Old Spice

One of the more difficult things about the time of year was knowing when it was appropriate to turn the heating on.  There were several points in the weeks before I eventually relented that I could have used the heat, when conditions in my flat were becoming cold enough to make Greenland look like an appealing warm-weather getaway.  It seemed to me that determining when to put the heating back on was one of those decisions that people only ever had to worry about once they became adults, like figuring out what time it was best to go to bed.

I was reluctant to make such a move while it was still September, before the autumn had really taken hold and when we were still in meteorological summer, even though the climate on the west coast of Scotland had never recognised the seasons.  If I could have, I would have left it at least until the clocks went back, but that was pushing it.  Apart from anything else, the two heaters in my flat never seemed to make a great deal of a difference to the feel of the place.  Their performance had always been underwhelming, and raring them up for the winter seemed to be as futile a gesture as carrying an umbrella into the eye of a hurricane.  I could never get it into my head how the storage heaters were supposed to work.  As far as I understood it, their task was to gather energy during the night and release it as warm air through the following day, but it was hard to say if that was what they were actually doing.  To my limited knowledge, the heaters only seemed to be storing up disappointment, and I had never needed expensive equipment to do that for me.

It was the first of October when my resistance to the tumbling temperature broke and I flicked the switch on my two storage heaters, and by the fourth, I was standing in my kitchen at half-past ten on a Sunday night wondering why my neighbours upstairs had decided that it would be the best time to use the washing machine.  No-one gets off the couch at half-past ten on a Sunday night and thinks, “I know what this is a good time for:  I’m going to put an entire load of t-shirts in the wash.”  It had to have been a premeditated move by people who were much more organised than I could ever dream of being.  They had presumably put a lot of research into the matter and learned that the most cost-effective way of running your laundry – or anything really:  boiling a kettle, running the hover, utilising a power drill – was to do it at a specific hour on the weekend.  I envied their preparedness and their ability to save money.  My own policy for putting on a wash was a lot more staggered, effectively being whenever the wicker hamper beneath the window in my bedroom had more shirts in it then my wardrobe did, or when I was looking for some green socks to pair with a tie to make a particular outfit work, whichever instance arose first.

During that same week, I had begun to suspect that I had a new neighbour across the landing from me.  The place had been quiet for an indeterminate period of time and I hadn’t really noticed that the previous tenants had moved out until I saw the let sign in the window some weeks earlier.  Suddenly there was a great deal of activity which started one afternoon when I arrived home from work for lunch to see the door opposite mine sitting wide open.  There were removal men treading back and forth through the close carrying cardboard boxes and items of furniture which were stacked so tall that the men almost appeared to be headless.  The recycling bins in the back became choked with scrunched up balls of newspaper, while inside the close door a black CD storage unit was abandoned, a relic of time.  in the evenings I could hear the soft shuffling of footsteps on concrete and the door opening and closing so loudly that it suggested whoever was entering the flat hadn’t yet come to terms with the weight of the door.  There was no longer any sign of the let notice in the window, and it was clear that the residence was once again occupied.

Having a new neighbour seemed exciting, a lottery that could be either won or lost.  It could have been virtually anyone in the world who had moved in across the hall from me, and naturally I had my own ideas about who my ideal neighbour would be.  Over the subsequent days I spent much of my time contemplating the potential scenarios that may have landed on my doorstep.  I thought about how in my preferred outcome the new person living in my block would have been a young single woman, possibly new to the area and without any contacts.  We would happen upon one another on the landing when I would be wearing my finest colour combination, having run a wash a few days prior.  She would introduce herself, starved of any kind of social interaction and eager to meet her new neighbours.  We would hit it off, our interaction too brief and off the cuff for me to say something stupid, and she would suggest that since we are both single occupants we should form a bubble and hang out together.

My new neighbour would come over to my place on a night and we would gradually form an unlikely friendship.  I would invite her to comment on my lucky plant and she would observe how well watered it is for a succulent.  She would compliment the mood set by the crepuscular lighting in my living room and marvel at the warmth in the small space between it and the kitchen, where the second of my storage heaters hangs on the wall.  Her remark on my living space was that it had charm, an emporium of bachelorhood.  We would dine on a meal of one of the three pasta dishes I know how to cook and then listen to U2 for hours whilst laughing and getting to know one another.  The more consideration I gave to the situation, the closer the bond I could see my neighbour and I forming.  But even I knew the thought was ridiculous, and although I could see our friendship blossoming in the reel of my sub-conscience, it was clear that we would only ever be two grapes on the same branch of the stalk who are destined not to wind up in the same bottle of wine.  She would be destined for better things, surely forming an intoxicating blend with some other grape from a different stem, while I would finish up a tired old raisin, the one which sticks determinedly to the bottom of the box.

I didn’t want to feel miserable about being spurned by the new neighbour who I had never laid eyes on, so I took yet another swipe through the dating app Tinder, an act which seemed to be like striking a dud match against its box again and again and

The low sun appeared to bounce off the lighthouse in the bay like it was a fork

again, desperate for any sort of spark.  By some peculiar fate I made a match, and I resolved with myself that I would not rush in and make any silly jokes like I had done when I was last paired with a woman on the site.  I played it cool, even though I couldn’t be sure what that actually looked like, and we exchanged a couple of cursory opening messages after I initially enquired about what makes a good escape rooms game moderator, since that was her listed job title.  

My Tinder match later went on to tell me that she had read my profile and believed it to be funny, which immediately led me to suspect that I was talking to some kind of scam bot.  I was waiting to be offered a link to some expensive website where I would be forced to pay to interact with women, and I was already looking out my debit card so that I could hear more of the compliments.  I should have seen the signs, really.  A 21-year-old University of Glasgow graduate, an escape rooms game moderator named Maria – it was barely plausible.  Nonetheless, we continued chatting on the app without transferring any financial details, and after around five days it became evident that Maria too had experienced some trouble with keeping succulent plants alive.  We had established a connection, a common bond, and it naturally followed that she would tell me that she was only using Tinder to make new friends, since it was difficult to meet people in the post-pandemic world.  It was a confirmation, at least, that it was all for real, since only I could find the one woman who was using the dating app for plutonic purposes.  If we were going to make wine, it was going to have to be a non-alcoholic vintage.

Other than the torment over the question of when the heating should be switched back on, I always enjoyed the change in the seasons at this time of year.  The sky seemed to be a different colour every day, sometimes every hour.  Bright and brilliant then dark and brooding, grumpy like a grown man who has been told that the pubs will have to close for two weeks.  The sun setting early in the evening would bring into focus a horizon of slates and chimneys, and the air was always redolent of coal fires, no matter the time of day.  More than any other month, October seemed to be when the sun would sit lowest in the sky, being almost exactly at eye level when I was rounding the town on my walk home after work.  It made it difficult to truly enjoy the scene and caused me to rethink the resentment I had been feeling towards those people who I had been seeing carrying their face coverings in all sorts of unusual ways.  Perhaps they were onto something after all.  Only, instead of scrunching the masks up under their chin or hooking them around the elbow joint as though portraying a gentleman from a fifties silent movie, the coverings could be worn over the eyes as some sort of protection from the glare of the sun.  As it was, I made do with the menace of the low lying sun since if I managed to catch it at certain points, it was at least as warm as the four-foot spot between my kitchen and living room.

I arrived home from my walk on Friday evening with a commitment to an hour or so of babysitting, though I could no longer be sure if it was technically still babysitting when my niece was four-years-old and approaching a similar level of maturity to my own.  Nevertheless, we had a rare old time together catching up and familiarising ourselves with all the hiding places my flat had to offer, which was really just behind the net curtain where everything was automatically invisible.  Out of nowhere, my niece told me that she had recently watched the 1997 movie Spice World, and I thought that it would be a good way of passing a few minutes if I played the Spice Girls song Wannabe on YouTube.  Clearly it had been some months since my last session of childminding and I had forgotten that videos can never be watched just once.  I think we spent at least the next 35 minutes listening to the song on repeat, and my niece announced that she had aspirations of being Baby Spice.  She seemed to have been particularly impressed by her ability to kick, though not as much by my performance of the dance, which led to me being assigned the role of Scary Spice.  There was nothing I could say to dispute the point – it seemed pretty fair.  Two days away from my thirty-seventh birthday and this was where life had taken me.

After my niece left, high on girl power, I was in the kitchen preparing for another of the Friday night Zoom meetings which had become a placeholder for our usual visits to the pub when I heard a knock on my front door.  I was about as accustomed to hearing someone chap at my door as I was listening to the Spice Girls and I couldn’t begin to guess who would have been on the other side, so I decided to go and answer it instead.  I unlocked the door and opened it up to find the figure of a man who was holding out a Royal Mail missed delivery slip.  He was slightly shorter than I was, perhaps a little older, and he had a reasonably well-kept beard.  Extending the red piece of paper towards my face he asked me if the name on it was mine.  I took a closer look at it, since my vision had a habit of failing in near darkness, and directed the man to one of the flats upstairs.  He thanked me and turned to leave, before doubling back on his steps.

“I’m your new neighbour, by the way.”
Of course you are, I thought to myself, as all my hopes and dreams of a bubble were burst.  He introduced himself as being Norman, or Edward, or Nigel, or some name of that sort.  I had forgotten it as soon as he said it, my bitter disappointment making me reluctant to learn anything about the man.  He remarked on how surprisingly quiet the street was to live on, considering that the block of flats were right by the main road, and I felt like telling him that he should learn how to close his door more carefully, but he seemed like a nice person and I wasn’t really wanting to get into anything that would make me seem like a dick, particularly when the truth was that he was the dick for not being a lonely single woman.  He thanked me again before heading upstairs, and I returned inside, where I picked up my phone and continued the conversation I had been having on Tinder about my ineptitude with houseplants.  I leaned against the storage heater in the hallway and accepted that friendship on a dating app was probably the best I could hope for.

An ordinary week

Monday 13 January 2020
I made what turned out to be one of my favourite dinners tonight, completely by accident.  It was a prawn and chilli linguine dish and the ingredients were relatively unspectacular and uncomplicated – otherwise I wouldn’t have been attempting it in the first place.  The pasta was cooked “according to packet instructions”, which I always took to be ten minutes, while the rest of the meal was prepared.  I successfully deseeded two red chillis for the first time, having previously just chopped the things up and hoped for the best when it came to eating them, and fried them off with a couple of cloves of garlic for around a minute.  Next I added a packet of king prawns and cooked them until they were turning pink while I took half a punnet of cherry tomatoes and halved them.  It was tempting to think of the outcome as being a quarter of a punnet of tomatoes, but even I knew that I couldn’t get away with saying that out loud in front of other people.  They were added to the pan and cooked for three minutes, at which point things started to go pear-shaped, if not literally then at least figuratively.

By the time I squeezed the juice of a lime and sprinkled some basil into the bubbling mixture, there was still around four minutes before the linguine would be cooked, according to my interpretation of packet instructions.  That was four additional minutes for the cherry tomatoes to soften and weep far beyond the healthy blush portrayed in the photographs which accompanied the online recipe.  The tomatoes became a mushy mess, more of a sauce than a juicy plate fellow, but once the whole thing was combined with the linguine and some starchy pasta water, it worked.  As I sat down to enjoy the meal, I was struggling to think of another time that one of my mistakes had turned out so pleasingly.

Tuesday 14 January 2020
The basement of Bar Rio was flooded with six inches of water from the storm last night.  There were videos on Facebook of the tide crashing into the bay and up over the railings onto the road, as well as photographs of the fire service pumping water out of the restaurant.  I was exchanging messages with a friend at the time it was all happening. She asked if I could see any lightning, but from the time I arrived home from work I had closed the living room curtains and been playing a playlist from Spotify, so I hadn’t seen nor heard anything.  A live-action recreation of the final fight scene from the Avengers movie could have been taking place on Combie Street and I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it.  Someone asked me today where I would be going for my cocktails now, but I have never been for a cocktail in Bar Rio.

A lone balloon struggled with the blustery conditions on High Street


Wednesday 15 January 2020
There was a funeral happening in the Parish Church at lunchtime, which wasn’t so remarkable an occurrence as a funeral seemed to be taking place most afternoons.  However, outside the church, as the service was underway, two black horses were waiting alongside a carriage, which was black and had gold trimming around the windows.  The horses were elegantly dressed in these long black feather plumes and they appeared much more patient than I imagined any human would be standing in the bitterly cold wind.  Almost like they knew that this wasn’t a place for fooling around and they had to be respectful.  It wasn’t something I had ever seen at a funeral, but it immediately struck me as being a much nicer idea than the large black hearse typically seen outside a church on these occasions, though I was reluctant to stare too much, especially when I was returning from Lidl with a litre of semi-skimmed milk and a packet of four pork loin chops in my hands.  People said it was traditional at a traveller’s funeral, but I had never heard of it before.

Thursday 16 January 2020
It never seemed to matter how often I brushed the flooring in my flat, a leaf would always turn up somewhere.  I don’t know how leaves constantly ended up in my flat, but they did.  I mean, I knew how they probably found their way inside – on the bottom of my shoe, but I couldn’t fathom how so many of them were attaching themselves onto my shoes when I wasn’t in the habit of walking through Oban’s leafy areas.  It was difficult to think whether there was even a tree to be seen on my daily walks between my flat and the office, travelling via the Esplanade.  Apart from the lack of trees, I hadn’t even taken the route that often over the last week or so with the stormy conditions making it difficult to walk any great distance without my trousers being soaked.  As well as wondering how these leaves kept appearing on my floors, I was made to question why I was still persisting with wearing grey trousers in winter.

A leaf troubled the floor in my hallway


Friday 17 January 2020
I’m not sure if it was the incident with the leaves which led me to take my periodic swipe through Tinder, but I ended up with a rare ‘match’ last night.  I only ever used the dating app when I was feeling truly miserable and at my most hopeless, and it hardly ever did anything to change that.  In a way it was no different to thumbing through the Argos catalogue; it passed a minute or two of boredom.  When you are matched with someone on Tinder you are taken to a private text-based conversation, which I always imagined would suit me better since I wouldn’t have to worry about things such as eye contact or whether she had smiled when I made a stupid pun.  Sophie* had seventy-seven words in her biography, which read like a shopping list and was punctuated at the end with a text smiley – the sort I remember using on MSN Messenger when I was eighteen-years-old : )

The seventy-seven words ranged from ‘anime’ and ‘vegan’ to ‘glitter’ and ‘faeries’ and I immediately endeavoured to find out more about them.

“Hi Sophie.  There are quite a few words in your bio.  Which would you say is the most important one?”

“[Emoji of a tongue sticking out of a mouth]”

“Very efficient; two words for the price of one!  Do you jockey discs for a living?”

When I next checked my Tinder account on Friday night, Sophie had unmatched me, which I supposed would be the equivalent of trying to talk to a woman at the bar who smiles awkwardly at your joke before turning her back to eye the table of rugby players.

Saturday 18 January 2020
Last night in Aulay’s, the barmaid with the bandana placed a £5 in-play bet on the Rangers vs Stranraer Scottish Cup fourth round game finishing 1-1 at odds of 70/1, even though she was a Rangers supporter.  The score was 1-0 at the time, and I told her that there would be more chance of me pulling a woman that night than there was of Stranraer scoring.  “In fact,” I insisted, “there is more chance of me pulling twice.”  Rangers won the game 2-0.

Sunday 19 January 2020
This afternoon I witnessed a woman running past my window, on the other side of the street, with a dog running alongside her on a lead.  She was wearing running clothes, black and fluorescent green, I think, so the jog was obviously a sporting endeavour and not because they were late for an appointment.  As a contest, the race seemed unfair and rigged.  The dog was always going to be limited in how far it could go, and if it ever threatened to build up a real head of steam, the woman could just pull the canine back and level things up.  All things considered, it was hardly on the same scale as the Russian doping scandal, but it was unsporting all the same, and the scene bothered me.  Like the leaf on the floor in my hallway, I couldn’t understand why I was seeing it, where it had come from or where it was going.  But the dog didn’t seem to be concerned by it as far as I could tell from my brief insight into their dynamic.  It was respectful and accepting; all that was missing was a black plume.

*Sophie’s name has been changed.

This week I have been mostly listening to…