They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.

Ambulance blues

The infant days of October arrived on the west of Argyll with a tranquillity which made a fool of those forecasts that a week earlier had been predicting lashings of rain and wild winds as the dying howls of Hurricane Lorenzo were approaching the country.  Those early pen strokes through the calendar were greeted with temperatures which forced some to rethink their choice of jacket, although I had already reverted to my long black winter coat and nothing was going to change my mind.

My early evening walks along the Esplanade were being conducted under skies which were largely free from clouds.  It was a time of year when at quarter past five the sun was already beginning its slow and uncertain descent back into the waiting water, its procrastination and unwillingness to dive straight in being vaguely similar to my own reactions when there is a girl I like at the bar.  The great golden bulb was hanging low in the sky, shining brightly into the eyes of pedestrians with the type of intensity I would experience further along my route on Combie Street when I was walking towards a woman who had unknowingly activated the torch app on her smartphone.  It was the first time I had ever seen anyone do that on the street, and it made me feel better about the photograph I had taken minutes earlier of the setting sun which had been distorted by the appearance of my thumb in the bottom left corner.

Everything was still and peaceful in those early evenings, and I enjoyed marvelling at the colour of it all.  The water, in particular, was as though a toddler had spilt a palette of paint on a carpet and repeatedly trodden through it barefoot, spreading it all over the place with wild abandon.  

All of a sudden the fragile peace was shattered as an ambulance emerged from the distance and came screeching down the seafront.  There isn’t anything like a passing ambulance to grab the attention of people on the street who have been minding their own business.  You can’t help but stop and take notice, wonder where it is going, what kind of incident has taken place and who, if anyone, has been hurt.  As the vehicle approached its sirens were becoming so loud that the sound pierced through the saxophone from the new Huey Lewis & The News track I was listening to at the time.

It came to a stop a few hundred yards ahead of me, outside the Great Western Hotel, beneath the tall and wide windows of the cocktail lounge.  Its blue lights were flashing against the rice pudding-coloured stone of the building, and the back doors of the emergency vehicle were pushed open, suggesting that there was some activity.  As I was walking past the hotel, which can be dated back to the 19th Century, I could see that many of the tables by the window in the lounge bar were occupied by guests who had largely, I presumed, been born in the middle part of the 20th Century.  What a terrible way to start a holiday, I was thinking to myself as I craned my neck to get a good look at the ambulance which was doubtless waiting for the arrival of some poor casualty.  You get yourself a relaxing drink and a great window seat with a spectacular view of the sun setting over Oban bay and an ambulance comes along and parks right outside to spoil the whole thing.

Although I wasn’t likely to be in need of an ambulance, I had been suffering from a dose of the cold for much of the week and I was feeling pretty miserable for it.  There was nothing that would make me feel more hopeless than the need to blow my nose into a tissue every other minute or to be unable to smell when I had overcooked the chunks of chorizo in a chorizo and prawn jambalaya I had been preparing for dinner.

My health predicament wasn’t being helped by the dipping temperatures of the season and the fact that my flat was never the warmest, or even the coolest, place in town.  The first thing I would do when arriving in from the evening chill was to put on a jumper to combat the rampant cold air, as opposed to the warmer summer months when the climate in my place rarely merited so much as loosening my tie.  My flat had a problem with temperature, and it was made worse by the fact that I couldn’t get to grips with the idea of storage heaters.  I would come home at six o’clock and the pair of them would be as cold as the other side of the pillow that people were always citing as an example of something that is cold, though in my place both sides of the pillow were as cold as everything else.  Yet when I awoke at five o’clock one morning and got out of bed to use the toilet, the heaters were the warmest I had ever felt them.  It was doing me no good when 5 am was a time that I would usually be in bed, wrapped warmly in a 2000 thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, and I soon realised that my understanding of how storage heating works was on par with my understanding of how to talk to women.

In spite of my waning wellbeing, I still found it within me to wheeze along to Aulay’s on Friday night.  With the oncoming October school holidays, amongst other things, the bar was the busiest it had been in a while.  I was just happy to feel some warmth.  I nursed a pint of Tennent’s Lager whilst waiting for my brother to turn up, the voice of the large gentleman over my right shoulder booming along to the soundtrack of the random mix of dance tracks which the jukebox was toiling through.  He was from North Ayrshire and was visiting Oban for the second successive weekend, regaling his younger, local companion with his tales from back home.

“I can go into any pub in Saltcoats and walk up to any girl and pull them.  It’s dead easy. You’d love it there, pal.”

It came as a surprise when I finally turned around to take a look at the character that he wasn’t a dashing George Clooney type figure, but more of an early-career John Candy.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where it would be easy for me to walk up to a woman in a bar, let alone talk to her or take her home.  I should have been paying more attention to his words, see if I could pick up some of the expert tips from the Ayrshire Uncle Buck, but instead I was hesitating over an offer to join a couple of young ladies I knew at their table in the corner.

The table was populated by employees of a local primary school, and there was tremendous excitement and giddiness amongst them for the beginning of the half-term break, which some of the women were looking forward to spending in places as far apart as New York City and Mallorca.  One of them was dressed in a striking black and white specked suit which was putting even my own considered sartorial combination in the shade.  For the first time in my life, I was feeling suit envy, and I was finding a different way of wanting to be inside a woman’s clothes.

A silver-plated headband was being passed between two friends like a crown, though it was silver of a different variety that was finally catching my eye.  The more I was looking around the table, the more the sight of jewellery on fingers was becoming evident to me. It was almost like having an Olympic flag unfurled before me, and right at that moment, I could understand how it would have felt to be sitting in the cocktail lounge of the Great Western Hotel, admiring the view as the sun was setting over the bay, only to have an ambulance pull up in front of the window. 

The Oban Games are held on the fourth Thursday of every August

On the way back down the Esplanade towards Markie Dans, I encountered a recently graduated teacher who I had vaguely come to know through previous intoxicated interactions.  She was travelling in the opposite direction from my brother and I, on the other side of the road, though I couldn’t help but see her hair, which was the shade of a sunset, though not the type that blinded a person, like an iPhone torch.  It was softer, more subtle.  She chastised me from across the desolate street for having neglected to write the story of our earlier meetings.  We had entered into the kind of non-contractual agreement that you come to with people in the pub, whereby I had given her a brown note to save her walking all the way to a cash machine to pay for a taxi home, and she compensated me with a glass of whisky when she next saw me in Aulay’s.

In the months since that whisky, the teacher with the sunny disposition had graduated and was already thinking about her next achievement.  By this point, she had already graduated twice in life, but for her, that wasn’t enough.  I asked her if there was a maximum number of times a person could graduate, and although she didn’t know the answer, she said that she was wanting at least three.  I continued on to Markies, where I found myself thinking how great it would be if someone could teach that kind of positive attitude.  If anyone was going to graduate three, or four, or five times, it was probably going to be her.

Like in Aulay’s earlier in the night, Markie Dans was busier than I had seen it in weeks.  The place was full, and I was having a better time of it than on my previous visit, when I learned that I had an intolerance to Jägermeister when it is taken without the bomb of Red Bull.  I enjoyed catching up with some friends and having a fish dance with my aquatic hip-shaking partner.  By the end of the night I was walking home alone, though, with my head in a fuzz and my nose in a Kleenex.  On George Street, the towns main thoroughfare, I walked under a banner advertising the Oban Highland Games, which had taken place on the fourth Thhursday in August.  It occurred to me that my search for romance was becoming strikingly similar to the council’s promotion of the summer games, in that it was still happening long after it was obvious that it was over.  If I was being optimistic, I would at least surely have better luck with the storage heaters.

I will be reading A lion’s roar and some other bits and pieces at Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October.  Full details can be found at the event page here.