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.
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.
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.