The advent of a fashion faux pas

Although I didn’t have an Advent calendar, the third night of December still carried a surprise behind the window of my bedroom.  The festive discovery maybe shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me, or at least it wouldn’t have done if I had read the letter I received in the post a week or so earlier from the energy company SGN instead of tearing it up into snowflake-sized pieces of paper and tossing it into the recycling bin.  I was reminded of the contents of the communication at around ten o’clock when, in the way that a smiling snowman or a steaming pudding in the form of something resembling a piece of chocolate prompts you that Christmas is another day nearer, the dim and distant sound of a drill cutting through tarmac reminded me that there were roadworks scheduled at the end of my street.

My bedroom was lit up like a fairground park, only as usual without the amusement.  The curtains, which stood from the floor and were much taller than I was, danced along to the beat of a dazzling orange light, which was flickering wildly through the material, on and off and on again, in rhythm to the sound of a pneumatic drill.  I approached the beaming drapes with all of the excitement that a younger me had when holding a cardboard Thomas The Tank Engine Advent calendar, curious to see what was going on on the other side of the window.  I peeled back the curtain with the care of piercing a perforated, numbered square and craned my neck to look out towards the top of the street, where the works vehicles were stationed.  It soon became clear that for me it wouldn’t be a silent night, but for the men who were working on the road, it would be a holey night.

For nigh upon two years of living in my town centre flat, my bedroom had witnessed an underwhelmingly little amount of activity.  Suddenly, on the third night of Advent, there was too much of it.  As I was getting changed for bed under the glowing spotlight of an SGN van, minding my own business in much the same way that any single occupant does, I noticed a spider sitting around fourteen inches from the top of the ivory coloured curtain which hung across the front of my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe.  Having disrobed myself of my yellow shirt, I was feeling fairly certain that the spider, with its eight little eyes, was much more terrified of the situation we had found ourselves in than I was.  We hadn’t quite locked eyes, its being much too small to pick out from a distance, but we were bitterly entrenched in a stand-off across the room, neither party willing to cede ground.  Eventually, like whenever I thought about talking to a woman I liked, my feet grew cold – the disadvantage of having to stick to walking on the floor – and I gave up and got into bed.

From under the comfort of my two thousand thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, all I could think about was the spider.  Was it thinking about me?  Who knew.  But all I knew was that it looked ridiculous standing there on the curtain which my suits and shirts were neatly stored behind.  I stared at it and thought how it would be like me, as someone who gave up learning how to drive after four lessons, standing on the forecourt of a used car dealership.  Like every other spider, the one on my wardrobe curtain had eight legs, and just like every other shirt, the ones I wore had two sleeves.  Even if it was presumed that the arachnid could stretch two of its legs out into the sleeves, I had no idea what it would expect to do with the remaining limbs.  What colour of shirt would a spider even wear? It would be an absurd appearance.  And that would be without considering its ability to match the socks.

I settled back into my pillow and turned off the lamp on my bedside table, not that it really made much difference with the roadworks ongoing up the street.  With my glasses folded away and the light from the trucks illuminating the room every other second, the spider was resembling little more than a conspicuous smudge on the curtain, like an inkblot on an old-fashioned scroll.  As I was laying there, instead of laughing in the arms of a loved one, I was questioning the motives of a spider.  If it wasn’t trying to get into my shirts or to spin a web around the fly of my trousers, then what did it think it was up to?  Nobody ever spoke of finding a spider on their curtain.  A moth, usually, but never a spider.  I began to wonder if it might have been identifying as a moth. It wouldn’t matter because, in time, like anything connected with my bedroom, the spider eventually scurried over the horizon of the curtain and was never seen again.

A calendar, either traditional or Advent, wasn’t required to tell me that it was the first week of December and that the countdown to the twenty-fifth day was underway.  Across my social media accounts, Christmas trees had been popping up everywhere, as though most people had received the same notification alert.  The Instagram photographs and Facebook status updates were only a reminder to me of the pitifully sad tree I had erected in my living room a year earlier, where all of the 1980s novelty glass baubles had been hung on the lower branches, at arms reach of my two-year-old niece, and I wasn’t ready to think about festive decorations again.  It was similar to the way I felt when friends would post pictures of their latest romantic adventure with their partners when all I had recently done was to make a joke to a girl about dressing my mantelpiece with a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz.

Although I looked forward to Christmas every year; the festivities, spending time with family, seeing people who maybe hadn’t been seen for some time, I wasn’t quite able to get into the spirit yet, though it was hard to say if it was through a Scrooge complex or laziness.  I was treating the early December days like any other in the year, more concerned with matching the colour of my socks to my tie than mistletoe and yuletide.  In an effort to brighten my mood and embolden my dress, I took a rare midweek foray into wearing a red shirt.  I hardly ever wore my red shirt, a decision which wasn’t so much due to sartorial consideration, but rather was born more from a fear of putting the garment in the washing machine.  Nevertheless, sometimes a man has to throw on a black sweater vest and a tie, face his anxieties and, at the end of the day, hide the red shirt at the bottom of the clothes hamper if necessary.

Throughout the day, no fewer than four people, though no more than five, passed comment on my red shirt “looking festive.”  I tried to defend myself with my insistence that it was just a shirt with no cheery motive behind it, or inside it, but the charges of a festive appearance continued.  I was forced to accept that by innocently wearing a red shirt I had become accidentally festive, even if my mood was closer to the black tie. Would a spider be forced to endure such criticism if it left the web wearing a bright red shirt?

Worse was to follow the next day when I returned to a more standard combination.  In the comfort of my bedroom, I dressed myself in a pair of smart navy trousers which no-one could mistake for looking festive.  The shirt and tie were equally as unseasonal, and I was feeling more like myself.  I plugged my earphones in and left my flat, stepping out into the dirty daylight of a December morning.  I think I had reached the square, or maybe it was the station, when I realised that the trousers I had believed were blue were actually black, and my face had become as red as a festive shirt.  I thought about hastily retreating home to change, but someone was bound to have already seen me, and what would look more foolish than a man wearing black trousers with a purple tie, other than one who wore two different pairs of trousers in the same morning?  I could at least console myself with the knowledge that my shoes were black, and it wasn’t a completely ridiculous circumstance, but I was troubled by how such a mistake could have happened. It was apparent that the lighting in my bedroom was to blame and I would have to change the bulb, or at least consider dressing at night, when the roadworks were illuminating the street and I could compare notes with the spider on the curtain.

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.  

The night I read from my notebook

After a Valentine’s Day where the only mail I received was a Bank of Scotland envelope addressed to somebody else, I began to make a more concentrated effort to add a little more excitement to my life.  Although it isn’t a place I would ordinarily turn to for laughs, I was drawn to the obituaries section of The Times newspaper.  If I can’t lead a glamourous and thrilling life, I thought, the least I could do would be to read about people who had.

Being a man who has a penchant for matching the colour of his socks to his tie, it was the life story of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld which took my interest.  The German, who revitalised Chanel in the 1980s, was renowned for his eccentric dress sense, and it resonated with me that the same way people observed Lagerfeld’s trademark uniform of dark sunglasses, crisply starched white shirts with large stiff collars, black trousers, belt buckles encrusted with diamonds, fingerless biker gloves, and chunky rings on every finger, around bars in Oban they will ask “why’s that man wearing a pink handkerchief in his pocket?”

When Karl Lagerfeld died on 19 February 2019, he was unmarried and without children.  He was said to have once lamented the fact that laws prevented him from marrying his beloved Birman cat, and legend has it that much of the designer’s £150million estate will be inherited by his feline friend.  This was on my mind for many of the proceeding days as I was studying the fruits of my life and the wealth I would leave behind to bequeath upon another being.  I was considering, firstly, who would receive my personal belongings.  Much like Karl Lagerfeld was, I am a single occupant, and although I don’t have a cat I do house a family of houseplants, though I suspect with my track record in the field of keeping plants that it is unlikely that they will live longer than I do, even if they are cactus plants.

Even if I could determine someone who would inherit the possessions I would leave behind, it would hardly constitute the “fortune” that Lagerfeld was alleged to have written into his will for the cat.  I began to take a mental inventory of my worldly goods, though it didn’t take me very long to determine that all I would have to entrust following my demise would be eight bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, a multitude of notebooks, silk ties in nearly every colour, and a library card.  It was difficult to say whether the whiskey would be my legacy or the end of me.

With the monthly Let’s Make A Scene event at The Rockfield Centre approaching at the end of the week, I went from reading the obituaries to reading through my notebooks for material I might want to narrate to an audience.  Although I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where anyone would wish to listen to my socially awkward and anxiety-riddled ramblings, it seemed that the performance could be the exciting new thing I was looking for.  I began piecing my notes together into a newly written piece, like the saddest jigsaw puzzle anyone has ever undertaken.

As the week progressed I was sitting in my living room reading my words aloud, in a sort of practice for the night itself, given that I am not a naturally gifted public speaker, despite the appearance my attire suggests.  My audience was four cactus plants, and I was struggling to know what kind of tone I should be taking.  I worried that the cacti were finding the material dry, and their reactions remained muted.  Not quite hostile, but prickly all the same.  I remained unperturbed, however, assuming that the response of those in attendance for my first reading would closely resemble that of a few nearly dead houseplants.

My nerves were growing like Japanese Knotweed as Saturday neared.  The day before the event, I was feeling so unwell that I could only drink four bottles of beer in the evening, and I couldn’t even make it to Aulay’s.  My Google search history became a portrait of desperation

How do people speak in public?

Coping with nerves of public speaking

Which types of food help with nerves?

How do you maintain eye contact when there are girls in the room?

The internet proved to be a useful tool with many helpful resources, and I read several articles which, even if they may not have cured my particular worry, did at least make me feel better that there are other people who have difficulty with talking to strangers.  One of the more common and popular techniques suggested is for the speaker to imagine that their audience is naked, and while it seemed like a bold move for a man who struggles to talk to a woman in the scenario where the ultimate goal is usually to undress her, to the extent that he disintegrates into a puddle of saliva and Jameson, I thought that I would adopt the strategy at The Rockfield Centre.

Prior to the open mic event, I met in Aulay’s with a group of friends who were also attending.  It was the first time that the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had assembled in its entirety since some of its members had become considerably less lonely, and the gathering resembled The Beatles post-1970, although the only rancour between us would likely be the argument over which of us is George Harrison.  I managed to drink a pint of Tennents Lager before I was beginning to feel the sickest feeling I have ever felt.  A crippling unease was gripping me the way I had earlier seen my two-year-old niece take hold of a small cuddly toy in Tesco, and like the teddy in her gasp, it was proving impossible to shake.  I couldn’t look at anyone around my table or participate in the conversation, and the loud deranged, drunken ramblings of a man at the bar only unsettled me further.

I have vomited in the bathroom of just about every bar in Oban, with the exception of Aulay’s.  Nobody has ever presented me with a certificate to mark this achievement, but it is one which I valued all the same.  I have often heard it said that a person should not shit on their own doorstep, and it usually confused me that anyone would ever need to be told that defecating in their doorway anyway is a bad idea, but it logically follows that one should not be sick in their favourite bar.  It was that conclusion which was driving me to ignore the nausea that was beginning to crawl up my esophagus like a spider inching its way up a drainpipe with nasty intentions.  If I didn’t think about it maybe it would disappear, though that flawed way of thinking is why I still have a navy blue tie with a conspicuous stain which has been making it unwearable for months.

Not before long, I was striding through the bar towards the bathroom with the false face of a man who was determined to pee, not wanting it to be known that I was about to become the shameful sort who vomits before eight o’clock on a Saturday night.  A welcome relief washed over me when I nudged open the door and saw that the cubicle was vacant and wasn’t being used as a second urinal, as it often is.  I locked myself away, hostage to my own stomach, and hoped for the best.

I was standing starting at the still toilet water and nothing was happening.  This isn’t how being sick in the bathroom of a bar usually works.  It is meant to be involuntary and uncontrollable; the result of an ill-advised shot.  Instead, I was looking into the bowl with a feeling of desolation.  I decided that I would try urinating instead, if for no other reason than to give me a purpose for being there.  Maybe this is what happens when you become 35.  Maybe the body develops new ways of telling you that you need to pee.  Once I had flushed and I wasn’t feeling any better I was becoming angry with myself.  If you can’t even throw up, how are you going to speak in front of an audience of people? I questioned myself.

Eventually it happened.  I don’t know what brought it on, but I was crouching by the toilet pan, almost embracing it like a nervous lover, and it was the cleanest spew I had ever released.  A crack team of DNA specialists would have struggled to prove that I was ever in the bathroom, though I wasn’t necessarily feeling any less nervous for it.

Let’s Make A Scene was once again an unpredictable night with many varied and interesting performances, showcasing a great depth of local talent.  There was poetry on the theme of weather and the sea, a touching retelling of a first visit to the memorial in Amsterdam which pays tribute to the victims of the Holocaust who were gay.  One act initiated a wild debate over the merits of spending £6000 on dental implants, whilst we were treated to a smartly funny standup routine which focussed on veganism and utilised a PowerPoint presentation.  A smartly dressed man played piano and Bond themes and made some quips.

When it came time for me to get up to the front of the room – the last act of the night, like the headline slot at a festival, only without the material or the stage presence of a headline act – I had been drinking several cans of Innis & Gunn and any lingering nerves had almost been drowned by drunkenness.  I walked up with my satchel and took a seat in front of around twenty or thirty people, and I could suddenly feel around a dozen moths in my stomach, fluttering furiously against a dusty lampshade.

I removed my suit jacket and swung it over the back of the folding chair, in an act which wasn’t nearly as debonnaire as I was imagining it would be.  I unzipped my satchel and reached for a blue notebook and a 35cl bottle of Jameson which was being opened for the first time, the sound of the seal breaking and the whiskey lashing against the inside of the small wine glass provided the most dramatic moment of the night.  My right leg crossed over my left, acting as a book stand for the notebook, and I looked up at the audience with the intention of picturing them naked.  Then I glanced around the room and saw my brother.  I decided to change tact and instead look at the others in the room as though they were dressed in exactly the fine wear they had arrived in, and instead I was going to imagine that I was nude.  At least then, I thought, the experience would be as awkward for the audience as it was for me.

The reading went on for approximately thirteen minutes.  Nobody cried, least of all myself, and some people even laughed when I was hoping they would.  By the end, I was feeling a euphoric sense of relief and something which I suspect was even almost approaching enjoyment.  It was one of the most triumphant things I have ever done.

In the bar afterwards, still basking in my glory, I saw the Subway Girl, and experiencing a confidence which comes to me as easily as regurgitation in Aulay’s, I went up and talked to her without nervously waiting for her to notice me.  Along with her brightly-outfitted friend, we drank Jack Daniels in my flat until close to five o’clock in the morning, and although I had long since accepted that the sandwich artist was never going to be Lagerfeld’s cat, the night I read from my notebook may have been when I realised that there are plenty of good people in my life who will ensure that my eight bottles of whiskey are shared long before they are written into a will.

Firing an arrow straight into Cupid’s stupid little eye: My Spotify playlist for the month of February

The night I wore a contentious colour combination

There is a lot to be said for the bar, though it is often what is being said inside the bar that interests me the most.  The more time I spend talking to people over a pint of Tennents or a glass of whisky, the more I find myself wishing that I could pick the most exciting parts from these wonderful bar stories and weave them together into a patchwork quilt representation of my own life.  I suppose, essentially, I have been keen to turn my existence into a lie, because the real thing hasn’t been earning me much credibility in the exchange of pub tales.  The trouble with creating my false existence, however, has always been my lack of guile and what I perceive would be my inability to make thrilling stories of adventure seem believable as my own.

A recent example of a story I was told in a bar which could never be passed off as my own was when the plant doctor told me of the night he spent talking to two German girls he had encountered for the first time.  Holding a conversation with one girl for any period of time is troublesome enough for me when every sentence is fraught with the danger of making some stupid joke, but to keep two women interested for many hours seemed like an outrageous achievement to me.  The plant doctor proceeded to offer the opening line he used to draw the two German girls into a conversation, and I listened with interest.

“I bet I know a way that I can make you smile,” the plant doctor told the Deutsche damsels before performing his patented magic trick.  The girls did indeed smile, and they stayed in the company of the plant doctor for the rest of the night, and as he regaled me with this story I knew straight away that I wouldn’t be able to pass it off as my own.  I pictured the scene in my mind’s eye, and it was clear to me that in such a scenario I would never know for sure if the German girls had smiled because I would have left the room immediately after using the initial line.

As the week wore on, the September rain which had been falling steadily for days developed into a series of storms, and it seemed as though everyone was talking about a spectacular thunderstorm that was ferociously loud and which had lit up the midnight sky over Oban.  The more people spoke of this electromagnetic event, the more it was beginning to dawn on me that the thunderstorm had taken place on the one night that I had gone to bed and fallen asleep without the nightly tossing and turning I usually perform.  As far as I was concerned, the explosive storm could have been a supermarket delivery lorry, or a group of drunks spilling home from the pub, for all the awareness I had of it happening.

The day after the thunderstorm which most people other than me had heard, I suffered my first anxiety attack in months.  It was brought on unexpectedly and came as suddenly as a bolt of lightning, and it rattled in my bones.  The ankles of my trousers were drenched from the rain I had encountered in the morning, and inside I was feeling a downpour which I didn’t know how to stop.  I had a similar experience on Saturday night, sometime around midnight, and it was only then that I could know for sure that I wasn’t feeling anxious about the thunderstorm I had missed.

It was presumably as a result of the confusion I had been feeling for several days that on Saturday I decided to wear a pair of navy blue boots, which I hadn’t worn for some time.  I had bought the Red Tape Crumlin navy boots prior to my first trip to New York City in the March of 2015, and they are the most comfortable boots I have ever owned.  I walked for miles and miles on that trip, and my feet formed a close and intimate bond with the boots.  To walk in them feels like how I would imagine it is to stroll along a pillow of clouds, a feeling which in itself probably resembles the effect created by three or four Jameson.

Despite the soothing comfort brought by my favourite footwear, my decision to wear navy boots had forced me to defy my own dress etiquette by not matching the colour of my belt to my shoes or boots, and that was causing me some distress.  I felt like the Aerosmith song Livin’ On The Edge.  My wardrobe is a lot like the karate student who cannot advance beyond the rank of green belt:  I don’t own a blue belt.  I only possess a black and a brown leather belt and wearing black with navy blue shoes weighed on my mind throughout the day.  It didn’t matter to me that the boots were so old and worn that the navy blue colour had begun to fade and muddy into a sort of dishwasher pastel; I still felt that other people in the bar would notice and critique my judgment.  They would look firstly at my feet, and upon seeing my navy blue boots they would immediately be questioning whether or not I was wearing a matching blue belt.

He doesn’t look like he does karate,” they would be thinking to themselves or speaking in hushed tones to their more appropriately dressed company, “there’s no way he owns a blue belt.  Nobody wears a blue belt, so why is he wearing blue boots?”  I consciously held the tails of my checked shirt over my waist so that nobody could catch sight of my belt.

If this guy can’t even match the colour of his belt to his boots then what else can’t he do?”  They would continue discussing amongst themselves in their perfect little bubbles.  “He probably can’t even keep his houseplants alive.  Or find a use for mushrooms.  Or make a girl smile.  Or…

Anthony Joshua was defending his world titles on Saturday night, and as usual for an AJ fight, the bar was busy.  I welcomed it as an opportunity to use a joke I had been working on in my internal monologue for a while, and when anyone would ask, “are you in for the fight?”  I would respond, “yes – and I’ll probably watch the boxing, too.”  Nobody found this line funny, except for the barman who used to wear glasses.  He laughed warmly, and I found myself thinking that his decision to switch to contact lenses had probably improved his judgment as well as his vision.

Long after the fight, and after the bell had been rung for last orders, myself and five other people retired to my flat, where we drank Jack Daniels and watched the Baby Shark Dance video until some time around five o’clock in the morning.  The drink and dance companions ranged from a good friend and skilled sandwich artist to someone I know, to a friend of those two friends, to a stranger met in a bus shelter.  The number of people made for a difficult seating situation, as my flat only has the furniture for five butts, although one of the group left fairly early and we were able to make it work.

One of the girls was heard to remark that my living room has “the wrong Feng shui,” and I could only assume that this was in response to the large coffee table which sits in the centre of the room and is much larger than most people.  Its size made it difficult for everyone to accurately follow the Monkey Banana Dance, and it clearly wasn’t something I had fully thought through when I moved in.

When I last looked at the clock on the mantelpiece it was approximately 6.20am.  Everyone had left in a taxi more than an hour earlier, and I had spent the time finishing off a generous measure of Jack Daniels and repeatedly listening to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses and The Wrong Year by The Decemberists.  November Rain has long been my favourite song, and I had learned that the sandwich artist is fond of it, and that was something that stuck in my mind.  I sat on the window seat and surveyed the scene around the living room.  Puddles of bourbon whiskey and Coca-Cola swam atop the surface of the Portland oak laminate flooring alongside broken fragments of Pringles.  On the coffee table sat an empty tealight candle, the wax having long been melted away, and in the discarded silver shell was a crushed cigarette butt.  The Jackson Pollock print above the sofa was hanging squint, angled to the right, and it was a visual representation of how I was feeling.

I picked myself up from the window seat and turned out all of the lights, though the streetlights formed an eerie reflection in the pools of whiskey on the floor and I couldn’t forget about the mess.  I staggered through to the bedroom in my comfortable navy blue boots, and it was like walking on top of a sea of clouds which were on top of another layer of clouds.  I tumbled onto my bed and thought about how if this was another person’s story it would surely have had a more exciting ending.

The night I burned the roof of my mouth

In the early days of September, the temperature had dropped dramatically from the hazy highs of July and early August.  It had been raining incessantly, for as many days as I could remember, and when I was going to bed at night the only sound I was hearing was that of cars splashing through pools of water on the slick tarmac outside my window, which was not too dissimilar to the sound of disappointment that I ordinarily go to bed with.  Some nights the sound was so frequent and fierce that it was like falling asleep under a waterfall, and after a while, I was beginning to consider whether it might be a prudent idea to wear a wetsuit under the duvet.  I’ve heard the classic rock songs November Rain and Wake Me Up When September Ends, but this was more a case of November Rain coming early, and I didn’t want to be woken up until it had ended.

By the time the afternoon of the middle Friday of the month came, my heating had already been turned on for six days and nights, and I had become so tired of the climate that I needed to dispense with my usual spinach based salad lunch in favour of a spinach based hot pita bread.  I spread a thin layer of tomato pesto on two defrosted pita bread, covered them with spinach leaves, sliced cherry tomatoes and crudely shaped squares of feta cheese and baked them in the oven for around twelve minutes.  As they heated, I stood in the kitchen looking out of the window at the clothes airer which was standing as a sodden centrepiece in the garden.  Cobwebs hung between the barren lines, giving the impression of the cracks on a jewellery store window which had been burgled.

My attention turned to the kettle, which had finished boiling, and I poured myself a cup of Earl Grey tea.  I reached down into the fridge for the milk and was reminded of the punnet of baby button mushrooms I had recently purchased.  For my entire life, I have had a bitter loathing of mushrooms, and nobody has been able to convince me of their merits.  I had probably only ever tasted a mushroom once and that was enough for me to make my mind up.  I could tell just from looking at them, and from the way that they feel, that I didn’t like them, similar to the way that one tenuous joke is enough for most girls to decide that I’m not the man for them.  However, I had recently eaten a chicken dish which was served in a mushroom sauce, and I hadn’t found myself terribly repulsed.  In addition, the bags of frozen vegetables which I had been buying whilst without a hob in my kitchen also contained small slices of mushroom, which I quite happily ate when disguised behind an entire fork full of carrots and peas.  I convinced myself that this would be as good a time as any to try to refine my attitude towards fungus, and I bought a punnet of baby button mushrooms with the intention of roasting them along with some other vegetables.  When the time came, though, I couldn’t bring myself to peel open the punnet and use the sickly looking mushrooms as intended, and I returned them to the fridge, hiding them behind a case of large eggs.  Several days passed and the mushrooms remained in the refrigerator.  The use by date was approaching and I knew that I was involved in a standoff.  I didn’t want to eat the mushrooms; my fears and disgust had gotten the better of me and I couldn’t bring myself to eat them, but at the same time I had spent money on them and if there is anything I hate as much as mushrooms, it is wasting cold, hard cash.  I sighed, pretended that I had not spied the punnet behind the eggs, and finished making my cup of tea.

The two pita bread were cooked, and when I removed them from the oven they looked appetising.  I sat at the breakfast bar to enjoy my lunch, and when I bit into the bread a cherry tomato erupted in my mouth like a volcano.  I felt the roof of my mouth burn from the molten juices which were released by the smouldering fruit, and for a moment I considered how much less painful it was when I was eating salad for lunch on those warm sunny days in July.

A slender thread of skin dangled from the affected roof of my mouth, like a stray strand of material from an old and worn winter jumper, and later in the evening when I became involved in a conversation with a female American tourist about butt fashion, and I could feel my tongue flicking at this flailing piece of flesh, I became worried that it would appear to any onlooker as though I was making some kind of salacious attempt at seduction.

The Floridian expressed her dismay at people who wear jeans with material which sparkles on the back pockets, and I broadly agreed with her.  My tongue was touching the loose skin from the burn every time I spoke, and I was increasingly aware of it, to the extent that I tried to use as few words as possible.

“Why does a butt need to sparkle anyway?”

“A good butt should speak for itself,” was not something I would necessarily want to write on a greeting card, but it seemed to convey everything I wanted to in this moment.

My brother and I were intending on continuing down the Esplanade to Markie Dans, but the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song title had Aulay’s down as her number one bucket list attraction for her short stay in Oban, and sensing a rare opportunity to make a woman’s dream come true by inviting her to Aulay’s, I agreed that we would accompany her.  We ordered our drinks at the bar, and as I continued to experience trouble with the piece of burned skin which was dangling from the top of my mouth, a large black labrador dog appeared and took the American girl’s attention.  At closing time, I made the short walk home in a cool light drizzle, and I wondered if things might have been different had I been a man who eats mushrooms.

The week nothing got done

With my friend, the spider, gone from my life I was feeling low and lonely and at a loss.  In an effort to bring some meaning to things I began to compile a mental list of goals I wanted to achieve in the coming week.  I thought it would be an idea to shed some light on my situation by changing the lightbulb in the living room ceiling fitting which has been out since I moved in, but I wasn’t sure how I would do that when the entire reason I had befriended the spider was that the ceiling is too high for me to reach.

Other items on my cerebral checklist included:  a need for more picture frames to cover the blank spaces on my walls; to make a decision on whether or not I should invest in a kitchen roll holder, having balanced the eternal trouble of having to reach into the small low level cupboard every time I make a spillage against the aesthetics of having paper on display; to buy glasses (or something similarly useful) to fill the empty shelf in the glass cupboard; dispose of the dead houseplants, as the living room is beginning to resemble a particularly sorry memorial garden to dead houseplants.

Before tending to my list of tasks I decided that I would go out and buy some beer.  Hump day – or ‘Wednesday’, for those who still follow the Gregorian calendar – is typically the day of the week on which I will stock my fridge with beer for the coming weekend.  Two days are ample time for a box of beers to chill in time to celebrate surviving until five o’clock on Friday for another week.

Each week I try to manipulate my grocery shopping so that on Wednesday I am also buying spinach, sugar snap peas, asparagus, blueberries and other items which make my basket appear less dependent on alcohol, even if it is ultimately the only reason I am in the store.  On this occasion I strolled up to the self-service checkouts with more confidence than usual, being that it was the middle of the afternoon and I didn’t have to stand back and awkwardly analyse each customer as I wait for a station to become free.  I scanned my greens and brown bottles and paused for an assistant to come and approve my purchase of alcohol.

After around thirty seconds one appeared and on the screen she was confronted by the question of determining whether I appear to be under 25, and therefore being required to produce ID, or if ‘the customer is clearly over 25′.  The assistant tapped this latter option and although I thanked her out of kindness I couldn’t help but feel that there should be a third response which isn’t so damning.  Something like:  ‘the customer looks to be around 34 but is wearing it well’ or even “the customer is over 25 but has understandably had a tough few days’.

With the threat of some early evening rays breaking from the blue skies on Thursday I abandoned my ambitious plans for cooking a chicken and asparagus risotto and instead grilled the chicken and boiled the asparagus and ventured to my favourite seaside bar.  The sea has such a magnetic attraction and I have always been drawn to it.  It is both beautiful and dangerous, like all the best things we experience.  There is often something soothing about watching the boats moving through the harbour, the way they seem so elegant and effortless as they stay afloat.  Though maybe it was the beer.

I sauntered up to the service area – in the way a thesaurus might – and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn from the young barmaid, who appeared exotic and European.  She flashed an immaculate toothy grin and I immediately thought that she had found my black sleeveless v-neck sweater, black shirt and baby blue tie combination pleasing.  When I went up to the bar for the second time she again had this big beaming smile and I wondered if she had seen my light blue socks or caught the scent of my aftershave.

I returned to the outdoor seating area and observed the ships in the sea; the islands in the distance looked like shadows dancing against a gold curtain.  Soon the barmaid came out to serve some food people had ordered and I realised that she had the same toothy smile the entire time.  It turned out that she wasn’t smiling at me, that’s just the way her face is.

After a few beers it seemed natural that my body would feel the need to expel some of the unwanted fluid and so I was compelled to take a trip to the bathroom.  This particular bar has three urinals and those to the left and right were occupied by work men in high vis jackets, leaving me the piggy – or the penis – in the middle.  Ordinarily such a situation might prove awkward for me, but on this night my bladder was not willing to wait for any man and things flowed along quite smoothly.  That was, at least, until the pungent evidence of asparagus consumption began to emanate from the steam below.  I shuffled nervously.  If I can smell that then surely they can too,  I thought to myself pensively, worrying that despite the heady mix of body odour, farts and general male toilet aromas it would be the scent of asparagus that would cause these heavy built work men to kick off.  They left shortly thereafter, without washing their hands, of course, and I couldn’t help but feel that I had offended them.

For much of the rest of the night I found myself considering urinal etiquette.  My strategy with pub urinals is always to head towards the one furthest from the door.  This is a trick I learned whilst riding the subway in New York City when I realised that the further down the platform you move away from the entrance the less crowded the carriage seems to be; because everybody is attracted to convenience.  The same theory tends to apply in the bathroom and the further away from the door you position yourself the less likely you are to become engulfed by fellow pissing participants.  Nothing concerns me more than when a man needlessly encroaches upon my intimacy zone, which should be at least nine inches, although nobody carries a measuring tape to the bar these days.

As Friday stumbled in – sleepily, despite the lights short circuiting in the lounge bar in Aulay’s the night before – my attention had turned to thinking of a suitable colour scheme for the day.  I favoured a yellow ensemble and this caused much consternation as the evening progressed.  In the first instance I was congratulated by a woman for following her suggestion of wearing a yellow tie and pocket square, and although I had no recollection of ever hearing such an idea it did strike me that it could be a fun development for my Fridays if I was to begin taking sartorial requests.  I suppose that such an endeavour would be a lot like a prison library, in that it would have its prose and cons.

Conversely, the formerly red-haired barmaid expressed dismay and questioned the accuracy of the match, which opened a mustard or custard debate.  I am no stranger to ladies conducting an inquest into the legitimacy of my wear and by the end of the night I felt vindicated by a girl who also wore mustard yellow.

As the week ended I was aware that I hadn’t achieved any of the goals I was aiming to.  Maybe next week I will get round to my list.  For now it seems to be a version of man built to collapse into crumbs.

The week I became a man who wears a v-neck sleeveless jumper

In the eleven days since I moved into my flat I have developed many new habits and routines, some of which can be described under the category of regular household things  people do and some that require a little more effort to label in a shoebox.  For example, I have recently noticed that I have somehow managed to shave around three minutes off the time I spend trimming my stubble every other morning.  It now takes me in the region of seven minutes to fashion my facial fuzz to the desired 1.4mm, by which time the coffee machine has filtered Peruvian ground coffee into the waiting pot.

Under the auspices of household upkeep I have been experiencing a compulsion to brush my Portland oak laminate flooring at least once every day.  It seems as though every time I turn around there is a speck of dust agitating the surface of the floor.  In a corner of the living room I haven’t visited for days there will be a rust-coloured leaf that causes me to question where it came from and how it got there.  I haven’t had the window open and none of my houseplants are mature enough to shed any leaves, let alone foliage of a crispy amber disposition.  Whether it is a stray strand of thread from a lilac dress shirt or a crumb from food I haven’t even eaten yet, there is always something in need of sweeping up.  The frequency with which I have the dustpan and brush out from under the kitchen sink leads me to believe that I am using the broom as some sort of substitute for something which may be missing elsewhere in my life:  a girlfriend, romance, adventure.  Those are all things that I suspect men who don’t spend so much of their time sweeping fluff from their floor enjoy.

Of all the habits and rituals I have developed over the last while, from washing the left side of my face in the shower with Nivea Deep Cleaning Face Wash before the right side, to spraying my houseplants with exactly four bursts of water from the mist bottle every third day, to leaving the flat at 8.40 every morning to walk up and down the Esplanade in an effort to replicate the twenty minute walk I have lost since moving, nothing has taken me by surprise as much as my recent decision to buy three v-neck sleeveless jumpers in shades of black, navy blue and grey.

I have never really been the jumper wearing type of guy.  I think that they look good on other men but always felt that I had the appearance of a person who is hiding something when I wear an item of knittery.  I am not sure why I thought about buying three v-neck sleeveless jumpers and I didn’t know where a man would go to buy such an article of clothing, but I became quite compelled by the idea and after several days of trying to picture in my mind whether I could pull off the sleeveless jumper look I Google searched where do men go to buy jumpers without sleeves? and within minutes I had bought three from an online retailer.

Since the sleeveless jumpers arrived I have been going home at night after work and slipping an appropriately coloured jumper over the top of my shirt and tie, rather than go through the drama of changing into a pair of jeans and a checked shirt.  It is the ultimate act of sophisticated sloth.

The first evening that I wore this quarter acrylic attire was a strange and curious one.  The blue sweater was comfortable and warm, yet I couldn’t fathom how that could be so when large parts of it were missing.  In moments of panic I would catch sight of my own arms and wonder why I could see the sleeves of my yellow shirt, and then I would remember that I am now a man who wears a v-neck sleeveless jumper and that I was supposed to be able to see the arms of the garment underneath.  I sat on the sofa listening to an easy listening 90’s playlist on Spotify whilst drinking a glass of Chilean Merlot and considered whether this is how men who wear certain types of knitwear behave.  I almost felt as though the jumper should have come with a handbook outlining the things that the wearer should and shouldn’t do to convey the appearance of a man who knows that he is wearing a sweater vest.

I sat surveying the surroundings in my living room:  the small flame of a tealight candle dancing in an oil burner with a scattering of incense on top which is situated in the middle of my coffee table; the tall, floppy houseplant which is cradled into the corner of the mantelpiece; five chunky unlit red candles sitting in a forked candle holder in front of the fireplace and three picture frames hanging empty on the walls.  Is this the room of a man who wears a v-neck sleeveless jumper?  I thought that maybe I should be wearing corduroy trousers and clenching a smoking pipe between my thumb and index finger.  There would be no tobacco in it, of course, it would be for purely ornamental purposes.  Maybe a man who wears a sweater vest would display photographs of New York City in his empty picture frames and he’d be listening to a podcast about true crime or technology.  His coffee table might have an arrangement of pot pourri and a copy of The Guardian folded neatly underneath.  I pondered whether a man wearing a navy blue sleeveless jumper would be wearing bright orange socks and if he would really be snacking from a plastic tub of mango.

After a few nights wearing a v-neck sleeveless jumper around the flat, the shock of my new sartorial situation had subsided and I began to feel comfortable in my role as a man who lounges around his home in knitwear.  I accepted that all the things I had been doing are exactly the sort of things a man who wears sweater vests would do, because I am now that type of man.  With that realisation made I got up from the couch and brushed up a spot of soil which had appeared by the foot of a plant pot.

I am now a man who wears a v-neck sleeveless jumper with a sweeping problem.