Two-ply envy

Although everything in the world around us seemed to be changing on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, the one thing that the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 couldn’t affect was the gloomy weather of a Monday in March on the west coast of Scotland.  All day the sky was thick with a heavy blanket of rain which was similar in shade to the style of jacket you would usually associate with an elderly woman, one which also happened to closely resemble the colour of the throw cushions on my bed.  It was at its most ferocious at five o’clock when I was leaving work, as was always the case, and so instead of taking my nightly walk along the Esplanade, I ventured to Tesco to top up the credit on my electricity key.  Even by the time I had travelled the short distance to the supermarket I was soaked from head to toe, my toes particularly suffering due to my continually poor judgment in the purchasing of footwear.

I approached the post office counter with the gait of a sodden bath towel and fished the small green and blue token from my jacket pocket.  There was no line, and the woman behind the desk was counting a bundle of Euros, as well as the minutes until the end of her shift. My long black coat was slick with pearly raindrops, my hair was as wet as it was after my morning shower, and my glasses kept slipping down the bridge of my nose, like a baby seal on a flume.  They wouldn’t stay still.  Despite these obstacles, and after the cashier twice checked that I had asked for thirty pounds of credit and not thirteen, the transaction was completed with minimal fuss.  My index finger was nudging my glasses back up my nose as the two of us were waiting for the terminal to splutter out its receipt confirming our success.  The post office woman took a good look at me and asked if it was still raining.  I told her that it was.

The first sign that people in Oban were becoming worried about the growing emergency surrounding the outbreak of the new Coronavirus came on a Wednesday morning that, aside from it being a double bin collection day, was quite unremarkable.  It was said that two police cars were seen racing through Argyll Square in the direction of Combie Street, although the ability of one of the vehicles to race to the scene of the crime was seemingly frustrated by the traffic which often chokes that particular road.  It emerged that the cops were responding to an incident of graffiti on the wall of the builder’s merchant along the street from my flat.  Someone had sprayed the words “CLOSE SCHOOLS” in gold paint, and although the town’s high school was in near proximity, it was to be presumed that it wasn’t intended as a helpful street direction.  

This seemingly had occurred earlier in the day, and the vandal returned some hours later, this time armed with the less luxurious although more visible white paint to complete the job.  The white letters were larger than their predecessors, as though more confident, like when Leonardo Da Vinci had sold a few pieces and realised that he was quite good at painting, so he attempted the Mona Lisa.  This time the concerned citizen daubed the phrase “CLOSE SCHOOL”, possibly after having remembered that the rest of the schools in Oban were considerably further away from the centre of town.  The lettering was oddly-sized on the second effort, with the bottom row clearly getting smaller and smaller, until eventually there wasn’t enough space for the final ‘S’, the way that my neat handwriting in my notebook would noticeably squeeze closer together when it became obvious that I would be struggling to finish my sentence without having to use a brand new page.  On the next section of the wall was a broadly more political statement, reading “Boris Johnson is killing us”, though the perpetrator was presumably apprehended as he or she had moved on to their next message, leaving behind only the letters ‘S’ and ‘P’.  Every time I passed the board I couldn’t help but wonder which letters would have followed “SP” and the word it would have formed.  There were some nights when I was lying in bed that it would be all I could think of to keep my mind off the Coronavirus and whether or not I had washed my hands before getting under the covers.

Two police cars had raced to an incident of graffiti.

People were slowly coming to terms with the global situation when the Scottish government announced that public gatherings of five hundred people and more would be banned from the start of the following week.  After the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies had initially been cleared of anti-bacterial hand gel, the panic buying had moved on firstly to toilet roll, and then to pasta, rice, canned foods, UHT milk, coffee, paracetamol, and frozen vegetables.  The first reports of the desperate demand for toilet paper were met with bemusement and amusement, and I struggled to understand why so many people were stocking the stuff in bulk when diarrhoea wasn’t a symptom of Covid-19 in adults, and nor even was sneezing or a runny nose.  Indeed, the panic buying of goods in general just struck me as being a hysterical reaction to a health emergency, the equivalent of dealing with a wine stain on your carpet by laying a brand new one, or sending two police cars screeching through town to arrest a graffitist.  What good, I wondered, was 5kg of penne and half a dozen Lidl own brand toilet rolls going to be when you’re laid up in bed and feeling lousy with a fever?

I scoffed when I thought of those people who were wasting their time piling trolleys full with tins of baked beans and cream of chicken soup, while I was doing useful things such as studying facts about the country of Romania for The Lorne’s pub quiz, writing notes on Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album for the inaugural meeting of an album club, and trying to find a use for two lemons I had been left with after buying a net of three in order to get one.  It wasn’t until later in the week when I saw the rapidly emptying shelves in Lidl, the difficulty supermarkets were facing in restocking them and the signs around the place advising that certain products were being rationed that I began to question my attitude towards shopping.  I was becoming panicked about my failure to panic buy.  As I slumped around barren aisles, considering if I would have any use for the canned chickpeas and jars of gherkins that nobody else seemed to be wanting, it was all I could do to think about the cupboards in my kitchen and how things would turn out for me if I was forced into a fourteen-day period of self-containment, different from my usual nights spent in isolation.  All I would be left to survive on would likely have been around half a pint of semi-skimmed milk, four free-range eggs, some frozen pork chops, wholewheat fusilli, porridge oats, two satsumas, some dried herbs and spices, a packet of pistachio nuts, three bottles of Jameson, six bottles of red wine, and a lemon.  I supposed that, if nothing else, the multitude of Lidl bags for life in the boiler cupboard would be useful for panic-induced hyperventilation.  I had, almost inevitably, reached a state of toilet roll envy.

Sleet was falling late on Wednesday night.

Fears about the spread of Covid-19 had escalated significantly by the end of the week, and it was becoming evident that things were not going to be the way we had become used to them being for quite some time.  By late on Friday night the streets of Oban had become like the ninth song on the 1988 Cheap Trick record Lap of Luxury.  Along with five other like-minded individuals, I was attending the first meeting of a monthly album club in the bar of the Perle hotel.  The group, which was like a book club but with the medium of literature substituted for a piece of music which we would all listen to and convene to discuss, was the brainchild of my friend who enthuses in studying birds, and together we had fine-tuned the concept to make it something that a group of people could do on a Friday night.

The lounge bar in the Perle was easily the most elegant of all the hotels in Oban.  Gleaming white columns stood from floor to ceiling, like the entrance to some Ancient Greek spa or a great site of interest.  Spotlights sparkled from the roof overhead like little stars separated from the rest of their constellation, creating a lighting that was soft and intimate, ideal for discussing Tracy Chapman.  Although the price of a pint of the tasty St Mungos seemed prohibitive at £4.10, it was probably worth it by the time the beer had travelled out the other end and it afforded the opportunity to use the Hebridean Seaweed handwash in the bathroom.  Although no excuse should have been required to wash our hands in this new world we had found ourselves in, the fragrant organic soap was a good reason all the same.  

We appeared to be the only people in the lounge, which from my previous experiences of the Perle was unusual, and it was quite eerie to think that in the world outside and all around us everything had fallen pretty silent while our geeky social endeavour continued unabated.  It was nice to have something else to think about for a few hours, different from the worries over whether I had enough toilet roll or lentils to last until summer.  I liked to imagine that, in a way, this must have been how it was when small groups of people were getting together in the hidden back storerooms of restaurants or apothecaries during the prohibition era, only now we would be trading in anti-bacterial hand sanitiser.

Momentarily our peace was disturbed by the racket of a cocktail shaker at the bar, though it wasn’t at all clear who the barman could have been preparing a cocktail for.  I supposed that, as with any other profession, a good mixologist had to practice his craft every now and again.  As we were getting down to discussing the detail of our chosen album, it occurred to us that it would have been useful if we could hear some of the tracks as we were talking about them, particularly the record’s most renowned single, Fast Car.  In a scene that could have been taken straight from a cheesy Hollywood script, the opening chords of the song were heard revving from the speakers in the bar.  We couldn’t quite believe our ears or our luck.  Within seconds it became obvious that the song was one of those cheap and crappy imitations that are often played in public places, likely due to licensing restrictions, and the entire episode neatly summed up our thoughts on Fast Car:  a story of hope and youthful excitement and the thrill of escaping which is betrayed by the disappointment of reality.

Our group’s first meeting ran much later beyond the two hours we had planned for, leaving us with only an hour to enjoy our reflective post-gathering drinks in the Oban Inn.  The bar resembled more of a Tuesday afternoon crowd than a Friday night, and there were so few people that we were able to walk in and easily pick a table, which were coveted and usually rare to find.  At closing time, three of us retired to my flat, where we listened to music, ate salted peanuts and drank bottles of beer until after five in the morning, when my supply had been exhausted. We were only hours into the new global crisis and already I had run out of my most critical item.  I dreaded how things were going to go once the shit really hit the fan and all I had was my usual stock of toilet paper.

This week I have been mostly listening to It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.:

Dream island

It wasn’t just for the fact that I was struggling to operate with one hand that I decided I was going to dine predominantly on food from my freezer for most of the week.  Although onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger had become a real chore to cut – as was evident in the exceptionally chunky curry I had painstakingly prepared on Sunday – it was a discussion with a colleague that truly forced me into sourcing my meals from items I had previously frozen.  It had always seemed quite easy to just throw the spare chicken breasts from a packet of four into blue bags and find a space for them in the freezer, almost like some Disney-themed game of Tetris.  There never had to be any thought about how or when I was going to use the chicken in the future, because the freezer was just a place where food could be stored indefinitely.  My colleague disputed this logic, insisting that meats especially would still deteriorate in the freezer, and he would throw away anything that he knew had been in there for more than a year.  Upon hearing this I was feeling like a semi-defrosted salmon fillet as I imagined all of the pieces of fish, poultry and beef I had been stockpiling since becoming a single occupant being consigned to the bin.

Unwilling to give up on the meal I might someday enjoy at some unspecified date in the future, I sought clarification on the frozen food matter from my dad one Saturday when he, my brother and I were sitting in Wetherspoons.  It was like any other weekend night in the pub chain, which always seemed to be packed full of people and somehow almost all of them were strangers.  Even the staff appeared unrecognisable from one visit to the next.  The place always had an unfathomable smell.  It was by the pier but never smelled of the sea. There were dozens of different dishes on the menu, yet you couldn’t pick out one from its fragrance.  It could only be described as being a bouquet of disappointment. Whenever we went to Wetherspoons for dinner, it always made me think that a great calamity must have taken place somewhere, and the body of a pub had been built but accidentally filled with the soul of an aircraft hangar.

We were sitting at table number nine, although it could have been six depending on how you looked on it and the number of drinks consumed.  It was the deepest into the place we had ever sat.  Usually we liked to be as near to the entrance as possible, because it was closer for leaving for Aulay’s at the end of the meal, but the place was so busy that we had to go all the way to the back of the great hall, closer to the bathroom than the bar.  Right in our eye-line was the only television in the joint.  It was broadcasting some talent show or other, and it seemed a blessing that the volume was muted.  As was often the case with my dad and my brother after a glass or two of red wine, the conversation soon turned to politics.  It seemed too much to ask that there would be a sudden fire alarm, so I sat nursing a pint of Innis & Gunn and my useless injured fingers, until I remembered about my frozen food dilemma.  Considering that in our house growing up there were almost as many freezers as there were children, I was convinced that dad would be an expert in all things frozen.  And if nothing else, it would serve as an icebreaker from the numbing political chat.

I interrupted the ensuing debate and asked dad how long food could be kept in the freezer.  He immediately contradicted the advice I had previously received, stating that food would keep for thirty years when frozen.  I pressed him on whether he was sure about this, because I had heard differently, but he strengthened his position.  

“How do you think Birdseye discovered frozen food?”

It wasn’t something I had ever considered.  It took me all of my might to summon the possibility that Birdseye was a real person, let alone contemplate the idea that there was a time when frozen food had to be discovered.  Dad seemed to be very familiar with the story of Birdseye, however, and retold the vital aspects to my brother and me.  As far as I understood it, the man known as Birdseye was out fishing on an icy lake one day, when from deep within the bowels of the water he managed to retrieve a fish which had been frozen over and was perfectly preserved.  It wasn’t mentioned which species of fish had been caught, but I didn’t suppose that it mattered.  The purpose of the anecdote seemed to be that since nobody had any way of knowing how long the fish had been frozen in the lake, it could be assumed that food could be frozen for many years and still be safe to eat.  I was unconvinced, and even more so when I later read the history section of the Birds Eye frozen food company’s website.  It seemed that the truth about frozen food was probably in between the two theories, so I took the decision to start using some of the goods I had stored away.

Amongst the excessively chunky pieces of vegetable I had haphazardly cut for a curry were chunks of chicken breast, the edges of which were slightly freezer burned and reminded me of the scabs on my fingers from the horrible accident I had recently suffered.  As time went on my two injured fingers were slowly healing, though for a while they resembled the colour of the new traffic lights which had been installed a few yards from my flat.  They weren’t quite red, nor even green, but somewhere in the middle.  They were sitting there, waiting to move on.

The last weekend of February was traditionally reserved for the Royal Rumpus music festival, which took place in the Royal hotel every year.  Although the variety of music wasn’t to my taste, I usually liked to go for at least one of the nights.  Next door in Aulay’s, the diminutive barmaid was trying to talk up the event for mine and the plant doctor’s benefit.  She spoke of how there was always a lot of women who attended the festival and that many of them were from the islands and “hadn’t seen a man for months.”  Apart from wondering where these offshore places were that had populations of nothing but single ladies and how I could go about relocating, I found myself thinking about what must have been going through the minds of the island women who had had no contact with men for such a long time.

“What do you think you’ll do when you find your man, Amy?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  It’s been so long that I don’t even know what I’d say!”

“What do men talk about these days anyway?”

“I wonder if they still look the same.”

“I can’t wait to see how they dance.”

Then I thought about the disappointment they would feel if I was the first man the women encountered in months, and even though the entire thing wasn’t even real, I had a tinge of guilt about it.

Upstairs in the Royal, it was difficult to tell the island women from the locals.  There was nothing to distinguish them, and no-one was going to come out with a sticker indicating their place of living plastered over their party dress.  I ordered some drinks at the bar for my brother and I, having to dig deep into my wallet for the £8 and change that they were asking for a bottle of Budweiser and a Jack Daniels and coke.  We were informed that the bar was about to close, and with the music coming to an end it seemed that we had left it too late to enjoy much of the Royal Rumpus.  Soon a bombastic, wild-eyed work colleague bounded across the room to talk to me, and like a force of nature she accidentally knocked the drink out of my hand.  The bourbon sprayed across my tan shoe, painting it with the likeness of a pissed Picasso.  It wasn’t the connection with an island woman that I had been hoping for.  I had often been told that there was plenty of fish in the sea, but when I was standing on the dancefloor in the Royal hotel at the end of the night it was reaching the point where I was wondering how long they were going to stay frozen.

Links & things:

The history of the Birds Eye frozen food company can be read here.

There are 28 other days in February – my Spotify playlist for the month of Valentine’s Day

This week I have mostly been listening to the following song…

The mild irritation caused by Tony Hadley

As I was getting older it seemed that every day was a ‘National day of’ something and that at some point anything you could think of had a National day.  It wasn’t a phenomenon that ever really bothered me, and I couldn’t remember knowingly celebrating National Croissant Day, National Lego Day or National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, but I did sometimes wonder where such things came from, when they became popular and who decided that a particular cause was worthy of having a national day dedicated to it.  It was in the penultimate week of January that I got to really thinking about these events.  I discovered that there was a website dedicated to calendaring national days and that there were eighty-eight of them during the first month of the year. 

I had been provoked into searching for the history of days of celebration the day after ‘Blue Monday’, which was the name given to the third Monday of the month in January and was claimed to be the most depressing day of the year due to a calculation that was derived from a formula using factors such as weather, debt level, time since Christmas, and time since failing New Year’s resolutions.  ‘Blue Monday’ wasn’t a national holiday, but the following day was apparently ‘National Hugging Day’, which just seemed like bad planning on the part of those who determined such things.  Of all the days out of the year that someone might need a hug, it was surely going to be the most depressing day, rather than the day after.  No-one takes paracetamol the day after a migraine.  

I was deep in the throes of considering the thinking behind ‘national days of’ when I was preparing dinner early in the evening.  I would often go through phases of obsessing over one particular ingredient and would try to include the same thing in as many dishes as I could.  At this time I was using a lot of chilli, particularly red chillis, especially since I had learned how to cut them so that they were properly deseeded and I could be confident that they weren’t going to make my taste buds feel as though they’d had a flamethrower taken to them.  I was preparing a vegetable stir fry, chopping chillis with the nonchalance that comes when you know that you have mastered something, when I developed an utterly compelling urge to scratch my nose.  It was sudden and virtually impossible to resist, like when you are ready to leave the bar and someone offers to buy a round of Jameson.  It was a beacon, trying desperately to attract the attention of my finger, but I knew that it would be a terrible mistake to give in.  There had been many previous instances where I had touched my nose with an unwashed digit whilst cutting chilli only to recoil in horror from the insufferable sensation it created.  There was one particularly awful time in 2017 when I was convinced that I was going to need to undergo rhinoplasty.  Fortunately I prevailed on this occasion, but I was beginning to think that my obsession with chilli wasn’t worth the risk.

Tuesday morning in Oban was misty

Oban had been enveloped by a thick blanket of fog for much of the first half of the week, the sort which clung to the nearby islands and the trees on the hills and made the place feel much smaller.  It was quite atmospheric and I liked it, although the fog did make it difficult to take photographs, and especially at night.  Even though the days were beginning to stretch for another hour or so, it was still dark by the time I left work, and when I was walking along the Esplanade the headlights from passing cars would make the rain on the lenses of my glasses resemble a broken Kaleidoscope.  It was the kind of rain that barely touched the skin, like the memory you can’t shake of a lover from long ago, yet before you knew it you were drenched.  Despite the condition of my spectacles making it difficult to tell exactly where I was, with figures and the outlines of shapes such as bins, traffic cones, lamposts, dogs, and bus shelters appearing indistinguishable, I was feeling quite chuffed with myself when I realised that for the first time this year I could smell the pungent aroma of the sea.  The gentle lapping of the waves against the shore sounded like a standing ovation over my earphones, and when the scent crept up into my nostrils with each inhalation it felt as though I was finally getting over the flu/cold I had been suffering from since the beginning of the year, even if sometimes I was still coughing like someone with a dust mite allergy in a thrift store.

By the time I reached Argyll Square I had dried the drops of rain from my glasses, when in the distance, through the dusky drizzle, I could see a young woman walking across the road whilst brushing her hair.  The apparition was striding to the other side of the street with a carefree confidence, reminiscent of the way I had recently been slicing chillis, all the while running a brush through her long locks.  I had never seen anything like it.  To me it seemed like a terrible and needless risk for a person to be taking.  Why, I was thinking, would she not wait until she could find a bathroom with a mirror, where she could make sure that she could fashion her hair into perfectly straight strands without needing to worry about the weather disrupting her?

My own hair, for all that it was, had been neatly combed in front of my own bathroom mirror before I left to take part in my first pub quiz of the year in Coasters.  Once upon a time, the quiz in Coasters had been considered to be amongst the best in town, and I was looking forward to it returning for the first time in a few years.  The night was due to begin at 8:30, though due to a miscalculation in the time it would take me to walk to the bar, I arrived around twenty-seven minutes beforehand.  I sourced a table which had a view of one of the television screens showing the football, although it wasn’t that much of a challenge when only one other table was occupied.  Fairy lights lined the perimeter of the room, and I couldn’t be sure if they were adding a touch of glamour to the place or making it unnecessarily intimate for me and the other couple in the bar.

I was waiting for the rest of The Unlikely Lads to arrive, which on this occasion would only be the raven-haired quiztress, when another contestant for the quiz appeared and sat at the table by the window.  She was wearing a leopard print blouse, with the amber coloured spots nearly matching the shade of her hair.  Looking around the desolate bar, the young woman asked the older couple who were sitting at the table behind me if they were taking part in the quiz.  When they responded that they weren’t she shrieked, “boring!”  I brought my glass of Tennent’s Lager to my mouth with weighty anticipation, in the expectation that since I was the only other person in the bar she would ask me next, and I could only imagine her thrilled response when I told her that I was there for the pub quiz.

Her neck tilted towards me and her gleaming red locks followed.  I swallowed my drink and replied to her inquiry, informing her that the rest of my team was on its way.  Her reaction didn’t carry the delight I had been picturing in my mind, though she remained curious about matters and asked me if the others in my team, who had not yet arrived, were “a liability”.  My fingers were wrapped tightly around the base of my pint glass, as though it was a crutch, as I told the young woman that if anything I was the liability in our team, though it really depended on what came up in the quiz.  She offered the kind of lukewarm smile that was like a bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning which hasn’t been in the microwave for quite long enough:  it was welcome, but not really what anyone was looking for.  As she picked up her mobile phone from the table it dawned on me that we were talking about liabilities of a different sense and I had needlessly outed myself as being a fool.  When she received a FaceTime call from a man I presumed to be her boyfriend, I immediately decided that if I achieved nothing else that night, I wanted to finish ahead of her team in the quiz.

The bar filled modestly as 8:30 approached, with there finally being four teams participating.  Since there wasn’t anyone in attendance that we recognised from the other pub quizzes in town, the raven-haired quiztress and I could only judge their trivia abilities on their appearances, or in the case of the table of four young women by the window, how vocal they were.  We thought we had a fairly good chance of winning.  As the rounds progressed, our team of two found ourselves embroiled in a battle with a trio of men who were sitting at the bar and who we assumed were from out of town.  The other two teams, including the women at the window, were never really in it, and we were neck and neck all night with the boys at the bar.  From early on we were ruing the fact that we had dismissed three correct answers in the picture round, and probably more so that we couldn’t remember the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet.  

A bottle of raspberry-flavoured Sourz appeared on the street on Saturday night

After the final music round, we were locked on forty-four points with the trio by the bar, and the Coasters quiz was decided by a tie-break question.  It was the closest our small breakaway team had ever been to winning.  The question was posed and the host played the theme from the television game show Countdown.  It was the greatest pressure I had felt since the woman wearing the leopard print blouse had talked to me a couple of hours earlier.

“How many miles long is the M1 motorway?”

It had been many years since I last heard the traffic report on Radio 2 and I had no concept of which part of the United Kingdom the M1 was even in, let alone the distance it covered.  The raven-haired quiztress wondered if it might travel the entire length of England and all the way up into Scotland, in which case it would be at least five hundred miles.  I wasn’t convinced.  Five hundred miles sounded more like a distance a lovelorn man might walk twice to fall down at the door of a woman he desires rather than the length of a motorway.  It seemed too long to me, and I managed to argue my team-mate down to 397 miles, though even that still looked high.  The raven-haired quiztress pointed out that as I didn’t know how to drive I wouldn’t have any concept of the length of a motorway, and she was right.  It would be like me offering a jockey my thoughts on riding a horse, or talking to anyone about dating.

We handed over our answer, and it turned out to be quite a distance away from the correct one.  Almost the entire length of a motorway, in fact.  At 193 miles, the boys at the bar were much closer with their answer, which was somewhere in the low hundreds.  We were consoled with the runners-up prize of a bottle of Prosecco, but it struggled to make up for the fizzle of excitement we were feeling when we were thinking we might win the quiz and we had the images in mind of how we could use our triumph to lord over our usual pub quiz rivals.  We had achieved my private agenda of beating the young lady with the leopard print blouse and the hair which had a hue of gold, but things could have been so much better if only we had remembered the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet. 

Links & things:
The website which logs ‘national days’ can be found by clicking here.
0120 – my Spotify playlist for the month of January 2020

The following YouTube video is the song I have been listening to most this week:

I love the lyric “And you might as well be dead, he said, if you’re afraid to fall.”  Plus, the drummer might well be Brexit Guy, if he was the drummer of a nineties American college band.

“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things”

It was around four days before the shortest day when it occurred to me that I had forgotten to decorate my flat for Christmas.  The cobweb that was tangled around the five red candles which stood at the foot of the fireplace was white, but it didn’t bring the same festive feel that a string of tinsel would have.  While the temperature in my home was chilly and in keeping with the season, no-one ever wanted to come indoors to an actual snowman.  

The realisation of my festal faux pas was sparked by a little pink headband which had been sighted lying on the pavement outside my living room window some days before.  When I first saw the small piece of pink material I wondered, unwilling to stop in my tracks to study it completely, if it might have been a garment of underwear, and if people may have been impressed by the idea that it had perhaps been tossed from my flat.  As the winter days wore on, the wee pink headband became increasingly dirty and beaten by the inclement weather, trodden upon by people who didn’t care that it might have been the trophy of some sexual conquest I had enjoyed the previous weekend. Eventually, it had curled upon itself and become dramatically misshapen, and it reminded me of the nine-foot artificial pine garland I had bought from eBay a year earlier.

Removing the nine-foot artificial pine garland from the utility cupboard in the kitchen, where it had been stored since the early days in January when everybody was trying to eradicate all memories of Christmas from their homes, proved to be a much more challenging exercise than when I had squashed the awkward green thing in all those months ago.  When I pulled the beast out, it brought with it many other suppressed items: a 250 piece stationery set which hadn’t been used nearly as much as I had anticipated when I bought it, a 2018 Aldi Christmas magazine that wouldn’t have been of any use even if I wanted it to be, a roll of sellotape, and the charging cable for my stubble trimmer. I carried the garland through to the living room and struggled to mount it onto the mantel place, its twisted green ends dangling dangerously over the sides of the shelf.  I was trying to fashion a way of attaching the garland to the mirror, as I had done the previous year, but like a romantic interlude the whole thing unravelled before me, and the loose hanging end of one side of the decoration sent the candle holder sprawling across the oak flooring, the explosion of red wax resembling a crime scene.  I decided that the mantel place could do without the nine-foot pine garland, and I returned it to the kitchen cupboard where it wouldn’t be able to wreak any more havoc.

Midnight mass wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be

In contrast to my flat, the scene in The Lorne was much more festive when twelve teams gathered for the final pub quiz of 2019.  To mark the occasion, everyone from The Unlikely Lads turned up wearing their Christmas jumpers as we were seeking our first win as a breakaway outfit.   We had confidence in numbers, with six being the greatest number of people we had encouraged to join our crusade.  In addition to me, with my specialist knowledge in the fields of world beers, that one good round on Budapest and, occasionally, the nationality of Celtic players, there were five young women with varying degrees of expertise in medicine.  Amongst them were three ladies who I had never met before.  Given the anxiety I would feel when I encountered one woman for the first time, the nervous awkwardness was multiplied by three as we tackled the picture round, where we had to identify the famous Santas.  Even though I was never that great with maths, I knew that the numbers spelt trouble. 

My ability to focus on the numerous rounds of Christmas-themed questions quickly evaporated like the bubbles in a Christmas morning glass of Prosecco.  Far from being able to formulate a guess for the number of hours the Guinness world record was set for time spent inside an inflatable snow globe, my mind had been turned upside down by the dilemma of trying to think of interesting conversation for an audience of five women.

In particular, my attention was drawn to the woman whose hair was the same colour as the piece of coal which an unruly child might have found in his stocking on the twenty-fifth.  Her accent was musical, the sort of piece that when you first hear it you can’t identify the instruments or even understand what it is about it that you like, but you know that you do and you want to hear it again.  Every time she spoke it was all I could do to keep myself from singing along. It took me at least three rounds of Christmas-themed pub quiz questions before I could summon the courage to find out more about the voice that for days afterwards would float around the recesses of my mind like snowflakes in a shaken globe.  I leaned across the table to deliver the question which I felt sure would endear me.

“I’m fascinated by your voice,” I began.  “Where does your accent come from?”  I paused for a moment, my eyes locked on hers.  “Other than your throat, I mean.”

Although she smiled, it was the sort of smile you see when someone pulls away the wrapping paper on a Christmas present and finds a Lynx deodorant set inside.  A smile of resignation.  As if to say, I knew that was coming.  I knew there and then that the only place I would be hearing that piece of music again would be in the back of my head.

Meanwhile at the table, an elaborate tale was being told by the tallest girl I had ever seen, a story which at Christmas time emphasised the true value of friendship.  The episode centred on a group of girls, of which the fabulously tall lass was one, who were enjoying a night out in Glasgow some years earlier.  It was late on in the night, and the group were taking a taxi to a popular club in the city.  The effects of the evening’s festivities were beginning to be felt in the back seat of the car as it motored along the M8, and it became clear to some of the girls that their friend was suffering and on the verge of expelling some of the cocktails she had been enjoying.  The girl with the generous height extended her hands to act as a basin beneath the chin of her inebriated friend, while another of the group asked the driver if he had a carrier bag, each of them aware of the consequence of throwing up in a taxi.

“Someone isn’t being sick back there, are they?”  The driver responded to the request for a bag.  “You know it’s an eighty-pounds fine if you are.”  

The girls resigned themselves to their fate, worried that as students they could ill-afford to cough up £80 for a fine, or at least to have £80 coughed up over the back seat of a taxi.  They worked in unison, opening the windows of the car and cupping their hands under the mouth of their stricken pal to catch the next heave, funnelling it out of the window and onto the passing motorway with the care of a water carrier on their way back from the well in some sun-beaten desert village.  Eventually, they made it into Glasgow city centre with the interior of the taxi unscathed.  The heavy rainfall of the night helped to wash away much of their endeavour, and by the time they reached the club, the ladies were waved in without question.

It was the sort of story that once you’d heard you couldn’t stop thinking about.  The moral was so pure and lifting, maybe not the makings of a Hallmark movie, but it had a charm all the same.  I found myself questioning the lengths I would go to help another person, and whether I could cup a friend’s vomit in my hands in order to avoid paying a fine:  there were many times when I had nervously clutched my tie against my chest as I was throwing up into a toilet bowl, and so I considered that it would be unlikely.  At the end of it all, The Unlikely Lads finished fourth in the final quiz of the year.

Things seemed a lot more sedate on Christmas Eve when I stepped out to collect my final piece of Christmas shopping, which had been sitting in the Royal Mail depot for a couple of days.  On George Street, some pedestrians were seen wearing red Santa hats. Most of the women I saw around town were walking with carefree confidence, evidence that they knew they had everything under control.  Straggling amongst them were a succession of harassed, red-faced men, their cheeks puffed and their eyes filled with terror.  It was reminiscent of a scene from a Stephen King novel.  Each of them had hands which were laden with bags bulging with goods, the integrity of the plastic surely giving cause for concern.  Somewhere in between, I strolled through the crowds with a roll of wrapping paper purchased from WH Smith for £2.49.

On the night before Christmas, I decided to reward my efforts in having all of my gifts wrapped several hours before the big day itself, unlike in previous years, by indulging in a celebratory bottle of Rioja after I had come home from a few hours spent in Aulay’s.  All through the flat, everything was quiet, and the more I sank into the wine, the heavier the feeling was that something was missing.  I was thinking a lot about people who weren’t there, people who couldn’t be there, friends I hadn’t seen and friends who were far away.  I felt low and in need of something different.  It was 11.30 and I finished the last of the red wine and left for midnight mass.

Although the rain from earlier in the evening had cleared, the streets around Oban were virtually deserted as I made my way to St Columba’s Cathedral at the other end of town.  There were no cars on the road, and the only person I encountered on the fifteen-minute walk was a drunk who I could see from afar staggering away from the Oban Inn.  Even as I was approaching the church it was clear that there wasn’t a soul around, to the extent that I was questioning whether midnight mass was still a thing, or if it was even Christmas Eve at all.  It was an altogether more silent night than I was expecting. 

Nevertheless, I walked up the slick steps towards the entrance of the granite church, where I found that the door was closed over with a laminated white notice attached to its front.  It requested that worshippers “please use the side door” and was accompanied by an arrow which helpfully pointed in the direction of the entryway on the right of the building.  I breathed a sigh which was swallowed by the wind as it howled in from the bay.  I put my pink hand into my pocket and pulled out my phone, staring at the screen as though I had received a vital message, when the reality was that no-one was going to contact me at 11.50 on Christmas Eve and I simply wasn’t wanting to be seen to go in the wrong door.  I stood on the step, analysing my phone with a concentration I could have done with summoning at the pub quiz days earlier for what felt like an eternity, until finally the headlights of an approaching car appeared like a bright blazing star in the Bethlehem sky.  A group of three or four people emerged, clearly regulars at the church, and they walked up the path towards the side entrance.  I finished composing my fictitious text message and promptly followed them inside.

When I was much younger and my mother took me to midnight mass at the Cathedral she would be sure to have us there by half-past eleven in order to secure us a good seat, usually away from the drunks.  The church always filled up quickly, and often folk would be forced to stand at the back.  On this occasion I was the drunk, but it didn’t matter, because the place was surely not even a quarter filled and it was possible to sit just about anywhere.  There was an eerie silence in the building, barely even a cough, and none of the carol singing that I remembered taking place before the mass when I was a boy.  I was sitting in a row of seats all to myself, the fingers of each hand pressed against its respective twin on the other, wondering why it was that I thought that going to mass for the first time in six years would be the cure for the shape I was in.

Minutes after the service had started, the side door of the church creaked open and one last attendee groaned in.  The man, who was short and visibly older than I was, appeared a little disoriented as he slumped into the small wooden seat at the end of the row a few in front of me.  For whatever reason he was dissatisfied with his selection, perhaps his view was obstructed by a pillar he hadn’t been aware of until he sat down, and he got up and shambled into the row directly behind mine, sitting over my right shoulder.  He immediately took to kneeling and, amidst a cacophony of sniffling, he began gibbering away to himself, presumably in prayer although it was difficult to tell, so long had it been since I had said one.  In my head, I too was talking to God, cursing the arrival of the sniffling man and questioning if this was His way of punishing me for being absent from the church for all those years, by forcing upon me a man who would pass on a winter virus the night before Christmas.  So much for peace and goodwill to all men, I was thinking to myself.

Another moment of panic came later when I noticed the usher emerge with the long black collection purse in his hand.  I had forgotten that the offering of money was such an integral part of mass, and noticeably they were no longer trusting the collection to make it all the way around the church on its own accord, like when I was younger and we would pass the basket amongst ourselves, from front to rear, and it would always find its way back to the altar.  Now, as the usher walked from person to person, there was no getting away from it.  I worriedly rummaged through my pocket for my wallet and fortunately discovered that there were a few coins which I hadn’t spent in the pub earlier.  Though perhaps the fact that the usher had to walk the bag around the church shouldn’t have been so surprising when so sparse was the population of the congregation that some folk chose to walk across the aisle when it came time to offer a handshake as a sign of peace.  On the other hand, I, as with in most situations, largely kept myself to myself, though it was always going to prove difficult to make peace with myself.

When it came time to take Communion, I was finally faced with the sniffling man from the row behind me.  We had both reached the aisle at the same time, and it became obvious when I saw his eyes that his sniffling was not the result of a cold, but rather he appeared genuinely distraught.  Without thinking, I threw my arm around his shoulder and asked if he was alright.  He sniffled and said that he was, but I didn’t believe a word of it. “Are you sure?  You don’t seem okay.”

“Well,” he confessed with a sniffle.  “My gran passed away yesterday.”  I immediately felt a pang of guilt for all the terrible things I had been thinking about him since he had sat behind me, all the silent complaints I had made about his sniffling and his garbled, nonsensical prayers.  There was nothing I could say, and all I could do to show my sympathy for his loss was to let him go ahead of me in the line to receive Holy Communion.

In all my time of going to mass, I had never taken the Communion wine.  It wasn’t so much a concern about the hygiene of sharing a cup with dozens of strangers, but more because the wine – the ‘blood of Christ’ – was so far down in the chalice that I could never reach it.  To bring it from the bottom of the gold chalice to my mouth always required such an elaborate motion that it felt to me that the others waiting behind me would think that I was taking more than my fair share, so after a couple of awkward attempts where I never even had the drink touch my lips, I gave up.  Whether I was drunk with confidence on Christmas Eve or eager to have the taste of guilt washed from my mouth, I decided that I would try once more to take the Communion wine.  I said my amens and accepted the cup from the woman at the side of the altar, peering briefly inside it to measure the kind of swig I was going to have to take to bring the wine to my mouth.  The liquid peeled from the sides of the cup as I tilted it towards me, its colour having all the appearance of gooseberry jam, and when I finally tasted the Communion wine for the first time as an adult, I realised that it was nothing like the Rioja I had enjoyed at home.

When I returned to my row of empty seats, I kneeled on the little stool in front of me, bowing my head because that’s what everybody else seemed to be doing.  I was contemplating how much the midnight mass experience had changed since I was going as a child, how lonely the whole thing felt, and how terrible the wine was.  As I knelt in silence, the sniffling and gibbering began over my shoulder again.  “Thanks for that, Big Man,”  I was able to make out amongst it all. I couldn’t be sure if he was talking to me or to God, who was often referred to as ‘the big man upstairs’, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions by acknowledging it, even though I really enjoyed the idea of someone thinking of me as being a big man.  I continued staring ahead towards the altar, in perfect silence and reverence.

Some minutes later, when the service finally came to an end, having felt almost as interminably long as the subsequent walk home did, the identity of the Big Man was confirmed.  I turned to wish the sniffler all the best for the festive period, where he was still visibly upset.  “I appreciated what you said up there, Big Man.”  To me, it didn’t seem like that much of a deal, no more than anyone would have said when they’ve drunkenly wrapped their arm around a stranger in the aisle of the Cathedral.  But I accepted his words and shook his trembling hand.  I couldn’t be sure how I had become a Big Man, but I was determined to stay that way.

People enjoyed photographing and filming Kyle Falconer

It was three days after the midnight mass when something truly remarkable happened.  Kyle Falconer, the lead singer of the sometimes popular Scottish indie band The View, played a solo concert in the sometimes popular Oban nightspot The View.  I liked to imagine that the musician’s management and everyone involved were completely oblivious to the connection when they were booking the tour to promote his debut album.

“We could play this small seaside town on the west coast, they have a couple of venues worth looking at.  The Corran Halls might be a bit too big for us to sell, and Markie Dans is on the small side, but this place called The View looks perfect.”

“That sounds familiar.  Has Kyle ever played in The View?”

“No.  We’ve never toured in Oban.  He’s never been in The View.” 

The joke was an obvious play on words that everyone was bound to have thought of, but I enjoyed thinking that it was my own.  It was much the same when for several weeks before the gig I had been pointing it out to anyone who would listen that by the time the gig came around on Friday, my workplace would have been closed for the Christmas break since the previous Monday and so I likely would have had the same jeans on for four days.  I had been proudly telling so many people about my excellent pun that when the day of the show arrived I was forced to wear a pair of tan chinos, lest anyone believe that I actually had been wearing the same pair of jeans all week.

Although the venue was modestly filled on the night, those who were there managed to enjoy the performance.  I spent much of my time studying the room as people funnelled in, desperately seeking the faces of people who could be older than I was in an effort to pacify my growing worry that I was the most aged person at the gig.  The previous occasion I had been in The View was on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday when I had foolishly accepted a shot of Sambuca and quickly had to dart to the toilet and desperately try to avoid being sick on my purple tie.  The prospect of being the oldest attendee watching Kyle Falconer somehow seemed worse, and the relief I felt when I spotted a clutch of people who were surely my senior was matched only by the man himself finishing his set with Same Jeans, which it seemed was the one song everybody was waiting to hear.

Any sense of being the Big Man had dissipated by the late hours of Friday night.  I had left a group of friends in The Oban Inn to go and celebrate a friend’s birthday in Markies, but my timing was off and by the time I arrived there, she had left.  I was feeling so miserable for having missed her that even the presence of some people who were older than me wasn’t much consolation.  By closing time, I had been convinced by a quartet of friends that it would be a good idea to invite them back to my place for a post-pub drink.  Even though I wasn’t in the most sociable of moods, it would have taken a fool to reject an offer of having four female friends in his flat.

We sat drinking beer until five in the morning, listening to Frank Zappa songs and discussing the merits of an Oxford comma and whether anyone really cares about them anyway.  With hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done at the time, even as I was crouching by the toilet bowl the following afternoon.  I considered all of the things I had learned over the Christmas period:  how difficult it was to keep an artificial garland still, the price of friendship being £80, the wrong method of asking where a woman is from, how to become known as a Big Man, the true taste of Communion wine, that very few people were going to church anymore, that the only song I knew by The View was Same Jeans, and how to correctly use an Oxford comma.  Sometimes you just need to know the right place for something to go.

Links:

“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things” is a quote from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.

Christmas Wah-Wahpping – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of December
2019 – my cumulative Spotify playlist of the year (ie. 50 songs x 12 months less 11 Wah Wah’s and a couple of other duplicates)

For those who do not have a Spotify account but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three most played songs from December.

It’s difficult to imagine that the frontman from indie rock bores Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody, could be responsible for this beautiful piece of folk music, and yet I Am A Landside is breathtaking, and one of my favourite songs:

Over time, I have probably tried to use just about every line from Kathleen by Josh Ritter when talking to a woman:

What could be more romantic than getting together with someone for a drink and pretending that the world isn’t fucked up?

Encore

The air was thick with the fragrances of a late November night.  It was either a roast beef dinner, chestnuts over an open fire, toffee, or chimney smoke coughing into the damp air.  It could have been all of those.  In the distance, the Cathedral bells could be heard ringing over and over again, their sound growing louder all the time, as though struggling to compete with the pipe band that was leading the reindeer parade through town; the fight between the church and commercialisation taken to the streets of Oban.  My brother and I were walking from his new flat to meet up again with our sister for the switching on of the Christmas lights, having spent the afternoon drinking mulled wine, in a family tradition we had started some years earlier.  Before the 2018 ceremony we celebrated the beginning of the build-up to Christmas with the festive flavours in my town centre flat, and it was debatable whether we had gone to my brother’s as a flat warming of sorts, or because of the memory of a whole unpeeled orange sitting in a boiling pot of red wine in my kitchen twelve months previous.  As the seminal Canadian pop poet Alanis Morissette once sang in 1995, “you live, you learn.”

The reindeer parade took place on 23 November

We were really pushing it to make the advertised time of six o’clock for the seasonal lights being illuminated, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at my watch.  When I checked my timepiece it was showing eleven-forty, though in those days it was always twenty minutes to twelve, no matter when I glanced down to my wrist.  The battery in my watch had died almost a week earlier when I wasn’t looking, and although I still made sure to wear the thing every day, I could never remember to have the battery replaced.  From our vantage point on the road running below McCaig’s Tower, we were looking out over the entire town, the mass of darkness broken only by a mushroom cloud of light around the station, where the festivities were taking place.  The view was like staring at a Christmas carousel on a mantelpiece, and the church bells were the music, letting us know that it was almost six.

Earlier in the day, I was standing in line at McColl’s waiting to top up my electricity key, because at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there was only one place in town with PayPoint facilities.  I had just invested in a new Christmas jumper, since the tradition we had introduced also required the wearing of dubious knitwear, and I was feeling pretty good about things once I had come across a tie that it could be worn with sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my bedroom.  Walking uptown to the newsagents was a study in how it would be to be invited onto a catwalk for a winter catalogue.  Every other person seemed to be dressed in a Christmas sweater, even the little brown and white terrier dog I passed outside the mobile phone shop was in a red and white knitted outfit. 

I was fidgeting with the plastic electricity key in my left hand as I waited, its halves of green and blue much less festive than the canine coat.  There were two people ahead of me in the queue, and when the older gentleman who was standing in front of me happened to look over the shoulder of his black winter jacket, he spoke with a voice which made him sound like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, both in accent and tone.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to me.  If I didn’t know better it could as well have been an accusation, but I recognised him and was in agreement that it had been a while.  I told him that it had been five years since the Co-operative supermarket had closed, which is where I was working the last time he laid eyes me.  His facial features were inscrutable, like an artefact from the Natural History Museum, but I was certain that he had spent those years believing that everyone from the Co-op who he hadn’t seen since the day it closed had died.

“It’s frightening how quickly time passes,” he whispered in another classic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking barrels line as he stepped forward to the front of the queue and I looked down at my watch and wondered how many lottery scratchcards he was going to buy.

From up high, the station looked like a Christmas carousel.

The official turning on of the lights was preceded by the ‘reindeer parade’, where a figure we are to believe is Santa is led through town by a trio of reindeer and a pipe band.  By the time we had worked our way through three bottles of mulled wine and a box of mince pies the parade had already reached the station and the reindeer were in a makeshift pen, happily munching on some straw.  None of them appeared to have a red nose, though under the spotlight of the Christmas lights it was clear that some of our faces were a little rosier than normal.  Around the area which was usually reserved for the taxi rank were a selection of fairground rides which attracted the attention of the young and the old alike.  There was a House of Fun which was taller than the clock tower, the standard spinning teacups, and an ‘extreme’ Helter Skelter, the frame of which was brightly-coloured and emblazoned with the animated image of two young women wearing bikinis.  It looked an unfortunate choice of outfit for a parade in Oban in late November, though the scene did leave me feeling much more smug about the warm new Christmas jumper I was wearing.

My brother and I left the parade for Aulay’s, where we stopped for a couple of pints of lager before eating dinner at our sister’s.  There was a steady hum of early evening revellers around the bar, where we managed to take our usual position close to the icebox, which was a spot where at least something managed to look cool.  Looking across at us from by the fruit machine was a woman whose coat was as thick as the fur on a reindeer, although darker in colour, and her hair was white and curled like an envelope which has been crammed inside a pocket for two weeks.  She wasn’t long in telling us that she was 73-years-old and enjoyed nothing better than coming to the pub on a Saturday night and talking to people.  That much was evident when the woman went on to compliment my brother on having a nice nose, the way that someone might pay homage to a homegrown vegetable patch or a bed of flowers:  it’s all the work of nature, but I suppose he helped it along the way.

Stood to the left of the woman was a similarly-aged man who she pointed to as being her husband.  I wondered what he was thinking as his wife once more emphasised how she thought that my brother had a very nice nose, particularly when his own snout resembled a slice of pastrami.  The more this woman was heaping praise upon my sibling’s sneezer, the more I was feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t mentioned mine, despite it having come from the same allotment.  I wasn’t especially wanting to be noticed by a 73-year-old lady at the bar, but it would have been nice, and I was expecting that her husband was feeling the same way.

I gazed across the bar at the elderly man with a sympathetic eye, the same way I looked at anyone who was near the fruit machine.  My elbow was pressed tightly into the surface of the bar as I spoke in his direction. “Don’t worry, I think your nose is fine.”  It seemed like a gentle, reassuring thing to say, but the gentleman glanced back at me in a manner that suggested he didn’t know what I was talking about, or as if to say keep your nose out of my business.  For a moment I considered that maybe I had read the situation all wrong, and the whole episode might just have been the couple’s bold attempt at sparking some renewed interest in their relationship.  They would go to bars, or any public space, really, and she would compliment younger men on their more appealing features in an effort to inspire some jealous passion in her husband before they took a taxi home together.  My brother was just a patsy, really.  Who knew if it was really the case, but it was an explanation that would keep everyone happy.

The figures on the side of the Helter Skelter were poorly dressed for a winter parade.

At my sister’s, we ate a meal of roasted duck and potatoes, before drinking some more mulled wine and playing a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, which revealed much about us.  Somewhere in amongst all that, the one-year-old daughter of my sister’s friend, who were both spending the night at the house, decided to walk for the very first time.  It was an emotional thing to witness happen, even if technically the baby had initially walked on her own feet upstairs when her mum was getting her ready for bed. In the excitement, she was brought back downstairs and convinced to perform the act again, in front of an adoring audience who had mobile phones poised.  In that sense, I hadn’t seen the girl walk for the very first time, rather it was like seeing only the encore at a Beyoncé concert.

It was a remarkable thing to be present in the room for, when suddenly for this little person the world went from being a very small space that was limited to places where she could be carried, to a place of never-ending potential.  The entire world was there, ready to be explored. As I was watching the first steps being taken for the second, third and fourth time, I was thinking about how it was probably a similar sight to how seeing myself walk away from the bar in Aulay’s at the end of a night would look.  The way that she first rose to her feet, shaky and looking very uncertain about it all.  There was a look of stern focus on her face as she took a few steps forward, away from the safety of her mother’s arms, and slowly began to realise that she could do it; her legs were working and her toes were more than just hilarious little things to play with.  She was growing in confidence with every step, building up an impressive head of steam, before finally collapsing onto her bottom in fits of laughter.  The only difference was that the laughter was her own.

Links:

November Rain: my Spotify soundtrack to the month of November

For anyone who doesn’t have access to Spotify, but does have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are the three songs I have been listening to most throughout November.

If I could, I would listen to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses all month long, but instead I settled for around three times a day:

I Can’t Think About It Now sounds like the best song Dire Straits never wrote.  The section from 2:34 to the line “the everlasting wisdom of a sports bar” is remarkable:

I will be reading ‘winter diaries of a single man’ from my notebook at the Rockfield Centre on Saturday 30 November. Event information can be found here.

The different uses for a comb

In my experience it wasn’t rare for a major high to quickly be followed by a crushing defeat, but ordinarily it would be me who was suffering the rapid fall from grace, and it usually wouldn’t come around as suddenly as the swift setback I had witnessed in Aulay’s around an hour after the pub quiz in The Lorne, where I had suffered a small defeat of my own.  Three members of the four Unlikely Lads had reunited after the brief flirtation with success two of us had enjoyed a week earlier when we formed a winning alliance with the Bawbags who weren’t away on holiday, and for a while it was looking like our quiz joy might continue when we found ourselves in the lead at the midway point.  I was already allowing myself to think ahead to how I could spend the prize of a £25 bar voucher on a second date, even though I had yet to find a woman who would accompany me for the use of the voucher we had previously won.  However, our team endured a torrid round of questions on siblings, registering a pitiful return of three points, and the whole thing went downhill from there.  It was a lot like the frequent challenges I faced with my own brother, who was always much better equipped for attracting the opposite sex than I was.

Aulay’s was quiet on Wednesday night, much quieter than it apparently had been the night before, when legend has it that an eve of funeral gathering ended with a wild bar brawl.  There weren’t more than three patrons in the lounge bar when I walked in, and I was beginning to wonder if the only people who go to the pub on a Wednesday night are those who are lonely.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, where there was ample room for me to consider where the evening’s quiz had gone wrong over a beer while I embellished the diminutive barmaid with the story of my bar voucher and how I was hoping to use it to attract a date.  In the meantime, a couple who were half-Scottish and half-Australian entered the bar, and they quickly became involved in a conversation with one of the three folks who were there before I was, an older man who had travelled from a nearby island in the Outer Hebrides.  It wasn’t long before the new acquaintances were serenading the sparse bar with drunken Scottish lullabies.  

Pints of lager, measures of whisky and orders of vodka and Irn-Bru were finding their way to the table in the corner in quick succession, and it wouldn’t be long before the lyrical infused libations were requiring some accompaniment in the form of music.  I wasn’t witness to what happened next, but I was able to savour its effect and I could easily picture the scene when the Glasgow born male of the aforementioned couple told the story after the event.

Volunteers collecting from the bay near Dunstaffnage Marina under an approaching storm

As the couple were sitting at the comfort of their table, their island companion reached into the pocket of his jumper, which was the colour of a Mentos wrapper, for a packet of cigarettes.  He shook the cardboard carton like it was a pepper mill, though instead of granulated peppercorns there were around thirteen Silk Cuts tumbling onto the surface of the table, which was wet with pools of Tennent’s Lager.  The cigarettes were swimming in rivers of gold while the man from the Outer Hebrides was carefully separating the silver paper lining from the inside of his empty cigarette carton.  Neither of the pair was at all sure what he was up to, and it wasn’t any clearer when he withdrew his black comb from his inside pocket.  He proceeded to attach the shiny paper to the hair straightening tool, fashioning an unlikely instrument, and he provided the most unlikely backing I had ever heard to a pair of pub singers.

The comb harmonica had a similar sound to that of a duck call, and after a few minutes of the man breathing into the thing, I found myself glancing towards the entrance of the pub, wondering if a flock of ducks might waddle in, and everyone would look at one another in search of the punchline.  It was ridiculous, and yet at the same time sublime, and his newfound friends were in rapture to his device, celebrating every note he produced.

The impromptu performance continued for some time, the Glaswegian man singing his folk songs and the islander accompanying him with his musical comb, until the plentiful supply of drinks that the couple had been replenishing him with caught up with the islander.  Suddenly the female of the group called out.  “He’s being sick on his shoes!” Apparently it was just the vodka and Irn-Bru repeating on him like the two notes his instrument could play, but it was enough to cause some alarm at the table.  Within a matter of minutes, the distant islander had gone from the high of being regarded as a hero for his virtuoso instrumental interlude, to the bitter defeat of vomiting on his shoes in the pub.  It was the visual equivalent, I thought, of how it would be to watch myself try and talk to a woman.

A scramble for paper towels ensued, and the old man was looking lost as he watched the whole thing unfold around him.  The woman wiped the orange fluid from his shoes, which were the black of faded tarmac on a busy town road, and once he had taken some time to compose himself, he slipped the comb, still shrouded on one side by the silver cigarette paper, off the end of the table and began playing it again, as if nothing had ever happened.  I couldn’t help but admire him for his resilience and his devotion to the cause, whichever cause breathing into an old comb might be.  There had been many a time when I had been sick in a pub and immediately left to go home, albeit I was in the modesty saving surroundings of a public bathroom.  This was something I had never witnessed before, and I was struck by how humble it all was.  How nice it would be if everybody could handle adversity like this.

Autumn would always arrive like an artist’s stroke on canvas; with wonderous new smells and curious sounds, with exciting hope and it was all so full of colour.  All around town things were changing with the season, nothing more so than the leaves on the trees.  Amongst the diminishing green, there could be seen different shades of all sorts, from regal gold to burning amber, from aged rust to crisp red.  As dusk was settling in over Oban bay, the headlights of cars would whizz by on the Esplanade, looking like fireflies with somewhere to go.  And yet, amongst it all, everything still felt blue.

The cold air troubled my newly exposed ears as well as the sea

By the penultimate Saturday in October I could no longer be sure if the temperature had taken a significant drop or if the sudden cold feeling around my ears was because I had just been for a hair cut.  It had been at least nine-and-a-half weeks since I last had the hairs around my head trimmed, and they were becoming increasingly difficult to fashion into a respectable look.  When I first walked into the barber’s shop the couch was almost full, but one of the guys was waiting for his friend in the chair, and besides, we weren’t having our weekly family breakfast at Poppie’s, so I had nothing better to do than read the sports pages of the Daily Star and occasionally feign interest in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia on the old television in the corner whilst waiting my turn.

Nobody else had taken a seat on the couch since I had arrived, and it seemed that this was a theme of the morning.  Whilst sitting in the barber’s chair I received a lesson on the economics of cutting men’s hair for a living.  “I’m probably fifty quid down today because the rugby is on and there doesn’t seem to be many people coming out,” the barber said to me over the buzz of his clippers as I stared ahead at the blurred reflection of what I assumed was myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t be sure when I wasn’t wearing my glasses.  “But on Wednesday I could be fifty up…someone will always need their hair cut.”  I was reluctant to nod with a blade so close to my scalp, but I understood what he was saying.

I shuddered each time the barber ran his comb through my hair, though I wasn’t sitting there for very long.  “Slip on your glasses and tell me what you think” is a phrase I could imagine being said in many situations, but I had only ever heard it in the barber’s chair.  As the barber brushed away the stray hairs from around my collar he admired his own handiwork, proclaiming the hair cut the best he had ever given me.  I could see the look of bemusement on my own face when I put my glasses back on over my exposed ears.  Does this mean that he hadn’t been doing his best work over all these years?  And all those people who had noticed my previous hair cuts, had they only noticed them because they weren’t so good?  I couldn’t stop going over those questions in my mind as I was surveying his snipping, struggling to see what was different about it.

A week had passed and I was still settling into my new hair cut when Let’s Make A Scene was cancelled not quite at the last minute, but certainly at the last hour.  I had already showered and changed into my suit for my reading, so I carried on to Aulay’s regardless. A sense of awkwardness quickly came over me when I was standing at the bar wearing a brown tweed suit as people funnelled in to watch the big fight on television, and I only really began to feel comfortable later in the night when strays from a Halloween party arrived and I was no longer the only person wearing costume.

The marine biologist barmaid from Aulay’s had been keen to listen to my set at the open mic event, and when she returned to the other side of the bar later on Saturday she arrived with her boyfriend and a friend whose scarf immediately caught my eye.  I was in such a rush to compliment her on the neck-warming apparel that I immediately forgot her name when she was introduced to me.  Even when I was talking to her, it wasn’t the midnight mascara around her eyes that I was thinking about, but the cashmere around her collar.  

I tried to make conversation with the young woman around all of the usual things, and I learned all about her studies and her reasons for moving to Oban, where she had come from and some of the places she had travelled to further her research.  But I still couldn’t take my mind off the scarf, and I could tell that things were going awry when I asked her about the hurricane evacuation procedure in Costa Rica.  Seemingly people from the coastal areas were moved inland to cramped farmhouses, and it was only a matter of time before she initiated an evacuation procedure of her own.  I couldn’t resist asking about the scarf any longer.  It was made up of two or three different colours, and I was keen to know her view of what they were.

“What would you say the predominant colour on your scarf is?”

“Purple,” she said, unwilling to elaborate on whether it was lavender, lilac or mauve.  Whatever interest I had been able to hold for the girl lasted about as long as a hair cut, and she soon moved into a discussion with my more interesting friend.  I never saw the scarf again, and I was left wondering if this was how it felt to be sick on your shoes in the pub.  Worst of all, I wasn’t even carrying a comb to overcome my defeat.

The tenth playlist of the year – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of October

For those who don’t have access to Spotify, but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three favourite songs from the past month.

One of my favourite songs by the popular alternative rock band from the 1980s and 90s, R.E.M…

A reminder of how great a song sounds when you haven’t heard it in a while and it sneaks up on you…

The best cover of a song by The Carpenters…

You say Elyounoussi, I say Elhamed

When I returned to Oban from my trip to Budapest, everything was just as I had left it five days earlier.  The entire flat had a chill in the air, in keeping with the dipping September temperatures, and in the kitchen sink there was a cup three quarters filled with stale dishwater and topped with a ringed coffee stain a few inches from the rim, like the tidal mark you find on the walls by the sea.  A damp red and white striped tea towel which had questionable shades of grey was lying discarded on the kitchen counter. The scene was one you might expect to find if someone had been called away to attend to a drastic emergency; news of an accident or a kidnapping.  I was reminded that I had left in a rush that Monday morning to catch the early bus, and immediately I was back in the old routine of cursing my decisions.

It was the longest I had been away from home since I became a single occupant more than a year earlier, and it seemed like a weird sensation the way that it felt as though I was moving into a new place all over again.  In my absence, the surface of the oak flooring had gathered small pockets of dust and other unidentifiable debris in areas, while the whole place carried the scentless smell of somewhere that has been uninhabited for a while.  After a few hours of procrastination, I unpacked my rucksack of all the things I had taken with me, many of which I didn’t need anyway, and I tried to figure out where they should go.  

The washing machine was soon filled with a week’s worth of travel wear, and my next mission was to visit the supermarket to replenish my supplies of milk, fruit and food.  I had arrived home to a fridge which was as empty as the day I moved in, with the exception of a tub of butter and a jar of Dijon mustard which was looking as tired as I was feeling.  Everything else had been used up in a mad dash before I flew to Hungary, the result of an inherent mistrust that food wouldn’t possibly keep to its expiration date if I wasn’t around to check on its health every time I opened the fridge door, as though the remaining portion of cheese, a bottle of milk and packet of meatballs would reunite to get one over me by spoiling when I wasn’t there.

Oban Distillery on the morning of 21 September

Nine months had passed since the idea of me reading in front of an audience had been conceived as a joke amongst friends, the thought being that the most socially awkward of us would sit before a gathering of people at The Rockfield Centre’s monthly open mic night dressed smartly in a suit and read stories of ineptitude from his notebook while someone else played a ridiculous instrument in the background, like the triangle or the panpipes, and no-one would quite be able to decide if the entire act was deliberately absurd or just a complete shambles.  As it turned out, nobody in our group owned a triangle, and our attempt at an artistic exhibition went the way of all of my romantic endeavours and I was left to perform as a solo act.   

Even though I had only done it on a handful of occasions, I had recently been invited to read at the launch of the local acoustic duo The Blue Moon Traveller’s new album, and despite the ferocious anxiety which greets me when I attempt to do anything in front of other people, I accepted the offer.  By the time I arrived home from my trip to Budapest, there was less than a week to prepare for the big night and I was trying to keep myself as occupied as possible in an effort to hold my nerves at bay.  I cooked a large pot of goulash, making use of some of the paprika I had brought back from Great Market Hall, and the aroma of spiced beef and potato and carrot was clinging to the washing and everything else in the flat for days.  Later I participated in the pub quiz in The Lorne and watched the latest two IT movies, which between them totalled more than five hours in run time and distraction time. 

Although we had made an unremarkable start in the first two rounds, our team, which was as much three ladies and a tramp as it was The Unlikely Lads, was developing an increasing confidence that we were about to experience our breakthrough pub quiz victory when we scored a maximum of 18 points from the round of questions on Hungary.  The tremendous gain saw us surge into joint-first place at the halfway point, and we were finding it easy to visualise our eventual win, the moment when our little breakaway outfit would finally be rewarded with a £25 bar voucher.  A wave of excitement and optimism was sweeping across the table, along with waves of Tennent’s Lager down our throats, but I was struggling to get over a blunder I had made in the previous general knowledge round which I feared could be the Vesuvius question repeating itself all over again.

The silver-haired host had asked us to name the nationality of a footballer Celtic had recently signed, and I snatched the pen from a team-mate’s hand with the assuredness that only a person who knows the answer can legitimately display.  I wrote Israeli on the corresponding line and took a mouthful of beer to congratulate myself on my contribution.

When the answer sheet was returned to us after it had been marked at the end of the round there wasn’t a tick next to the word Israeli, and I was wondering how the quizmaster could possibly have made such a mistake.  I was listening with interest as he went through the questions once more, this time revealing the correct answers alongside them. Eventually he reached the one I was desperate to hear.

“What nationality is the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi?”

I realised immediately what had gone wrong.  In my exuberance, I had misheard the name Mohamed as Elhamed, ignored the rest of the question, and taken it to be in reference to Hatem Abd Elhamed, the Israeli international footballer, rather than Mohamed Elyounoussi, the Norwegian.  I was kicking myself, and the longer the quiz developed into a three-way fight for the prize, the more I was worrying that my error, which was the equivalent of lunging in with a two-footed tackle in footballing terms, was going to cost us.

In the end, it wasn’t only hearing the name of the Celtic international which proved to be our downfall.  In the slim 3 point defeat, we also failed to identify which musician collaborated with Michael Jackson on his song The Girl Is Mine, or calculate the total numerical value of three Scrabble tiles, amongst other cracks in our pub quiz knowledge.

The Michael Jackson tree, outside the hotel in Budapest where his fans gathered hoping to see him during his stay there in 1993

We finished joint-second, and although the win we desired would have to wait another while yet, we were in the mood to celebrate our achievement, or nearly achievement, so we walked round to Aulay’s for one last drink to end the night.  As we were approaching the doors to the lounge bar it occurred to me how I had spent countless nights inside the pub hoping to find female company and it would never happen, with tales of failure becoming my thing, like wearing matching socks, ties and pocket squares, when all around me there were people meeting other people and being happy about it.  This time I was about to stride into the bar with three women who most people would kill to be seen with, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about it.  The door opened with the kind of dramatic swing you would ordinarily see on the silver screen, and the four of us walked inside to find the bar completely empty.  I would have been as well walking in with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for all anyone would see or care about it.

My efforts to distract me from any nerves I might have been feeling about my forthcoming reading led me to binge-watching the two newest IT movies over two nights.  I had never felt much of an inclination to see the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a murderous clown until I was invited to the cinema to view the newly-released second chapter with my friend who constructs sandwiches, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  I was asked to go along as a friend who could be grabbed and punched at the arrival of any particularly frightening scenes, and that was enough to have me searching my subscription streaming services for the first film.  Even if my awareness of what was happening was flimsy at best, it seemed that the least I could do would be to make an effort to familiarise myself with the story, sort of like when someone in a passing car is enthusiastically waving at you and you can’t fathom who it is, but you give a conciliatory gesture in case it is someone you know.

When I arrived at the Oban Phoenix Cinema on Friday night with a bottle of Coca-Cola which had its chemical balance transformed by seven 25ml measures of Jack Daniels I was considering how I was surely the least likely figure a person would turn to in the situation of anxiety caused by scenes from a horror film, or anything, really.  It would be like crafting a scarecrow out of seeds and fat balls.  Nevertheless, I was happy to be invited, even if the second chapter didn’t produce nearly as many scares as I would have liked.  Indeed, the most harrowing part of the three-hour movie came after around ninety minutes when I had finished my stash of Jack Daniels and coke and I found myself in an increasingly desperate need for the toilet.  I was reluctant to leave my seat through fear of missing a truly terrifying scene and failing in my role as a stress punch bag for the night, so I valiantly held out until the closing credits.  The feeling of relief was one I had rarely experienced.

On the last Saturday of summer, the sky was a sapphire blue shade and the clouds had been scared off by a vibrant warm sun.  At station square the final producers’ market of the season was taking place, where there was on offer an abundance of local meats, cheeses, handcrafted goods and talk of how it was a good day for it.  It made for a busy scene by the glowing harbour.  I was walking aimlessly through the bustle, free of my usual weekend hangover but filled with the growing recognition that later I would have to read in front of an audience.  Even a killer clown couldn’t save me now.

Despite having lived in Oban for all of my thirty-five years, I had never been inside the Oban Distillery, where the town’s most famous and most popular export had been produced since it was built in 1794.  It occurred to me that this would probably be like living in New York City all your life and never seeing the Empire State Building, or being a Parisian who had never stood next to the Eiffel Tower.  My whisky of choice wasn’t even Oban Malt.  It was always Jameson, which I supposed made me like the Italian who prefers the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper:  I enjoyed the local product, but I liked it better when it was bottled elsewhere.

A placard the day after the Global Climate Strike in Oban

Although I had never been on the inside of a whisky barrel, my first impression of the interior of the bar at the Oban Distillery was that it was probably quite similar to drinking inside an old cask.  The intoxicating fragrance of malt barley was hanging in the air, to some the very essence of love itself, while everything in the place was wooden. The flooring was oak, the bar, the tables, the seating, the walls were all made from wood.  At £5 for a bottle of Guinness Hop House 13, even the prices wouldn’t bend.

As well as the microphones on the stage, gathered around it was an array of audio and visual recording equipment, the sum of which was probably similar to the number of people who had previously listened to me read.  If the price of a bottle of beer hadn’t already made me feel queasy, then the constant stream of people entering the room was really making me nervous.  The bar was beginning to fill up with folk I recognised, some I sort of recognised, a couple of former work colleagues, but mostly with people who I didn’t know at all.  By the time the evening got underway, there were around a hundred spectators squeezed into the whisky barrel, and I was feeling sick over it.

A small group of regulars from the Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights were in attendance, and it was the Czech marine biologist who didn’t have a ticket but who had blagged her way in who I remember talking to first.  She complimented me on my suit, and nothing made me dissolve into a puddle of self-deprecation like someone saying something nice about me or my choice of outfit, especially when it was a woman with an accent.  I thanked her and proceeded to list all the things I had made a special effort to do on that day for the occasion of reading aloud to people I mostly didn’t know.  “I thought it would be a good idea to shower for a change.  I trimmed my stubble.  I decided that I would comb my hair.”  I couldn’t pinpoint precisely where it had happened, but I knew that I had said too much.  “Please…don’t give me any more details,” she said as she walked away towards the oak bar.  

Before The Blue Moon Travellers could perform the first of their two sets of the evening, we were provided with a safety demonstration by an employee of the Oban Distillery.  He informed us that as the place was still a functioning whisky distillery there was a possibility that something could go horrendously wrong and some piece of machinery could explode during the single occupant’s performance, and if you need to make an emergency exit, either in the event of physical disaster or emotional catastrophe, the fire exit is located here.  Or at least that is what I heard him say.

The more I watched Jim and Sheila of The Blue Moon Travellers handle their initial set of cover material with grace and professionalism, the more I was worrying that I was in over my head.  Sheila’s voice owned the room, while Jim’s guitar playing was so good that even my brother commented on it, and he had never mentioned anyone’s string plucking in Oban.  As the duo were nearing the end of their first performance of the night, it was all I could do to go to the bathroom and seek refuge in the unblemished porcelain surroundings.  I wasn’t feeling sick enough to throw up, but I always liked to pee right before I was due to read, if only to give me one thing less to worry about.  I took the only free urinal at the far left of the trio, and all of a sudden the thing that I was most nervous about getting out from within me wasn’t my words.

Before I knew it, I went from performing to a theatre of one at the urinal to sitting in front of a room of around a hundred people, trying to juggle my thick navy blue notebook in one hand with a green plastic party tumbler filled with Chilean Merlot in the other.  The choice of drinks ware was intended as a joke to accompany the piece I was reading, but the only joke turned out to be my attempt at turning the pages of my book without spilling red wine on the dry white sheets.  The chair felt as though it was the tallest I had ever sat on, rising so far from the ground that my feet could barely touch the oak floor.  I was like a toddler who was reading to an audience of adults for the first time, and after the opening couple of paragraphs, I was forced to rest the wine on an out-of-reach wooden ledge, as much for the sake of my trousers as for comfort.  It was the first time I read without the stage crutch of alcohol. 

From the tall seat behind the microphone, the only sound I could hear was the constant chatter which rustled across the room from the bar like a golden leaf down an empty street.  To me it sounded like everybody in the place was talking during my set, and although I was later told that the noise was only coming from the bar area, it was unsettling.  Still, I persevered with reading my material, like a drunk who is determined to walk home despite everyone insisting that he takes a taxi, and I was feeling hopeful as I approached the point where I was going to make a second public attempt at performing my favourite joke.  

I had once before read the story about the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s and how she on more than one occasion advised me that I should receive lessons in how to talk to women, which in turn led me to seek out a self-help book in Waterstones on the subject of talking to women, but it was proving difficult to find and so I approached a sales assistant and asked her to assist me in locating the self-help section, and the punchline received little reaction.  This time there was around a hundred people in attendance, and I was hoping that at least two or three of them would give me the laugh I had been craving.  I told the story again, and for a moment, even the sound of chatter from the bar fell silent.

Despite having to endure the farce of sitting through my own round of applause after I had finished reading because I had forgotten to mention my Diaries of a single man Facebook page and I wanted to get the plug in, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself after I gave up the stage for The Blue Moon Travellers to showcase songs from their new album Into The Blue.  The relief was unlike anything I had ever experienced, greater even than when everyone else had vacated the urinals earlier in the night.  As the night developed, I was approached by a clutch of people who wanted to tell me how much they had enjoyed my piece, and once again I was feeling awkward in dealing with compliments.  If there was one thing that made me nervous more than reading to an audience, it was having to actually talk to people.

Firstly a woman walked up to me as I was finishing the last dregs of the bottle of Chilean Merlot.  She was sweet and humble, and I had actually noticed her amongst the crowd when I was performing my reading.  I thanked her for her kind words and told her that she had caught my eye from the stage because she reminded me of Beetlejuice.  The woman seemed affronted, her eyes narrowed with a look that was a cross between confusion and annoyance, the kind I might have flashed at the pub quiz when our answer sheet was returned without a tick next to Israeli.  I noticed the woman’s displeasure and clarified my comment, assuring her that I was referring to her shirt, which had black and white stripes like the suit worn by the character in the Tim Burton movie, and not to her hair, which was not white and unruly.  Even the friends in my company couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

Later I found myself in conversation with a woman whose hair was the colour of Chardonnay, uncorked it flowed past her shoulders and over a scarf which was presumably worn for purposes of fashion rather than warmth.  I noticed that her fingernails were the colour of the Parma Violets sweets that I could remember from childhood, though at the time I couldn’t recall where I had seen the colour, and it was impossible to concentrate on talking to her when I was so distracted by that absent detail.

Despite my inability to communicate in a normal manner with people, the night was one of the most triumphant I had experienced.  I was feeling flattered and even happy with the way things had gone, as though I had achieved something. It was a good feeling, but even after it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Beetlejuice remark.  I could have said anything else in that moment and it would have been better; I could even have asked her the nationality of the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi.

Links and things:

Wake me up when this September playlist ends: my Spotify playlist for the month of September

For those without access to Spotify, the following are the two most significant songs from the last month.

I will never be able to hear the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry again without thinking of a wildly drunken Hungarian man in a bar in Budapest:

Digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea…

The Blue Moon Travellers can be found on Facebook here.
I will be reading from my notebook at the Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October. Full event details can be found here.

Hard to believe it isn’t butter

It was always a tremendous source of amusement amongst our family when we would make our weekly visit to Poppies for breakfast on a Saturday morning and the dish with the small portions of butter would arrive at the table.  There would typically be around four or five of the little golden rectangles, and it was always a race to see which of either my niece or our father would notice them first.  Dad had the advantage of experience and the fact that my niece was usually distracted by whichever object was her favourite toy on that particular day.  A cuddly cat, a colouring book, building blocks, a sponge scouring pad.  Though she undoubtedly had the cuteness factor in her favour, and if she happened to spy the butter before anybody else, she was pretty difficult to beat.  

Their motives for wanting the butter were quite different and went far beyond simply garnishing a slice of toast.  My niece sometimes liked nothing better than to peel open the little golden parcel as though it were a present on Christmas morning, but what was hidden inside was no surprise to her; she knew exactly what it was and she wanted to eat it.  Even when there was a plate full of hot, fresh toast sitting on the table in front of her, all she wanted to do was to stick her fork into the smooth yellow blob and lick it. Sometimes she wouldn’t even need the fork.  Our dad, on the other hand, liked to gather a portion or two of butter and carefully wrap it in a red napkin which, after a quick look around the coffee shop, would be safely stashed away in the pocket of his jacket.  It wasn’t the most elaborate of heists, but it would require great care all the same.  No-one wants to take a gunshot wound on a bank robbery, just like nobody wants a grease stain from melted butter on their favourite jacket.

To begin with, none of us could really tell why dad wanted so much butter.  There had been plenty of discussion in the news of people stockpiling goods before Britain left the European Union at the end of October, but they had been talking about cans of tuna fish and baked beans, toilet rolls and medicines, rather than restaurant-sized portions of butter.  So one day we asked him.  He told us that he likes to collect them in case of a situation where he has run out of butter.  “You never know when you might need them.” It was essentially the same reason he would always give for the boxes of old VHS tapes he kept stored in various locations around the house.

I dismissed dad’s hoarding of butter portions as being unnecessary, wondering why anyone would go to such a length when butter isn’t exactly like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or a date on a Saturday night.  It isn’t difficult to find.  Sure, I would sometimes jump the gun and buy a bottle of washing up liquid before the one under my sink had been completely finished, and I always liked to make sure that I had a second tube of moisturiser in the bathroom cabinet, because nobody wants to be caught short and forced into spreading Lurpak on their cheeks, but otherwise I liked to keep my household supplies sensibly stocked.  At least that was the mighty impression I had of my own management when I got out of bed on Sunday morning to prepare an omelette.  

My omelettes were always very basic in their ingredients, although there would be enough of them to feed two or three single occupants if necessary.  It was rare if my brunch didn’t use bacon, there was usually an onion, too, and the grated cheese was piled high enough to cover a small molehill.  On occasion, there might be a red pepper thrown in if I wanted to spice the omelette up or I didn’t know how else I was going to use it.  The ingredients would be softened in a frying pan while I beat together a number of eggs which was typically dependant on how hungover I was feeling on any given Sunday.  Once the bacon pieces and onion chunks had been cooked, they were tipped out onto a plate and the frying pan wiped clean, ready to welcome a significant portion of butter, which would be melted to cook the eggs in.  At least that was how it usually happened every other weekend.  But on this particular occasion, I came to realise that I had used the last of the butter and forgotten to replace it.  There’s a handy reminder when it comes to preparing an omelette that to make one, you have to break a few eggs, but there is nothing to help you remember that you also need to buy butter.

While the butter tub-shaped gap on the middle shelf in my fridge remained, under the kitchen sink there were two bottles of Fairy washing up liquid.  For more nights than would probably be considered dignified, I was unscrewing the red lid of the original bottle and running the tap in an attempt to rinse out every last drop of green soap.  I refused to move on to the new one until I was satisfied that I had gotten my money’s worth.  In thirty-five years I had never considered what value for money might be from a 99p bottle of washing up liquid, but it turned out that it was filling it with water until the amount of bubbles spilling forth resembled a children’s birthday party.  

When it finally came time to flip open the top of the new bottle, I was greeted by a fragrance which was strikingly similar to supermarket bought apple juice, the sort you might find in the breakfast lounge of a Travelodge or a Premier Inn.  I glanced down at the plastic container in my hand, realising that in my haste to grab a bargain from the special offers section in Lidl I had picked up a bottle of apple orchard scented washing up liquid.  I had never been in an apple orchard, but I felt fairly certain that it wouldn’t smell like apple juice which had been caught consorting with paprika in my kitchen sink.  For reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I wasn’t feeling comfortable with the idea of flavoured washing up liquid.  If the purpose of using such a thing was to clean debris from dinner plates and associated kitchen utensils, then what good would adding apple do?  It would be like bathing in Chardonnay or using margarine to moisturise my clean face.  I didn’t want anything to do with the scented soap, but I had paid for it and one use certainly wouldn’t be value for money, so I persevered, resigned to the fear that everything was going to taste of apples for weeks.

The view of Lothian Road didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in Edinburgh

Even at the Edinburgh Fringe, where I went in search of an escape, I was finding it difficult to avoid the irritants of day-to-day life.  It wasn’t so much the flyerers or the insanely busy streets that I was being troubled by.  Even the older couple from Yorkshire who walked into Banshee Labyrinth, which frames itself as being the most haunted pub in Edinburgh but where the only spirt I have ever encountered came from a bottle behind the bar, and complained about the price of their drinks in the city centre didn’t bother me.  Indeed, I found my own spirits momentarily lifted when I watched the comedian Peter Brush perform for the third year in a row and his joke about the time he thought that his acting career was on the verge of taking off when he landed the role of understudy to the part of Godot in a school production of the Samuel Beckett play received the kind of reaction some of my own favourite jokes get.  I was one of three people in the small chamber room who laughed out loud, mainly out of sympathy and a recognition of the comedian’s plight of having his well-crafted joke fall as flat as a glass of breakfast apple juice.

My irritation came when I was sitting in the beer garden outside Brewdog enjoying a pint of their light Dead Pony Club IPA, which tasted a lot better than the name suggested and was a refreshing drink in the warmth of a late August afternoon.  The outdoor seating area was almost the entire length of the pavement and offered views of Lothian Road, which probably didn’t rank amongst the most scenic in the city.  Nevertheless, I soaked it in like I was looking out at Edinburgh Castle or the Scott Monument, organising my thoughts and contemplating where Peter Brush had gone wrong with his Godot joke, and me with my gag about searching for a self-help book in Waterstones.

At the table across from mine, a couple arrived and sat down with their craft beers.  No sooner had their buttocks touched the bench than both of them had a cigarette in their mouths, like synchronised swimmers, shrouded in smoke.  Clouds of nicotine were coughing across the narrow courtyard and I was cursing under my breath, which was more than the smokers would be capable of, I thought.  Their presence was irritating me more than it should have, especially considering that they were smoking exactly where they were supposed to.  What upset me most was the knowledge that five years previously I would have been the asshole lighting a cigarette in an area where nobody else was smoking, completely oblivious to their discomfort.  It occurred to me that you never really know how annoying something you are doing can be to other people until you are no longer the person doing it.  I suppose it’s a lot like being part of the couple in a room full of single friends.

A week had passed when I walked into Aulay’s.  The rain was falling briskly outside and the Dundee derby was playing on the television screens.  It was like any other Friday night.  In the corner of the lounge bar, underneath the televised football, was sitting a young woman whose hair was curled and the colour of midnight.  Her skin was like crushed olives and she had exactly the type of face I liked in a person: symmetrical, with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  From her ears were hanging two large brass earrings which were the width of a champagne flute.  She was wearing a top that was camouflage coloured, yet I couldn’t help but see her.

I was standing at the bar with Brexit Guy and Geordie Pete, the latter of whom was waxing lyrical about the majesty of St James Park and telling me the story of how he went there to watch Newcastle play Arsenal in 2011.  The visitors raced into a four-goal lead inside half an hour, and Pete decided that he had seen enough so he left the stadium for the Irish pub which sat on the corner of the Gallowgate, in the shadow of the massive stands nearby.  He was leaning against the bar watching the afternoon’s football scores come through on the TV.  Newcastle scored.  Then again.  And again.  The game Geordie Pete left finished 4-4 and was regarded as one of the most remarkable English Premier League games of the modern era.  I couldn’t help but relate the story to my own romantic interests, though I couldn’t be sure if I was the Geordie Pete, the Newcastle or the Arsenal.  All the same, it was a distraction from the girl in camouflage.

In the meantime, as I leaned across the bar to order another pint of Tennent’s, I heard an unfamiliar voice speak into my left ear.  It was soft and complimentary and welcome.  “I really like your suit,” the voice soothed.  “You don’t see a brown suit often enough.”

I dipped my mouth into the frothy head of my pint and turned to face the tweed enthusiast with something approaching a smile.  “It’s probably my favourite suit,” I said, attempting to curry favour with the tall bald-headed man who I recognised as having been sitting in the company of the camouflage girl.  The gentleman’s head seemed to have been shaved bald out of a consideration for fashion more than as any kind of natural progression.  We exchanged pleasantries and he returned to his table with drinks for himself and the camouflage girl.  I was left standing at the bar feeling like a frying pan without a portion of butter, or a man who had just had an enormous puff of cigarette smoke blown into his face.

An august playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of August

The following two songs were my most listened to through the month.  Unknown Legend was perfect for my feelings of restlessness, the way that reality collides with fantasy.  The song always gets me.

Funeral Beds builds to an epic climax.

Just add coffee for a good time

On the exterior of the building in which I had been a single occupant since January 2018 was a plaque dedicated to the Scottish writer Iain Crichton Smith, whom the bronze plate recorded as having lived in the block of flats between the years of 1958 and 1980, a few years before I had even entered anyone’s conscience.  Whenever I remembered to look at the memorial on my way home the thought of it would haunt me for days.  Not in the way of the female ghost I once suspected was haunting my bedroom by leaving the door wide open in the middle of the night as a demonstration that even the spirit of a woman who has been dead for decades doesn’t want to be spending any time in my room, but it was more casting a shadow over my own achievements whilst living in the building.

The plaque recognises Crichton Smith’s life as a teacher, poet and novelist, and with there being a one in six chance that I was living in the same flat he was when he had thirty-three pieces of work published, it was a pretty hard act to follow for a guy whose finest accomplishment in recent times had been discovering this his shoes were mid tan rather than brown.

Anyone of a particular vintage in Oban would speak of Iain Crichton Smith as being a warmly liked and respected teacher, while I was occasionally told by strangers that I was dressed like a physics teacher.  He was regarded as being a prolific and inspirational writer who won several literary prizes and was honoured with an OBE, while in 2019 I began to read my own tales of romantic woe to around thirty people in The Rockfield Centre.  If someone could have lived a life like that for twenty-two years in my flat, I would think whenever I saw the memorial outside, then why was I finding it so difficult to so much as find a use for half a tin of coconut milk?

The plaque plagued me for days.  I was lying awake in bed for hours every night, the humid July air causing me to cast my covers aside the way people everywhere had been opening the covers of Iain Crichton Smith’s novels for years.  I was feeling consumed by a sense of hopelessness as I stared at the dark ceiling considering the words that might be on my own plaque years after I have left the flat.  SINGLE OCCUPANT; COLOUR CO-ORDINATED;  UNTRUSTWORTHY WITH PLANTS.

Almost as unsettling as the dedication to the famous local author was the way that tourists would sometimes pause on the pavement outside the window of my flat.  I would often be going about some trivial task, cleaning the glass on my coffee table or replenishing my stock of tealight candles, when a group of people would suddenly come to a stop.  It always worried me that they might be looking through my window, as if anyone would really ever want to see what was going on in my living room.  The longer they were standing there, the more it would trouble me and I would become conscious of my eating technique or the way that I was sitting.  Only when one of the tourists framed the lens of a camera across the street would I remember that people sometimes liked to take photographs of the church which splits the road in two.  It had never occurred to me until I moved to that part of town that this church might be considered a point of interest for tourists, just like I had never known that Iain Crichton Smith lived in the building across from it.  I supposed that, at least until I moved in there, the home of a well-known local author would be a sight of significance once upon a time, a place of real importance, a lot like the church once was.

By Friday I had endured three nights of broken sleep and everything seemed to be weighing on my mind, like there was a dedication to disappointment engraved onto my thoughts.  In Aulay’s, the plant doctor offered the suggestion on behalf of his brother, whose initials would also make him a doctor, that we all try the drink that the two of them had enjoyed on their recent holiday in Spain.  With nothing to lose we accepted the drink, which was made with Baileys, Amaretto and ice.  The cocktail didn’t have a name that anybody knew of, so we christened it a Tough Paper Round, which proved to be prophetic by the end of the night.

The Tough Paper Round was smooth, warming and very easy to drink, with a taste that was somewhere between marzipan and white chocolate Buttons.  Out of curiosity I later typed the ingredients into Google and found that it was a measure of coffee away from being an Orgasm, which I often took to be the case with most things in life.

There was still a stifling warmth in the air when I was walking home from Markie Dans on Friday night after several pints and three drinks of Tough Paper Round, although once again without the orgasm.  I returned to my flat drunk with despair, and for reasons that weren’t immediately clear, I decided to sit on the floor of my kitchen, in the corner between the washing machine and the fridge.  It seemed to me that I had been spending every Friday night with the hope of ending it by waking up in bed next to someone cool, but when I awoke at 5.15 on Saturday morning on the floor beside the refrigerator it wasn’t really what I had in mind.

Nothing about the days leading up to my fourth reading at Let’s Make A Scene were what anyone could consider to be ideal preparation.  I had changed my mind about the material I was going to read three times, I completely scrapped nine handwritten pages of one of those pieces, and the pink tie I had been planning on wearing turned out to be a slightly different shade of pink to my socks.  I was dreading it more than I had worried about any of my other efforts at The Rockfield Centre, the feeling similar to the morning that you leave the flat for work without a jacket because the sky is blue and every other day has been warm, and then it is raining by lunchtime.

In an attempt to make myself feel better and more comfortable, I decided to wear the silk boxer shorts that I usually saved for special occasions.  The underwear felt nice against my skin and contributed to me becoming more relaxed about things as the night went on.  I was feeling so relaxed, as it goes, that there came a moment when I was sitting in front of the room reading from my notebook that in my mind I had to question if I was wearing any underwear at all.  The thought was troubling and distracting, though I continued with the reading, which seemed to go well, and it was a relief when I later went to the bathroom and found that I was definitely wearing boxers.

My strive to find some self-esteem before reading at Rockfield led me to the same place it always does when I met with some friends in Aulay’s.  The diminutive barmaid was pulling pints and doing her best to reach the top shelf when she told me that she had recently been reading some of my blog posts and that they had inspired her to write her own blog about her experiences as a young mother.  I found it very flattering that someone would read my words, let alone be influenced by them.  It struck me that a blog about the tears and the triumphs of motherhood would be much more important and valuable to others than my stories of inept interactions with women and my struggle with keeping houseplants alive, and I felt pleased that I could in some way have inspired that.

The quality of the acts taking part at Let’s Make A Scene had been rising consistently for months, and in July there were no fewer than four new artists performing original material.  It was sometimes daunting when I would see how good some of the acts were and I knew that I would have to follow them, and even more so when I couldn’t remember if I was wearing underwear.  One of the best musical acts on show were the traditional acoustic duo The Blue Moon Travellers, who announced that they will be launching their album on the 21st of September in the Oban Distillery.  Before the night got underway, the female vocalist of the pair asked me if I would be interested in reading from my notebook at the launch event.  It was an unexpected and cool occurrence, like waking up on the floor next to the fridge, only pleasant.

I immediately accepted the offer, even though I knew that it was going to give me something else to dread in the future.  The vocalist went on to say that “of course, there would be a fee,” and my naivety in such situations caused me to scoff at the idea.

“I couldn’t accept money!  No-one should have to pay to listen to me.”

It was later in the night when I realised the error of my ways and the thought dawned on me that the Oban Distillery may not approve of my stage prop of a bottle of Jameson Irish whiskey and I would have been better off demanding a clause that at least gave me a measure of Oban whisky as compensation.

At the end of it all I came to accept that there are some ghosts which are easier to ignore than others and I don’t have to pay attention to the plaque outside my flat or worry about what Iain Crichton Smith did when he was living in my building.  I could exist on my own terms and maybe even add another word to my own future plaque.  ALRIGHT.  I was a measure of coffee away from being good.

July, July! – My Spotify playlist for the month of July

If you don’t have a Spotify account, the following are the two songs I have been listening to most during July.  I have played Get Out by Frightened Rabbit at least four times every day for weeks:

He Would Have Laughed is the most incredible piece of music I have heard in a while.  The section after the line “I can’t breathe with you looking at me” makes me shiver:

Scene from a sci-fi movie

Even without access to a calendar, it is usually pretty easy to tell when summer has properly arrived on the west coast of Argyll.  The people who were wishing for the snow to disappear in January have turned their attention to praying for cooler temperatures. Washing lines become populated day after day with every wet material imaginable hanging alongside regular items of washing:  bath mats, wetsuits, dog beds.  After a day or two of sunshine, the skin seen around Oban begins to resemble a Dulux colour chart, with shades ranging from ‘fresh from the teat of a cow’ to ‘medium rare steak’.

In my flat the climate had been lifted from its natural Arctic feel to something nearing cool.  Early in the day the light was crashing through the windows at the front, illuminating every room, while in the evening it was shining into the kitchen, making everything warm.  Even late into the night the sun was still there, making the buildings across the street the colour of an apricot as it was setting.  By the end of the week the heat in the kitchen had become so unbearable while I was preparing dinner that there reached a point where I was considering the merits of cooking shirtless.  The debate was one of comfort, allied to the concern that olive oil may spit and splutter from the frying pan.  In the end, as in all situations, I thought it best to keep my shirt on, mostly because I was nervous about the hummus.

In contrast to the agitating evenings in the kitchen, the summer mornings were warm and uplifting, like the embrace of a friend not seen for a while or the first shot of Jameson when it hits the back of the throat.  On George Street, a group of six or so tourists was huddled closely together by the traffic lights outside the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop.  From a distance it looked like a scene from a sci-fi movie, where the population of a small village has dropped everything they were doing and gathered to look skyward at some unidentifiable presence as it hovers on the horizon.   As I advanced closer to the group whilst on my morning walk to work it was evident that they were looking up Stafford Street, beyond the red chimney of Oban Distillery, which when caught on the right day can give the appearance of the burning end of a cigar, and to McCaig’s Tower on the clifftop above.  They were gazing at the eternally unfinished structure the way I look across the bar at a woman I like – with wonder – and it quickly became clear that they didn’t know how to approach it. 

I was listening to Yo La Tengo when I tried to snake around the group unnoticed, walking at least six inches onto the road in order to avoid their dropped jaws.  I had almost walked past all six of the tourists when the last guy, who was maybe the third oldest in the group, gesticulated in a manner which suggested that he had something he wanted to say.  I slowed my pace and withdrew my earphones just as the chorus was coming, in time to hear the man ask “how do we get up there?”

His accent was unmistakably Italian, which was enough to tell me that he should be taken seriously.  I always get anxious when a stranger stops me to ask for directions when I am in Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I am torn between being the person who genuinely wants to help another human and the one who isn’t local and who doesn’t really know where anything is, aside from a handful of bars.  But in Oban I can pretend that I am assured and confident when approached by strangers with broken English who don’t know any better, so I turned and pointed down George Street and directed the collective to “take the next right and then follow the road all the way up.  You should see it signposted on the way.”

The Italian nodded the way a person does when they want to indicate that they have understood what you have just told them, and I continued on my morning walk with a warm glow which was in keeping with the sunshine on my back.  As the day went on I found myself becoming increasingly worried about the advice I had dispensed.  I was sure that they knew what I was meaning when I was pointing to the right, but the rest was just pot luck.  How would this group of six people know that what they were looking at from the pavement was McCaig’s Tower?  That name could as well read pancake with bite marks on a street sign for all the Italians knew.

I kept going over my words through the afternoon.  The more I thought about what I had told the tourists, the more unsure I was growing.  What if they translated that to mean ‘and then you take out your safety goggles and rock climbing equipment and scale the rock face until you reach the base.’?  After a while I was checking Twitter and news articles, looking for reports of six Italian tourists who had become lost, presumed gravely injured, as they tried to climb an unmarked path to McCaig’s Tower.  There was nothing in the news, and by the next morning I could only presume that the sight seekers had safely survived their climb.

By Saturday the weather had been broken by a tumultuous thunderstorm, one so ferocious that it shook the flooring of my flat and reverberated like a memory.  I was preparing for my third reading at the open mic event Let’s Make A Scene, an idea which six months earlier had been floated amongst friends as a joke but had since become something that I looked forward to and dreaded in equal measure, the same way I feel about going to the barber, when I know that my hair will look better once it has been cut but there is the inevitable itch from hairs trapped under the collar of my shirt to contend with.

Throughout the entire day I was feeling sick from nerves.  My anxiety was eating me from the inside, and I was feeling like a group of Italian tourists, unsure of what I was doing, where I was going or why.  It seemed to only be a matter of time before I would be in the bathroom throwing up, and my main concern was that it should happen before I changed into my black shirt.  The longer the day went the more my nerves were rumbling, as intense as the rain hitting the pavement outside.  Still, I stuck to the same routine I had gone through before my previous readings and listened to The Midnight Organ Fight twice before opening a bottle of beer.  After packing my notebook and a quarter bottle of Jameson into my satchel I began changing into my suit, the uneasiness growing within me.  I was reluctant to venture too far from the bathroom mirror, not for reasons of vanity, but because it was close to the toilet.

My nausea seemed to have developed a shyness it had never shown before, though, and despite my best intentions, I couldn’t get it out.  It was not unlike the scene I had witnessed the previous night in Aulay’s, when a man whose fingers were inexplicably bloody couldn’t tear open a plaster.  After several increasingly frustrated attempts he eventually resorted to using his teeth.

A tattooed marine biologist asked if I feel that I perform better after being sick.  I hadn’t thought about it before, though it was a difficult question to answer when all I had known was vomiting from nerves before reading to an audience.  We agreed that even if I wasn’t sick on this occasion, I would have to be able to do it all again once more to have a fair and accurate sample.  If nothing else it gave me a pretty good opening line later in the evening, although maybe not so much at the bar.

There was scaffolding almost as tall as the building itself wrapped around the old Rockfield primary school as the refurbishment inside continued on to its next phase.  In the hut, the fading embers of a June night were casting strands of light through the tops of the windows, fraternising with the fairy lights at the front to create an ambiance and a warmth which was unlike previous events, where it usually feels like you are in a cool and intimate underground night spot that is so trendy that most people don’t know it is there yet.

The room was quickly filling with people, many of whom had not been at a Let’s Make A Scene before, some who had not been in a while, and one elegant string plucker who was, sadly, making his last appearance.  Even though I had turned up with the intention of reading to a room full of people, I could feel my stomach tensing as I watched them actually arrive.  In order to avoid my nerves turning me into the drunken blur I feared I was at the previous event, I requested an earlier slot in the set.

In the end, the reading seemed to go as well as these things can, although the joke about the British band Dire Straits that I had been working on for around four years only succeeded in drawing groans.  Not long after I had finished my piece, the Subway Girl turned up hoping to hear me perform.  I felt sad that she had missed it, especially when my nervous reluctance would ordinarily have forced me to go on much later, but I couldn’t help but feel very happy that she had thought to come at all.  I was able to enjoy the rest of the performances by the much more talented poets and musical acts whilst basking in the warm glow of achievement, triumph and whiskey.  It was a feeling, I thought, similar to the first time you see the view from McCaig’s Tower.

The Fine Art of Self-DestrucJune – My Spotify playlist for the month of June

For those without a Spotify account, the following is a song I have listened to around a hundred and one times in the last thirty days…