the room.  When I arrived in the barbershop on Saturday morning, there was already a student in the chair who had enough hair to help his secret lover scale a tower.  I worried that I might miss our family’s weekly coffee at eleven, but to my relief, the young man was only in for a minor procedure.  Taking my seat in the barber’s chair for the last time was a curious feeling.  It was tempting to ask about getting a little more taken off to make up for the barber’s imminent departure, and were it not for genetics giving me a sparse head of hair as it is I probably would have.  

Although this was definitely different to any other time I have been in the barber’s over the years, it was also exactly the same as always. As the sound of the clippers began to buzz around my ears like a determined bee, the barber told me about how he had recently entered into an eBay auction for an antique guitar. He was mostly just curious to see how much the vintage instrument would sell for, but as things developed his bid ended up being the winning one. I don’t remember how much he told me he paid for the guitar, which he believed he could sell for a profit in a few months anyway, but I know that I was suddenly thinking that £10 for a haircut doesn’t seem so outrageous after all.

While the barber was initially sceptical about his and his wife’s move to Dundee, he has recently found himself warming to the new life ahead of them.  He is seeing it as his retirement and is planning on hanging up his scissors and working a small part-time job to allow him to pay for things like antique guitars.  “I won’t even be telling people that I used to cut hair for a living,” he told me in a way that made it sound as though he is going on witness protection.  

“If anybody asks what I did in Oban, I’ll tell them that I used to work in the distillery rolling barrels.  Nobody asks any more questions after telling them that.”  This has always been one of his favourite things to say.  You usually hear him bring it out when he’s about to go on holiday to Italy or Spain.  I’ve never fully understood why being a barber is something that he feels the need to be so secretive about, but I believe that it’s out of a fear that once people know that you can cut hair, they will start asking you if you can do them.  Before you know it, you have a queue of folk looking to have their hair cut.  I’m not convinced that’s the way it works.  You might be on the flight to your sunny destination when another passenger takes unwell and the cabin crew ask if anyone on board is a doctor, but you never hear emergency requests for a hairstylist. 

I don’t know if I’ll find another barber in town who has the same turn of phrase and the ability to turn a haircut into an adventure down all sorts of rabbit holes.  The last hair was snipped on the back of my head, and the barber asked me to put my glasses back on and review his handiwork.  This always struck me as the most awkward part of the haircut process.  There isn’t a lot anyone can do about a terrible haircut when the hairs are on the floor of the barbershop.  Like asking how a meal was after it has been digested, or if a demolition job was suitable when you’re standing amongst the rubble.  I said that I was happy with the haircut, and the barber handed me a tissue, which I presumed was for dabbing the stray hairs from the back of my neck and not the anticipated tears from my cheek.  When I left, I was walking into a world of uncertainty, a place that wasn’t the same as it was twenty minutes before.  For the first time, I was a man without a barber or any idea where my next haircut would come from.  It was unnerving, no different to coming up from a downward dog and finding the scent of cigarette smoke in your living room.