Hard to believe it isn’t butter

It was always a tremendous source of amusement amongst our family when we would make our weekly visit to Poppies for breakfast on a Saturday morning and the dish with the small portions of butter would arrive at the table.  There would typically be around four or five of the little golden rectangles, and it was always a race to see which of either my niece or our father would notice them first.  Dad had the advantage of experience and the fact that my niece was usually distracted by whichever object was her favourite toy on that particular day.  A cuddly cat, a colouring book, building blocks, a sponge scouring pad.  Though she undoubtedly had the cuteness factor in her favour, and if she happened to spy the butter before anybody else, she was pretty difficult to beat.  

Their motives for wanting the butter were quite different and went far beyond simply garnishing a slice of toast.  My niece sometimes liked nothing better than to peel open the little golden parcel as though it were a present on Christmas morning, but what was hidden inside was no surprise to her; she knew exactly what it was and she wanted to eat it.  Even when there was a plate full of hot, fresh toast sitting on the table in front of her, all she wanted to do was to stick her fork into the smooth yellow blob and lick it. Sometimes she wouldn’t even need the fork.  Our dad, on the other hand, liked to gather a portion or two of butter and carefully wrap it in a red napkin which, after a quick look around the coffee shop, would be safely stashed away in the pocket of his jacket.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of heists, but it would require great care all the same.  No-one wants to take a gunshot wound on a bank robbery, just like nobody wants a grease stain from melted butter on their favourite jacket.

To begin with, none of us could really tell why dad wanted so much butter.  There had been plenty of discussion in the news of people stockpiling goods before Britain left the European Union at the end of October, but they had been talking about cans of tuna fish and baked beans, toilet rolls and medicines, rather than restaurant-sized portions of butter.  So one day we asked him.  He told us that he likes to collect them in case of a situation where he has run out of butter.  “You never know when you might need them.” It was essentially the same reason he would always give for the boxes of old VHS tapes he kept stored in various locations around the house.

I dismissed dad’s hoarding of butter portions as being unnecessary, wondering why anyone would go to such a length when butter isn’t exactly like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or a date on a Saturday night.  It isn’t difficult to find.  Sure, I would sometimes jump the gun and buy a bottle of washing up liquid before the one under my sink had been completely finished, and I always liked to make sure that I had a second tube of moisturiser in the bathroom cabinet, because nobody wants to be caught short and forced into spreading Lurpak on their cheeks, but otherwise I liked to keep my household supplies sensibly stocked.  At least that was the mighty impression I had of my own management when I got out of bed on Sunday morning to prepare an omelette.  

My omelettes were always very basic in their ingredients, although there would be enough of them to feed two or three single occupants if necessary.  It was rare if my brunch didn’t use bacon, there was usually an onion, too, and the grated cheese was piled high enough to cover a small molehill.  On occasion, there might be a red pepper thrown in if I wanted to spice the omelette up or I didn’t know how else I was going to use it.  The ingredients would be softened in a frying pan while I beat together a number of eggs which was typically dependant on how hungover I was feeling on any given Sunday.  Once the bacon pieces and onion chunks had been cooked, they were tipped out onto a plate and the frying pan wiped clean, ready to welcome a significant portion of butter, which would be melted to cook the eggs in.  At least that was how it usually happened every other weekend.  But on this particular occasion, I came to realise that I had used the last of the butter and forgotten to replace it.  There’s a handy reminder when it comes to preparing an omelette that to make one, you have to break a few eggs, but there is nothing to help you remember that you also need to buy butter.

While the butter tub-shaped gap on the middle shelf in my fridge remained, under the kitchen sink there were two bottles of Fairy washing up liquid.  For more nights than would probably be considered dignified, I was unscrewing the red lid of the original bottle and running the tap in an attempt to rinse out every last drop of green soap.  I refused to move on to the new one until I was satisfied that I had gotten my money’s worth.  In thirty-five years I had never considered what value for money might be from a 99p bottle of washing up liquid, but it turned out that it was filling it with water until the amount of bubbles spilling forth resembled a children’s birthday party.  

When it finally came time to flip open the top of the new bottle, I was greeted by a fragrance which was strikingly similar to supermarket bought apple juice, the sort you might find in the breakfast lounge of a Travelodge or a Premier Inn.  I glanced down at the plastic container in my hand, realising that in my haste to grab a bargain from the special offers section in Lidl I had picked up a bottle of apple orchard scented washing up liquid.  I had never been in an apple orchard, but I felt fairly certain that it wouldn’t smell like apple juice which had been caught consorting with paprika in my kitchen sink.  For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea of flavoured washing up liquid.  If the purpose of using such a thing was to clean debris from dinner plates and associated kitchen utensils, then what good would adding apple do?  It would be like bathing in Chardonnay or using margarine to moisturise my clean face.  I didn’t want anything to do with the scented soap, but I had paid for it and one use certainly wouldn’t be value for money, so I persevered, resigned to the fear that everything was going to taste of apples for weeks.

The view of Lothian Road didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in Edinburgh

Even at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I went in search of an escape, I was finding it difficult to avoid the irritants of day-to-day life.  It wasn’t so much the flyerers or the insanely busy streets that I was being troubled by.  Even the older couple from Yorkshire who walked into Banshee Labyrinth, which frames itself as being the most haunted pub in Edinburgh but where the only spirt I have ever encountered came from a bottle behind the bar, and complained about the price of their drinks in the city centre didn’t bother me.  Indeed, I found my own spirits momentarily lifted when I watched the comedian Peter Brush perform for the third year in a row and his joke about the time he thought that his acting career was on the verge of taking off when he landed the role of understudy to the part of Godot in a school production of the Samuel Beckett play received the kind of reaction some of my own favourite jokes get.  I was one of three people in the small chamber room who laughed out loud, mainly out of sympathy and a recognition of the comedian’s plight of having his well-crafted joke fall as flat as a glass of breakfast apple juice.

My irritation came when I was sitting in the beer garden outside Brewdog enjoying a pint of their light Dead Pony Club IPA, which tasted a lot better than the name suggested and was a refreshing drink in the warmth of a late August afternoon.  The outdoor seating area was almost the entire length of the pavement and offered views of Lothian Road, which probably didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in the city.  Nevertheless, I soaked it in like I was looking out at Edinburgh Castle or the Scott Monument, organising my thoughts and contemplating where Peter Brush had gone wrong with his Godot joke, and me with my gag about searching for a self-help book in Waterstones.

At the table across from mine, a couple arrived and sat down with their craft beers.  No sooner had their buttocks touched the bench than both of them had a cigarette in their mouths, like synchronised swimmers, shrouded in smoke.  Clouds of nicotine were coughing across the narrow courtyard and I was cursing under my breath, which was more than the smokers would be capable of, I thought.  Their presence was irritating me more than it should have, especially considering that they were smoking exactly where they were supposed to.  What upset me most was the knowledge that five years previously I would have been the asshole lighting a cigarette in an area where nobody else was smoking, completely oblivious to their discomfort.  It occurred to me that you never really know how annoying something you are doing can be to other people until you are no longer the person doing it.  I suppose it’s a lot like being part of the couple in a room full of single friends.

A week had passed when I walked into Aulay’s.  The rain was falling briskly outside and the Dundee derby was playing on the television screens.  It was like any other Friday night.  In the corner of the lounge bar, underneath the televised football, was sitting a young woman whose hair was curled and the colour of midnight.  Her skin was like crushed olives and she had exactly the type of face I liked in a person: symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  From her ears were hanging two large brass earrings which were the width of a champagne flute.  She was wearing a top that was camouflage coloured, yet I couldn’t help but see her.

I was standing at the bar with Brexit Guy and Geordie Pete, the latter of whom was waxing lyrical about the majesty of St James Park and telling me the story of how he went there to watch Newcastle play Arsenal in 2011.  The visitors raced into a four-goal lead inside half an hour, and Pete decided that he had seen enough so he left the stadium for the Irish pub which sat on the corner of the Gallowgate, in the shadow of the massive stands nearby.  He was leaning against the bar watching the afternoon’s football scores come through on the TV.  Newcastle scored.  Then again.  And again.  The game Geordie Pete left finished 4-4 and was regarded as one of the most remarkable English Premier League games of the modern era.  I couldn’t help but relate the story to my own romantic interests, though I couldn’t be sure if I was the Geordie Pete, the Newcastle or the Arsenal.  All the same, it was a distraction from the girl in camouflage.

In the meantime, as I leaned across the bar to order another pint of Tennent’s, I heard an unfamiliar voice speak into my left ear.  It was soft and complimentary and welcome.  “I really like your suit,” the voice soothed.  “You don’t see a brown suit often enough.”

I dipped my mouth into the frothy head of my pint and turned to face the tweed enthusiast with something approaching a smile.  “It’s probably my favourite suit,” I said, attempting to curry favour with the tall bald-headed man who I recognised as having been sitting in the company of the camouflage girl.  The gentleman’s head seemed to have been shaved bald out of a consideration for fashion more than as any kind of natural progression.  We exchanged pleasantries and he returned to his table with drinks for himself and the camouflage girl.  I was left standing at the bar feeling like a frying pan without a portion of butter, or a man who had just had an enormous puff of cigarette smoke blown into his face.

An august playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of August

The following two songs were my most listened to through the month.  Unknown Legend was perfect for my feelings of restlessness, the way that reality collides with fantasy.  The song always gets me.

Funeral Beds builds to an epic climax.

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.

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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.