Just add coffee for a good time

On the exterior of the building in which I had been a single occupant since January 2018 was a plaque dedicated to the Scottish writer Iain Crichton Smith, whom the bronze plate recorded as having lived in the block of flats between the years of 1958 and 1980, a few years before I had even entered anyone’s conscience.  Whenever I remembered to look at the memorial on my way home the thought of it would haunt me for days.  Not in the way of the female ghost I once suspected was haunting my bedroom by leaving the door wide open in the middle of the night as a demonstration that even the spirit of a woman who has been dead for decades doesn’t want to be spending any time in my room, but it was more casting a shadow over my own achievements whilst living in the building.

The plaque recognises Crichton Smith’s life as a teacher, poet and novelist, and with there being a one in six chance that I was living in the same flat he was when he had thirty-three pieces of work published, it was a pretty hard act to follow for a guy whose finest accomplishment in recent times had been discovering this his shoes were mid tan rather than brown.

Anyone of a particular vintage in Oban would speak of Iain Crichton Smith as being a warmly liked and respected teacher, while I was occasionally told by strangers that I was dressed like a physics teacher.  He was regarded as being a prolific and inspirational writer who won several literary prizes and was honoured with an OBE, while in 2019 I began to read my own tales of romantic woe to around thirty people in The Rockfield Centre.  If someone could have lived a life like that for twenty-two years in my flat, I would think whenever I saw the memorial outside, then why was I finding it so difficult to so much as find a use for half a tin of coconut milk?

The plaque plagued me for days.  I was lying awake in bed for hours every night, the humid July air causing me to cast my covers aside the way people everywhere had been opening the covers of Iain Crichton Smith’s novels for years.  I was feeling consumed by a sense of hopelessness as I stared at the dark ceiling considering the words that might be on my own plaque years after I have left the flat.  SINGLE OCCUPANT; COLOUR CO-ORDINATED;  UNTRUSTWORTHY WITH PLANTS.

Almost as unsettling as the dedication to the famous local author was the way that tourists would sometimes pause on the pavement outside the window of my flat.  I would often be going about some trivial task, cleaning the glass on my coffee table or replenishing my stock of tealight candles, when a group of people would suddenly come to a stop.  It always worried me that they might be looking through my window, as if anyone would really ever want to see what was going on in my living room.  The longer they were standing there, the more it would trouble me and I would become conscious of my eating technique or the way that I was sitting.  Only when one of the tourists framed the lens of a camera across the street would I remember that people sometimes liked to take photographs of the church which splits the road in two.  It had never occurred to me until I moved to that part of town that this church might be considered a point of interest for tourists, just like I had never known that Iain Crichton Smith lived in the building across from it.  I supposed that, at least until I moved in there, the home of a well-known local author would be a sight of significance once upon a time, a place of real importance, a lot like the church once was.

By Friday I had endured three nights of broken sleep and everything seemed to be weighing on my mind, like there was a dedication to disappointment engraved onto my thoughts.  In Aulay’s, the plant doctor offered the suggestion on behalf of his brother, whose initials would also make him a doctor, that we all try the drink that the two of them had enjoyed on their recent holiday in Spain.  With nothing to lose we accepted the drink, which was made with Baileys, Amaretto and ice.  The cocktail didn’t have a name that anybody knew of, so we christened it a Tough Paper Round, which proved to be prophetic by the end of the night.

The Tough Paper Round was smooth, warming and very easy to drink, with a taste that was somewhere between marzipan and white chocolate Buttons.  Out of curiosity I later typed the ingredients into Google and found that it was a measure of coffee away from being an Orgasm, which I often took to be the case with most things in life.

There was still a stifling warmth in the air when I was walking home from Markie Dans on Friday night after several pints and three drinks of Tough Paper Round, although once again without the orgasm.  I returned to my flat drunk with despair, and for reasons that weren’t immediately clear, I decided to sit on the floor of my kitchen, in the corner between the washing machine and the fridge.  It seemed to me that I had been spending every Friday night with the hope of ending it by waking up in bed next to someone cool, but when I awoke at 5.15 on Saturday morning on the floor beside the refrigerator it wasn’t really what I had in mind.

Nothing about the days leading up to my fourth reading at Let’s Make A Scene were what anyone could consider to be ideal preparation.  I had changed my mind about the material I was going to read three times, I completely scrapped nine handwritten pages of one of those pieces, and the pink tie I had been planning on wearing turned out to be a slightly different shade of pink to my socks.  I was dreading it more than I had worried about any of my other efforts at The Rockfield Centre, the feeling similar to the morning that you leave the flat for work without a jacket because the sky is blue and every other day has been warm, and then it is raining by lunchtime.

In an attempt to make myself feel better and more comfortable, I decided to wear the silk boxer shorts that I usually saved for special occasions.  The underwear felt nice against my skin and contributed to me becoming more relaxed about things as the night went on.  I was feeling so relaxed, as it goes, that there came a moment when I was sitting in front of the room reading from my notebook that in my mind I had to question if I was wearing any underwear at all.  The thought was troubling and distracting, though I continued with the reading, which seemed to go well, and it was a relief when I later went to the bathroom and found that I was definitely wearing boxers.

My strive to find some self-esteem before reading at Rockfield led me to the same place it always does when I met with some friends in Aulay’s.  The diminutive barmaid was pulling pints and doing her best to reach the top shelf when she told me that she had recently been reading some of my blog posts and that they had inspired her to write her own blog about her experiences as a young mother.  I found it very flattering that someone would read my words, let alone be influenced by them.  It struck me that a blog about the tears and the triumphs of motherhood would be much more important and valuable to others than my stories of inept interactions with women and my struggle with keeping houseplants alive, and I felt pleased that I could in some way have inspired that.

The quality of the acts taking part at Let’s Make A Scene had been rising consistently for months, and in July there were no fewer than four new artists performing original material.  It was sometimes daunting when I would see how good some of the acts were and I knew that I would have to follow them, and even more so when I couldn’t remember if I was wearing underwear.  One of the best musical acts on show were the traditional acoustic duo The Blue Moon Travellers, who announced that they will be launching their album on the 21st of September in the Oban Distillery.  Before the night got underway, the female vocalist of the pair asked me if I would be interested in reading from my notebook at the launch event.  It was an unexpected and cool occurrence, like waking up on the floor next to the fridge, only pleasant.

I immediately accepted the offer, even though I knew that it was going to give me something else to dread in the future.  The vocalist went on to say that “of course, there would be a fee,” and my naivety in such situations caused me to scoff at the idea.

“I couldn’t accept money!  No-one should have to pay to listen to me.”

It was later in the night when I realised the error of my ways and the thought dawned on me that the Oban Distillery may not approve of my stage prop of a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey and I would have been better off demanding a clause that at least gave me a measure of Oban whisky as compensation.

At the end of it all I came to accept that there are some ghosts which are easier to ignore than others and I don’t have to pay attention to the plaque outside my flat or worry about what Iain Crichton Smith did when he was living in my building.  I could exist on my own terms and maybe even add another word to my own future plaque.  ALRIGHT.  I was a measure of coffee away from being good.

July, July! – My Spotify playlist for the month of July

If you don’t have a Spotify account, the following are the two songs I have been listening to most during July.  I have played Get Out by Frightened Rabbit at least four times every day for weeks:

He Would Have Laughed is the most incredible piece of music I have heard in a while.  The section after the line “I can’t breathe with you looking at me” makes me shiver:

Four ladies and a tramp

In the week where the world was celebrating the wonder of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I had a variety of concerns of my own.  It was around 7.45 on Tuesday night when I had just finished my second load of washing of the week, and as usual, the socks had taken longer than everything else to dry.  In 1969 man achieved the previously unthinkable when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon, while in 2019 I was still questioning why it takes the better part of three days for my socks to dry on the airer in my kitchen.

It wasn’t often that my laundry basket was so full that I had to run the washing machine any more than once a week, but for reasons I couldn’t quite understand there were seven shirts and just about every pair of boxer shorts that I owned in the basket on Sunday morning.  Along with the usual addition of bath towels, kitchen towels and anything else that was wet, I had no choice but to operate a second cycle once the first had dried. When the socks eventually allowed it, I transferred the second load of laundry onto the airer, and I had a sense of achieving something which although it was never likely to be recognised by NASA, was about the best that I could have hoped to do at the time.

That Tuesday night in mid-July was one of the most productive in terms of mundane household tasks that I had experienced in a while.  As well as restoring my wardrobe to near full capacity with the second cycle of laundry, I had been able to use some store cupboard ingredients to cook a Thai red curry for dinner, all of the washing up had been done, the toilet and bathroom sink had been treated with bleach, while the last eighth of the pint of milk in my fridge had turned bad, meaning that I could at least get the plastic into the recycling bin before it was put out for collection the following morning.  

A cup of Earl Grey tea seemed to be just the right reward for my achievement, but at the time it felt like the most satisfying thing imaginable.  I sat down to savour it, my back sinking into the brown leather sofa the way a foot disappears into a sandy beach. Everything was peaceful and relaxed, until the sound of frantic buzzing suddenly arrived to break the silence.  It grew louder and sounded like a lawnmower on full throttle. I was still basking in the spoils of my productivity and was in no mood to get up from the couch to investigate, but I didn’t need to.  Soon I could see a fly the size of a walnut circling the living room, urgently bumbling from one end to the other, as though it owned the place.

After the astronomical effort I had gone to in order to get my flat settled into its routine, this fly was going to come along and ruin everything.  Eventually I was going to have to prise myself from my position of comfort and deal with the intruder, and it all just seemed like so much effort.  I was reminded of the sometimes hours-long battles my father would have with home invaders when we were growing up; flies, wasps, bees or bluebottles who had mistakingly flown in through an open window, most commonly during the summer months when all the windows of the house would be wide open.  It was easy to see how anything could make the mistake of thinking that they were being offered an invitation inside.

The effort to convince the insects to leave and return to the great outdoors was usually painstaking and elaborate.  It would begin with the search for a newspaper which had already been read, a step that would often give the fly time to find a safe space out of sight, sometimes in a different room altogether.  The newspaper would be rolled up into a tightly bound weapon, as though having hands which were a hundred times bigger than the fly wasn’t enough of an advantage, and if the fly was still in sight then the appearance of this large weapon was supposed to act as some kind of threat.  If you don’t leave then the only outcome is that you are going to be swatted, and you don’t want to be splattered against the window just as much as I don’t want to have to wipe the glass clean after I have splattered you. 

Any attack on the uninvited enemy would usually be accompanied by an utterance which questioned the legitimacy of the fly’s parentage.

Often there would be an option before the death penalty was administered if dad was feeling like compromising.  This would involve me or one of my siblings opening the window out wide, and the rolled-up Transformers-like extension of dad’s arm would be used to usher the beastie back outside.  The compromise had to be acted on quickly, though, and it required military-like teamwork to make sure that none of the fly’s friends came in while we were trying to get it out.

None of this was required in my flat, however.  By the time I had finished thinking about how I would deal with my own intrusive insect, it seemed to have realised its error and found its way back out the way it had come in.  There was a small part of me that was left feeling disappointed, even rejected.  What was wrong with my flat?  Why didn’t the fly consider it good enough to spend hours buzzing around in?  Then I tried to see things from the point of view of the fly.  Whether deliberately or not, it had flown in through my open kitchen window and found itself in the neatly arranged habitat of a single occupant.  There were damp socks on the airer, surfaces slick and gleaming with antibacterial cleanser and a man wearing a tie and drinking tea on the couch.  With its five eyes, the situation could only have looked two and a half times more desperate to the fly, and it was understandable that it didn’t want to linger.

The rain on Sunday made the soggy bottom of trousers seem like the halcyon days

The following night I was hoping to fly into a different window of opportunity when the raven-haired quiztress and I formed our first breakaway quiz team.  We had been a part of the winning outfit for the previous two weeks and were feeling pretty confident about our chances of challenging the Bawbags on our own right.  We were joined by two other women, who I was being introduced to for the first time, and a third who I had previously introduced myself to having forgotten that we had already met once before at a bar in town.  The five of us were settling in nicely together, although many of the questions in the rounds based on the moon and events from the month of June were proving to be more difficult than a simple small step for man.

My own contribution to the quiz was being hampered by my realisation that I was sitting for most of the night on my coat, which was damp from the rain that had been falling for much of the evening.  I can cope with trousers which are wet around the calves or on the thighs, where rain often naturally finds itself.  But a soggy butt cheek is something else to think about entirely. I couldn’t shake it from my mind, all the more so when I found myself surrounded by four women at the table.  We had given ourselves the name The Unlikely Lads, but after a couple of hours it seemed that Four Ladies and a Tramp would have been more appropriate.

Despite a bottom which was far from dry and a difficult selection of questions, we finished the night in fifth place, which would accurately be described as being better than half of the teams who took part.  Although most teams traditionally participate in a pub quiz with the goal of winning, this felt like a victory considering the infancy of our team and the fact that most of us were strangers at the start of the night when the picture round was being debated.  If it wasn’t a giant leap for mankind, it was at least comparable to drying a set of socks in less than three days, even if not a pair of trousers.

It was when I was returning from the men’s bathroom in Aulay’s a couple of nights later that I was reminded of how easily some situations can begin to feel uncomfortable.  I was walking past a woman whose head was topped with a mop of ruby.  She was moving to the sounds of the Billy Idol song Dancing With Myself, and as I tried to dodge out of the way of her flailing limbs, as though she were a rolled-up copy of the Daily Record and I was a hapless fly, she spied my brown tweed suit.

“What do you do for a job?”  She asked. “Are you a teacher?”  She continued, usurping her own question.

I couldn’t bring myself to decide if it was impressive or troubling that someone should think I would be a good candidate to nurture our brightest hopes for the future, but I felt that I should at least find out what subject the red-haired dancer imagined I would teach.

“You look like a physics teacher.”

It was the last thing I wanted to hear.  My troubles with language would naturally rule out French, German and probably even English, but even despite the lack of obvious chemistry between us, I was hoping that she would at least see me as being capable of teaching a cool subject like modern studies, or at a push history.  What I didn’t want was to be seen as a boring physics teacher, the subject I disliked most of all at school.  If I looked like a physics teacher to a redhaired Billy Idol fan who was, at the very least, in her mid-forties, then how was everyone else seeing me?  It seemed like yet another reason I was encountering resistance from the ladies.

At the bar, I was once more thinking about the fly which had abruptly exited my flat when I found myself in conversation with a woman who had fingernails the colour of an Aero Mint chocolate bar.  She had managed to get herself a chewy sweet from the moonlighting banker behind the bar when I had been standing there for hours nursing nothing but a pint of Guinness.

“Sometimes if you want something you just have to ask,” she said, washing down the treat with a mouthful of fruit cider.

Although I couldn’t compare myself to a chewable sweet, I was able to engage in a conversation with the woman who when seated on a barstool was the height of my shoulder and whose hair was similarly coloured to the gin and lemonade her friend was drinking.  I learned that the two ladies had travelled to Oban that afternoon from Larbert, which I correctly and pointlessly identified as being close to Falkirk.  They had come to meet up with a friend who was sailing across from one of the distant islands, and she described their long journey as being a “party train” on which they drank Prosecco and ate croissants.  Their party train sounded infinitely more enjoyable than my own travel experience with Budweiser and unripened peaches.

The Larbert lass’s pink cider was rapidly diminishing, and when she made a passing mention in conversation that she and her friend were spending the night in the Premier Inn, my heart and stomach were buzzing like the wings of a lost fly.  I felt a rippling, palpable opening up of possibilities.  As she finished her drink she leaned across the bar to me, her Aero Mint fingernails clutching onto the edge of the surface for support.

“Do you know where we can get decent chips around here?”

“If there is one thing that Oban is good for it is chips,” I responded, before directing them to Nories.  It was the most charming thing I could think to say.

With that, the woman left with her friend almost as quickly as she had entered my life, like a fly who swoops around the living room a couple of times before it realises that it has made a terrible mistake.  These things have a habit of disappearing much more quickly than you anticipate. 

A sort of mid tan

After nigh upon a year of regular wear with suits which were tweed, navy blue, and grey, my favourite pair of brown shoes were beginning to resemble my own appearance at the end of a night in Aulay’s:  scuffed, worn out and who could only tell what was happening with the tongue?  I persisted with wearing them untreated, firstly out of my failure to remember to purchase shoe polish on any of my shopping trips, and latterly due to my inability to find the product on the occasion I had finally gotten my act together and responded to my need to get myself some polish.  It was when I was soon to be attending a wedding dance that my requirement to source shoe polish to make my foot clothing seem as respectable as the clothes on my body became urgent.

On the day in question I ventured into Timpsons, feeling safe in the knowledge that if there was one place in town I would be able to find the shoe polish I needed it would be in a shoe repair shop.  There was a small elderly woman who was finishing up at the till when I walked into the store, which was no bigger than a kebab shop and equally as fragrant.  Even I could not miss the polish in its prominent display facing the entrance.  I was perusing the three or four shelves of the stuff when the gentleman behind the counter asked if I was needing any assistance. I looked up from the little silver tins stacked on the shelf before me and told him that I was just looking for some shoe polish.  He smiled, having studied me for a moment, and responded.

“I can see that.”

I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the state of my shoes, the way I would worry about my lapsed Catholicism if I met the priest who had given me my First Holy Communion, or about everything if I was talking to a woman.  I could at least usually hide those things, either by telling the priest that I sometimes still eat fish on a Friday or by avoiding talking to women altogether, but the shoes were a different proposition.  I couldn’t hide those.  They were a size twelve, which meant that they stood out like a lighthouse at sea:  they were the first thing anyone would lock their eyes on.

The worst thing about the shoe repair store incident was that the pair of brown shoes I was wearing, which I learned from the tin of polish that the assistant picked out for me were what was known as a mid tan colour, were not even the shoes I was buying the polish for in order to wear at the wedding dance later that night.  Those shoes were still standing on the rack at the foot of my walk-in wardrobe in my bedroom, scuffed and stained with Jameson.  Nevertheless, when I approached the counter with a small tin of mid tan polish and a brush, I was still charged £6.96.

In my adult years, I had come to learn that people enjoy a wedding dance.  It is an opportunity for those attending to dress up fancy and get drunk where ordinarily they wouldn’t.  In my case, I added a waistcoat to my usual Friday night outfit and I was still planning on getting drunk.  Some people get caught up in the excitement of a wedding dance, viewing it with the romantic visions of what their own future might look like.  I see it as being no different from participating in a charity bungee jump or standing in the audience at a Bruce Springsteen stadium concert.  It looks impressive, but I know that it’ll never be me up there.

When I was growing up, eating fish on a Friday and taking Holy Communion on a Sunday, marriage seemed like the ultimate sacrament, the one that you really would know you had made it if you achieved it.  I think, by the time I left St. Columba’s primary school, I had married at least six girls in my imagination.  They never knew about it, and that seemed to make things easier for me when things inevitably fell apart.  

My thoughts on marriage had changed as I grew older and it was becoming obvious that it just wasn’t something that was ever likely to happen, the way I had taken a few driving lessons in my early twenties with the thought of being able to drive anywhere I liked, whenever I liked in a beautiful car, but I was so terrified behind the wheel of the instructor’s vehicle that I decided that taking the bus wasn’t really all that bad.  I no longer have ambitions of driving a car or attending my own wedding dance, and these days I am happy if the bus is on time or if a friend decides to send me a message.

The wedding dance came at the end of another week when the raven-haired quiztress and I had united with the Bawbags to win The Lorne’s pub quiz for the second consecutive time.  We were joined by her flatmate, who put me in mind of the song Cigarettes & Violets.  It was after I had been to the bar following the general knowledge round when I felt it would be the sociable thing to do to introduce myself to her, seeing as I had been sitting next to her for twenty minutes and we had competed in two rounds of a pub quiz.  As I extended the hand which wasn’t busily clutching a pint of Tennent’s Lager, my friend intervened and informed me that she had introduced me to her flatmate several months earlier in Markie Dans.  I couldn’t recall the meeting at all and spent much of the next round of questions interrogating my memory as to what ridiculous thing I could have said on that occasion.  

Despite a torrid art and literature round, the makeshift Bawbags went on to claim the prize of a £25 bar voucher.  The quiz had begun with a wide-open field of eleven teams, which threatened to make it a close and competitive fight to the end, but six of them left at various points after the second round.  It was clear that they had all turned up with ambitions of winning the quiz, confident in their ability to identify the author of Gone With The Wind and to answer an entire racket of questions on Wimbledon, and after two rounds they were losing hope as a result of the strong start made by others.  They had eventually come to see the pub quiz the same way I did a wedding dance.  

The triumph of the pub quiz was in contrast to the experience of Saturday night.  It was the day after the wedding dance, and I was feeling like a mid tan shoe.  There was hardly a cloud to be seen in the sky, and the sun had sucked up what little energy I hadn’t tread into the dancefloor the previous night.  Barely a few minutes beyond ten o’clock I decided that I would have to leave Aulay’s, and I came to realise that it had been a while since I had seen what my flat looked like before midnight on a Saturday.  I heaped some incense onto the top of a candle holder and set alight a tealight candle inside.  It was the same blend that I had once burned in the company of a woman, who told me that the scent reminded her of being in church, and more specifically that it made her think of a funeral.  The fragrance was pulling at my nostril hairs as I fell asleep on the couch, and when I awoke some hours later it was obvious that if these were my glory days, they had passed me by.  

Kevin Carter, skins and a beard off

Our relationship had lasted a few days short of sixteen months, which is around a year and a third longer than most of my typical relationships.  During our time together we had both grown and matured into different versions of ourselves, and my environment was certainly healthier for having Sally around.  Sally and I had seen some sights in those sixteen months.  There were the impromptu flat parties with booze and music and dancing, the nights when I would return home from the pub and fall asleep on the sofa wearing my suit, the repeated airings of the nineties TV sitcom Seinfeld, the hours I would spend practicing reading material to an otherwise empty room.  She was always there.

Sally was a houseplant named after the Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because she was a plant and she was incapable of dancing – and it eventually came time for me to accept that we could no longer be together.  For longer than I could admit she had been looking the way I had been feeling:  tired, drooping, unloved.  Nothing should look like that.  It took me a few days after I had made the decision to dump Sally for me to actually get around to the business of putting her into a bin bag.  It seemed harder than it should have been to get rid of a houseplant.  Finally I stood Sally in a white bin liner, feeling that was the most respectful way of ending our relationship, though her tall branches were still protruding through the handles of the bag, making it difficult to tie up the loose ends.

Buying myself a houseplant seemed like a good idea at the time.  I thought that I could get into a routine of watering a plant the way I go about my other daily habits, like colour coordinating the shirts in my wardrobe or moisturising in the morning; it was just something I would get used to doing.  After a couple of years of using a particular brand of moisturiser, I had taken the decision to change to a cheaper product.  In my mind, why would I spend £4 on something when I could pay £2 for almost exactly the same thing and use the change to buy beer?  

When the time came for me to use my new cost-efficient choice of moisturiser, everything seemed exactly as it had been before.  After stepping out of the shower I applied the cream to my cheeks, forehead, and neck, and it wasn’t any different to anything else I had put on my face.  Then I caught a sniff of the fragrance, which was immediately familiar.  It reminded me of someone I had once known very well, and I was struggling with the idea of having that memory linger on my skin every day when it is difficult enough that is already under my skin.  But I’m a single occupant and I couldn’t afford to dump an entire tube of moisturiser just because it provokes old memories, so I was forced to keep using it.  I suppose that these things are like the stubble on my moisturised face:  I have to take the rough with the smooth.

Under the blue skies of May, things were beginning to be seen in a new light.  On the shore, I was walking with my niece when we happened upon what, from a distance, appeared to be a beautiful act of nature as a crow was enjoying a meal of a freshly caught fish.  As we were nearing I pointed the scene out to the three-year-old, thinking of her fondness for cute animals doing adorable things.  “Look at that hungry bird,” I enthused.  It was only as we were getting closer still that it became clear that the large black crow was feasting upon the carcass of another bird, and that the victim’s head had long since been claimed.  I had to act quickly to divert my niece’s attention from the looming horror, challenging her to find a seashell somewhere off in the distance, far from the sandy dinner table.  Meanwhile, a man – presumably a tourist – was taking pictures of the slaughter as it continued, desperately snapping away on his professional looking equipment.  I was wondering what the photographer had expected he would capture on his camera when he left his hotel room that morning.  A buoyant spring sky, churches bathed in sunshine, boats ferrying passengers to the islands across sparkling crystals in the sea, an act of avian cannibalism.

Earlier I, along with my brother, had taken our niece to the Driving Smarter Energy event at the Corran Halls, where there was an opportunity to test drive electric cars and learn about different ways we can make our homes more energy efficient.  As neither of us knows how to drive, we had attended simply because I had learned that there was a bouncy castle and face painting, and it seemed like an easy way to burn off a chocolate high.  We were the only people in attendance at the time, so while my niece was running from end-to-end on the bouncy castle, I was forced to make conversation with the man who had organised the event about electrical charging points around Oban.  For an educational enterprise about finding a more sustainable use of energy, it seemed like a tremendous waste.

Outside, in the foyer of the hall, after the bouncy castle had been exhausted, I found myself talking to a pair of council employees who are the mothers of two people who were in my class in primary school.  Their attention had been caught by my sister’s daughter, in the way that people are always surprised by how much a child has grown and they struggle to believe that the infant can really be the age you claim that they are, like there would be something to be gained from lying about my sister having a three-year-old daughter who is still growing taller.

The women were especially incredulous about the appearance of my brother, while it was agreed that I have “always looked the same,” which seemed unlikely when I had more hair and less stubble in primary school.  In the end, I put it down to being one of those generic things that people say when they haven’t seen you for a long time and I didn’t argue it.  I asked the women how their respective children were doing, and when one mother responded that her daughter now has a girl who is eleven-years-old, I took on the role of the disbelieving.  It occurred to me that a girl I had gone to primary school with has a child who is the same age I would have been when I last saw that classmate in school.  The friends I had grown up with have husbands and wives, they have families and some live in cities, while I’m walking along the shoreline taking pictures of a man who is photographing a crow eating a headless bird.

It was some time later that the plant doctor, my brother and I were walking down into town after spending a few hours in Lower Soroba drinking beer in the fading sun.  We were three men in our thirties playing songs by the band Wings from my mobile phone, the way trendy car stereos thump loudly as they pass.  A group of teenage girls were walking towards us.  It was impossible to think that they were considering us to be cool.  As we passed the girls, one of them asked if we had any skins, the type of question a teenager only ever asks of a person they think is old.  I was never asked for a cigarette by someone younger when I was in my twenties, not even when I was smoking them myself.  I felt a compulsion to respond that “between the three of us there is quite a lot of skin,” and knowing full well that the girls weren’t enquiring about the body’s largest organ, it came as no surprise when we were told to fuck off.

Things were being viewed differently in the bathroom of The Oban Inn too, where I witnessed a young man emerge from the cubicle and stagger across to the sink where he made an attempt at washing his hands, before vomiting into the clean white porcelain.  He washed away the remnants of his body’s revolt and, just as he was readying to walk away, he turned and spewed again.  “Got to make sure it’s all out,” he was heard to say to no-one in particular as I was standing at the urinal questioning how he had not known that he was going to be sick when he was in the privacy of the cubicle.  I could only imagine that it was similar to when I return home from a shopping trip to Lidl and remember that I haven’t bought spinach and orange juice, which was the reason I had went out in the first place.

On Saturday night Markie Dans seemed to have an unspoken dress policy of only admitting bearded men, though somehow I had managed to sneak past the bouncers with my roughly stubbled and smooth-cheeked features.  I was talking to a girl in a polka dot dress when I was surveying the fuzzy-faced scene all around me, and being that we were in a minority of people whose faces weren’t dressed with hair, I encouraged the girl to rate the beards before us.  It was the first time any of us had participated in a beard off in the middle of a busy pub, though there were simply too many beards to comment upon.  I had the scent of moisturiser still clinging to my nostrils, it was impossible to shake.  Whether it was a beard off, skins or a photograph, it seemed that all I was doing was searching for a seashell.

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part two

I wasn’t being handed any fliers on Wednesday morning and I couldn’t understand why not.  Ordinarily during the Fringe Festival it is virtually impossible to avoid walking any street in Edinburgh without having a glossy advert for some comedy show or theatre production thrust into your hand by an enthusiastic volunteer who is often dressed in costume.  I had been walking for around an hour and not one person had attempted to sell their show to me, and I was beginning to take it personally. I slowed my walking pace out of hope that it would make me appear less in a rush to get somewhere important and therefore more approachable, but even that was having no effect.  I walked with my arms outstretched a little, in the manner of a monkey, and still nobody was willing to place a flier in my hand. I considered that on this particular day no-one was looking for a single man to attend their shows and I was feeling a little low and put out, so I purposefully walked past the same juggling act a couple of times for confidence.

Wednesday morning had started out with the city’s cobbled streets slick with rain, but by around midday it had dried out and there was a warmth from the sun in the sky.  I decided that I would no longer need the denim jacket I had come out wearing, so I returned to the hostel where I had been staying and stored it in a locker with the rest of my luggage.  This is when it occurred to me that I had been walking around for more than an hour dressed in double denim and I suspected that this was the reason I wasn’t being handed any fliers, though a man wearing double denim should probably be a prime comedy victim.

After watching Peter Brush make a very convoluted and brilliant joke about snails in an awkward manner in a room full of ten people or less, I went out to Pleasance Courtyard where I would spend much of the day and first saw the Irish comedienne Catherine Bohart, who performed a set about being a bisexual Irish Catholic who had recently been diagnosed as having OCD and whose father is a Deacon.  In the small room I was seated next to a woman who shortly after taking her seat reached into her bag for a paper fan, which was a deep red and the sort that stylish ladies would use in the movies. She began to fan herself in an elaborate and exhaustive fashion and it made me wonder if the flushing she was experiencing was in any way related to my testosterone. It made me feel good to think this and I was sitting smugly as Catherine Bohart took to the stage.  As I glanced around the room, which was very compact and warm, I noticed several other women who were using tickets to fan their faces and I accepted that my masculinity probably wasn’t having that much of an effect.

Later, whilst entering another show, the usher called out for “any singles” to fill a seat in the corner, around three rows from the front, which was the last remaining in that particular row.  There wasn’t a rush of people who were attending the show by themselves, or who were at least willing to admit to being alone, and I raised my hand in the air in the most meek way and was directed to walk along the front of the stage to reach this lone chair, as though I was being put on display.

I had some time to spare before seeing Alex Edelman and I decided that I would spend it in the warm early evening breeze in the courtyard with a pint of beer.  Pleasance is one of the major hubs of the Fringe and there was a buzz of activity with audiences lined up outside the numerous venues and people handing out fliers in an effort to sell last minute tickets.  A girl approached me with a handful of such fliers, her hair was a kind of sunkissed hazelnut and she was wearing skinny jeans which were impressively tight fitting and a lime green top which matched the colour of her shoes as well as her handbag.  It struck me that if I was female this is the sort of style I would favour.

The girl with the hazelnut hair offered me a flier for a show in which stand-up comedians perform in the dark.  I took it and asked her how the comedians can see whether the audience are laughing when there are no lights. She laughed in a pained way, as though she really wasn’t wanting to laugh but she couldn’t help but admire the effort made to concoct such a terrible joke.  I took this response as an invitation to ask the flier dispatcher why she thought it might be that I had such a barren leafleting experience earlier in the day. She crinkled her nose, in the way some people scrunch up unwanted fliers, and thought it surprising. We exchanged a silent stare for what might only have been three or four seconds but felt more like a minute and I thought it would be a good idea to ask the citrus styled saleswoman if Comedians in the Dark was good enough for her to consider wasting her time going with me.  She said that she had seen the show earlier in the month but that different comics perform all the time and if she could hand off the rest of her fliers she would go with me.

After the show, which was performed in near darkness, I asked the girl with the hazelnut hair if she would consider having a drink with me.  She declined, citing an early start in her day job the following morning, but invited me to take a short train journey and we could share a bottle of wine at her place.  From Waverley Station her stop was only around ten minutes and it was a place I was not familiar with. Her flat was on the top floor of a building which was in the middle of a high street that was like any other, and she asked me if I would mind sharing a flat with a young dog.  I have formed a bond with many a canine over the years and didn’t consider this a problem, though as we approached her home I felt myself becoming anxious as I realised that now I wasn’t only having to impress her, but her dog would have to like me too. Somehow my attempts at humour and conversation had gotten me this far, but if I didn’t hit it off with the dog then it could blow the whole thing.

As she opened the door a small dog scampered to greet her, and soon its little paws were clambering onto my thighs and I could tell that it was much too cute to hate anyone.  We sat on the couch and she opened a bottle of white wine, which was foreign and as delicious as its name was unpronounceable. The little dog sat between us on the cushions, as though forming a protective barrier until I had its absolute approval to proceed.  As we talked – the girl with the hazelnut hair and I – her dog arched across my lap and demanded that I rub its little pink belly. It was impossible to refuse, and it was probably the first time that I have cultivated a friendship with my ability to scratch.

Some time passed and having removed her own lime green shoes, the girl with the hazelnut hair reached for my laces and insisted that I would be much more comfortable if I wasn’t wearing my boots.  Soon her hand was working its way around an area of my jeans where ordinarily only my hand ventures, and when my penis was released and she was kneeling on the floor between my feet, the dog sat up on the couch next to me, and as its deep black eyes stared at me I began to worry that it might mistake me for a sausage.  Once I had raised this concern the dog was quickly ushered from the room into the hallway, for at least twelve minutes, and whilst it probably didn’t have the capacity to understand what was happening I’d like to believe that the neighbours did.

After the dog was welcomed back into the room and my host had changed into a pair of pyjamas which were much less colourful but every bit as fetching as her daytime wear, I was asked a question which I had not anticipated being asked and which I had never been asked before.

“How would you feel about sharing a bed with a dog?”

I weighed up the options in my mind:  I could either sleep with a girl or I could not sleep with a girl, and I quickly decided that sleeping with a girl would be preferable and that I could live with the dog, which had befriended me as much as I had it.  Following another glass or two of wine we all went to bed, and I had to wonder what the dog was making of all of this. I was a guy who it had met for the first time only a few hours earlier, I had not even bought it dinner, and now I was sharing its bed and bumping bones with its owner.

In the dark of the night I was having difficulty sleeping, partly out of a fear that if I fell asleep I would find that this entire night and this fantastically beautiful woman I was lying next to was a terribly unlikely dream woven by my wild imagination, and partly because at the foot of the bed I could hear the dog licking itself profusely.  When I was finally able to fall asleep I was soon woken by the soft and wet lather of a tongue lapping at my face. My eyes gradually opened and I was considering how this was an unusual but not unwelcome way for the girl with the hazelnut hair to waken me and rouse my attention. She must be ready for some more action, I thought to myself, and it was something that I could get used to.  Then I caught the unmistakable scent of dog food and realised that the dog was right in my face, and that was were it spent much of the night.

An alarm soon rung in the morning and the girl with the hazelnut hair had to be up early for work.  Before getting herself ready she lifted the dog into the hallway and she and I were investigating the integrity of the mattress once more.  She climaxed as the dog urinated on the carpet and it seemed like each of us got something from the experience.  After a cup of tea I asked where I was, how I got here and how I get back to Edinburgh. She explained that the train station was a couple of minutes down the street and that the trains are frequent.  I thanked her and left, hopeful that as the day progressed I would receive some more fliers for my satchel.

 

Four days at the Edinburgh Fringe: Part one

It never matters where my final destination in the capital city is, every time I arrive in Edinburgh Waverley railway station I have to exit by the steps onto Princes Street so that I can see the Scott Monument, which is not only one of my favourite landmarks anywhere but is also, as far as I am concerned, the best monument dedicated to Sir Walter Scott.

During the month of August in particular, when Edinburgh is host to one of the world’s largest arts festivals, I am almost immediately filled with a tremendous sense of regret over my decision to take the long and unnecessary detour by the Royal Mile, rather than walking out onto Market Street where my hostel accommodation is located directly across the road from the station.  This was the case yesterday, when I found myself trapped behind an endless stream of slow walking pedestrians – the sort of people whose pace would make a tortoise retreat into its shell out of shame – who inexplicably stop to a standstill on the middle of bridges or suddenly change direction to walk straight across your path. My internal monologue was seething, and I couldn’t be sure if I was more annoyed with them or with myself.

The journey from Glasgow into Edinburgh had already soured my mood when the elderly man sitting opposite me and to my left had fallen asleep practically as soon as the train had left Queen Street.  This was a particularly large man and he had the appearance of a novelty-sized helium balloon from a children’s birthday party which had been caught up in a strong breeze and carried onto the seat opposite me on the train, having deflated just enough air so that it had flopped neatly into the seat.  He was asleep the entire way across the country, and when the train was approaching Haymarket station and he had still not stirred, not even for the ticket inspector, I was becoming anxious that it would be my responsibility to waken him.

I was beginning to visualise how I would attract this much older and much larger man’s attention without startling him so much as to cause a cardiac event.  Would a gentle hand on his shoulder be enough to do the job when there was so much of him? What if it wasn’t and I went on to strike him so hard that he awoke in a furious mood and I had an angry mob of commuters baying for my blood, accusing me of assaulting a pensioner and a war veteran?  Then I thought about what I might say to this man if I was able to waken him and he was sitting there in his seat looking up at me, dazed and confused and sleepy. I have always wanted to use the phrase “it’s the end of the line” but have never had reason to do so, because there are so few instances where it can be applied without sounding silly.  This was the perfect scenario to use that line, though, and I suddenly found myself feeling excited and hoping – almost willing – that the pensioner would stay asleep just a little while longer so that I could tap him on his shoulder. “We’ve reached the end of the line, bud.”

As I continued to daydream, a passing stranger reached down, having noticed the trouble that this man had gotten himself into, and he placed his hand on his shoulder.  “This is the last stop,” the good Samaritan informed the elderly man as he awoke, and his delivery wasn’t nearly as cool as I had imagined mine would be. I gathered up my belongings and sighed, feeling a mixture of disappointment and relief that at least I had not caused a heart attack.

After checking into my hostel accommodation I enjoyed a pint of lager at the Jinglin’ Geordie bar, which is approximately halfway up or down Fleshmarket Close, depending on which way a person is travelling.  For my first beer of the Fringe I considered the price of £5 a little steep, although not quite as steep as the steps seemed after drinking the pint.

39742503_10160549202185618_2266214935111401472_n

The top deck of a green bus, which was parked on Potterrow Underpass, was the venue for the first show I attended.  Chris Betts Vs The Audience had received a four-star review on The List website and the premise was a fun one where the comedian would argue against anything the audience said.  During this show the audience were tasked with debating in favour of legalising public urination and later Chris Betts would argue for the poaching of elephants, while a couple of ‘quickfire rounds’ took place between.  It was interesting to see the lengths people would go to in order to win an argument.

Much of the evening was spent in the Brass Monkey bar, which was close by, and the pints of Innis & Gunn were a slightly more agreeable price of £4.50.  The bar had the atmosphere of being in a persons living room, with its velvet-like red lampshades and the cast of photographs on the walls and the selection of board games which were available to play.  The white trimmings around the edges of the ceiling reminded me of the living room I grew up in and I enjoyed my time there. On the door leading to the bathroom were the symbols for both male and female sexes and inside there were two cubicles and a short urinal, which was enclosed behind white gates, similar to the saloon doors you would see in a western movie.  I had forgotten about this setup when I used the toilet for the second time and exited the urinal into the common handwash area whilst still fumbling with the zip on my jeans. I was momentarily surprised and felt like a very mild sex offender when I encountered a slightly older woman who was standing at the sink. Then I remembered that this was Edinburgh and that things are different on the east coast and I reminded myself that in future I should probably fasten my zip as soon as my penis is safely away.

At the bar in The Advocate I found myself in conversation with a woman who was waiting to order some drinks for her group.  She had pleasing facial features – it was symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth, just the way I like a face – though she had a very strong Edinburgh dialect which jarred a little with my senses.  I tried to use alcohol to dull this but it was proving difficult. The woman spoke of her love of the city during the festival, which is in contrast to most locals who tend to despair during the month of August.  “Other people,” she said, “charge £1500 a week to rent their flat but I only ask for half of that.”  The word only hung in the air and she said it like she was doing somebody a favour with some grandiose act of charity, like she was welcoming the homeless into the warmth of her living room or saving the whales.  She threw a shot of tequila down her throat and introduced herself before leaving with a handful of drinks to convene with the rest of her group outside and I thought about everything that had happened.

Not so far away at The Bunker in Espionage, I went to see Cosmic Comedy, which was a show produced by a group from Berlin and featured four comedians performing around ten minutes of standup material each.  Three of the acts ranged from mediocre to terrible and there were no fewer than two jokes about the German invasion of Poland, which happened nigh upon eighty years ago. The fourth act, who was on third, was Josie Parkinson, whose blog (‘Making Of’ ) I have recently started reading and who was the reason I had decided to attend the show.  She was comfortably the most assured of the performers and I found myself laughing at her Tinder experiences and supermarket tantrums. I had been considering attempting to talk to Josie after the show finished, to tell her that I had enjoyed her performance and that I admire her writing. For a brief moment I found myself within speaking distance of her and I considered how weird it might seem for someone to mention such a thing as a blog in public, and the guy she was with was much bigger than I am, so I decided against it and continued walking.

Outside the venue, I was accosted by a girl who was handing out fliers for a show across the street, as almost everyone seems to be doing in Edinburgh.  She was wearing a sheepskin coat which looked very warm and I felt compelled to compliment her on her fashion and to ask her why she was wearing such a coat in August, which is still meteorological summer at least.  She smiled – perhaps out of enjoyment of my compliment, perhaps out of awkwardness – and told me that she has a cold and has been working outdoors for around twelve hours every day. I again made reference to her sheepskin coat and queried whether she felt others would follow her sartorial lead.  This seemed like a good point to leave.

I saw another four-act comedy show which featured a Russian and an Icelandic comedian, amongst others, at Banshee Labyrinth after the midnight hour and I returned to my room at the hostel happily drunk and satisfied with my first day at the Fringe.  I undressed and crawled into my single bed, which was closer to the floor than any bed I have ever slept in, and I fell asleep immediately.  Some hours later, at 6:56am, I was awoken by a housekeeper who had entered my room.  She apologised from her vantage point in the doorway when she saw me semi-naked amongst my sheets, and for some reason I also felt the need to say sorry.  The housekeeper closed the door again and it occurred to me how it really doesn’t take very much to wake a person up.

The night I made the most ridiculous promise I have ever made to a girl

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I visit Edinburgh or how familiar I think I am with the city’s streets, I always manage to walk down the wrong cobbled alley or take some inexplicable misstep which has me up some steep incline far away from my intended destination.  There is something about its quirky collaboration of old and new which leads to eternal confusion.  That I am usually drunk in Edinburgh probably doesn’t do my internal satnav any favours.

In the August of 2014 I was making my third or fourth trip to the capital for the Fringe festival and I had set myself the target of Tweeting my review of each show I saw to #TimesReview with the aim of having one of them published in The Times newspaper.  Each day they had a pullout section devoted to the festival, and within this there was a small column which was devoted to the Twitter reviews of Times readers.  On my first night in Edinburgh I went to one of my favourite bars in the city, Banshee Labyrinth, where I saw Skeptics on the Fringe, which was a collection of shows on science, reasoning and critical thinking.  On the night I attended the show addressed the topic of psychics and I found it interesting and amusing.  I felt certain that my short review of the event would be printed in the following days’ paper, but it never was.

Skeptics on the Fringe – enlightening and funny. Tonight’s show was on psychics, which I could tell was going to be great

By 9.30 on that Friday evening I had enjoyed several beers and I was on my way to see Shit-Faced Shakespeare at Bristo Square.  I had approximately half an hour – maybe even forty minutes to an hour – to find the venue and I was feeling confident as I left Banshee Labyrinth and set off along the Royal Mile with a glossy venue map for guidance.  Some time had passed and after walking up and down a seemingly endless procession of paved hills I was beginning to realise that I had no idea where I was.  Despite being able to find the venue on the map in my hand I could not adjust my bearings to figure out how to get from wherever I was standing to Bristo Square, and time was ticking.

I continued walking, one foot before the other in an aimless drunken haze, and my surroundings were becoming vaguely familiar.  A spring returned to my step and I entered Princes Gardens, which I had convinced myself was on the right route and somewhat close to where I was wanting to go.  In the dusky distance I could see a couple of men wearing fluorescent vests, which I recognised as being the international symbol of good sense and wisdom at any public gathering, and I felt hopeful as I approached them.

I walked up to the stewards and I asked them how I would get to Bristo Square, by this point feeling sure that they would tell me it wasn’t very far from where we were situated.  They glanced at my glossy map, which I had thrust upon them to illustrate that I was lost, and then exchanged blank looks with one another.

“Ummm,” the steward hesitated.  “I dinnae really ken…we’re from Fife.”  His partner was no more reassuring.  “I think it’s somewhere that way,” he said pointing in the direction from which I had just walked.  My shoulders slumped and I was becoming increasingly concerned that I was going to miss Shit-Faced Shakespeare.

I thanked the stewards for what I’m sure they believed was helpful advice and I turned and walked that way.  My steps had taken on a frantic gait and I was practically power walking up the cobbled hills I had minutes earlier walked down with careful caution.  A booze and fear-induced sweat formed on my brow and I was becoming desperate as I once again reached the Royal Mile with the clock running against my favour.  A young couple who were approximately my age were walking towards me and in my haste I put to the back of my mind all of the anxiety and self-consciousness I feel when talking to strangers and I stopped them in the street and asked how I would get to Bristo Square.  The female of the couple spoke with a well-educated southern English accent and she told me that they were walking in that direction anyway and she invited me to follow them.  A deep sense of relief washed over my sweaty forehead.

The three of us set off in a direction which was entirely different to the one I had been following and I found myself struck by the poise of the woman as we became engaged in conversation.  She had the sort of blonde hair that resembled a healthy crop of golden wheat in a field, and she was at least as tall as I am, though when you are drunk and walking downhill these things are difficult to measure.  She asked me what I was on my way to see at Bristo Square and I told her about the excellent review of Shit-Faced Shakespeare I had read in The Times two weeks earlier.  The wheat haired female stranger had read the same article and agreed that the show was very good.

As our conversation developed it was revealed that she was not just some random and very kind stranger who I had accosted on the street, but that she was a performer in a show at the Fringe.  She reached into her handbag and presented me with a leaflet which had an image of Alex Salmond and Vladimir Putin looking like pirates as she told me about News Revue and how it was a Guinness World Record holder for the longest running comedy stage show, how it was in its 35th year at the Edinburgh Festival and how it had helped to launch the career of Bill Bailey and many other comedians.

By this point I had become aware that the male half of the duo had been largely uninvolved in the conversation, and although I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing anything he had to say I was wondering if he was harbouring any resentment towards me for commandeering so much of his girlfriend’s time on our walk to Bristo Square.  I thought about the nature of their relationship and whether a drunk Scotsman who makes a modest living working in a supermarket could win the affection of a striking woman from a man who was surely the director of her comedy show, or at the very least a set designer with skilled hands or a scriptwriter with a sharp wit.  What kind of chance would I have?

We reached Bristo Square with some time to spare before the show was scheduled to start.  It was a large and impressive area with all sorts of different things going on.  The couple were going elsewhere and I expressed my gratitude to them for helping me out of my hopeless situation.  I shook the wheat haired English woman’s hand, and recalling that she was also a reader of The Times newspaper I made one last attempt to win her favour.  I had an opening in my schedule on Sunday evening and I vowed that I would go and see her perform in News Revue.  As is typical of a man who is trying to impress a woman I went on to make a promise which by all measurable standards was unreasonable and unlikely to come to pass, but it sounded flattering and the words had fallen from my mouth in a drunken slur before I could contain them.  I promised her that I would Tweet a review of the show and that it would be published in The Times.

Screenshot 2018-08-12 at 7.57.05 PM

On Monday morning I rushed to buy my copy of The Times and I went straight to the Edinburgh Festival pullout.  I thumbed through the pages to the Twitter reviews and felt a flutter of excitement when I spotted my name at the head of the column.  Something I had promised a woman – something drunken and ridiculous and implausible – had actually come true, and even though I had no way of knowing if she would ever read the twelve words I had written to win her heart I felt satisfied.  Though a small part of me was wishing that the psychic joke had made it instead.