A chiropractor and a carpet fitter walk into a bar

My single occupancy has what might best be described as a ‘lived in’ scent to it.  It isn’t bad or good, neither a stench nor a fragrance, it just exists.  The flat is a small one, four little rooms crammed together into a tight space like a block of Shredded Wheat, and a whiff in one room will soon spread to all the others.  In the morning the place smells of shower gel and Joop! Homme; by afternoon the fumes of passing traffic have wheezed in through the open bedroom window, and at night the dominant aroma comes from whatever I have prepared for dinner.  It is a classic Potpourri, though ironically I have always had a deep mistrust of actual Potpourri.

For a while, I liked to burn heaps of incense that I had bought in jars from a specialist bookstore in London until a friend asked me why my flat smelled like there was a funeral service being conducted.  It is the kind of thing that is difficult to forget about once you’ve heard it, and matters weren’t improved by my failed attempts at keeping houseplants alive over the years.  Other than experimenting with some scented candles that had been gifted to me during the original lockdown, I just learned to live with the ‘lived in’ bouquet around my flat.  It wasn’t something I ever spent much time thinking about, at least not until Lidl had an offer on reed diffusers recently.  I didn’t really know what a diffuser is or how one functions, but since there is still a lot of time to be spent sitting around at home with nothing better to do while most of the country is in Coronavirus protection level 1, I decided to buy a couple and figure them out for myself.

The diffuser isn’t very much to look at.  You wouldn’t make it the centrepiece of your living room, which is why I ended up hiding mine by the side of the television.  The diffuser I bought resembles something you might see on a table in a craft gin bar:   a small glass jar with a clear liquid filling it and eight wooden sticks which are poking through a gap in the silver lid like straws.   Apparently the sticks – or reeds – are porous and act to draw the fragrant oil out of the jar until it reaches the tip, where it evaporates into the air in my living room.  Even as I stared at the thing from across the room, I just couldn’t see how it would work; but it clearly is since now when I inhale during my yoga practices it is like crawling open-mouthed through a field of lavender.  Now I wonder if the cotton variety is going to give me an insight into how it is to be suffocated with a pillow.

Basking in the brand new essence of my living room, I got to thinking about how the diffuser hadn’t really transformed my life in the ways I was hoping.  I mean, sure, the place no longer smells of a funeral mass, nor even of exhaust fumes or that evening’s garlicky pasta dish, but it was hardly like baking a loaf of bread or learning how to play an instrument.  Other people seem to have made some real use of their time during these various lockdowns.  At least a dozen of my contacts across social media appear to have become committed Munro baggers.  My sister has taken the leap of starting her own business and is finally teaching fitness classes in person again.  While it is difficult to imagine that I would ever have bought a diffuser in ordinary times, there’s just no way of convincing anyone that unscrewing the lid of a jar and dropping eight reeds into some pungent liquid is any kind of achievement, even if I can now tell them about how the droplets evaporate in the air to create a pleasant smell.  I don’t feel guilty about it or consider it a waste of time, however.  Apart from the ongoing threat of a deadly airborne virus, my life feels as close to normal as it ever has been, which is to say that it is simply an ongoing succession of events taking place between Sunday and Thursday while I am waiting to go back to Aulay’s again, and that’s just the way I like it.

When I returned to Aulay’s, it had been a week since some guy had threatened to bite my nose off during the Scotland versus England Euro 2020 game, and since then Scotland had been eliminated from the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Croatia.  I had put the dispute to the back of my mind by the time the following Friday had come around, only to walk into the pub and find the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete sitting in the company of the big bearded bloke’s companion from that fateful night.  What were the chances?  This guy seemed a decent lad, though, and he confided in us that his friend had received a piece of bad news before the football started and that as a result his behaviour during it was out of character.  These things happen, I suppose, but really, it sounded as though you wouldn’t want to be around this guy when he receives a parking ticket or if the bin men refuse to uplift his recycling because a glass bottle has found its way into the wrong bin.

Oban was shrouded with mist on Thursday morning

Geordie Pete vanished like a benevolent spectre through the night shortly after some distant members of his family had been turned away from the bar on account of there being no tables, presumably to go in search of them for a drink elsewhere.  After a while, the older couple who were sitting at the table next to ours called it a night, and the Plant Doctor moved into their seat before it had a chance to cool.  He wanted to save the space for Geordie Pete and his family in the event that they all came back, but it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be returning.  It’s the same with everybody – there comes a time when you have to accept that a loved one has gone and they aren’t coming back.  So when the Plant Doctor saw that a couple of guys were being turned away because there were no available tables, he vacated the space he was reserving and ceded it to the men, who were thankful to have a place to drink.  The two of them were fantastically handsome; so strikingly good looking that I almost felt ashamed to even be sitting near them.  Even in the gloomy light of the bar, they appeared to have a sickeningly healthy glow about them.  You could just tell that their home didn’t smell of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning.

In time we learned that they were visiting Oban for the weekend from the Borders – one of the men is a chiropractor of Taiwanese origin from Galashiels, and the other owns a floor fitting business in Hawick.  They have been using the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to discover more of Scotland, which seemed like a good idea to me.  I became involved in a conversation with Hawick about the Common Riding festivities which take place through many of the Scottish Border towns during the summer months.  The Common Ridings commemorate a practice from the 13th and 14th centuries in which an appointed townsperson would go out on horseback and ride the town’s boundaries to protect against raids from the English or rival clans.  Each town has its own little traditions, and I found it fascinating, not only to hear about how drunk people would get but also about the pageantry and colour of it all.

Meanwhile, across the table, I could hear as the Plant Doctor asked Galashiels how the two men had met.  It was a bold question, I thought, but not an unreasonable assumption.  Galashiels looked ready to respond with what was sure to be a powerful and romantic anecdote recounting the events leading to this handsome coupling when the perfect joke occurred to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting.  

“Let me guess!  Galashiels had an accident at work and asked Hawick to help him hide the body under the floorboards?”  

They both smiled, but it was a smile I recognised well; an uncomfortable sort of smile.   It was obvious that neither of them knew what to say to that.  Why is it that I can’t help myself from saying stupid things when I’m around beautiful people?  Galashiels later asked the Plant Doctor when it was that he first realised that he is gay, and he seemed surprised when the answer was that the Plant Doctor isn’t gay.  It could even have been disappointment.  Had the two men been under the impression for the entire time that we were talking that the Plant Doctor and I are a couple?  And if we were viewing Hawick and Galashiels as this magnificently handsome pairing, then how were they seeing us?  This is what happens when the Plant Doctor decides to wear a shirt as opposed to his usual holey t-shirts.

While cases of Covid continued to rise in Argyll like in the rest of Scotland, including the Borders, people around Oban were becoming concerned about the numbers.  As is usually the way in a small town, stories of the virus were spreading faster than the actual illness, and by the end of last week people were talking about there being hundreds of cases in Oban when the true figure was less than 40, which was still higher than we had maybe ever seen.  These things get whipped up quite quickly here.  After hearing of a couple of positive cases from some of the pubs I decided that it would be a good idea to get myself tested, as a precaution more than anything else.  Although I felt perfectly healthy after a Monday morning session of yoga during which I inhaled yet more evaporated droplets of lavender, by the time I was booking a PCR test online I was overwhelmed with dread.  Even though I didn’t feel sick or have any reason to believe that I was, I felt as though I could be.

The Covid test site at Mossfield Stadium car park effectively amounts to a series of tents.  This was the same place that I went to the shows as a child, where I would ride on the dodgems and eat pink candyfloss, but you wouldn’t have known it from looking at it now.  After you have had your appointment QR code scanned by a man who is shielded behind a plastic screen you have to sanitise your hands, and you practically sanitise them after every little thing you do while you’re in the various tents.  I was guided through the testing process by a friend who I had once described as being amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s, and while we had since joked about the remark, it was hard to escape the suspicion that he was quite enjoying this.  First you are handed an envelope which you open and are asked to carefully place the contents on the table in front of you.  Inside there was a swab, a test tube, a small plastic bag for rubbish, and a tissue.  Looking at them laid out before me was as though I had just been caught shoplifting from Boots and was being forced to own up to my crime.

You hold the cotton swab against your tonsils for ten seconds, which you have to count out in your head yourself, before being instructed to place it up your nostril “until you experience some slight resistance.”  I found that phrase incredible since ordinarily, the resistance comes before I even think of sticking something up my nose, but I suppose I should have considered it generous that I was at least offered the option of which nostril the swab went in.  After all that is done, you put the swab into the test tube, which has some kind of medical solution in it that didn’t look unlike the oil in my diffuser, and then seal it up in a bag.  I could scarcely believe that my life had brought me to this.

My nose was sensitive for hours after the test, and it was difficult to stop thinking about what would happen if the result came back positive, even if it was the most confident I was feeling about a test since my Higher Modern Studies exam.  I received the result by text message at eight o’clock the following morning, right after I had done my yoga.  My heart was racing when I heard my phone ping from the next room.  This was when I realised how bad an idea the message preview notification on the home screen of your phone is.  The words stopped right before the part of the message where it told me the outcome.  I felt a wreck having to open up my phone to get into my messages just to find out that I don’t have coronavirus.  The rest of the text is pretty bland, advising you that you should still wash your hands, adhere to social distancing, and wear a mask; all the things we’ve become accustomed to doing over the last sixteen months.  Would it have killed them to put a wee ‘congratulations’ in there, or even a ‘thank you for doing your bit to help protect society’?

I was given two boxes of seven lateral flow testing kits from the centre, and I’ve been testing myself fairly frequently since.  Not necessarily out of any worry that I could have the virus, but I figured that if I have the things then I might as well use them, similar to the attitude I have towards the jars of dried oregano or thyme I keep in the cupboard.  I quite like having that peace of mind before I go to the pub on a Friday or visit my dad, though there’s something that doesn’t sit right about poking a swab around my nose in the same space in my kitchen where I cut onions and prepare bowls of overnight oats.  It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when I don’t feel uncomfortable conducting one of these tests, or anxious as I wait 30 minutes for the result to show, but I suppose that it is just another of these things that we’re going to have to get used to in life, like a ‘lived in’ smell or a stupid joke made in the company of a beautiful person.

The other side

An unusual event took place on New Year’s Eve when I found myself drinking in the public bar in Aulay’s.  I didn’t often venture through from the lounge side, other than maybe for the occasional televised boxing fight, on account of the awkward glances whichever shirt and tie combination I was wearing would usually attract from the fishermen, farmers and others who typically didn’t feel the need to wear a pocket square to the pub on a Friday night.  Aside from the benefit of the lounge bar having the jukebox, I just never felt truly comfortable in the public bar, where people instantly assumed that I was above my actual station; usually a lawyer.  I was viewed with suspicion and folk were often reluctant to talk to me, and particularly share sensitive parts of a story.  Most of the time this seemed like a blessing.

I was the last of the gang to arrive at the bar on the final night of the year.  The diminutive barmaid poured me a pint and pointed me through to the public bar, where my brother, the plant doctor, Brexit Guy and others had taken residence on the stools.  I had turned up wearing a three-piece brown tweed suit, seeking to see the new year in with some sartorial style, and given the occasion, I wasn’t feeling quite so awkward about being the only person in the pub dressed as such.  On the television in the far left corner, a concert from the well-known pop band Coldplay was playing, though it was to everyone’s relief that the volume had been muted.  It was left to us to imagine what Chris Martin & co. were singing. 

It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.

For all intents and purposes, we were bringing in the new year in the wrong side of Aulay’s, but it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just like any other night.  We admired the blossoming kinship between my brother and the Brexit Guy, a sight which would have seemed impossible before the miracle of Easter 2019 [“The night of the handshake”].  Drink after drink appeared on the bar before us, in the manner of some late Christmas offering:  pints of Tennent’s, rounds of Jameson, Jack Daniels, our very own Tough Paper Round, and Cointreau.  The latter encouraged the plant doctor to make a pun centred on how the round of drinks had been “Cointreau-versial”, which was the sort of joke that no-one found funny, though everyone had wished that they’d thought of it.

We discussed the George Harrison song Wah-Wah, Netflix murder documentaries, and our resolutions for the forthcoming year.  I made the declaration that I had vowed many years earlier that I would not be making any New Year’s resolutions going forward, a dedication that I had kept every year since.  Often it occurred to me that I should at least make the promise that I would reach next 31st December no longer being a single man, but it seemed that these things should at least be realistic and achievable.

The hours were passing by, and so was the year we were about to leave behind as the pub rapidly filled with revellers at around ten o’clock, though was suddenly emptying by eleven-thirty when people started making their way to their preferred party destination.  With the all-important midnight hour ticking ever closer, we were considering amongst ourselves what the kiss protocol would be on the bells.  Once it was taken into account that some of us were related, and that the bar staff probably didn’t have it in their terms of employment that they should kiss the slobbering drunken customers on Hogmanay, we all agreed that hugs and handshakes would be appropriate.

As Big Ben chimed from the television in the background, fireworks could be heard crackling overhead in the distant January sky.   The few folks who were left in the pub began to filter out to watch them, and I would shortly follow.  I had worn my favourite tan shoes to compliment my tweed outfit, though much like any time I had made an attempt to talk to a woman in the previous twelve months, it turned out to be a mistake.  Standing outside the doorway of the pub, I watched the fireworks explode out of McCaig’s Tower on the hill, through a haze of cigarette smoke and rain.  It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.  I could feel water seeping in through the bottom of my shoes, and I soon realised that each of the soles were cracked.  Happy New Year!

When Aulay’s closed for the night, it was left to the four of us to first-foot Markies.  I had arranged to meet up with the Subway Girl somewhere along the way, but first our attention was drawn to an anonymous-looking woman who was huddled in the doorway of the butcher’s shop, presumably seeking shelter from the rain.  She was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be taking the time to send a text message, although it struck me from experience that she may only have been pretending.  The plant doctor began to dance back and forth in front of the doorway, almost in the manner of one of those hairy mascots with the over-sized heads that you find at sporting events or in shopping centres.  The texter seemed unperturbed.

“Don’t worry about him,” I called out through the mist of the rain.  “He’s just an idiot.”

“Oh, I noticed,” the woman in black responded, lifting her attention from her mobile phone.  We got to talking, and it transpired that she had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend and wasn’t sure what to do with herself for the rest of the night.  She said that she was in her early fifties, though I wouldn’t have placed her as being older than late forties. She asked where we were going and if she could join us.  After the plant doctor’s dancing, it seemed the least we could do was to take her to Markies.

Our inherited stranger hit it off with the Subway Girl, and our expanded group of six made its way down the seafront.  The streets were slick with rainwater, and the further we walked the more my socks were soaking it up like a sponge.  When we reached our destination we were stuffed into the pub like sardines, with barely enough space to fish dance, only the stench of tinned seafood had been replaced by the overwhelming fragrance of Christmas morning deodorant sets.  We were able to socialise all the same, and it was a fun night.

The early days of 2020 weren’t quite what I had hoped they would be.  By the second date, I had developed such a cough in my chest that subsequently anything I ate would come back up quicker than a Hogmanay firework.  By Friday I was struggling to get myself out of bed, and things were so bad that I couldn’t even make the usual trip to Aulay’s in the evening.  As the week progressed, it was becoming more like the New Year’s Resolution I hadn’t made:  I had spent four days in bed, my body had been ravaged from head to toe, my joints were throbbing, and I was a hot mess.  At around 3 am in the dark of one of the nights, Spotify began playing a playlist of power-pop ballads from the eighties and nineties featuring the likes of Annie Lennox, Cheap Trick and Garbage, and at one point I was feeling so sick that I began to question my own mortality.  I imagined how ridiculous it would be if I was a thirty-six-year-old man who perished to the flu.  I thought about the requiem mass that would follow and wondered if it would be better attended than the Christmas Eve service I had been at a week earlier.  In my mind’s eye, I could see a handful of people sitting around, looking at each other solemnly and asking, “why couldn’t he just wear jeans and boots like everybody else?”  

New Year’s Eve had been a good night spent amongst some of my best friends and the nicest people, and Brexit Guy, in our favourite places – or the wrong side of our favourite place.  For a few hours, it even felt good. It was just a shame about the shoes.

Links:
The song I’ve mostly been listening to this decade…

The advent of a fashion faux pas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diaries of a 36-year-old single man

It was difficult for me to pinpoint precisely when I started to get old, but I reckoned it was probably around the eleventh of October nineteen hundred and eighty-three.  It started out as a slow process, a gradual crawl that wasn’t really going anywhere in particular, that one day learned how to walk and over time let me know that it could run if it really wanted to, but for the time being it didn’t have all that much enthusiasm for breaking a sweat.    

Things were beginning to change by the time the second week of the October of 2019 arrived.  I had put my second load of laundry of the week into the washing machine before I left for work on Tuesday morning.  It wasn’t a large load:  a few pairs of socks, some boxer shorts, a bath towel, a kitchen towel and a dishcloth, but I liked the idea of getting it out of the way and having a full colour chart of socks to choose from for the week ahead.  By the time I had arrived home at the end of the day and put the small load through another spin cycle, I couldn’t remember if I had thrown one of the little laundry gel pouches into the machine before I started it on its way.  I was glancing at the cupboard where the detergents were stored with a wistful look, the sort I had given across a crowded bar often enough, one which said that I didn’t really understand what was going on or how to resolve it.  There was no way of me knowing whether I had washed my socks or just made them soaking wet, and suddenly, as I was draping my red and yellow cotton socks over the rungs of the clothes airer, 36 wasn’t feeling all that far away.

Almost three years had passed since I turned 33, when I was just happy to have reached the age that Jesus was reported to have been when he died.  At the time I considered it something of an achievement to have outlived our Lord and Saviour, and when I was thinking about it again in the days before my thirty-sixth birthday I realised that it was probably still the most significant thing I had done in the intervening years.  I had tried boasting about this to a friend over a pint in Aulay’s when she pointed out that Christ was famously resurrected two days following his crucifixion, and neither of us could remember what became of him next.  I was being forced to reconsider everything I had done between the ages of 33 and 36 and whether living to an age which was older than Jesus ever managed was really that much of an achievement anyway.  He was a man who had sacrificed himself and died for all of our sins, after all, though the way that he came back to brag about the fact sounded a lot like the way someone buys a round of drinks at the bar and then spends the rest of the night telling anyone who will listen that he has.  I would know because I’ve done that.

There were two pub quizzes taking place on the nights before my birthday, and I was hoping that if I could no longer use the fact that I had been on earth longer than Jesus was as my greatest achievement in life, then I could at least be a part of a winning quiz team.  The half-term holidays meant that many people were away in places where the conditions were more favourable than the cold rain that had been falling in Oban, so the raven-haired quiztress and I joined the remaining members of the Bawbags to form The Unlikely Bawbags, although anyone who had known me would not have considered it unlikely that I could be a bawbag.

The silver-haired host of the Lorne’s pub quiz had recently returned from a trip to New York City, which meant that many of the questions had a distinct theme.  If there was one subject that I could be more of an insufferable know-it-all in than I was on Budapest, it was New York City following my travels there in 2015 and 2016.  We scored a perfect ten in the picture round, which featured NYC landmarks, and followed that with nine out of ten in the round which was dedicated to the Big Apple, where the only gap in our knowledge was failing to identify that if you put lox on a bagel you are eating cured smoked salmon.  After three rounds we were in the familiar position of being tied for the leadership, although I was in the unfamiliar role of having correctly answered a question about the nationality of a Celtic player, at the third time of asking.  In spite of a sketchy sport round, we were able to recover in the New York-themed music round to win the quiz by two-and-a-half points.  While lording it over the three teams we had vanquished to claim the £25 voucher for a bar meal, we liked to imagine the envy that the absent members from our two regular teams would be feeling from their sun loungers when they learned the news that we had won.

Our triumphant team, which had been re-christened as Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady, was brimming with confidence going into the Oban Inn’s quiz the following night, although immediately something seemed off.  As I was rubbing an itch from my nose I caught the stench of what smelled to be fish on the tip of my thumb.  It wasn’t present on any of my fingers and I hadn’t touched any sea life, so it was a mystery where it had come from or what it was, and the question was troubling me for much of the night.  

A further distraction from the questions I should have been focussing my attention on came when the rest of my team-mates made the generous offer of giving me sole custody of the £25 voucher we had won from The Lorne, with the suggestion that I should use it as a means of enticing a woman to join me for dinner.  It seemed to me to be the type of gesture a person makes when they know that they will probably still get something out of it, like opening a share size bag of M&M’s and offering some to your friend who suffers from a dairy intolerance, or offering to buy a round of drinks when everybody in the group has a full glass in front of them.  My team likely knew that I wasn’t going to be successful in finding a woman who would accompany me to The Lorne for a bar meal, particularly when the voucher came with an expiry date of January 2020.  Nevertheless, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking up scenarios where I might be able to at least make the offer, and the lines I could use to make it appealing.

“The voucher is only valid for food, so we’ll have to pretend that we’re enjoying ourselves.”

“Would you like to eat £25 worth of food in The Lorne?  Good. The only thing is that you’ll have to spend some time with me.”

“They say that it’s feast from a fiver, but how about we feast for five fivers?”

“I may not have the natural charm, wit, charisma, intelligence or rock star looks that you’re looking for, but I can tell you that the World Trade Center is 1,776 feet tall.”

“If we have a good time, perhaps we could go on a second date once I win another pub quiz?”

Nothing I could think of sounded right.

We were feeling pretty confident and clever following our achievements the night before, but we soon found the Oban Inn quiz to be quite challenging, and while in the corner of the room we could see Scotland losing 4-0 to Russia in a European Championships qualifier, a table of three eggheads were winning the quiz by more than 30 points.  Even though we ended up finishing third, and were a question away from claiming the second-place prize of a bottle of wine, Three Pints and a Pregnant Lady had encountered a bump in the pub quiz road.

The eleventh of October arrived and I was still no further forward in realising the significant achievement of my life.  Oban was rainy and blustery on the day I was turning 36, as though the howl of age itself was biting at my face.  Along the seafront, the tide was high and wild, and all sorts of debris was floating on top of the bay, which was as dark as a broken slate.  There were discarded plastic bottles swimming amongst the seaweed, a tub of Ariel Laundry 3 in 1 pods, dozens of empty crisp packets, a white bucket and a tennis ball which was well worn.  It was as though the contents of a bin had been carried from the shore in a great gust of wind.

For the first time, my birthday suit was the subject of discussion; more specifically, the colour scheme of the shirt and tie I had elected to wear on my birthday was being talked about.  One of the younger women at the office suggested that my pale yellow shirt and bright pink tie gave me the appearance of a birthday cake.  It wasn’t the look I had in mind when I was getting dressed in the morning, and when I thought about it, I was feeling more like a four-day-old birthday cake which had been left sitting by a radiator.  Later, in Aulay’s, a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn Bru complimented me on my look, which I was beginning to accept did have a hint of marzipan, and she intimated that she had been admiring for some time the attention to detail which always went into my outfits.  She said that she had recently seen a handwoven scarf which she was considering buying for me, and I confessed that I wasn’t certain that 36 was the right age to be introducing a scarf to my attire.  How would it interact with the tie?  Where would I find the socks to match?  

Elsewhere in the bar, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was reunited in its full form for the first time in a long time, though some of the group were no longer as lonely as others.  The Brazilian belly dancer pressed a kiss onto my moisturised forehead, leaving a lipstick print which meant that from my head to the socks on my toes, I was colour coordinated.  Meanwhile, the Polish scientist with a moniker was celebrating the removal of a cast from her drinking arm.  I was hopeful that there would be such a steady stream of people arriving into the bar who both knew me and that it was my birthday that I could go the entire night without needing to put my hand into my pocket to buy a drink, but there eventually reached a point in proceedings where my Catholic guilt got the better of me and I was forced to buy a round of drinks, although I was quick to let everyone know that I had done so. 

It was like old times when the plant doctor and my brother returned to my flat after Markie Dans had called last orders, when I was simply a 36-year-old man, rather than a man who was turning thirty-six.  We drank bottles of beer and listened to music until it was almost daylight again.  When I eventually made it to bed, there were the crowns of discarded Budweiser tops all over the place and Pistachio shells strewn across the oak flooring.  I was feeling like a tennis ball adrift in a web of seaweed.  The plant doctor had fallen asleep on the couch, which wasn’t the sleepover I had been wishing for on my birthday, though it at least didn’t come at the expense of my £25 voucher for The Lorne.

I had certainly aged by no more than a year on Friday, but I had largely recovered from the experience by the time I met with the rest of my family to take the 6.11 train out to Connel for a birthday dinner.  We were sitting at a table watching the plush green countryside roll past through rain splashed windows, while from the corner of our eyes we were looking out for the ticket inspector who had promised to come back to us so that we could purchase our £3 fares for the journey, though we had an unspoken hope that he wouldn’t have time to return before the train made its first stop, which was our destination.  Things were looking promising when the wheels screeched to a slow stop by the platform of the small village’s station, and we carefully disembarked from the train with the spring of triumph in our steps.  As an act of larceny it probably wasn’t up there with Ronnie Biggs, but we were feeling good about our free journey all the same.

When you get off the train in Connel and leave through the station car park, there are two paths that you can follow.  There is the dark shaded path to the right of the exit which ends directly behind the Falls of Lora Hotel, where we had our dinner reservation at 7.30.  The other path, on the left of the car park, takes pedestrians down onto the main street of the village and finally out to the A85, which is the main road to and from Oban, and from where it is around a three or four-minute walk to the main entrance of the hotel.  As the rain was starting to fall from the dark sky again, hitting off the ground and bouncing back up again like a thousand ping pong balls, we decided to walk down the path to our left.  By the time we reached the Falls of Lora the four of us had been soaked through, and any feelings of success from our complimentary train ride were running down our faces and dripping onto the ground around us.

We took a table close to the great warmth which was being produced by the wood-burning stove in the centre of the bar, attempting to dry out as we whetted our lips and waited for the two members of our party who had decided to drive out from Oban to arrive.  The place was like sitting in someone’s living room, comfortable and with all sorts of quirky and interesting things to look at.  There were pencil drawings hanging on the walls, ornaments of cats and other creatures, and a large, framed cicada which was mounted on the wall near our dinner table and which looked like it could easily overcome a roll of flypaper or even a sturdy tennis racket.

My sister reached into her bag and brought out a board game, which she had taken to keep my niece amused.  Three Little Pigs was more of a problem-solving puzzle game based on the children’s story about a wolf with a troublesome appetite.  The challenge was for the player to build three houses onto the board around the endangered pigs to keep them safe, in keeping with the 48 challenges outlined in the booklet.  It was like a jigsaw, with the pigs and the wolf positioned in ways that required the colourful blocks with the houses to be rotated and placed so that they would all fit together on the board.  The puzzles were designed for children between the ages of three and seven to be able to complete, and my sister decided that it would be a good idea to test my ability to protect the little pigs.

I took possession of the board and analysed the positioning of the pigs and the whereabouts of the wolf.  I confidently placed the first green block on the board, safely housing the first pig.  This is child’s play, I thought, as my three-year-old niece watched on.  My brow furrowed in consternation as I realised that the placing of my first block wouldn’t allow all of the pigs to be rescued, and I sheepishly removed it.  I looked again at my niece, with it slowly dawning on me that the puzzle wasn’t as easy as I thought it was. I manipulated the pieces in all the different ways I could think of, but still they wouldn’t fit.  It took me much longer than it reasonably should have to find the correct solution, maybe as long as ten minutes, and when my sister took the board back to give my niece another shot at a new puzzle, she completed it with much less of the drama.  I could outlive Jesus and win a pub quiz, but I still couldn’t outsmart a three-year-old.  Thirty-six was shaping up to carry on where thirty-five had left off.

In addition to reading A lion’s roar, I will be sharing an anecdote from my fifteenth birthday at The Rockfield Centre’s Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 26 October.  Full details on the event can be found on its Facebook page.