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 night I went to an electronic dance event

I was sitting at my laptop, on the internet auction site eBay, browsing the various categories in search of inspiration for Christmas gifts, but it didn’t seem that any of their retailers were selling it.  Scrolling through pages of listings, my attention was grabbed by a collection of vintage 1980s glass baubles for a Christmas tree. For the price of £5, it seemed like it would be a mistake to not hit the blue ‘Buy it now’ button, and within seconds I was the owner of decorations for a tree I did not yet have.

Some minutes later, I happened upon a 9ft artificial pine garland, which I could imagine happily dressing in a festive fashion the mirror which sits on my fireplace.  At £5.99 with free postage and packaging, it felt as though I was really sticking it to those eBay sellers when I bought one. What a bargain!  I was thinking to myself as I got into the Christmas spirit of buying things for myself.  Adrenalin was pulsing through my body: it was the most exciting thing I had done in months.  

I had forgotten all about buying presents for other people by the time I arrived on the next page and found a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines which looked ideal not only for sitting along the end of the mantel place but also for providing more animated company during the season than the tired old cactus plant, which is collecting dust in the way a group of festive carol singers gathers elderly women.  I placed a bid of £12.99 and went to bed to read a book written by Charles Bukowski.

The ornamental figurines had slipped from my conscience by the following morning, though when I received an email notification that I had been outbid for them, I suddenly found myself embroiled in a war for their affection. I was feeling strangely hard done by that someone should wish to deprive me of a plush Santa, snowman, and reindeer – and at Christmas, too! – so I logged back into my eBay account and set a maximum bid of £19.99, which seemed reasonable to me.  For the next nine hours and 48 minutes, I was on tenterhooks. I imagined that this must be how a person who is in court accused of some petty crime must feel as they await judgment, wondering if they have done enough to plead their case.  They might consider it unfair that they are even in such a position, arguing for their freedom, as I was feeling that it was unjustified that I should have to increase my bid for a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines that I previously hadn’t known I even wanted. When the judge finally returned his verdict, I was the owner of some new novelty ornaments.

Despite vowing to myself at the beginning of every December that I will make a concentrated effort to start Christmas shopping early, and maybe even have it wrapped up by the second weekend of the month, I always drag it out into the week before the day itself.  I can’t keep my mind from thinking that, even though there is still time to get the shopping done early, there will still be time in a week, or two weeks, from now.  It is a lot like the dilemma faced when there is an alluring girl at the bar and I am procrastinating over talking to her:  I could go and speak to her and screw it up in that moment, but I know that there will still be time to make a stupid joke later in the night.

Things seemed much more simple back in the days when I was but a pre-teen boy; when on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in December I would venture out into the cold and rain with a budget of around £5 of my pocket money to spend per person.  As an adult man, £5 wouldn’t cover the cost of a whisky chaser or a 9ft artificial pine garland, though I no longer have to shop in the rain and the majority of my purchases can be made online, in the cold of my flat.

In the halcyon days of the nineties in Oban, it was more or less a choice between looking in John Menzies or Woolworths for gifts, maybe Boots if I was really stuck, feeling inventive or shopping for my mum.  I would return home after around an hour or so clutching a couple of plastic bags, my cheeks and big ears pink and wet and weather-beaten, like a sodden little elf.  Feeling tired and unsure of my gift wrapping credentials, I would attempt to convince different members of my family that it would make my offerings look more presentable if they had been wrapped by someone else, and usually I would get away without having to touch a roll of gift wrap or struggle to find the end of the sellotape.  As a young boy, like now, I cursed the festive season for reminding me that I am terrible at wrapping, whereas for the other eleven months of the year it is my inability to rap which frustrates me.

While over the years I have come to terms with my useless gift wrapping, it is so often the case that the truth is painful to hear, and that was the eventuality for the woman in Markie Dans who questioned whether the plant doctor, my brother and myself are all brothers.  We glanced at one another, feeling amused that someone could think such a thing, and it seemed a harmless thing to say that we are all brothers.  “Really?  Youse don’t look alike,” was the woman’s response, which was accurate in so much as we don’t look alike and the plant doctor isn’t a sibling of my brother and me.

My two brothers spread around the bar to talk to other people, and I was left in conversation with the unsuspecting woman, who spoke with a Lanarkshire dialect.  Over the course of ten cycles of the second hand around a clock, I learned that she is in her forties, had recently been divorced, returned from living in New Zealand and had made a bad impression at a job interview with the NHS.  I was drinking all of this information in, whilst at the same time contemplating why I was the one who had been landed talking to her.  As she stared across the floor at the two bearded men I had walked in with, she once more asked if we were really all brothers.  I can’t be sure why I didn’t take the opportunity to come clean and confess that only one of the men is my brother, or at least tell the lesser lie and claim that I had misheard her to begin with, especially when the entire rouse didn’t seem as funny when it was only me hearing it, but instead I continued to insist that the plant doctor is a blood relative.

The story became more elaborate when I decided to throw in the additional detail that we probably don’t all look the same because the plant doctor was put out for adoption when he was two-years-old.  This surprised the Lanarkshire lass as much as it did me, and she asked why our parents would decide to do such a thing.  “Our mother was hoping for a girl,” I said as we looked over at the plant doctor’s hairy red beard.

“Does she have mental health problems?”

“She wasn’t happy with how the plant doctor turned out.”

“It’s really nice that you are all still friends.”

Returning to her time in New Zealand, the forty-year-old health professional asked me if I had traveled, and when I told her that I hadn’t, she chastised me for failing to experience life.  As she took video footage of the bar band as they played in the corner, I decided that I would travel – and I walked out of the bar and traveled home along the Esplanade as I talked on the phone to a friend I don’t talk to often enough.  It transpired that she later asked the plant doctor if we were all really brothers, and when he advised her that we are not, she left with a look of upset on her face.

I learned of this development the following evening when we all attended the Bassment event in the Cellar Bar.  Bassment is a night of electronic dance music, and although it is not typically a genre of music I enjoy, I decided that I would go along after hearing my brother rave about their previous events.

When we arrived downstairs in the bar, the plant doctor joined a group of his work colleagues.  I sat amongst them and soon attempted to engage a smoking French woman, and the rest of the table, in what felt like a deep and meaningful conversation about cigarettes and beer, and whether we can honestly say that we enjoy every one we have.  As I listened to the smoking Frenchwoman’s voice, I was reminded of the few years I spent studying French during high school.  For Standard Grade, students were given the option of continuing to learn either French or German, and I chose the former since I found German to be a quite brutal and harsh sounding language.  I was never particularly good at French, though, and I can remember my teacher often criticising me in class for my failure to understand the French feminine form.  Twenty years later, Mr. Wilson’s words still rang true.

On the dance floor, the scent of B.O. was clinging to the atmosphere the way a stray strand of tinsel holds on to a sweater.  It wasn’t immediately obvious, or off-putting, but it was there.  The DJ decks were sitting on top of a covered pool table, and when I first noticed this I was struggling to get it out of my mind.  I couldn’t give myself up to the electronic dance music when all I could concentrate on was my attempt to think of a pun for the image of DJ decks on a pool table, but I couldn’t get anything.  Eventually, my feet began to move like a kick drum, and my first night at Bassment wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Sunday was the day of the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen, and my intention was to go easy the night before so that I could enjoy the day and take part in the pub quiz on Sunday night.  After a shot of tequila my mood lightened, and following Bassment my brother, my fake brother and I went back to my flat, where we drank beer and listened to George Harrison until five o’clock in the morning.  In an effort to be a more mature host than on previous occasions, and as a means of not having to brush broken Pringles off my floor the next day, I opened a 400g bag of salted peanuts and shared them amongst three small bowls, which worked out at approximately 133g of nuts each.  A scattering of savoury snacks were still strewn across the oak flooring, however, and when they were tread on they had been crushed into the wood.  I observed this scene on Sunday morning and mused how it was not the first time that my nuts had been crushed in my flat in recent times.

Despite recovering from Saturday’s hangover in a manner that some might consider miraculous, and even after a generous serving of Baba ghanoush, the pub quiz quickly descended into a drunken shambles, and our team finished last out of a meager three teams.  By the time the final questions arrived, I was left to single-handedly tackle the music round, and the tracks played were not kind to a thirty-five-year-old man.  We were too luminous in liquor to wallow in our defeat, and instead, we were dancing to some terrible pop music which none of us recognised, a distraction which made it difficult for those guys who were still trying to finish their game of pool.

My attention was drawn to a girl who I felt I wanted to talk to, but I didn’t know how, and in the back of my mind I feared that she would only recognise me as a pub quiz loser.  After some time thinking about it I approached her.  All I was able to do was remark on her red glasses, and before my brain could catch up my drunken mouth had noted how they were similar in colour to her lips and her hair, though not her mauve nails.  I wasn’t even entirely sure what colour mauve was, but it didn’t matter, I’d already said it.  I retreated to my table and accepted that I should have treated the situation like my Christmas shopping.

 

 

The night I forgot my earphones

I put the idea of getting a dog on pause and returned to my more natural instinct of  looking after houseplants – or at least convincing myself that I could probably keep a houseplant living for a while.  On a recent afternoon I was walking the aisles of a local gardening outlet as I searched for something colourful to replace the plants I had thrown out last month when I noticed that there was an offer where I could buy two plants for around £4.  Even though I felt uncertain as to whether I could sufficiently care for one plant, let alone two,  the frugal part of me saw this as an opportunity to save some money should I buy one plant and it meets an untimely demise, leaving me with an immediate need to buy another.  I convinced myself that if two hands are better than one then it is probably also true that two plants are better than one.

Shuffling around the dirty, soil strewn displays of various orange and yellow and violet and red flowers with only another lone, much older male in close proximity reminded me a lot of the days spent as a young adolescent loitering around the section in John Menzies where they kept the adult reading material.  The awkward glances over the shoulder to see if anybody was looking; the sense of fear and shame and exhilaration and not really understanding any of it; the way that just as you reach to take a closer look at the glossy Gladiolus someone walks past and you hastily retreat and pretend that you have made a terrible mistake and you’re really looking to browse power tools; finding that the coast is finally clear and you throw the first two plants you can reach into your basket and quickly leave the scene, hoping that nobody notices the orange sunflower poking out.

As I took stock of the variety of plants on offer I became aware that my internal narrator was producing a running commentary on the imagined conversations between the foliage before me.  I tried to block it out and focus my energy on finding the flowers I could most effortlessly care for, but of late my internal narrator has become incessant and I couldn’t help but hear what was being said.

“Look at this guy, attempting to substitute human intimacy with a potted plant…the poor sap!”

“It’s July and he’s wearing a shirt and tie in the afternoon; who does that?  His socks are probably only vaguely matching the tie, too.”

“Best not laugh guys, if he takes any of you home you’ll be dead within a week.”

“Pffft — I can’t imagine he ever takes anything home!”

Then the plants all high-fived each other, or at least they would have done if chrysanthemums had hands and could perform a high-five.

I resolved with myself that the best practice going forward would be to incorporate the care of my plants into my morning routine – as I am washed and watered then so are my plants, although separately as I am not ready for that level of intimacy yet.  In recent times my morning routine has been half a Hogan:  I take my vitamins, but I grew out of saying my prayers many years ago.

In the shower my process has been hindered by the increasingly hot temperature of the water, which is making it difficult to wash off all of the Nivea Deep Cleaning face wash.  I’ve heard of being left with egg on your face, but having Nivea Deep Cleaning face wash on your face is surely the 2018 metrosexual equivalent.

Feeling some satisfaction that my houseplants were still alive after a couple of hours in my care I walked along to Aulay’s for the first of the World Cup semi-finals between Belgium and France.  The bar was busy and in the corner there was a table populated by somewhere between four and six young Belgian women, all dressed in the regal red kit and with their national flag draped over the stained glass.  They each shrieked with a primal excitement every time Belgium carried the ball into the opposition half and the sound pierced the eardrum with such sharpness that I found myself siding with the trio of Frenchmen who were sitting nearby.

As the game kicked off I ordered a pint of Tennents at the bar and contemplated the continental comeliness of the ladies.  As I brought the froth of the lager to my mouth my internal narrator began to comment on the situation, and upon glancing again at the ladies I immediately found myself regretting my decision to eat my homemade pasta sauce, which is heavy on garlic and onion.  I tried to focus on the game and forget about the circumstances of my hygiene, but my internal narrator continued to press on the point of my fragrant blunder.  It insisted that if I even dared to approach the Belgians they would only turn their noses up at me as I would surely smell to them as though I was wearing a ring of onions around my neck, and not even Joop! could mask that scent.

The screeches of the girls quietened to a dull bar chatter after France’s victory and I considered approaching them in a conciliatory manner, though the maths of the situation was troubling me.  How does a solo man approach a table of five Belgian girls without it being any more awkward than such encounters usually are when the numbers are more even?  I took a hearty mouthful of beer and looked with a longing gaze at the table of Belgians, who were deep in the throes of defeat, as I tried to figure out which would be the best angle to approach from and how I could possibly make my walk appear confident when inside my internal narrator was telling me that I was a fool for even contemplating such a move.  I began to recite potential opening lines in my head, but I was uncertain which of the girls I would even direct them to.  In the end it didn’t really even matter when it turned out that it was impossible to talk to them, although not for the usual reason of my social ineptitude, but because they didn’t speak very much English.

It was after another week of intense solitude that I started to appreciate how the desire for a woman is essentially the banana in the fruit bowl of life, because it seems to be what ages everything else around it.   All I really find myself craving is a mango:  something that is sweet and juicy, with an alluring rosy flesh and a heart of stone.  A good mango seems to be increasingly elusive, and following another fruitless evening in the bars on Saturday I embarked on the long walk home without my earphones after absent-mindedly leaving them at home.

The scene on my walk home on Saturday night suggested that I am not the only person in Oban who cannot look after flowers.

Everything was silent and still, besides the restless machine of monologue in my mind, and when I made it through my door I remembered that it would be a good idea to water the plants which hadn’t been nourished for at least forty hours.  They sat patiently atop the mantel place and I wondered if plants ever feel anything other than patience.  They only ever seem to be waiting.  I poured myself a whisky and fell asleep on the couch listening to Lou Reed, and the plants were going to have to wait a while longer.