Kevin Carter, skins and a beard off

Our relationship had lasted a few days short of sixteen months, which is around a year and a third longer than most of my typical relationships.  During our time together we had both grown and matured into different versions of ourselves, and my environment was certainly healthier for having Sally around.  Sally and I had seen some sights in those sixteen months.  There were the impromptu flat parties with booze and music and dancing, the nights when I would return home from the pub and fall asleep on the sofa wearing my suit, the repeated airings of the nineties TV sitcom Seinfeld, the hours I would spend practicing reading material to an otherwise empty room.  She was always there.

Sally was a houseplant named after the Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because she was a plant and she was incapable of dancing – and it eventually came time for me to accept that we could no longer be together.  For longer than I could admit she had been looking the way I had been feeling:  tired, drooping, unloved.  Nothing should look like that.  It took me a few days after I had made the decision to dump Sally for me to actually get around to the business of putting her into a bin bag.  It seemed harder than it should have been to get rid of a houseplant.  Finally I stood Sally in a white bin liner, feeling that was the most respectful way of ending our relationship, though her tall branches were still protruding through the handles of the bag, making it difficult to tie up the loose ends.

Buying myself a houseplant seemed like a good idea at the time.  I thought that I could get into a routine of watering a plant the way I go about my other daily habits, like colour coordinating the shirts in my wardrobe or moisturising in the morning; it was just something I would get used to doing.  After a couple of years of using a particular brand of moisturiser, I had taken the decision to change to a cheaper product.  In my mind, why would I spend £4 on something when I could pay £2 for almost exactly the same thing and use the change to buy beer?  

When the time came for me to use my new cost-efficient choice of moisturiser, everything seemed exactly as it had been before.  After stepping out of the shower I applied the cream to my cheeks, forehead, and neck, and it wasn’t any different to anything else I had put on my face.  Then I caught a sniff of the fragrance, which was immediately familiar.  It reminded me of someone I had once known very well, and I was struggling with the idea of having that memory linger on my skin every day when it is difficult enough that is already under my skin.  But I’m a single occupant and I couldn’t afford to dump an entire tube of moisturiser just because it provokes old memories, so I was forced to keep using it.  I suppose that these things are like the stubble on my moisturised face:  I have to take the rough with the smooth.

Under the blue skies of May, things were beginning to be seen in a new light.  On the shore, I was walking with my niece when we happened upon what, from a distance, appeared to be a beautiful act of nature as a crow was enjoying a meal of a freshly caught fish.  As we were nearing I pointed the scene out to the three-year-old, thinking of her fondness for cute animals doing adorable things.  “Look at that hungry bird,” I enthused.  It was only as we were getting closer still that it became clear that the large black crow was feasting upon the carcass of another bird, and that the victim’s head had long since been claimed.  I had to act quickly to divert my niece’s attention from the looming horror, challenging her to find a seashell somewhere off in the distance, far from the sandy dinner table.  Meanwhile, a man – presumably a tourist – was taking pictures of the slaughter as it continued, desperately snapping away on his professional looking equipment.  I was wondering what the photographer had expected he would capture on his camera when he left his hotel room that morning.  A buoyant spring sky, churches bathed in sunshine, boats ferrying passengers to the islands across sparkling crystals in the sea, an act of avian cannibalism.

Earlier I, along with my brother, had taken our niece to the Driving Smarter Energy event at the Corran Halls, where there was an opportunity to test drive electric cars and learn about different ways we can make our homes more energy efficient.  As neither of us knows how to drive, we had attended simply because I had learned that there was a bouncy castle and face painting, and it seemed like an easy way to burn off a chocolate high.  We were the only people in attendance at the time, so while my niece was running from end-to-end on the bouncy castle, I was forced to make conversation with the man who had organised the event about electrical charging points around Oban.  For an educational enterprise about finding a more sustainable use of energy, it seemed like a tremendous waste.

Outside, in the foyer of the hall, after the bouncy castle had been exhausted, I found myself talking to a pair of council employees who are the mothers of two people who were in my class in primary school.  Their attention had been caught by my sister’s daughter, in the way that people are always surprised by how much a child has grown and they struggle to believe that the infant can really be the age you claim that they are, like there would be something to be gained from lying about my sister having a three-year-old daughter who is still growing taller.

The women were especially incredulous about the appearance of my brother, while it was agreed that I have “always looked the same,” which seemed unlikely when I had more hair and less stubble in primary school.  In the end, I put it down to being one of those generic things that people say when they haven’t seen you for a long time and I didn’t argue it.  I asked the women how their respective children were doing, and when one mother responded that her daughter now has a girl who is eleven-years-old, I took on the role of the disbelieving.  It occurred to me that a girl I had gone to primary school with has a child who is the same age I would have been when I last saw that classmate in school.  The friends I had grown up with have husbands and wives, they have families and some live in cities, while I’m walking along the shoreline taking pictures of a man who is photographing a crow eating a headless bird.

It was some time later that the plant doctor, my brother and I were walking down into town after spending a few hours in Lower Soroba drinking beer in the fading sun.  We were three men in our thirties playing songs by the band Wings from my mobile phone, the way trendy car stereos thump loudly as they pass.  A group of teenage girls were walking towards us.  It was impossible to think that they were considering us to be cool.  As we passed the girls, one of them asked if we had any skins, the type of question a teenager only ever asks of a person they think is old.  I was never asked for a cigarette by someone younger when I was in my twenties, not even when I was smoking them myself.  I felt a compulsion to respond that “between the three of us there is quite a lot of skin,” and knowing full well that the girls weren’t enquiring about the body’s largest organ, it came as no surprise when we were told to fuck off.

Things were being viewed differently in the bathroom of The Oban Inn too, where I witnessed a young man emerge from the cubicle and stagger across to the sink where he made an attempt at washing his hands, before vomiting into the clean white porcelain.  He washed away the remnants of his body’s revolt and, just as he was readying to walk away, he turned and spewed again.  “Got to make sure it’s all out,” he was heard to say to no-one in particular as I was standing at the urinal questioning how he had not known that he was going to be sick when he was in the privacy of the cubicle.  I could only imagine that it was similar to when I return home from a shopping trip to Lidl and remember that I haven’t bought spinach and orange juice, which was the reason I had went out in the first place.

On Saturday night Markie Dans seemed to have an unspoken dress policy of only admitting bearded men, though somehow I had managed to sneak past the bouncers with my roughly stubbled and smooth-cheeked features.  I was talking to a girl in a polka dot dress when I was surveying the fuzzy-faced scene all around me, and being that we were in a minority of people whose faces weren’t dressed with hair, I encouraged the girl to rate the beards before us.  It was the first time any of us had participated in a beard off in the middle of a busy pub, though there were simply too many beards to comment upon.  I had the scent of moisturiser still clinging to my nostrils, it was impossible to shake.  Whether it was a beard off, skins or a photograph, it seemed that all I was doing was searching for a seashell.

The week I became a single occupant

It has been nigh upon twelve months since I became what Argyll & Bute council refers to on their local authority tax application form as a ‘single occupant’, which sounds like a bureaucratic way of saying that I am not yet mature enough to cohabit with another person.   Over time I would gradually become used to being a man who lives in his own space, but on the afternoon when I was handed the keys to my first flat I wasn’t entirely sure what was supposed to happen next.  I stood in the barren kitchen – my kitchen – and surveyed the scene, as though hoping that the previous owner had left behind some inspiration and it would fall from a cupboard at any moment, but all that was in the boiler cupboard was what the woman described as “a set of summer net curtains.”

Do I take a meter reading?  How do I take a meter reading?  It wasn’t immediately obvious.  Should I familiarise myself with how the heating system works?  Introduce myself to my new neighbours?  Perhaps walk through the property and analyse what kind of storage space I have before everything was due to be moved in the following week?

I considered all of these options before I reached into my bag for the bottle of Perez Cruz Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva 2014 which I had been saving for more than a year, for no particular occasion other than such a time as I might feel like drinking a bottle of wine.  I poured the fragrant red wine into a small neon green plastic party tumbler, recently purchased in a set of four from Tesco and the only drinks container I had brought with me, and over the course of the next two hours, I went on to drink the entire bottle.  The remainder of the night was lost in a grape infused fog.  It was a scene which was destined to be repeated.

For many months I was fighting a constant struggle to remember what I had done with the keys to my flat.  I would find myself reaching for my pocket to handle my keys at intervals so frequent during the day that any half competent doctor would have classified it as obsessive behaviour.  I always liked to know that they were there, in a manner similar to how a younger version of myself, newly discovering the virtues of boyhood, enjoyed knowing that my testicles were still there.  Whenever I was in the flat my favourite place to sit my keys was always on the breakfast bar, and I would regularly make trips through to the kitchen, under the guise of ‘making a coffee’ or ‘recycling’, to make sure that the keys were still where I had left them.  I was never sure where else I was thinking they could possibly be, or who could have moved them considering that it is a small flat and it is only me living in it, but I could never stop myself from checking anyway.  In spite of this mild obsession, there were often occasions when I was leaving the flat that I  would reach the other side of the front door only to realise that my keys were still stranded on the breakfast bar.

When I wasn’t thinking about my keys,  much of my time was spent considering whether there is some kind of specific science behind the way people decide which kitchen cupboard will be allocated to certain goods.  I inherited thirteen cupboards of varying size, which not only seemed like an unlucky number to me but also felt like too many for any single man.  Some of those cupboards had an immediately obvious purpose:  the two with glass-fronted doors proved ideal for displaying wine and beer glasses; the short and wide cupboard situated above the oven hob was surely built for the storage of pots and pans; the area under the sink is the natural home for cleaning materials, while another cupboard nearby was already populated with crockery. But what goes in the other eight cupboards?  Even after living in the flat for a year, the question hasn’t been fully answered.

Over time, Sunday afternoon became the part of the week where I would go to the supermarket for a pantry shop, stocking up on typical kitchen necessities like oil and vinegar and salt and pepper and stock cubes and pasta and rice.  I remember the first time I filled my cupboards with such essential goods, and how I was feeling good about my achievements as I went about the task of storing cans of tuna fish and chopped tomatoes, three or four at a time, as though I was preparing for some impending apocalypse.  Yet doubts began to creep into my mind as condiments were introduced to one another like children on the first day of school.  Is it alright to store different ethnic flavours such as soy sauce and Dijon mustard in the same place?  Surely it is in 2018, I thought to myself.

In the end, I decided to keep them separate, but I couldn’t help but worry about an occasion where I might find myself in need of pesto and mayonnaise, and whether I would be able to find them.  Would there be confusion if macaroni and green Thai curry paste were stored in the same cupboard?  It could lead to a terrible culinary catastrophe and much mocking at dinner parties.  The issue kept me awake for hours on several nights during that first week, and even today I am not settled on my organisation.

Despite my fears over the arrangement of my kitchen cupboards, the rest of my small bachelor pad was quickly regimented with precision.  The books in my bookcase – which, strictly speaking, is more of a book cupboard – were catalogued in alphabetical order, firstly by author and then by title, and if neither of those was appropriate, then by the colour of the cover, which was really flying close to the rule of never judging a book by its cover.  The bedroom wardrobe, which stretches all the way from the floor to the high Victorian ceiling, was brought to life with my suits and shirts arranged by colour, ranging from dark shades to light, and my multitude of ties folded neatly onto two tie racks.  If I couldn’t find pak choi, I would at least be able to locate my pink tie.

When moving day arrived I felt that the best way of focussing my mind amidst all the upheaval and of providing company in an otherwise lonely flat would be to surround myself with houseplants.  There were three left for me at my request by the previous owner and in the days after moving in I added a further two.  I imagined that it would be beneficial to have another living element in the place, something to freshen the atmosphere and give me some form of company, like some horticultural masculine version of a cat lady.  My credentials as a ‘plant man’ were furthered on the first Friday evening when I added the latest addition to my family and decided to name it.  To mask the glaring absence of a female presence around my flat, I determined that the new houseplant must be female, and so I gave the plant the name Sally, after my favourite Lou Reed song Sally Can’t Dance – because, for as lovely as she was to look at, she had little in the way of rhythm

The previous owner informed me that the majority of the plants I inherited belong to the cacti family, and I undertook a Google search to learn the best methods of caring for them.  I was pleased to find that the plants require very little attention, infrequent watering and for all intents and purposes practically thrive on neglect.  They were, in that respect, broadly similar to the majority of my social relationships.

I knew from the first night that music was going to be a frequent feature in my flat.  I spent all of my time telling anyone who would listen that my place would be a destination where people can drop by any time and listen to good music and drink responsibly priced wine; a sort of refuge for the bohemians and the boozers, for the lovers of Merlot and Marillion.

To that end, I invested in one of the well-reviewed Sonos sound systems, and it was one of the very first things I made sure was in position on removal day.  The quality of sound emitted from such a relatively small speaker is remarkable.  It can fill a room with ease, though my flat is so small that filling the living room with sound pretty much fills the entire apartment.  In order to achieve this, the Sonos app employs a technique it calls ‘Trueplay Tuning’.  During the initial setup, once I had decided where in the room my speaker was going to be positioned, the app asked me to walk around the room waving my mobile phone up and down so that it could tailor the sound produced by the speaker to the room.  It was at this point on Friday morning, as I was walking slowly around my living room waving my phone like a magician suffering a terrible seizure, that I felt thankful that I live alone and have net curtains.

After a busy moving in day filling my living room with music and decanting my books onto the bookcase in their alphabetical and colour coded order, I set about cooking my first meal in my new flat.  Being short of time I opted for something light and easy and tossed a couple of venison burgers into the oven.  I wouldn’t normally buy venison burgers on account of finding them a little deer, but they were on offer for £1.99 from Lidl and it seemed like a good buy.

As time passed I became accustomed to living life as a single occupant.  Although it is true that most of the houseplants died, with the exception of Sally, who still can’t dance, and company remains at a premium – being the 25% discount on council tax which the local government applies in exchange for me living alone – I am largely comfortable.  The kitchen cupboards remain a source of confusion, and the expansion of my collection of books has brought chaos to the bookcase, but I haven’t once misplaced my keys.  The obsessive behaviour I had developed as a pre-teen male was finally proving useful in adulthood.

This post was first published on 21 January 2018. The original content can be viewed here.

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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.

The night I ate a foot long Sub

My two new houseplants had been flowering into life for more than a week and I was beginning to convince myself that maybe I am not the incompetent plant killing sociopath that I once felt certain I was when I finished watering them on Wednesday morning.  It was bin collection day, and in keeping with my role within our block of flats I stepped outside to retrieve the emptied blue vessels.  I pinned the door of the close back against the wall with a brick which, for some reason, is shrouded inside an old towel and I wheeled the first of the three bins inside.  As I was doing this my neighbour on the ground floor was returning from the garden with a laundry basket in her hand, and with the radiant glow of early morning sunlight streaming through the open door behind me it struck me that she is quite becoming.

We exchanged greeting pleasantries – her voice carried a foreign flair, possibly German or Danish – and it occurred to me how contrasting our outfits were.  My neighbour was dressed in black lycra cycling shorts, indicating a degree of athleticism, whilst I was sporting a black and white tie and matching socks, which I suspected probably indicated to her that I had taken my sartorial inspiration from the Liquorice Allsorts mascot, Bertie Bassett.

Through the day I was conjuring scenarios in my mind where I could manufacture a meeting with the ground floor girl who cycles (when I am the ground floor guy who recycles.)  I considered that on an evening I could knock on her door and ask if she had any spare sugar I could borrow, though I dismissed this idea as being clichéd and only adding to her belief that I am beholden to my sweet tooth.  In a more nefarious notion I thought about the possibility of sabotaging her tyres in the hope that she would come to me as some damsel in distress, urging me to help change them.  I concluded that she likely has an equally athletic boyfriend who would fit new wheels for her and who would easily squash me when my deeds become evident, and even if she doesn’t I realised that I have never changed a tyre in my thirty-four years and I would only look foolish if she approached me in her moment of need and I fumbled with a foot pump.

Since I introduced multivitamins into my daily weekday morning routine at the beginning of June I have begun using them as a handy measurement of time.  If one tube of twenty effervescent tablets is equal to four weeks then it has been a tube and a quarter, or five weeks, since I last saw a person who I felt may have been my best friend.  Until I started taking these tablets each morning I didn’t know that people could fade out so fast, like a soluble vitamin in a glass of water.

It has been a twentieth of a tube since I had my last severe anxiety attack, although the incessant headache which rings in my head like the bell at last orders in the bar lasted long into Friday.  I haven’t been taking multivitamins long enough to accurately measure the time since my last romantic dalliance.

It was a night like any other Friday night when I embarked upon my usual post work, pre-pub routine.  I lit two small candles and placed them inside a pair of blackened tealight holders to burn a mound of my favourite ‘Full Moon’ incense purchased from Treadwell’s bookstore in London; drank a couple more than half a dozen bottles of Budweiser; listened to some of the more sad Ryan Adams songs on my playlist and watered my houseplants, because I had forgotten to do so in the morning.

My anxiety was still lurking sharply behind my eyes like the way a shy Lothario stands at the dimmer side of the bar, and I decided that the best thing I could do would be to go to Subway for a sandwich, because nothing cures sadness like cured meat.  It had been nigh upon eighteen months since I last visited the six-inch specialists, which was a place that once upon a time featured frequently on my Friday nights out due to me usually being too drunk to make my own sandwich and because of the smile.

So long had it been since I had eaten a Subway sandwich that by the time I joined the queue I had forgotten the etiquette for ordering and I had to be guided through the entire process, relying on the Subway girl’s expertise to remind me of how I liked my breaded cuisine.  I ordered a steak sandwich, as normal, and had it as a foot-long due to them being 30p cheaper than a six-inch after four o’clock and I felt like I was making a saving.  I finally enjoyed the soft drink I had been asking for on every visit and never received, and I spent so much time in the store that it felt right that I should offer to mop the floor.  I was inarguably a man wearing a blue suit with a pink pocket square and mopping the floor of a Subway restaurant in a neat figure eight fashion, though my actions were less sweeping anyone off their feet and more kicking myself in the bucket.

I wasn’t perturbed by this defeat, however, and in the evening the barmaid with the dreadlocks and the green fingers presented me with a small potted plant, complete with instructions on how to keep it alive.  It was a very thoughtful gift and I immediately named the plant Succy the Succulent, because it is a succulent.  The instructions suggest that it would be very difficult for me to kill Succy.  I placed her on the kitchen window, away from the other two more needy plants, and with a tantalising view of grass and some bushes on the other side of the glass.  My family of plants is growing, and every day they are becoming more of a replacement for romance.

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.

The week after I dumped my dead houseplants

In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly. 

Recently it would seem that my weeks have become a lot like the days in the Cure song “Friday I’m in Love”, only the last day of my week barely brings so much as a like and my version would be more accurately titled, “Friday I’m in Aulay’s.”

It was on bin collection day of last week – the collection of bins in Oban, or at least in my block of flats, seems to straddle the desperate dash to fill them with as much rubbish as possible before wheeling them onto the street on Tuesday night and the actual picking up of the bins by the council on Wednesday morning (both grey days in the Cure song) – when I finally decided that it would be best to get rid of the two dead, or two most dead, houseplants from my flat.  For some time I had been despairing at their dreary drooping leaves and the way that the soil had become so dusty that they had begun to resemble the reference books section of the library.  A few petals which had once been pink were strewn across the top of the mantel place, lying lifeless next to the mantel clock as though depicting some morbid metaphor for the passage of time; a horticulture horror show.

It is not that I had no affection for my flowers or that I didn’t want to care for them, more that of late I have been in a place where my own emotions have been wilting and looking after myself has been enough of a task without trying to remember to water the roses.  So I walked the short distance around my flat a week past Tuesday lunchtime with a 22L white bin liner in hand and surveyed the wasteland of potted plants.  I tried to imagine myself in the role of some kind of plant doctor as I sought to determine whether the ailments being suffered by these things in their terracotta death beds could be treated by even a little more nourishment than I was providing, but that was proving too difficult and I took the even more implausible approach of considering how a female visitor to my flat might feel if she returned to my place on a night and found herself surrounded by the saddest gathering of houseplants she had ever seen.  It was with this thought in mind that I tossed the two most damaged plants into the white bin bag, gathered along with the burned out tealight candles I had used for incense, which had been discarded in the small wicker basket by the fireplace.  As the bag was filled it started to resemble some kind of ancient Pagan ritual for lost love.

Approximately one week had passed when I broke bread with a woodland traveller.  On this occasion the bread was naan and I was forced into improvisation when the question of plain or garlic was asked.  Ordering food for myself is often challenging enough, but trying to deduce what kind of Indian accompaniment a person you have never eaten with would prefer was an additional pressure.  The Wetherspoons cashier stared at me blankly as I pondered her naan question for nigh upon eight seconds.  I felt a reluctance to make eye contact with her, lest she become aware that this was the most difficult choice I had been faced with all week.  Finally I decided that any woman would probably prefer her naan bread like she likes her men – plain and with as little pungent odour as possible – and I allowed myself to breathe again.

At the table a question of etiquette was raised when the two women at the table adjacent to ours stood up and asked that we watch their table for “two seconds.”  When they returned several minutes later, grateful to find that their spot had been reserved, I realised that I had forgotten all about their request for us to be vigilant neighbours and if any other diner had taken their place I wouldn’t have been aware enough to object.  In that situation my defence would have been that I had fulfilled the verbal obligation of watching their table for two seconds and anything that happened after that time had lapsed was out with my jurisdiction.  This opened the debate over how long it is reasonable to sit and watch a table for another person – there is a scenario where one could plausibly be there all day defending a seating arrangement for a stranger – and how assertive it is necessary to be when you are confronted by someone who wants to take the table you are watching.  My natural need to please others and avoid confrontation would probably only lead to me offering my own table instead.

The more the week continued to progress – in the same way every week does, day by day – the more I was becoming aware of a curious sensation I was feeling every morning as I was walking to work.  It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling in recent weeks and months, but one which had become much more noticeable and was ultimately impossible to ignore on this week.

As I settled on a Spotify playlist and walked past The Factory Shop I felt my heartbeat quicken, to the extent that it was racing as quickly as it does in the moments before I am about to say something stupid to a girl.  It was as though a butterfly had become trapped in a net and it was desperately flapping its wings in an attempt to escape, and I could hardly catch a breath.  There was a nauseous feeling in the bottom of my stomach and my hands and arms had become the opposite of a critically acclaimed Pink Floyd song – that is to say that they were uncomfortably numb.

My mouth soon turned remarkably dry, reminiscent of the way it does when you are dehydrated from alcohol, but I remembered that I had not been drinking the night before and I knew that I wasn’t hung over.  This was in contrast to my legs, which both felt drunk and like they were trying to walk under water.  My mind was feeling overwhelmed and my sinuses were like fireworks sizzling and ready to explode.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I have been living in the same place for thirty-four years I’m not sure that I would have been able to find my way to the office.

I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes

These symptoms repeated themselves every morning and would usually last for hours at a time.  By the end of the week I was even considering going to the doctor to find out if this was something more than a deep fear of branded names at low prices, but I decided against making an appointment when I recalled the awkward experience I had last time at the doctor when I didn’t know which chair it was most appropriate to sit in.  Instead I used Bing to find Google, where I typed each of my symptoms into the search box.  It returned some nonsensical answers and so I removed the similes and the new results largely suggested that I could have been experiencing an anxiety attack.  I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant or if I was feeling better or worse for reading it.

In an attempt to improve my mood I decided to listen to some of Paul McCartney’s material away from The Beatles, because a lot like Red Bull Paul McCartney gives you Wings, and when I went out on Friday night I had put any thoughts of anxiety out of my head.  In Aulay’s I found myself briefly standing next to the girl with the unmatched socks (The few weeks I realised I am in a funk) and she shook my hand and introduced herself, indicating that her memory of me was not as clear as my recollection of her.  She commented with fondness on the navy blue tie I was wearing and my natural instinct would normally be to reveal my identically matching socks but I was reluctant to be in a position where I would be forced to acknowledge her unmatched socks again, so I instead complimented the shade of pink on her fingernails.  She disagreed with my opinion that her nails were nice and upon reflection they probably weren’t particularly remarkable and the comment must have sounded like a terrible line.

While most of the town enjoyed the Oban Live festival over the weekend, on Saturday I savoured the scene at the bar in the Royal Hotel.  My attention was drawn to the barmaid behind the frosted Heineken pump.  Her hair was the colour of a leaf caught between the seasons of summer and autumn.  I ordered a pint of beer and enquired how her night was going.  She said that it was long and it took me all of my effort to not be myself and take this answer literally by pointing out that every day is made up of 24 hours, and instead I asked why her night was so long.  The barmaid informed me that she had been working since 3pm, would probably not finish until 2am and was scheduled to be working again at eleven the following morning.  By the time she had finished pouring a pint of Heineken I had remarked that for someone who was working such terribly long hours the barmaid was looking remarkably cheerful.  She wasn’t, but my faux observation drew a smile.  Though the fact that I don’t recall seeing the barmaid again for the rest of the night lends to be believe that the smile was probably masking her cringe.

On Sunday morning, some time around 10.30, I awoke in my bed wearing nothing more than a sock on my left foot.  I staggered haphazardly through my flat to encounter my boots and the missing second sock in the hallway.  My jeans were in a heap on the chair in the living room and on the bathroom sink my watch was found.  In the kitchen, on the windowsill where I once housed a plant which came with the direction not to be placed in direct sunlight, my shirt had been discarded.  It was an unusual scene which confused me greatly.  With this discovery, and the week I had just lived through, I decided that I need to get myself some houseplants.