A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.

They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.

The Vesuvius Question

It wasn’t often that I would arrive home to find anything waiting for me other than an escape from the world outside, but as I was approaching the front door to my flat I could see that there was a piece of paper protruding from the gap between the frame and the door, the way a shirttail comes loose from your trousers and hangs over the hip, like a hostage who has made a daring break for freedom.  The paper was no bigger than the palm of my hand, about a fifth of a sheet of A4, and it was folded onto itself with no greeting on the outside.  It was the most exciting thing I had encountered in my doorway since the time a sandwich artist dropped off a six-inch Sub on her way home.

My first reaction was to consider why the person who had delivered the note hadn’t used the mailbox which was on the wall adjacent to the door.  It struck me that walking all the way to my front door and shoving a sheet of paper into the narrow crack rather than easing it into the slot in the mailbox was a lot like taking a rod to the railway pier and spending hours fishing for a little kipper when there is a seafood hut selling freshly caught langoustine a few yards away.  It was an admirable commitment to the old fashioned way of communicating in our block of flats, following on from the two-foot-long scroll of paper which was stuck to the back of the entrance after a stranger wandered upstairs and fell asleep outside the home of a young family, but if the author of the note was really wanting to pay homage to a time before mailboxes had been invented then I would have been expecting to come home to be met by their message carved into the wall outside my door, or at least drawn with chalk symbols.

After gently prising the paper from its point of delivery my next concern was the question of who might have gone to such an effort as to handwrite a note and leave it dangling in the doorway like an apple from a tree, waiting to be picked.  A member of my family, perhaps wanting to discuss dinner arrangements for Saturday night, would have just sent a message to our group chat, whereas a friend who was needing to talk to me would have known to go straight to Aulay’s.  I clutched the paper in my hand, as though it was a winning betting slip, as I walked across the threshold into my flat, all the while considering the admittedly ludicrous possibility that I might have had a secret admirer.  I continued through to the kitchen with thoughts in my head of a woman who was finally letting her long-suppressed admiration of my liking of notebooks over Macbooks be known.  Perhaps she had seen me scribbling in my small pocket notebook at the bar, or she had even heard me read from my notebook at the Let’s Make A Scene open mic events.  I had a sense of anticipation I hadn’t felt in a long while as I unfolded the written note.

On the torn sheet of paper, my upstairs neighbour was advising me that the mains water supply would be switched off from eight o’clock the following morning.  Immediately my thoughts were turned to the havoc that could be wreaked upon my daily routine.  I was thinking about how I would probably have to get out of bed earlier than normal, rather than pull my usual stunt of hitting snooze on my alarm and turning in my sheets as I thought about which pair of trousers I would wear and how futile it all was anyway.  I considered the merits of switching things up and showering before shaving, imagining that it would be better to be caught mid-trim rather than mid-stream if the water was to go off.  A part of my thought process even became concerned with the effects it might have on me if I had to swallow my daily allergy relief tablet with a mouthful of milk.  It seemed unlikely that it would have done anything other than making the pill taste a little different, but I couldn’t face taking the risk.

A postcard view of Oban from Kerrera

As fortune would have it, I was able to rouse myself from my bed at a reasonable hour and the water supply remained active until I had left the flat, allowing me to both enjoy a hot shower and rinse the trimmings of my stubble from the bathroom sink.  Leaving my flat a few minutes earlier than usual enabled me to enjoy a longer morning walk, and I started the day feeling refreshed.  By the time I arrived in Aulay’s later in the night I was keen to discover if the surprisingly successful early start I had made to the day would translate into a pleasant night when I met with the plant doctor and his work colleague at the bar.

I had met the plant doctor’s colleague previously at The Rockfield Centre, where I was already nervous before a reading, but the hut was dimly lit and my leaf-like features and lack of eye contact probably weren’t so noticeable.  Here I was forced to work harder to hide my natural anxiety when talking to a woman because the bar lights in Aulay’s were so much brighter, and like a Smiths song, it was written all over my face.  Even if my body language was capable of masking my insecurity, it was inevitably betrayed by my words, which tumbled from my tongue one after another like lemmings walking off a cliff and collided on the bar in front of me as I pointed out that the last time we were talking, it was in a small dimly lit room where I was feeling nervous but “at least it couldn’t be seen.”

My mouth was dropping lemmings at a rate of around one stupid joke or observation every three or four minutes, which is often the way these things go when my social awkwardness either forces me into silence or forms a chemical romance with the pints of lager I’ve been drinking to convince me that it would be a good idea to blurt out every daft idea which comes to mind, and even though I was successful in my favourite past-time when meeting a new person with an exotic foreign accent of identifying their country of origin, albeit at the second time of asking, it seemed likely that the marine biologists had labelled me with the scientific term land-dwelling idiot.

As they did at the same time every year, my sister and brother’s birthdays fell a day apart in early August.  When I was a kid it was often difficult to wrap my head around the idea that my sister, who was the youngest child, would have a birthday on the 11th of August which would make her a year younger than my brother, and then the following day my brother’s birthday would once again make him two years older than my sister.  The confusion was enhanced by our parents, who would take great amusement from the tantrums it would cause when they began the act around early August time of pretending that they couldn’t remember which sibling’s birthday fell on the 11th, and whose was the 12th.  We always figured that this was how grown-ups got their kicks before the internet became a thing, and I felt a measure of luck that my own birthday was on a standalone date in October.  However, as I grew older I began to appreciate that maybe they weren’t always fooling around, and it really was difficult to tell whose birthday was when, and even how old people were getting.

For the most recent couplet of birthdays it was decided that we would do something different for the family meal which traditionally marks such events, and we took the small ferry which sails from the North Pier to the island of Kerrera, where we ate at the Waypoint Bar & Grill.  The evening was warmer than it had been in the preceding days, seducing most of our party into leaving home without a jacket.  My brother and I met for a pint in the beer garden of the Oban Inn, whilst unbeknownst to us, our father had made his way by bus to the slipway no fewer than forty minutes before our scheduled departure.  Our sister arrived with her partner and their daughter shortly afterwards, and from the pavement she spotted dad in the distance, when it occurred to me that we might have been better off exchanging handwritten messages after all.

The thing I had been spending years searching for was at the marina all along.

The short wooden benches around the perimeter of the small passenger ferry were so low down that you could almost stretch out and touch the sea if the mood took you.  As the vessel motored out into the bay everyone on board was reaching for their smartphone as we were treated to a view which was rarely seen by us, the postcard view of Oban which probably lands in scores of mailboxes every year.  It was a beautiful summer’s night.  My sister was thrilled to be able to see her new home from the water, whilst my father enthused about the stunning scenery of the west coast.  Then suddenly the pint of Guinness which I had drunk much quicker than is normally advisable was swimming in my stomach, and all I could think about was using the toilet.  I had almost forgotten all about the family meal we were heading towards Kerrera to enjoy; all I wanted was to reach dry land so I could make a urinal wet.

Reaching The Waypoint Bar & Grill was a short walk from the marina where the ferry berthed, and inside, the restaurant had the appearance of an Austrian ski lodge, with its warm timber walls and cosy ambience.  A nautical theme was prominent around the place, with buoys and various news articles and photographs relating to the sea decorating the walls, although nobody could quite figure out why a model fighter airplane was suspended over the bar.  I had managed to convince myself that the bathroom could wait through at least fifteen minutes of menu chat, but there reached a point after a certain number of mouthfuls of Twisted Thistle IPA that relief couldn’t wait much longer, and I had to go off in search of the toilet.  The location of the facility had featured in the discussion around the table, and although it was only a very brief journey down a path away from the restaurant, it wasn’t until I had taken the plunge to find it that others decided that they too needed to use the toilet.  As I was returning to the table, my dad and brother were both on their way to the restroom, and although it wasn’t quite someone writing a blog about motherhood, it felt nice to once again be the inspiration for a movement.

By the time the waitress had made her way back to our group to take another drinks order, dad was ready to break his sobriety, which it seemed he was only ever willing to do after seven o’clock on a Saturday night.  He ordered two bottles of red wine for the table, although when the rest of us had already started on the beer and, in my sister’s case, the vodka, it seemed likely that the phrase “for the table” was being used liberally, like when a friend invites you to the pub for a drink and you know it’s going to be three or four.

My sister looked at me across the table, which the six of us had somehow subconsciously managed to arrange ourselves around by age on either side.  “Can dad swim?”

It seemed like something that three people in their thirties should know about the man who helped bring them into the world.  We knew all of his other vital details:  the year he was born, the year he was married, his favourite film and musical artist, his career history and his shoe size.  And yet it occurred to us that in the period between 1983 and 2019 we had never seen our father swim. 

Even over the starters the three of us were still speculating over dad’s swimming ability.  The tones were hushed, as though we were discussing some matter of great sensitivity and we couldn’t risk the table behind us hearing.  A mob meeting over plates of pasta in the corner of a Sicilian restaurant, businessmen bartering over a multi-million-pound local investment, or a spy passing on new information to his bosses.  The reality was that we were three grown-up children who were questioning whether or not our father could swim whilst we were getting drunker by the minute.  What had given us the right to be so smug and confident about our own swimming ability in the event that it was one of us who would stagger overboard on the ferry home?

The service in the Waypoint was very attentive and considerate, which contributed to our tremendously enjoyable experience on Kerrera.  One of the waitresses went as far as to source a box of Lego for my three-year-old niece, who was the only person at the table whose swimming could not be called into question.  When the main courses arrived, it was difficult to tell which would have been the more intimidating sight at our table for a young server:  the three-year-old with the brightly coloured blocks spread out across the floor, or the 6’8” Slovak with the booming laugh.  I ordered the special of tempura scallops, having been attracted by the idea of eating seafood that had been disguised in a seasoned batter.  The scallops were meaty and delicious, though by the third one the fishy taste was creeping through the batter and I was reminded that I was eating seafood.

By the time we were nearing the end of our meal, the sun was beginning its descent into its cradle behind the island’s darkening green hills.  From our table, the terraced outdoor seating area appeared to be bathed in a beautiful warm glow.  Eventually we were enticed into taking our drinks outside to enjoy the view across the marina in the setting sun.  The scene was splendid, although it wasn’t long before the breeze coming in from the sea was causing an uncomfortable chill, and all of a sudden, as we glanced inside to see our table being cleared away, the decision by most of us to leave our jackets at home became foolhardy.  We couldn’t return to the restaurant, it would be too much like an admission of defeat, so we suffered the cold through gritted teeth and pretended that we were having a good time, which was ironic considering that oftentimes that can be the case with social occasions, yet on this night we actually were having a good time.  In a bid to create some warmth for myself, I engaged my niece in a game of chase around the pathways in the area surrounding the restaurant.  We were having a ball running in circles.  On the final straight back up to our table on the terrace, my young niece called out to me as she challenged me once more.

“I’ll be the tiger and you can be the grandma.”

She bared her claws, which were really tiny little fingers moulded into the shape of a large cat’s paw, and I let out the kind of hollow shriek that I could only imagine a terrified grandmother would elicit when confronted with such a ferocious creature.  The cry was tinged with the anguish that came with the realisation that my niece had seen my running style as being like that of an elderly woman and not a man who was in the prime of his thirties, or even a grandpa or another, lesser, wild animal such as a fox or a ferret.  Eventually the young tiger caught the elderly grandma, as it always did, and it used its tiny claws to maul the hapless, oddly-running pensioner.

When we arrived back on dry land after the ten-minute crossing from Kerrera we stumbled upon a folded page from a notebook which was sitting undisturbed on the pavement across the road from the Oban Inn, at almost exactly the location where my sister had spotted dad waiting for us hours earlier.  I was more excited than anyone else by the discovery, and I reached down with a flexibility that belied my role as the grandmother to pick up the note, eager to find if it was a lost love letter or some other artefact of interest.  The group huddled beneath a streetlight, almost like star-crossed teenagers reading forbidden communication by torch under the duvet, as I opened up the paper, which had been carefully folded twice.

The first line was written in a clear and concise manner, the letters were unjoined and elegant.  The word oregano was circled, and below it was several more words which had been crossed off.  Lemons, frozen broccoli, raspberries, 0% yoghurt (x2), kidney beans.  It was a shopping list, presumably for a family, or at least for a couple, and I could barely hide my disappointment.

It was nearing midnight when my brother and I were about to call it a night and leave Aulay’s for home when I noticed that somebody had filled the jukebox with nine songs by the Dublin four-piece U2.  This was all the reason I needed to stay for another pint of Guinness.  I never wanted to be the guy who put U2 on the jukebox, but I was always happy when another person took the risk.  Looking around the emptying bar it was difficult to tell who would have made such a sacrifice, but I considered them to be like a mystery benefactor, the kind of generous soul who anonymously donates a large sum of money to a charity or a person in need and then quietly disappears into the shadows, or drops a couple of pound coins into the jukebox and stocks it with several U2 deep cuts.  My brother left sometime between the second and the third track, while I was sitting in my own company with a pint of Guinness, All I Want Is You playing in the background and somebody else’s shopping list folded into my pocket.

Despite the enjoyment of the weekend’s celebrations, by the time The Lorne’s pub quiz came around on Wednesday I had been spending the past week feeling like a broken roller coaster, the type that only ever goes down and the engineers are busy working on the haunted house.  The raven-haired quiztress and I assembled once again in our breakaway team with the goal of getting the better of the Bawbags.  We were joined by a young woman who had spent the day fermenting fish scales and yet still only ever smelled like cigarettes and violets.  Compared to some of the other teams around us we were feeling underwhelmed in numbers, and we weren’t feeling confident about our chances.

However, after two rounds we were in first place, ahead of nine or ten other teams, and going into the final two rounds of questions we were involved in a three-way tie for the £25 bar voucher prize.  We were on a high, elated with the effort of our fledgeling three-person team, and excited to be in with a real chance of actually winning the quiz.  Despite all of this, one question from the earlier round on Italy was looming over us, threatening to erupt and spoil all of our good work.

“Which is the only active volcano in mainland Europe?”

I had no idea, my knowledge on active volcanoes being comparable to my expertise in the fields of medicine or romance.  The ladies had a good feeling about Vesuvius and wrote it on the answer sheet, although neither of them were certain about it.  It was a question we kept returning to through the round in the hope of finding some clarification.  From nowhere, the name of the only volcano I could think of came to mind, and as soon as I said the words “could it be Mount Etna?” the seed had been planted.  After a period of consideration, Vesuvius was scored out on our paper, like frozen broccoli on a shopping list, and Etna became our oregano.  Of course, the correct answer was Vesuvius.

There was an air of tension, trepidation and sheer electric thrill at the end of the music round as the teams awaited the final scores for the night.  There was a point and a half separating the top three competitors, and the slim margin of half a point came between second place and the eventual winners.  Regardless of the outcome, the three of us were chuffed with our performance, which had us competing until the very end with the two most experienced and skilled teams in the quiz.  

When it was announced that the Bawbags had finished third, it was confirmation that our breakaway outfit had at least achieved its original aim.  It was a minor victory, though when Redneck Riviera were crowned as the quiz winners for the week, beating us by half a point, our delight turned to despair.  Immediately the immortal words “fucking Vesuvius” were uttered. In future times to come, the answer to the question of the only active volcano in mainland Europe would never have us scratching our heads again.  No-one could forget Vesuvius.  Whether or not dad could swim was another question altogether.

The nights I was having difficulty with language

New Year rings in the opportunity for renewal and arrives with a breath of optimism.  All around there are people promising great things to better themselves, making exciting plans for the weeks and months ahead and revelling in the ‘New Year, new me’ mantra.  For a while after the hands on the clock crawl past midnight it is as though anything is possible. It is in this sense that New Year is a lot like getting a haircut, only without having to listen to the barber’s banter for fifteen minutes.  There is nothing like a new haircut to allow a person to feel revived and enthusiastic about the opportunities in store; nothing except the New Year.

I was thinking about this on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, when I was hunched over the pristine porcelain of my toilet bowl, vomiting for the second time in as many hours.  My life was flashing before my eyes as another heave brought more of my guts to the water below me. If New Year is like getting a haircut, then New Year’s Day is the hairs that are trapped down the collar of your shirt after they are trimmed from your head.  It wasn’t even that I was hungover so much, although I had been drinking rum with a tall and wild-haired student from the University of St Andrews and his bespectacled girlfriend until five in the morning. I woke up on the first day of January with flu-like symptoms – a consequence of a rainy walk home a few nights earlier, I presumed – and they lasted until the fourth, by which point a healthy dose of my New Year optimism had been blown into most of the contents of a box of Kleenex.

The ten-second countdown to midnight started abruptly, as though the bar band had been lost in song and suddenly remembered why everyone was there.  By the time it ended and 2019 had arrived, there was a mass exodus from the pub by people who were keen to watch the fireworks explode against the black blanket of a winter sky.  When the celebrations started I found myself surrounded by swathes of people I didn’t know, and in keeping with previous New Years, I didn’t receive a kiss at the bells, although I have never liked to go too far on the first date anyway.

Amongst the drunken revellers who were clustered around the bar, I spotted the Italian doppelgänger version of my brother, and I approached him to wish him the best for the coming year.  He was accompanied by the smoking Frenchwoman, whom I endeavoured to talk to.  She was telling me that she had returned to Oban from Paris earlier that day, and in my never-ending quest to gather as many mundane details about a story as possible, I asked – or at least attempted to ask – how she had travelled back to Scotland.  I wasn’t looking for much; just modes of transport, weather systems encountered, anecdotes of awkward aircraft seating, interactions with train station baristas, airport security snafus, that sort of thing.

Against the backing track of the bar band, who had returned from their break and were in full swing with rambunctious ceilidh music, and with Jameson clinging to my tonsils, I was finding it difficult to make myself heard.  I tried changing my line of questioning, tried moving the words around, like when my dance moves aren’t quite working out and I try to involve more shoulder action, but it was futile.  The smoking Frenchwoman tilted her head and spoke.  “I don’t understand a word you are saying,” she hummed in a flawless French accent, her use of English unquestionably more effective than my own.  She left with a cigarette clutched between her fingers, and I was considering the ways that I could have made a worse first impression in a new year.

After spending much of New Year’s Day asleep on my father’s couch, I was determined to make my first homecooked meal of the year a delicious one when I was making dinner on the second.  I happened upon an appetising recipe for a chilli prawn linguine dish in that days Times newspaper, and I was looking forward to trying it.  In the afternoon, I walked the short distance along the road to the Lidl supermarket to purchase the small list of ingredients I was needing to make my evening meal.  Almost everything was readily available, although they were out of spring onions.  I considered the merits of going to one of the other stores which are nearby to finish my shopping, but in the back of my mind I knew that there was an onion or two in the back of my kitchen cupboard, and presumably the only effect of substituting spring onions for onions would be to make my cuisine slightly more mature.

I decided to take the lazy option and use onions in my recipe rather than walk all the way to another supermarket just for a bunch of spring onions, but the judgment weighed on my conscience for the rest of the night.  I was reluctant to let it trouble me too much – there is no use crying over sliced onion, after all – but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how I was only two days into the new year and already I was following the same pattern as in 2018:  settling for what I already have instead of going for what I really want, and not making the effort to go and find the ingredient which will give my meal the flavour it needs.

On my first visit of the year to Aulay’s Bar, there was a complimentary pint of lager being offered to each of the ‘regulars’.  In addition to the pocket diary and pen which was handed out on Hogmanay, it was a generous gesture which left me thinking about whether it was the first time in my life that I had ever been considered a regular at or to anything.  I was basking in a sense of achievement when the plant doctor then revealed that he had returned from his Christmas trip home with a gift for me from his mother.  He reached into the pocket of his jacket, which seemed deeper than a regular pocket, and withdrew a Tupperware box which had inside it a neatly ribboned bag.  In the bag were five gingerbread figures:  four men who were each wearing glasses and were finely tailored in matching ties and underwear, and one gingerbread woman who had an ample bosom and a delicious red smile.  It immediately became the sweetest gift I had ever received, both literally and in terms of kindness.

I took the Tupperware box home at the end of the night and proudly spread the gingerbread people out across the kitchen counter, admiring the handiwork in their little personalities.  I began to imagine which of the gingerbread gentlemen would be first to make romantic headway with the gingerbread girl.  It was already noticeable that she was keeping a further distance from the baked figure which most closely resembled me, and I was wondering if he had said something on the way over.  I thought about the awkward tension there must be inside the Tupperware once I had carefully packed them all away again.  This should be when things are at their most intimate and exciting, when the lid goes back on and the lights go out and the possibilities are endless.  But the gingerbread representation of me had already made some sarcastic comment or arduous pun, and now he was going to have to watch as the other three gingerbread men made the girl swoon with their sugary charisma.  I wondered if it was best to just put myself out of my misery and eat the gingerbread me, but there was something uncomfortable about the idea of biting my own head off.

In Markie Dans, amidst the double celebration of an engagement and a thirtieth birthday, our crew was aware of a tall girl who was dancing alone in the corner of the dancefloor.  We observed the scene and realised that, for whatever reason, people just weren’t wanting to dance alongside this girl.  After some time the three of us each approached and broke out some moves of our own.  The not-so-tiny dancer turned out to be a Brazilian soap retailer who was fun and friendly and simply seeking friendship.  She told us that she felt other girls were reluctant to talk to her because they felt threatened by her, and the plant doctor and I looked at each other and expressed empathy with her trouble with girls.

“And guys only want to fuck me.”

Immediately the dancefloor became like a scene from a lame western movie, where the cowboys are all involved in a standoff and have holstered their weapons.  Our dance moves became much less sexualised, although mine started out that way and stayed the same.

The dancing Brazilian soap seller told us her name and after around seven arduous attempts by me to get the pronunciation right, with each one further aggravating her, we agreed that I was never going to make it sound right and that it would be in everybody’s interest if I stopped trying.

With all of us on a first name basis, and most of us with the ability to annunciate them, the four of us returned to my flat for beer, incense and music.  Although Wah-Wah was inevitably played, the scene was more like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as we exchanged stories of romantic misery at four o’clock in the morning.  In many ways it was the same old new year, though all of a sudden my decision to use onions instead of spring onions wasn’t seeming so terrible.

The night I gave the worst travel advice

The streets of Edinburgh were bulging with city goers seeking some festive spirit, with crowds of people so thick that it was barely imaginable that a line of a hundred white LED lights could be strung through them.  It required a real effort and a measure of ingenuity to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other at any kind of regular pace.  There were families exploring the vast Christmas market, whilst couples were walking with their arms linked along the street, their knitted hats and scarves straight out of a page they saw in a catalogue.  A pair of large dogs, Great Danes, I think, were striding alongside their owners, each dressed in a red and a green elf costume.  Meanwhile, I was on my way to dine alone at a French restaurant I had read about earlier.

Everything about the city was lit up.  In the gardens, by the Scott Monument, stood a massive Big Wheel which was flashing a brilliant bright red as it turned.  Positioned so close to the Victorian Gothic structure, built in 1844, the scene looked like a Pixar production of Lord of the Rings.  On George Street, there were Christmas lights as far as the eye could see, more than any person could reasonably count.  In the windows of department stores, there were colourful and joyous displays, depicting all sizes of Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer, and sweet haloed angels.  Over on the South Bridge, the neon blue sign of The Church of Scientology was burning in the cold night air, and I thought to myself how nice it was that all of the crazy beliefs were being catered for.

Down a cobbled side street, I found the traditional French restaurant I was searching for.  Opened two years ago and run by a French couple, the restaurant was small and intimate, housing only six tables and seating a maximum of four parties at any time.  At the door, I was greeted by the wife of the couple, whose role in the partnership seemed to be to act as the most diminutive French waitress I have ever seen.  She led me to a table at the back of the room, taking me past a long table in the centre of the dining area which was showcasing a range of Christmas figurines arranged into a festive scene.  When seated I became aware of the fact that the woman was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of her footwear, which was a pale colour.  Once I had seen it I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was wondering if she knew.  Soon it was as distracting as the waitresses’ habit of approaching my table as I was deep in contemplation, and I never did get to finish my thought.

After a short while, the waitress – no taller than a mid-size Christmas tree with a star on top – presented me with two menus:  one was the dinner selection and the other a seven course Christmas menu.  I perused the festive feast on offer, considering whether the duck foie gras would be like the French Christmas dinner equivalent of a pig in a blanket.  Seven courses seemed like five too many for someone who has never dined in a French restaurant, however, and after a quick consultation with Google to pinpoint which dishes on the menu might contain mushrooms, I ordered from the regular evening selection.

Along with my Venison Parmentier, I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was the only words I understood the waitress say.  She returned from the wine rack with an ice bucket and the bottle of my choosing, in a presentation which seemed much too elaborate for a single man who was really only wanting to get drunk.  She opened the bottle, the glass dripping with an enticing condensation, and asked me if I would like to taste it.  I have never known anyone to say no in such a scenario, though a panic streaked through my mind as I considered how awkward it would be if I tried the wine and found it was disgusting.  Would I have the guts to turn it away after she had gone to all the trouble of opening the bottle and resting it in a chilled silver bucket?

The waitress poured a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc into my glass, and I raised it slowly to my mouth, pausing to take an exaggerated inhale.  I wasn’t sure what I was sniffing for, but it seemed like something a person would do when tasting wine.  “That’s acceptable,” I said, in the most ridiculous manner possible, after drinking the fruity white.

I was reveling in the adventure of trying French cuisine for the first time.  It was in contrast to my dining experience earlier in the day, on the train from Oban to Glasgow, when I was forced into eating an entire mango on the journey – rather than saving some for the later leg to Edinburgh – after forgetting to pack my tangerines.  I had never before eaten so much mango in a single sitting, and the thought crossed my mind that there could be some kind of unexpected side effect, the way children become hyper on too much sugar, or I transform into a bumbling buffoon around women after a certain amount of beer and Jameson.

Across the aisle from my seat was a girl who had olive skin and who was wearing a fluffy red hat.  I noticed her staring as I brought another chunk of juicy yellow fleshed mango to my mouth.  I couldn’t help but worry that she had seen how much mango I was eating, knowing the crude effect it would have on a person.  She had doubtless seen the way that the skin around my nostrils had the appearance of a window which has been decorated with spray-on snow, the aftermath of a cold earlier in the week, and we both knew that I would have been better off eating an orange.

There was no muzak in the background of the restaurant, a feature which I considered would be ideal in the wild event of me dining with a woman on an intimate date, allowing you to really talk to a person.  Sitting by myself in the corner, it made things eerily quiet, and I was left to dwell on my own thoughts.  Part of me was wanting to create some atmosphere by plugging my earphones into my phone and playing something on Spotify by La Fouine, but I wouldn’t have known where to begin.  After finishing my meal, I sat for what felt like at least fifteen minutes trying to catch the attention of the waitress in order to ask for my bill.  It was another scenario in which I was left to rue my inability to make eye contact with a woman, and it was only after my second attempt at raising my arm in the air that I was able to draw her to my table.

After eating, I retired to my favourite bar in the city, Brass Monkey, where in contrast to the manic streets outside, I found a surprising solitude.  I sank into a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn.  On the chalk menu overhead, there was an offer of a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie for £3.25.  It seemed appealing, though I decided that it would contradict the fine French wine I had just enjoyed.  As I was mulling it all over in my mind, I wondered whether they would use the whole orange, or would they peel it and cut it into pieces first?

I was nearing the last mouthful of my third pint and considering moving on to The Advocate, which wasn’t so far from my hostel and in my thinking would save me a walk later in the night.  To my left, there was a man ordering around four or five drinks.  He was sitting at a table with a group of friends, and once he had paid for his round he carried three of the drinks over to them.  He mentioned to the barmaid that he was doing this, and noticing that the head on his pint was evaporating, she asked him what he was drinking so that she could top it up in the meantime.

“It’s a beer,” he responded, quite matter of fact.

“What kind of beer?”  The barmaid enquired.  “We sell several of them.”

The man informed her of his tipple and took the rest of his drinks to the table.   “It’s amazing the number of people who come in here and ask for ‘a beer’,” the barmaid said to me, standing behind rows of taps.  Her voice was sounding faintly Irish to me, and her hair was nearly as dark as the tattoos which were covering the arm she was using to pour pints.  My soul was on fire.  I was put in mind of McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which to this day only serves two varieties of beer:  light and dark.  Having made contact with the barmaid, I decided that I would remain seated in Brass Monkey, and I had the perfect line for her.

“Since you brought it up,” I began, leaning forward on the oak surface of the bar, excitedly.  “Can I have a beer?”

The barmaid laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time.  “What kind of beer?”

I stayed until shortly after midnight, but the barmaid didn’t talk to me again.

Whilst standing at Aulay’s Bar in Oban, thinking about another beer, a quartet of Greeks arrived.  They were talking about their travel plans for the following few days, and when they mentioned their intention to drive north to Inverness, I felt that it would be useful for them if I shared my experiences of making the same journey as a child, when we would often take family car trips to visit my mother’s side of the family.  The Greeks – two couples – were listening with interest as I enthused about the beautiful scenery they would witness on the drive, which is in excess of three hours long.

“I used to suffer from terrible travel sickness when I was younger, though,” I warned.  “There would be many an occasion when mum would have to pull over so that I could be sick at the side of the road.”

“Come to think of it, much of that was probably the Smarties I was eating,” I recalled.

“There was one time I vomited on the banks of Loch Ness.  Dad tried to make me feel better about it by convincing me that we had seen the Loch Ness Monster while I was throwing up, but I never believed it.”

“So, if I could offer you one travel tip when you are driving to Inverness, it would be this:  don’t eat Smarties.  And carry a plastic bag.”

The group was looking at me with their big, dark Mediterranean eyes, expressionless and uncertain.  They shuffled off towards a table in the corner of the bar without saying another word.  It occurred to me that I should have mentioned the mango.

The three nights of Thirty-five

A few things had made it obvious to me that it was October.  On my nightly walk home from work through town, the air had recently become fragrant with the chimney smoke coughed up by coal fires which were being lit ever since the rain and wind had adopted a brisk autumnal chill.  Rusted leaves scampered down desolate streets, their movement making a sound that put me in mind of kitten claws on a wooden floor.  Supermarkets were displaying their seasonal offers of Halloween costumes and Christmas selection boxes side by side, bringing back to life the ancient dispute between Paganism and Christianity.  On my smartphone, the calendar application had been reading October for more than a week.

Although October is the month where I not only age day by day and week by week, but also by an entire year, it has always been one of my favourite pages on the Gregorian calendar.  In the days when I was growing up, it would usually be every other October when we would go away on a family holiday.  The school term would end around the week of my birthday and the five of us went to Butlins, or on the bus to Blackpool, or on three occasions, to Walt Disney World in Florida.  It was on the third of those trips, in October of 1998, when I turned fifteen and fell in love with a girl from Tallahassee over a weekend in the hotel swimming pool.  She was petite and blonde, and her skin was the tone of a freshly varnished bookcase.  We played Marco Polo late into the nightand her inability to tag me gradually convinced me that she had at the very least developed a sympathy for me, and quite possibly held romantic intentions.  It wouldn’t occur to me until a few years after the fact that she was simply terrible at water sports and was struggling to identify the Scottish accent.

On Sunday morning the Tallahassee girl and her father were checking out of the hotel, and our family was scheduled to visit the Magic Kingdom.  As at age thirty-five, my ability to talk to girls when fifteen-years-old was comparable to this particular girl’s Marco Polo strategy, and I left the hotel swimming pool bound for Disney without being able to make her it.  I felt heartbroken, and my parents realised that they could never take us on an extended family holiday again due to the threat that I would ruin it with puberty and emotions.  We traipsed around the Magic Kingdom that afternoon, with my eyes memorising the pure white laces of my trainers, and It’s a Small World gnawing away at my soul.

The week of the thirty-fifth day marking my birth contrasted greatly to the week of my fifteenth birthday in 1998.  Whereas that week was spent visiting theme parks in the baking Florida sun with my mother making sure that my siblings and I were wearing an appropriate level of sunscreen at all times, the week I turned thirty-five was a challenging one for footwear.  The rain which had been falling in an almost constant cycle since the end of August had left puddles the size of moon craters by the sides of the road, and Oban even made the national news due to the severe flooding parts of the town was suffering.

There were reports of shoes struggling to cope with the deluge, and in the office socks lined the storage heaters in the way patients sit around a doctors reception, waiting for the prognosis on whether or not they’re going to make it.  Avoiding the tidal waves which would erupt over the pavement, at least four feet into the air, every time a vehicle was driven through the puddles was an arduous task, and one which demanded a great amount of skill and judgment.  A quick calculation was required to measure the speed and size of the oncoming traffic against my own walking manner, in order to decide whether I could step across the length of the moon crater before the next car would drive through the body of water and leave me drenched.  In what was an unlikely turn of events, and surely my finest triumph in months, my socks were left completely dry.

The flooding was a pain in the neck for many, but an incident in the shower caused me to suffer my own neck pain.  As I was raising my left arm overhead to wash away the ‘Lynx Black’ Frozen Pear and Cedarwood Scent body wash from under my arm, I had a simultaneous need to cough, and those two actions together seemed to strain a muscle in the back of my neck.  It hurt tremendously, although I was not sure if the greater injury was to my body or my pride.  As the day progressed and every turn of my head brought a sharp reminder of my shame, I found myself questioning if this was something a person’s body does as it ages.  Are everyday chores like showering or polishing the dado rail or recycling empty milk bottles going to bring with it the added risk of doing myself physical harm now that I am 35?

In an effort to reclaim a feeling of my fading youth on the day before my birthday, I wore a striking red shirt.  A combination of confidence and anxiety washed over me as I left the flat that morning and the thought occurred to me that I haven’t seen many men wearing a dress shirt the colour of a bashful cherry tomato.  Certainly, if any men are sporting such bright and bold fashion they aren’t approaching forty, and I wondered if this was my equivalent of buying a motorcycle or going skydiving.

The shirt attracted many comments, such as “That’s a very red shirt,” and “You’re looking very red today.”  I admired their observation, though naturally, they couldn’t have known that I wasn’t wearing the shirt as some extravagant statement of fashion or a grand announcement of my mood.  It had been several months since I last wore the bright red garment, and I only wear it so infrequently because I am scared to wash it.  To be exact, I am worried about what will happen to the rest of my laundry if I introduce a red shirt to the load, and so it is left hanging in my wardrobe while all the other cool and more trendy looking shirts are taken out, in much the same way that I remain standing at the bar while the more suitably attired guys are taken and worn out by the girls.

In keeping with the belief that dabbling in new and adventurous experiences would restore some form of youth, I decided that my birthday meal out with my family would be eaten at BAAB Meze & Grill following a few positive reviews from friends.  Their dishes are all eastern Mediterranean recipes which are served in a manner that encourages sharing and bonding, which is a departure from our standard Saturday night in Wetherspoons where my father and brother will inevitably become involved in a debate about politics and my interest will rapidly diminish, until I am casting glances around the bar, dreaming up scenarios in which I humiliate myself by talking to women.

Although our waiter carefully described the idea behind the menu and the various foods on offer, our inexperience in this culinary heritage was obvious for anyone to see.  The waiter took our order, and later in the night, it was all I could do to imagine the scene in the kitchen when he returned with his pocket notebook and tried to explain to his colleagues that the table of five had ordered two Baba ghanoush and no fewer than three other dips.  In the end, we were forced to ask for another bag of pita bread as we came to terms with our folly and made a desperate attempt to use as much of our dips as possible.

The food was terrific and plentiful – obviously – and the discussion at the table turned to the different social occasions this kind of dining would be best suited for.  A drunken rabble seemed obvious, but I remained unconvinced that it would be a good place to take a date.  Although the location is luxurious, and the nature of the experience would be a fine talking point, I couldn’t get my mind past the potential for calamity.  How well could a date really go when there are two dishes of rich, garlicky Baba ghanoush to get through?

I had been thirty-five for roughly nineteen-and-a-half hours when I went to Aulay’s for some beers with friends.  It was just like any other time I had been at the bar when younger:  the lager was quickly accompanied by whisky, I was exuberantly over-dressed, we watched Scotland lose a game of football, and we were tormented by an unknown girl.

Our crew was joined briefly by a fresh-faced Englishman who reduced the beard ratio amongst us.  His girlfriend was once a barmaid and recently became appointed a sustainability manager, and the fresh-faced Englishman insisted on buying for me my favourite minty green shot on her behalf.  I wondered whether I would manage to sustain such a level of drinking on a Thursday night, though my doubts were soon forgotten when I became distracted by the girl who was sitting at the table behind us.  She had more than a hint of mischief in her character and seemed to revel in being contrary.  She refused to believe that I was out celebrating my birthday, though my ability to perform a squat seemed to convince the contrarian of my worth, and we followed her onto the next bar.

The View is not my regular scene, on account of its predominantly young clientele and the dance music they tend to play.  The curtains were drawn across the large windows, meaning that the bar which probably has the best view in town had no view.  After some time the Arsenal supporting barman from Aulay’s arrived, and he handed me a shot of Sambuca.  Even a faint whiff of the anise-flavoured liqueur is enough to turn my stomach queasy after too many a night in my early twenties spent downing the flaming spirit, and I should have had more than the measure of reluctance I felt when given the drink.  The wisdom and experience I’ve gained over my thirty-five years should have been enough to warn me about what would happen if I took the shot, but I ignored all of that and accepted the token of celebration.  Within moments of throwing the Sambuca down my throat, I was striding towards the bathroom with a purpose I hadn’t displayed in years.  I swung the cubicle door open and was instantly Linda Blairing all over the toilet, my right arm clutching my purple Paisley pattern tie to my chest as I desperately tried to protect it.  I continued to retch and heave, and in that bleak moment, I was finally returned to my youth, as I remembered how it felt to be a fifteen-year-old boy in the Magic Kingdom.

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 night I went to Aulay’s for the first time in 13 nights

I walked into Aulay’s Bar wearing a grey suit with a white shirt and a tie and pocket square combination which was as red as the wine in the cabinet behind the bar.  It isn’t often that I wear a white shirt, but I was watching an episode of the television series Mad Men earlier in the week and Don Draper was wearing a similar outfit, which left me feeling inspired.  As I stood by the ice bucket it seemed unlikely that to any casual observer I would bear any resemblance to the suave fictional character. My face had a layer of stubble which was trimmed to precisely 1.2mm, in contrast to Jon Hamm’s smooth and chiselled look, my hair wasn’t as neatly slicked back and while Don Draper wears a pristine and crisp white shirt, mine was recklessly ironed.  Despite this, my three acquaintances and I managed to unconsciously arrange ourselves into a lineup which ranged flawlessly from smartest dressed to scruffiest. It would have made quite a sight to anyone who cares about such things.

A lot had happened since I was last drinking in Aulay’s.  It had been thirteen nights, a trial not unlike the forty days and nights Jesus had spent in the desert.  On that previous visit, word began to spread around the bar that I have an obsession with mangoes, in a way similar to how stories of local scandal are rapidly passed on over a pint amongst interested patrons.  “Have you heard that this guy is going out with that girl?” “The police turned up in the early hours and there were raised voices, but I couldn’t get out of bed quickly enough to hear what was going on.” “My friend’s cousin, the dental assistant, said she was told that he quit the job after they fell out over an ornamental depiction of Moby Dick.”  “Apparently JJ has an obsession with mangoes.”

Obsession seemed like a pretty strong noun at the time and I would have preferred to have heard that it was alleged that I have a taste for mangoes, or that I have a strong liking of mangoes, though considering that I once wrote of a sexual relationship with the tropical stoned fruit obsession was probably justified.

Soon the barmaid with the dreadlocked hair emerged from the back with a Tupperware box which was stacked to the brim with perfectly sliced mango, and without a hint of the greenish-pinkish skin which usually remains intact when I try to cut the fruit.  My friends and I each took a cocktail stick between our index finger and thumb and enjoyed pieces of the sweet fruit, and it was almost as though we were drinking and dining in some high-class Caribbean establishment. It was one of the best nights I have enjoyed in Aulay’s.  I wondered how we must have looked to the seasoned drinkers around the bar; the old men with bloated red faces, like gnomes but with more animated features, who drink pint after pint and whisky upon whisky without hardly flinching. And here were three young men in the prime of their early thirties, holding chunks of mango between our fingers and savouring them like they were a lover.

After a recent evening on which I experienced sea bass for the first time, I became involved in a heated debate with my best friend when I announced my contention that there should be a third category of food which describes the fishy taste of a dish.  My friend disputed this as being nonsense and argued that food is either sweet or savoury and that there is no requirement for it to be classed under the separate banner of fishy.  For days the notion that a person could only experience two tastes – sweet or savoury – played on my mind, and I was increasingly determined to disprove it and have my three-tiered taste ranking introduced to a wider public for their consumption. I bought a packet of two haddock fish cakes, which were filled with Mull of Kintyre cheddar cheese, and I considered them the ideal test for my taste theory.  I cooked the fish cakes per the instructions on the packet and sat down to eat them, as I find this preferable to standing for a meal.  When I cut into the breadcrumb and oat coating, molten cheese oozed from within and my taste buds were tingling.  I scooped the fish and cheese mixture onto my fork and brought it to my mouth with wide-eyed anticipation.  Immediately I was met with the taste of fish, which overwhelmed the flavour of the cheese and everything else which was stuffed inside the cake.  As someone who is still coming to terms with the taste of fish, I felt a combination of disappointment and vindication.  After finishing my meal, and with the dishes soaking in the sink, I messaged my friend to inform them of my experiment.

“I had fish cakes for dinner.  I still strongly believe that it is necessary to have a third category of food, because the only way to describe their taste was FISHY!”

“Big eedjit,” my friend responded.

My culinary options had been limited by an incident a few weeks earlier where the hob on my cooker sparked and caused the electrical supply in my flat to short circuit.  I was stirring some aubergine into a tomato sauce I had prepared for some pasta when the lights went out and my Sonos speaker stopped part way through Love Gun by KISS, which is my favourite record to stir herbs and onions together to.  I used the remaining heat from the hob to finish preparing my dinner, before descending into a panic-stricken search for an electrician as thoughts of living in a Dystopian nightmare without lights and the ability to fully cook pasta and play KISS paraded through my mind.  A couple of colleagues helped me to find an electrician, and with the power to my flat restored I could begin procrastinating over the purchase of a new hob. In the meantime, I was unable to cook asparagus or green beans in the regular fashion, let alone stir fry sweetcorn and ginger, and I was unsure of how to maintain my daily intake of vegetables.  A few days passed and I discovered a medley of frozen vegetables in the supermarket, and apparently they could be cooked in the microwave in ten minutes.  Amongst the vegetables in the large bag were carrots, which I rarely buy due to my dislike of cutting them and the fact that I always buy too many and never have any use for them.  I found myself appreciating the carrots more when they came pre-sliced in a bag along with other, tastier, vegetables and without the need to think about what I was going to do with them.  It seemed to me that this is life in a nutshell, or at least in a bag of frozen vegetables.

I don’t have many possessions in my flat.  Other than a cupboard which houses books and Jack Daniels, two coffee table drawers filled with tealight candles and jars of incense, and a wardrobe which holds a rainbow of dress shirts and ties, all I really have to my name are a collection of notebooks.  The more I find myself thinking about life and the ongoing circus of events which I feel the need to document, the more notebooks I buy.  There is at least one in each room, with the exception of the bathroom, because that is where full concentration is required.  Each room also has its own designated pen, although in the drawer of my bedside table I keep a notebook and a pencil out of fear of what could happen to my 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets if in the dead of night I tried to pen the thoughts concerning the female ghost I suspect inhabits my bedroom.  Recently I have taken to reading and writing a lot more frequently in my bed now that I know it is good for uses other than sleeping.

After thirteen nights I returned to Aulay’s on a Friday night, wearing the usual suit with its colour coordinated accessories, and I was wondering if anyone could tell that I was walking taller from the experience I had enjoyed in Edinburgh.  At the bar there was talk of football and music, and outside I ran into a girl who I used to go to high school with.  She is now a hairdresser and it turns out that she recently cut my dad’s hair, which is how we got talking.  She was struggling to remember me from school, even when I offered her the description that “I was the geeky guy with glasses who got red in the face and became anxious and sweaty when talking to girls…a lot like now.”  The hairdresser was one of the most attractive girls in our year, and she has grown into a beautiful woman, though she wouldn’t accept that she was amongst the popular crowd.  I recalled that we took maths together and that I hated the subject and was terrible at it.  She concurred and added that she also wasn’t very good at biology.  As our conversation progressed, the hairdresser revealed that she has a son who recently started his third year in high school.  I remarked that this showed that she had eventually developed a talent for biology, and while she laughed at what I considered to be one of my finest jokes I knew that I would probably not talk to her again.  At closing time I took a walk along the esplanade and the North Pier, and when I arrived home I got into bed with a notebook and a pencil, and it seemed that for all intents and purposes I was back in the routine of being a bachelor.

The week I cooked too much pasta (and other instances of household mismanagement)

After around seven months of living in bachelorhood I was finally forced to concede that I have an inability to measure an appropriate portion of pasta for a solo diner with an average appetite.  It was the last Monday in July and I had half of a large sweet potato left over from a chicken, sweet potato and quinoa stew I had enjoyed the previous night and I was searching for something to do with the remaining root vegetable.  It is almost always the case in such situations that I find myself asking can this go in pasta?  And the answer is usually yes.

I found a recipe for a sweet potato and spinach pasta which was written in a fashion which suggested that someone like me could cook it, and it was accompanied by some pretty pictures which made it look like a mouth-watering meal.  I followed the internet’s instructions to the letter and used nature’s measuring instrument – the eye – to calculate how much Penne Rigate I would need to soak up the vegetable stock, thyme and parmesan I used as a sauce.  When the cooking time had elapsed and I carefully drained the boiling water from the pan and used a spoon to transfer rubbery and slippery tubes of pasta onto a waiting porcelain plate, it turned out that one plate would not suffice for the amount I had cooked.  I immediately, and not for the first time, cursed my inability to measure a single portion of pasta and, in the same moment, decided that I would eat both platefuls because they were there, because hot food is better than food at any other temperature and because I couldn’t be sure of the rules of microwaving sweet potato.

Whilst I didn’t regret my gluten-laden gluttony I quickly found myself becoming weary and lethargic, and before even nine o’clock came my eyelids had taken on parachutes and were heading for the ground.  I drank an Earl Grey tea in an attempt to lighten my mind, but it had no effect and I was in bed much earlier than usual.  I fell asleep with a great deal less of the usual tossing and turning in the face of the interrogatory street light which glares through the bedroom curtains.  Most nights it is like trying to sleep in an old-time war movie, but it didn’t trouble me in the fog of my large pasta dinner.  However, by three o’clock in the morning I was wide awake after a particularly disturbing dream.

I could remember it vividly as I lay amongst my tangled 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.  The scene seemed to be a flat warming, though despite many features of the place being familiar to me it seemed much larger than the flat I am currently living in.  There was a group of people of moderate size – somewhere between 5’5″ and 5’10” – and I recognised many of them.  There was music playing and everybody was drinking beer and Jack Daniels with orange juice, which is how I could tell it was definitely my flat.  In the kitchen there was a woman who I knew very fondly.  She was foraging in my fridge and had come across a large cooked ham.  She took it from the shelf and declared that it was hers and that she was leaving with it.  I disputed this and argued that the ham was mine, that I had laboured over cooking it for hours and that it was the centrepiece of my food offering for the flat warming party.  She scoffed and announced that she was taking the ham anyway.  The woman who I knew very fondly left my flat with the ham and it was then that I woke up.  I lay in my bed feeling very dazed and confused, because women hardly ever visit my flat and I never keep ham.

As the week unfolded I had recovered from my troubling ham nightmare and walked straight into a waking nightmare as all of my toiletries began to run low in unison.  I have an unwritten household policy of replenishing my supply of toiletries in small batches some time before they are finished.  There is no conscionable reason for this other than a deep-rooted fear of how a shopping basket filled with Lynx bodyspray, toothpaste, Nivea deep cleaning face wash, 400ml of shower gel, rehydrating moisturiser and a pack of four shea butter toilet rolls would look to a passing stranger.  I was forced to confront my fears – as I also was when the summer skies finally broke and turned the colour of a wet dishcloth which has been sitting on the sink for a fortnight and a score of umbrellas exploded open across the pavements – and I went to the supermarket to restock my toiletries.  I dropped each of the items I needed into my basket and placed a bunch of bananas prominently on top for perception.

In Aulay’s I was seeking refuge from the sodden streets and the downpour of day-to-day life whilst simultaneously hoping that maybe this would be the night where my soul mate would stroll into the lounge bar and become bewitched by my purple pocket square.  Instead I attracted the attention of an Alpine furniture restorer who seemed to have decided that this would be the night that he would seek the therapeutic ear of a stranger in a bar.  He clutched his pint of Guinness in his right hand, and my own cold glass became a crutch.  His eyes darted wildly from side to side, like a moth flailing around a lampshade, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn from innocuous pleasantries to a winding tale of woe which visited such traumas as Brexit and the difficulty of renewing a Visa, civil court cases, small court fines and the habit of women running away.

I frequently nodded my head at the appropriate moments and offered the occasional consolation smile to indicate that I was still listening, though any effort on my part to respond with words and enter the conversation was swiftly cut off with the precision of a tattoo gun and he would go off on another tangent.  I looked over his shoulder at intervals and gazed hopefully at the door, wondering if this girl I had never met would walk in.  She never did, and as I was standing at the bar I found myself wondering if I would be better off staying at home playing board games, because this search for a woman was becoming more like a trivial pursuit.

Late on Friday night I received a visit from a plant doctor, and we drank beer and listened to Neil Young and Richard Hell and the plant doctor offered to diagnose my family of houseplants.  He observed happiness in one, a need for growth in another and the likelihood that I was killing my sunflowers with the water of my love.  I felt relieved that most of my plants were thriving and as I went to bed and laid my head on a duck feather pillow, the street light and a hint of breaking daylight yawning against the curtains, I began to consider the possibility that maybe a man who spends his Sunday preparing a chicken, sweet potato and quinoa stew isn’t supposed to have a girlfriend, and is instead more likely to have to repot every now and again.