The night I went solo

By the end of the week, the mild winter had been withered by a cold front which was sweeping through from the east.  On Friday morning, the pale sky was threatening to cough up a flurry of snow, though in the end it only amounted to a brief scattering of flakes, as though someone was furiously agitating a near-empty salt shaker over a plate of steaming chips.  As I was walking home from work in the early evening, a bitter breeze was wheezing in off the restless sea. It was the sort of wind which wasn’t respecting the boundaries of clothing, eating its way through my thick black overcoat and everything below it.

The preceding days had brought with them a sense of loneliness and an anxious feeling which was creeping through me in the same manner the icy wind had found its way past my woolen scarf.  In an effort to fill the void in my life with some kind of meaningful activity, I decided to reorganise the items which were pinned to the two corkboards residing on the walls of my kitchen. I dumped written reminders from May 2018 to check the process of changing to a billed electricity meter and a vegetable-heavy shopping list which kept me fed for a week in late November.  

With space freed up on the boards, I thought it would be a good idea to record words I hadn’t understood in books or articles I had read, or songs I had heard, and research their meaning to allow me to introduce them into my everyday vocabulary.  After three days I had noted twelve words, and I was beginning to question my methods, which were in danger of making me appear illiterate. I was studying my cards each night, with every addition leading me to think about how I was going to use my newly learned words,  It was proving more difficult than I initially thought it would be, and as the days moved on without me using any of the twelve words I had investigated through the week, I came to realise that with the type of lifestyle I live, there is never a situation that is practical for imprecation.

By the time I had defrosted after my walk home from work, it was becoming clear that my weekly visit to Aulay’s was going to resemble my love life and be a solo endeavour.  In the doorway of the lounge bar, a group of smokers had assembled, huddled beneath the edge of the building as they sought to enjoy their cigarettes shielded from the snarling face of the winter wind.  I walked through their clouds of smoke and entered the tavern in a more spectacular fashion than usual, though there was nobody that I knew inside to witness it.

As I was standing at the bar drinking alone, I became aware of a boisterous conversation taking place between the two tables behind me.  I continued to slowly sink into a pint of Tennents Lager as I became immersed in what sounded to be a happy meeting of two separate couples who were from the same area of the west coast of Scotland.  The most animated of the characters was a large man who had the pinkest cheeks I have ever seen on an adult.  His appearance was similar to that of a garden gnome who had recently learned that there is more to life than simply fishing all the time.  The second gentleman in the newly formed quartet was wearing a navy blue jumper which had a red animal motif sitting on the left breast, waiting patiently to be petted or fed.  It may have been a donkey or a horse, though I could never get close enough to properly examine the design.

The voices of the two men were much louder than those of their female counterparts, and I listened as they were discussing the part of the world where they both happened to come from.  The men were challenging one another on their memories of buildings, places they had worked over the course of their lives and bars they had drank in.

“If you were working in this job then you must have known that person?”

“You’ll know the place I’m talking about, it used to be next to the ethnic corner shop, though we can’t call it that anymore.”

“Did you know the big man?  It would probably have been around 1974 to 1983.”

Neither of the two men knew what the other was talking about, and there reached a point in the night where I was beginning to consider the possibility that they had realised this long ago and were attempting to one-up each other with improbable tales and recollections, knowing well that the other wasn’t going to recognise the people or the places involved.  It was the only explanation I could think of for the woman who had miraculously fallen pregnant following her first visit to the newly opened tanning salon in 1994, although I wasn’t hearing every detail of the stories.

After a couple of hours spent wallowing in my own company, the beers were only weighing my spirits down.  The random mix of music which the jukebox plays when nobody has paid for specific songs was leaving me apprehensive, so I decided to play a few of my own.  For my pound coin I was afforded three selections, and my third Ryan Adams choice was Nobody Girl, by which point the lounge bar was quickly emptying.  When I am feeling particularly low Ryan Adams is all I ever want to listen to, and Nobody Girl is a song which seems to me to be a lament to a lost girl, where the singer is trying to convince himself that this girl is a nobody who isn’t worth fooling his heart over, though he is conveying all of this in a song which is nine minutes and 39 seconds long.  After around seven minutes of misery, the track explodes into a Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street-like finale, but by the time this arrived there was almost nobody left in the bar to hear it.

In the meantime, a middle-aged couple from Hamilton had arrived, though they had presumably not come directly from the Lanarkshire town to Aulay’s Bar.  The man was mild-mannered and friendly, whilst his partner was a much more energetic and slightly older woman who spoke with an English accent and whose hair was as white as the icy winter air.    Although she was admirably balanced in her heeled footwear, her gait led me to suspect that she may have had a couple of coins trapped in her shoes.  The white-haired woman was querying why anyone would have filled the jukebox with so much sadness, and she immediately made it her mission to liven the atmosphere in the bar.  After a failed attempt at operating the digital jukebox, she called me over to assist, and I was forced to help her find the Marina and the Diamonds and the S Club 7 songs which were going to “get the party started.”  As Nobody Girl was nearing its emphatic climax and the numbers in the bar were diminishing, the woman chastised me.  “There isn’t going to be anybody left to hear my songs!”

Back at the bar, the mild-mannered man from Hamilton and I were bonding over a beer and our mutual disdain for his partner’s taste in music as she was dancing in a barren background.  He went into some detail about their weekend trip to Oban and the wider context of their relationship, which was only in its sixth year.  I could sense the regret in his voice that although they had known each other for many years, they had not gotten together sooner.  Before I could learn why they had not become romantically involved until six years ago, the white-haired woman with the awkward walk crashed into us and demanded to know where the best bar to visit next would be.  The most flamboyant barman in Aulay’s was standing nearby, and he insisted that if the couple wanted a true taste of Oban then they should go across the road to the Claredon, where Friday night is karaoke night.  A sense of dread imbued with my drunkenness as the woman shrieked her delight at the prospect of being able to perform her signature song.  Nevertheless, I agreed that I would show them the sights of the Claredon.

We finished our drinks and headed into the vast darkness, where plumes of alcohol bellowed from our mouths like great chimneys.  As we were walking the short distance across two roads to reach our next destination, I thought it would be best to paint the couple a picture of what they should expect when we reach the Claredon.  I asked them to recall the 1972 film Deliverance, with the greatest difference between the two being that instead of duelling banjos there would be karaoke in the Claredon.

The blue doors to the bar swung open before us, and as I led the couple from Hamilton on their first foray into the Claredon bar we were greeted by the sound of what could only be described as being an imagining of a scenario where Bryan Adams had been captured and held hostage by two powerful men, whose giant bear-like hands were wrapped violently around the singer’s throat as they threatened him with the death of everyone he loves unless he performs their favourite song in the style of a nervous baboon.

On the far side of the room, close to the stage, there were around six or eight – maybe seven – balloons of different colours which had been tacked to the wall and were visibly sagging.  They surrounded a short but cheerful blue banner which was wishing an unidentified person a happy birthday.  The white-haired woman was eager to perform a song, and she approached the hostess to request that her name was added to the list of people waiting to entertain the bar.

Meanwhile, at the bar, I was standing with the mild-mannered man, trying my best to make sure that my tan shoes weren’t sticking to the floor.  His face was contorted with the sort of confusion a dog would display when its owner pretends to throw a toy.  Over my right shoulder, I could see the Subway girl with the smile, and I excused myself to go over and talk to her, though the conversation was brief as her group was leaving.  I returned to the company of the couple I had come with, when the gentleman asked me if I ‘like’ the sandwich artist.  I questioned why he was asking, and he responded by telling me that it was “written all over my face”, like in The Smiths song, I assumed.  The couple enthusiastically suggested that I should leave and pursue the girl, the white-haired woman’s enthusiasm so strong that she grabbed a hold of my arm and tried dragging me towards the door.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have such resistance to leaving the Claredon, but on this occasion, I dug my heels into the syrupy floor and advised the couple that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  I was reluctant to tell them that I had already twice tried and failed in my pursuit and was now in a Wile E. Coyote-like loop, and instead left them with the fleeting hope that I might one day succeed.

The white-haired woman with the coins stuck in her high heels was growing impatient as a succession of terrible crooners stepped up to take the microphone, and when her name once again wasn’t called she claimed a conspiracy against visiting karaoke artists, insisting to her partner that it was time they left for their accommodation.  I finished my Jack Daniels and walked back along the seafront to Markie Dans, even the addition of a navy v neck sleeveless jumper to my attire struggled to keep the vicious cold wind from attaching itself to my body.  I took a seat at the bar as a band was playing to an empty dancefloor, presumably out of contractual obligation rather than enjoyment.  If only the Marina and the Diamonds enthusiast could see this scene, I was thinking.

As the curfew was approaching after midnight, a series of stragglers were beginning to arrive from the Oban Inn, and the bar was looking a little more healthy as drinkers were indulging in their unhealthy pursuits.  The Subway girl was amongst them, and after some time her acquaintance slid onto the barstool next to mine.  She observed that I appeared to be miserable and was curious as to why.  I was struggling to conjure an answer to her question before she amended her enquiry to ask if my sorrow was related to sandwiches.  The truth was that the Subway girl was only a very small fraction of the shape I was in, but to confess otherwise would only have led to more questions I wasn’t in a position to answer, on a barstool in Markie Dans with a Jack Daniels in my hand.  The acquaintance suggested that I should talk to the sandwich artist, advice which was proving difficult to refute when I couldn’t offer alternative explanations for my moping demeanour.

I peeled myself from the barstool in the way a plaster is pulled from a gaping cut and approached the Subway girl.  I had no idea in my mind of what I was going to say, and I was feeling as though I was carrying a comically large box labelled “ACME”.  Words began to fall from my mouth like snowflakes, melting as soon as they landed on the floor around us.  Just as I started talking to this girl who I have known for years, I realised how big the world is.  The box didn’t explode in my face, though I was searching for another word for melancholy.

The night I was told I smell like old books

It was the twenty-first of November – I knew this because it was Wednesday, and it always rains on the day the blue recycling bins are emptied.  The morning was remarkable only for the way it was like every other morning: I woke up as a single in a double bed, trimmed my stubble to a fine 1.0mm, showered, stood bare-chested in the kitchen as I ironed a shirt which was the colour of a custard cream, ate a handful of blueberries and drank two small glasses of orange juice; because I like to get my vitamins and my bright colours early in the day.

Fully dressed and ready for work, I was approaching the door of my flat when something struck me as being peculiar and out of the ordinary.  In the close, snuggled in against the bottom of the stairs, was a baby’s buggy – or, at least, a buggy which belonged to the parents of a baby.  Its transparent plastic hood had amassed a collection of pearly raindrops, and on the thin layer of fabric at the back of the seat were three polar bears of varying size, coloured white, black and minty blue.  The bears looked friendly and happy, as though they knew that their only purpose in life was to look at the back of this baby’s head, and they were doing a good job. Cradled between the purple handlebars was a pink blanket which looked like it would provide great comfort and warmth.  The blanket had little pink tassels that dangled loosely along the ends, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would look against my navy blue suit.

I was standing in the cold concrete surroundings of the close, the only light provided by a streak of winter daylight which was shining through the glass pane on the back door, illuminating this baby’s buggy which had become the object of my curiosity.  Nobody in my block of flats has any children, as far as I am aware, and the youngest living being is a one-year-old golden retriever who lives with her owners on the second floor, and I was feeling certain that she could be taken on walks without the aid of a pushchair.  I couldn’t imagine where the buggy had come from or why it was sitting outside my flat, especially when Christmas was more than four weeks away.

As the week developed, there was an increasingly cold wind which was ripping in from the sea, the kind that rattles in your bones and leaves a person feeling like they need to pee.  On my nightly walks along the Esplanade, I was finding that my hands were making for the pockets of my coat regularly, in search of warmth and in an effort to assure myself that I was still in command of my functions.  In Aulay’s, as I was entering into a debate with a bald-headed man about the percentage of a pint of lager which should be head, a pair of women who were wearing wooly hats were ordering a measure of whisky each, and at that moment they were maybe the warmest people I have ever laid eyes on.

Downtown in the Oban Inn, a woman who was some years beyond middle age – if it is assumed that she won’t live to be a hundred – was dancing by the side of the bar with great enthusiasm.  She informed us that her father had recently died and that all she wanted to do was dance.  Over the shoulder of the middle-aged dancer, the one man bar band was preparing to resume his set, and as he sat on a chair alongside his pale electric guitar he was looking like a drawing a young child would produce if it had been asked to sketch the saddest man in the world.  His eyes were dropping like shaded pencil outlines, and his mouth could have been a golf umbrella.

A short while later, in a bar along the bracing seafront, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was claiming to have cut my hair when I was little more than a small boy.  I didn’t remember her face, but she seemed trustworthy and I decided that I would believe her.  After all, I thought to myself, who would it really benefit to invent such a story?  The hairdresser was beginning to embellish me with further details when I could just about see the cartoon thought bubble appear above her head.  “I always knew he would struggle to keep his hair,” it read.

In a booth close to the door, my brother and I were talking to a couple of young women who we had met whilst stood at the bar.  The girl sitting closest to me had canary blonde hair that rested upon the top of her head, which was the size of a boulder.  Her facial features looked like they had been carved out of stone, the sort an archaeologist would spend an age studying.  She was a close talker who liked to speak almost directly into the eardrum.  Each time she leaned in to say something, her hair would wave across my cheek and I was picking up a distinctive scent which I couldn’t quite place.  I speculated that it might be vanilla, and suggested this to the girl who had a face like a rock, thinking that vanilla is an inoffensive fragrance.  She didn’t dispute my sense of smell, and once again leaned into my ear.

“You smell like old books.”

I have never been told that I have the aura of antique literature, and being that it was something I am not used to hearing, I misheard the words she originally used.  I don’t know why the question that I next asked occurred to me, but it was the only response that I could think of.

“The kind of old boots that someone might have died wearing?”

The girl’s stony features had the look of confusion you might usually see on someone who has happened upon a single slipper by the side of a busy road.  Her hair brushed my face once more, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about, before repeating that I smell like old books and that she found it comforting.

With it cleared up that I have the fragrance of words which go to the soul, rather than leather which goes to the sole, the archaeologist’s dream asked me if I had ever considered how sexy it would be for two people who work together in a library to hook up after a time.  I told her that I had not spent any time contemplating that particular scenario, though in my mind I was thinking how I would find it sexy to get with another person in just about any situation.

She sat closer to me as she started to elaborate on the fantasy she had in mind.  She asked me to picture how it would be to work as a librarian, and I told her that I had no trouble conjuring the image of finding a way to make girls stop talking.  In her workplace ballad, the two participants would have been working in the same library for years but rarely crossed paths, which seemed terribly unlikely to me, but I didn’t want to tread on her artistic license.  One day, she said, they would be returning books to the same section of the library, and their hands would touch as they were placing the books back on the shelf.  She illustrated this by touching my hand as she spoke.  I could tell that she was finding the idea of the saga quite stimulating, and I should probably have taken the role play more seriously.

“Which section of the library were they in?”  I asked.

“Why does it matter?”

“I like to paint a picture.”

“Oh, alright.  Non-fiction, I suppose.”

“So there was friction in the non-fiction?”

The girl with canary blonde hair took her hand from mine and suggested that I should get another drink.  Whilst at the bar I encountered a couple of friends, and once they left I found myself standing next to the fresh-faced homosexual.  As a gesture of good will, and a display of there being no hard feelings, I offered to buy him a drink.  The entire process of getting a round of drinks for our table took around ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I returned the two girls had moved elsewhere.  The fresh-faced homosexual joined me, and I reminded him of our initial encounter a few weeks previous.  He laughed and denied that he had ‘cock blocked’ me, though in an absurd twist of fate he had unwittingly contributed to my failure on this occasion, too.   Instead of learning what happens after hands touch in the non-fiction section of the library, the fresh-faced homosexual and I were talking until closing time about his time as a trainee chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, and about the planet Mars.

In the small hours of the morning, I returned to my flat to find the baby’s buggy still sitting in the close.  I was beginning to feel like it was haunting me, as though someone had left it there as a cruel play on the Christmas story.  Instead of a baby being bestowed upon a virginal woman, an empty buggy had been presented to a single man who can’t be very far away from regaining his virginity.  It was either that, or I had new neighbours.