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.
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.
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.