Time after time

Over the years I have gradually come to accept that after every success I enjoy there follows a myriad of small defeats.  If it wasn’t bad enough that I woke up on Monday morning to find that my street had been affected by a power cut, meaning that I wasn’t able to shower or iron a shirt, the loss of electricity also meant that many of the clocks in my flat needed to be reset once the power had eventually been restored.  

There were a few moments of blissful ignorance on that dark morning when my eyes peeled open not to be met by the street light forcing its way through the bedroom curtains, or by the glaring display of the alarm clock on the bedside table, but instead by nothing.  There was something calming about the emptiness of it all.  Ignorance was soon displaced by confusion, and then swiftly by despair when I reached for the switch on the bedside lamp and it failed to shine any light on my predicament.  I was lying in bed running through my morning routine in my head, and how it would all be ruined by the lack of energy.  If the lights can’t even be bothered to do anything then why should I, was my thinking.  I accepted that I would be forced to trim my stubble in near darkness.  Next I would ordinarily shower, but as my shower was electric that would be out of the question, so I was weighing up the twin options of not making any effort at all or using my shower gel to wash at the bathroom sink, and which of those would carry the least ignominy.  I decided that it would be better to wash, reasoning that at least a sleeveless sweater vest would hide most of an unironed shirt, but nothing could distract from a complete absence of personal hygiene.

For the better part of a year I had been training myself how to live in an environment where there seemed to be no fewer than three different time zones in operation.  It never seems to matter what you do with the clocks in the place where you are living; there is always one which moves at a different pace to the others, similar to how shoelaces operate when there is always one end of the lace which is longer than the other when you go to tie them in the morning.  

I had been tormented by this particular difficulty on the left foot of my pair of black brogues for several weeks.  It almost seemed as though the right half of the laces was an Australian redback spider, the female of which is known to eat its mate in order to strengthen itself and its offspring, and it had successfully overwhelmed most of the left half.  By the Thursday following the power cut, the length of the right lace was so great that I had no option but to pull the whole thing out and start again.  As I was threading the shoelace through the last eyelet, pulling it tightly to secure the laces in their place of newly equal length, the thread snapped right off in my hand.  I couldn’t help but think that this would never have happened to the Australian redback spider.

Although the system of clocks in my flat was complex and delicately balanced, it was only ever confusing to visitors, not least when the clock in my bedroom was an hour fast in the few months before British Summer Time officially arrived.  I, on the other hand, had come to learn that if the digital display on the coffee machine in the kitchen was reading 8:26am, and the alarm clock in the bedroom was showing 9:30am, then the brass clock on top of the mantelpiece and the watch on my wrist would be telling me that it was around 8:33am – give or take a second or so – which would be broadly similar to the time on my iPhone, which everybody knows is the international standard for time.  I had a system that worked for me.  By the time the electricity supply had been restored in the evening, I had no idea what time it was.

The defeat of the morning I couldn’t shower and iron a shirt or the disruption of my carefully managed arrangement of time was not the cause of the first anxiety attack I had suffered in a while, nor were the more minor defeats of making a gravy that was much too thick for the mince I had cooked for dinner one night or the day I bought a bottle of mayonnaise to replace the one which was running empty in the fridge, only to arrive home and discover that I had already purchased one and it was sitting in the condiment cupboard.  I looked back a year in my notebooks and realised that it had been a year to the week since I had the first anxiety attack I was aware of and I wondered if this was just a reflex, the way parents become sentimental when the first birthday of their child is approaching.  After all, I had been feeling reasonably content about things following my day in Edinburgh and the triumph I had recently experienced at the primary seven quiz night.  A year earlier I could at least explain why I was feeling the way I was, but like my notes which have been handwritten after eight pints, this one was more difficult to understand.

The islands of Lismore and Mull were consumed by mist one June morning

As one day stumbled into another, the sense of anxiety had me feeling like the left side of my shoelace or the distant islands of Lismore and Mull which had been consumed by mist on a still morning in June.  I tried everything I could in an effort to make myself feel better.  I listened to my favourite music, burned my most pleasing mix of incense, and one night I even started watching the critically acclaimed television series Chernobyl.

I felt as though there was a kaleidoscope of butterflies loose in my stomach, all with a woeful sense of direction, when I set out on an evening walk along the Esplanade with my mouth as dry as a Monday.  Within little more than a hundred yards of one another I witnessed two people who were sketching the same scene.  I looked over the shoulder of the first artist to see that he was lightly outlining the figures across the entire bay:  the masts of fishing boats on the sea, the hilltops of Kerrera, St. Columba’s Cathedral.  The second sketcher, further along the pavement, was drawing on a smaller pad and she was focussing on a more narrow view, using her pencil to add much more detail with shading on the islands and the church.  I had no way of knowing if the two people were together, but I imagined that they were using their pencils and paper as a substitute for mobile phones, travelling around town to sketch all the sights they encountered, and that the artist who was scribbling thick blocks of leaden grey was simply adding a filter to her pictures.  It was as though she was looking through my eyes.

The weather turned out to be a lot better than many locals had been fearing for the weekend of Oban Live, Argyll’s largest outdoor music festival.  The town was dressed in its finest wear to attract the adoration of visitors, similar to the effort I go to on a Thursday when I spray my coffee table with glass cleaner and dust the dado rails in the living room in case someone comes back to my place on a Friday night.  As well as two nights of live music at the town’s Mossfield Stadium, there were various fringe events taking place around the bars, and that was where I spent most of my time.  Everywhere was thriving in a busy carnival atmosphere, yet for all the smiling faces I could see in Markie Dans as Chunks were playing, I felt as though I was the only person there, standing alone at the dark end of the bar.

An Oban Live car & bus drop “of” point…

The same wasn’t true in The Lorne, where out of nothing it looked as though two young women were about to become involved in a fight over me.  I only knew one of the girls, a bronzed blonde, and couldn’t fathom why she had become so animated when the rival female walked – perhaps a little forcefully – through the group of people I had found myself amongst at the back of the room, which included an inebriated VAT man.  The girl briefly stopped short of me before continuing to walk by when the bombastic blonde intervened.  She was making it clear that she was unhappy about something, and at some points in the confrontation there was as little distance between the pair as there was between my mouth and my glass of Jack Daniels, which was being held to my bottom lip in a sort of nervous excitement.  I wasn’t wanting to see anyone get hurt, but at the same time my heart was thumping in a way which was much different to the earlier attack of anxiety I experienced.  In the end the situation simmered without so much as a slap, and when the question was asked about what caused it all, the bombastic blonde responded that “she was giving him a funny look.”  I was pleased to have gotten any kind of a look.

Things were a lot more sedate at the rest of the Oban Live fringe events.  In Aulay’s the Brexit guy bought us a round of Kraken rum to celebrate his birthday, while our table became involved in a heated discussion about omelettes.    I was telling the friend of the plant doctor about my recent trouble with shoelaces and he put forward a theory about the stress created by the eyelet each time the lace is tied causing it to lengthen.  It made sense at the time, but when I was thinking about it the next morning while I was brewing a pot of coffee, I was really wanting to know how my clocks were already varying in time by a minute.

The day there was snow chaos

The observations of the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were still percolating through my mind the morning after I had met them as I was standing in my cold kitchen trying to remember how much ground coffee the machine is supposed to take.  I was fumbling with the filter paper, trying to fold it into place, my fingers and thumbs existing only to hinder my progress as I attempted to fashion the shape needed to guide the flow of the liquid coffee. With the little beige paper finally in position, I poured three cupfulls of water into the tank and pushed the green button which told the coffee machine that I was hungover and in need of a kickstart.  

I went about poaching some eggs as the machine groaned into life.  Soon steam was coughing angrily from the vents on its body, and by the time I had presented the eggs, which had been poached perfectly to the point where the yolks would gush the way a girl laughs at any other man’s joke, on a couple of slices of toast, the coffee was ready to be served.  I excitedly released the jug from its cradle and directed its spout towards the waiting cup. A stream of water which resembled the colour of stale dishwater cascaded into the clean porcelain cup, and it soon occurred to me that I had forgotten to put ground coffee in the filter.

Hours earlier, the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were confiding in me their astonishment at the level of drug use they had seen in their few hours in Oban.  I was somewhat taken aback by their surprise, which was expressed mostly by the mild-mannered gentleman, given that they had arrived from Lanarkshire, though much of this talk was likely prompted by the karaoke renditions the three of us were bearing witness to in the Claredon.  I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought if only they could have seen me standing in my kitchen with my jug of dirty water.

In the evening, hours after I had reverted to the more traditional kettle for solace, I met with the plant doctor and the bird watcher prior to us all attending the Rockfield Community Centre’s monthly open mic event ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.  The Rockfield Centre is a former primary school building which was opened in 1877 and closed in 2007 and came to fall into a state of disrepair until the Oban Communities Trust took ownership of the building in 2015, transforming it into a creative and cultural centre for the town.  Each month people are invited to attend the laid back setting of ‘Let’s Make A Scene’, where acts are encouraged to perform music, poetry, spoken word and stand up comedy.

On this night there were around thirty people crammed into the small hut.  Rows of chairs were sitting around small tables which each had plates of crisps and grapes on offer for the hungry.  Alongside them, in the centre of each table, was a tealight candle, all of them combining to comprise the only lighting in the room.  It was an intimate environment which was reminiscent of how I imagined a Prohibition-era jazz club in New York City might look. I was standing at the back of the room with my two companions who could be a David Attenborough documentary.  It wasn’t clear if we had elected to position ourselves there in order to present ourselves as brooding hipster types, or because it was closest to the bottled beers.

A broad palette of local artists were displaying a great range of talents, from stirring string acoustic ballads to poetic verses and Islamic chanter music.  My attention wasn’t entirely focussed on the performances at the front of the room, however. Earlier in the night, it was jokingly suggested amongst our group that if there was a lull in proceedings I should stand before the room and read items from the small notebook I was carrying in my pocket.  The idea that anyone would want to listen to my journaled observations in such a cultured committee seemed preposterous to me, but as the night wore on my mind was continuing to play with the possibility. I could imagine myself ambling to the performance area at the front, pulling the black notebook from the inside pocket of my jacket in a dramatic fashion and sitting a bottle of Jameson on the table before me.  I would pour myself a glass of whiskey and begin to read passages from the book. Meanwhile, in my mind’s eye, I could see the plant doctor, or some other acquaintance, playing the panpipes or the triangle in the corner of the room to bring an absurdist twist to the reading. The more I was thinking about it, the more I was considering that it would be quite a scene for a future ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.

It was early in the week when the snow which had been threatening to fall the previous Friday finally arrived, when following the break of dawn there was a break in the resistance of the clouds.  By the time I was leaving my flat for work, the pavements were covered with a dusting of white and resembled my kitchen counter the one time I tried home baking.  There didn’t appear to have been a significant fall of snow, and much of the streets were already forming a dull slush which was the shade of a jug of water which had been filtered through a coffee machine without the addition of ground coffee.  The rush hour traffic travelling outbound from town was at a standstill, and later the region’s newspaper of record, The Oban Times, reported that Oban was gripped by snow chaos.

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 1.46.44 pm
The front page of this weeks Oban Times

The tumultuous Tuesday morning storm caused commuters all over town to be up to half an hour late for work, with extreme cases forcing people to clock in after ten o’clock.  Some larger vehicles became trapped down rural roads, while fears of icy stretches on some routes caused the popular Soroba-to-Dunollie bus service to terminate on the Esplanade, leaving the public transport using residents of Dunollie cut off from the rest civilisation, and even the local Tesco supermarket, until the afternoon.

Amidst the scenes of a white winter horror, I learned that my black shoes have as stubborn a resistance to wet, slushy pavements as many of my houseplants have had to death.  More specifically, I discovered that while the left shoe of the pair performs all of the functions one would expect from a leather shoe, the right had been acting as though it was under the impression that it is a sieve and had allowed the yellow sock I was wearing on that foot to become sodden.  I was feeling bitter about this revelation, the sort of bitterness which a soggy cotton sock holds onto all day long.  What is it that suddenly causes a shoe to decide to go rogue?

Although there was no further snowfall during the week, the chaos continued when the plunging temperature caused the slushy pavements to become iced over in a recreation of the scene in Arendelle.  I had embarked on my morning perambulate to the office on Thursday, wrapped up warmly and wearing more appropriate footwear, when by the time I had reached the clock tower at station square the trek was already looking treacherous and laden with the potential for a slip-up, like when I am approaching a girl at the bar.

I was feeling uneasy on my footing, and shortly into my journey, I was forced into adjusting my steps to reflect those of a small child who is just learning how to walk.  As I was travelling nervously beyond the bus shelter, a group of three or four schoolchildren were striding sternly, strongly and confidently across the icy pavements to catch the school bus.  They were literally walking on water, and as I was struggling to negotiate the ice with my baby steps, I could feel the tiny eyes of the children glaring at me with a look of mockery.

Beyond the young schoolchildren, I could see an elderly gentleman who was sitting prone on the edge of the pavement beside his car.  He had propped himself up with his elbow, surrounded by a couple of loud neon suitcases and an elderly woman, presumably his wife, who was looking at the stricken man with sympathy and concern.  The woes of the stranger were doing nothing for my state of anxiety, and I was thinking to myself how easy it is to shoulder emotional hurt without anybody else seeing that something isn’t right, but a broken arm would draw a lot more attention.  I couldn’t imagine an outcome where I would find a sling that would compliment the colour of any of my ties, so I conceded that my morning walk by the sea wouldn’t be worth the risk.

My inability to walk only added to the pervading sense of hopelessness I had recently been encountering.  At times I had the feeling of a storm brewing behind my eyes, and although it didn’t bring chaos or dampen the sock on my right foot, it was something I could have done without.  I decided that the only way of dealing with such things would be to get back into a routine of doing yoga twice a day, so I dusted down the black mat I hadn’t stretched on in around eight months and tried to motivate myself out of the permanent struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  Once I had finally arisen, I rolled the yoga mat out across the wooden flooring of my living room and inhaled.

I was feeling pleased with my effort as I was manipulating my muscles and limbs into various shapes, per the workout I was following, though as I worked myself into a downward dog and came face to face with a sad speck of dust and a lone strand of artificial pine from the Christmas tree I had removed three weeks earlier, I was finding it difficult to focus on yoga.  As I formed a cobra on the mat I could hear the sound of a bus sloshing through slushy snow outside my window, and it was all I could do to think about my shoes.  I supposed that I would try again the next morning.

Wah-Wahnuary: My soundtrack to the month of January (a Spotify playlist)

The week after I dumped my dead houseplants

In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly. 

Recently it would seem that my weeks have become a lot like the days in the Cure song “Friday I’m in Love”, only the last day of my week barely brings so much as a like and my version would be more accurately titled, “Friday I’m in Aulay’s.”

It was on bin collection day of last week – the collection of bins in Oban, or at least in my block of flats, seems to straddle the desperate dash to fill them with as much rubbish as possible before wheeling them onto the street on Tuesday night and the actual picking up of the bins by the council on Wednesday morning (both grey days in the Cure song) – when I finally decided that it would be best to get rid of the two dead, or two most dead, houseplants from my flat.  For some time I had been despairing at their dreary drooping leaves and the way that the soil had become so dusty that they had begun to resemble the reference books section of the library.  A few petals which had once been pink were strewn across the top of the mantel place, lying lifeless next to the mantel clock as though depicting some morbid metaphor for the passage of time; a horticulture horror show.

It is not that I had no affection for my flowers or that I didn’t want to care for them, more that of late I have been in a place where my own emotions have been wilting and looking after myself has been enough of a task without trying to remember to water the roses.  So I walked the short distance around my flat a week past Tuesday lunchtime with a 22L white bin liner in hand and surveyed the wasteland of potted plants.  I tried to imagine myself in the role of some kind of plant doctor as I sought to determine whether the ailments being suffered by these things in their terracotta death beds could be treated by even a little more nourishment than I was providing, but that was proving too difficult and I took the even more implausible approach of considering how a female visitor to my flat might feel if she returned to my place on a night and found herself surrounded by the saddest gathering of houseplants she had ever seen.  It was with this thought in mind that I tossed the two most damaged plants into the white bin bag, gathered along with the burned out tealight candles I had used for incense, which had been discarded in the small wicker basket by the fireplace.  As the bag was filled it started to resemble some kind of ancient Pagan ritual for lost love.

Approximately one week had passed when I broke bread with a woodland traveller.  On this occasion the bread was naan and I was forced into improvisation when the question of plain or garlic was asked.  Ordering food for myself is often challenging enough, but trying to deduce what kind of Indian accompaniment a person you have never eaten with would prefer was an additional pressure.  The Wetherspoons cashier stared at me blankly as I pondered her naan question for nigh upon eight seconds.  I felt a reluctance to make eye contact with her, lest she become aware that this was the most difficult choice I had been faced with all week.  Finally I decided that any woman would probably prefer her naan bread like she likes her men – plain and with as little pungent odour as possible – and I allowed myself to breathe again.

At the table a question of etiquette was raised when the two women at the table adjacent to ours stood up and asked that we watch their table for “two seconds.”  When they returned several minutes later, grateful to find that their spot had been reserved, I realised that I had forgotten all about their request for us to be vigilant neighbours and if any other diner had taken their place I wouldn’t have been aware enough to object.  In that situation my defence would have been that I had fulfilled the verbal obligation of watching their table for two seconds and anything that happened after that time had lapsed was out with my jurisdiction.  This opened the debate over how long it is reasonable to sit and watch a table for another person – there is a scenario where one could plausibly be there all day defending a seating arrangement for a stranger – and how assertive it is necessary to be when you are confronted by someone who wants to take the table you are watching.  My natural need to please others and avoid confrontation would probably only lead to me offering my own table instead.

The more the week continued to progress – in the same way every week does, day by day – the more I was becoming aware of a curious sensation I was feeling every morning as I was walking to work.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling in recent weeks and months, but one which had become much more noticeable and was ultimately impossible to ignore on this week.

As I settled on a Spotify playlist and walked past The Factory Shop I felt my heartbeat quicken, to the extent that it was racing as quickly as it does in the moments before I am about to say something stupid to a girl.  It was as though a butterfly had become trapped in a net and it was desperately flapping its wings in an attempt to escape, and I could hardly catch a breath.  There was a nauseous feeling in the bottom of my stomach and my hands and arms had become the opposite of a critically acclaimed Pink Floyd song – that is to say that they were uncomfortably numb.

My mouth soon turned remarkably dry, reminiscent of the way it does when you are dehydrated from alcohol, but I remembered that I had not been drinking the night before and I knew that I wasn’t hung over.  This was in contrast to my legs, which both felt drunk and like they were trying to walk under water.  My mind was feeling overwhelmed and my sinuses were like fireworks sizzling and ready to explode.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I have been living in the same place for thirty-four years I’m not sure that I would have been able to find my way to the office.

I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes

These symptoms repeated themselves every morning and would usually last for hours at a time.  By the end of the week I was even considering going to the doctor to find out if this was something more than a deep fear of branded names at low prices, but I decided against making an appointment when I recalled the awkward experience I had last time at the doctor when I didn’t know which chair it was most appropriate to sit in.  Instead I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes and the new results largely suggested that I could have been experiencing an anxiety attack.  I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant or if I was feeling better or worse for reading it.

In an attempt to improve my mood I decided to listen to some of Paul McCartney’s material away from The Beatles, because a lot like Red Bull Paul McCartney gives you Wings, and when I went out on Friday night I had put any thoughts of anxiety out of my head.  In Aulay’s I found myself briefly standing next to the girl with the unmatched socks (The few weeks I realised I am in a funk) and she shook my hand and introduced herself, indicating that her memory of me was not as clear as my recollection of her.  She commented with fondness on the navy blue tie I was wearing and my natural instinct would normally be to reveal my identically matching socks but I was reluctant to be in a position where I would be forced to acknowledge her unmatched socks again, so I instead complimented the shade of pink on her fingernails.  She disagreed with my opinion that her nails were nice and upon reflection they probably weren’t particularly remarkable and the comment must have sounded like a terrible line.

While most of the town enjoyed the Oban Live festival over the weekend, on Saturday I savoured the scene at the bar in the Royal Hotel.  My attention was drawn to the barmaid behind the frosted Heineken pump.  Her hair was the colour of a leaf caught between the seasons of summer and autumn.  I ordered a pint of beer and enquired how her night was going.  She said that it was long and it took me all of my effort to not be myself and take this answer literally by pointing out that every day is made up of 24 hours, and instead I asked why her night was so long.  The barmaid informed me that she had been working since 3pm, would probably not finish until 2am and was scheduled to be working again at eleven the following morning.  By the time she had finished pouring a pint of Heineken I had remarked that for someone who was working such terribly long hours the barmaid was looking remarkably cheerful.  She wasn’t, but my faux observation drew a smile.  Though the fact that I don’t recall seeing the barmaid again for the rest of the night lends to be believe that the smile was probably masking her cringe.

On Sunday morning, some time around 10.30, I awoke in my bed wearing nothing more than a sock on my left foot.  I staggered haphazardly through my flat to encounter my boots and the missing second sock in the hallway.  My jeans were in a heap on the chair in the living room and on the bathroom sink my watch was found.  In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly.  With this discovery, and the week I had just lived through, I decided that I need to get myself some houseplants.