It wasn’t until around nine or ten days into the new year before I was fully over my dose of the flu, and the main takeaway that I had from my period of sickness was how difficult it was to find a way of coughing with elegance. Some people I know could easily stifle a sneeze and make it seem effortless, but a cough always seemed to appear more suddenly and as though it had come as a surprise to the victim. A sneeze could be disguised and few people would be any the wiser, while anyone with a cough was destined to be detected. In early January, the sound of my own coughing was closely resembling that of a 72-year-old smoker pushing an elephant up a flight of stairs. At times I even felt like I was the elephant. “Are you sure you’re alright?” Concerned observers would ask, covering their sandwiches and other belongings as though I was exhaling nuclear waste.
I couldn’t be sure how long it was that the cough lingered around in my system, but I was able to clear the mantel place of its Christmas decorations a lot more easily than I cleared my chest of its congestion. The way my flat had been dressed for the festive season could generously have been described as modest, sort of like someone who has been invited to a party they don’t really want to attend and so they don’t put much care or thought into what they wear. That there were four women in my flat two days after Christmas and none of them made mention of the decorations on the mantel place said it all.
I had coughing fits that lasted longer than the time it took for me to climb the stepladder, fetch a small brown wicker basket from the first shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bedroom wardrobe, fill it with three novelty plush figurines and then return it to storage; Christmas decluttered in a few steps.
On the night before the general waste bins were scheduled to be emptied for the first time in the year, I was lying in bed listening to the wind as it wheezed between the three vessels outside my bedroom window. It was late, and I couldn’t help questioning the wisdom of putting the bins out in such stormy conditions. From where I was in the relative warmth of my bed, it was difficult to tell just how wet or windy it was outside, but that didn’t stop me from imagining bins toppling over up and down the street, bags of rubbish strewn all over the place, the pavements reduced to a windswept carpet of crap. There was nothing that I could do about it, though; or at least there wasn’t anything I was willing to do. I wasn’t going to get myself out of bed just to wheel the bins out onto the pavement at seven in the morning, which was when the lorry would usually empty them, and that was probably the first time I accepted that sometimes a storm, like the flu, is something you just have to let pass.
The first full week of 2020 ended with a full moon in the sky. On one particular night between the storms, which was so calm and still that the woman in Poppies Garden Centre remarked that she believed it was the beginning of spring, the scene was spectacular. The great big moon was sitting high on the canopy of a black sky, so crisp and flawless that it was as though it had been painted on. From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble, like the ones I could remember playing with as a child, or those I had lost as a grown-up. It was a great opportunity for taking photographs, and one of those moments when you could be thankful that if you had a mobile phone in your pocket, you had pretty much every piece of technology you could possibly need. I always enjoyed snapping pictures, especially on the west coast of Scotland where there was a postcard waiting to be created on every turn, though photography always frustrated me. My imagination was always better than my actions, sort of like any time I ever went to attempt conversation with a woman. I never knew which was the right angle to come from, or how to frame the subject I was focussing on in such a way that it would seem appealing. The end result never looked the way it did in my mind.
A vicious rain had returned to the sky by the following day, making the town no place for a camera lens. I had been looking forward to my first drink of the decade ever since my flu had been downgraded to an irritating cough, and in an effort to show that I had learned from the last night of 2019, I went out wearing a thick black coat over my grey suit, and a pair of shoes which were bound to resist the torrent of rain. Even by the time I had made the short walk from my flat to my spiritual home of Aulay’s, my coat was soaked and felt like it had gained a couple of pounds in weight from the rainwater, while I opened my wallet and prepared to lose a few. It would have been tempting to remark that the pub was the busiest it had been all year, but the truth was that there was a funeral party in which had been drinking since the afternoon, and the place was more full than I had seen it on a Friday night in a while.
All around me were mourners who were dressed in black gowns, black ties and white shirts that were becoming as crumpled as the drunken bodies they were on. As I glanced around the room, pockets of people huddled around tables in conversation, memorialising a loved one, I was growing increasingly reluctant to remove my large wet coat and hang it on the rack as I had been intending. Underneath it, I was wearing a navy blue shirt and a bright, bold orange tie, the sort that would put the moon in the shade. I was uncomfortable and began worrying about how I would explain my outfit if anyone from the funeral party queried it. “But did you see the matching pocket square? It can’t be disrespectful if it’s stylish…”
I clutched the wet lapels of the black coat around my body like a comforter, trying to cover all evidence of the orange accessories, though there was nothing stopping anyone from spying the socks. The pub was so busy that it was difficult to find any room to breathe around the bar, and I was getting hot in my three layers of clothing. My appetite for lager was diminishing, while my body seemed to be rejecting the suggestion that I had fully recovered from the flu. It was taking me the better part of two hours to work my way through a pint, even the new pint on tap in Aulay’s – Drygate Bearface Lager – was something that I could hardly contemplate drinking.
Amongst the mourners were around four or five young women who were Irish and the only bright spot in the night, aside from my tie, which nobody could see anyway. They were all wearing identical black dresses, which looked decidedly like they were fashioned from crepe paper, and their hair was as dark as the night sky. Their accents were indecipherable, though one Irish lass had these eyes that betrayed the sorrow she must have been feeling. They stole my attention the way the full moon had the previous evening, and I was soon considering the etiquette of talking to a woman at a funeral party you aren’t even part of.
It seemed a preposterous thing to even consider, and even the more assured guys in my company agreed that it was, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was really any more outrageous than the idea of me talking to a member of the opposite sex at any time. Was there really anything that I could say in this woman’s moment of grief that would make things worse? The plant doctor and I discussed it for a moment and concluded that my attempt at talking to the Irish woman could actually work, and there might come a time, perhaps the following morning, where she would come to regret the terrible mistake she had made, and that was how things could get worse.
In the end, in a scene which was laced with more irony than opening your kitchen drawer and finding ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, the woman who had been the subject of my attention turned out to be the only one in the funeral party who was there with a partner. For once I felt relieved that things turned out almost exactly as they were in my mind.
“She said the theme of this party is the industrial age,
And you came in dressed like a train wreck.”
It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time. The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again. I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.
I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me. It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) – “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.
It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October. On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery. To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath. The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.
Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used. One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking. On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese. I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring. Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in. Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.
Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking. I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.
Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort. The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared. It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.
Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music: something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own. The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats. Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.
The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated. In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up. When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals. I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet. Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day. They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.
Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery. All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes. The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.
Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs. The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals. It was difficult not to be amused by him. At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups. They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there. After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks. I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.
Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles. One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her. She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention. Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured. They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else. I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.
Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts. I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip. With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail. “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”
She repeated the line more than once. “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”
“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?” I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.
“Well, yeah, to begin with. But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”
I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition. After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table. I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails. The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.
On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles. It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night. Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails. I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.
One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company. While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter. All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them. The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes. But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.
In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended. Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth. This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.
The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street. Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue. Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.
On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side. In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.
There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.” I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true. After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?
The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine. My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke. It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey. Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection. Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.
At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary. Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in. I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck. In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly. It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.
Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary. The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044. For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950. Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all. A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.
There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first. I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot. They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it. The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn. It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.
I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond. The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state. I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted. I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself. Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes. In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.
If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better. While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did. The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey. It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below. I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything. As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me. While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp. For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.
Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away. It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking. My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day. I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process. I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side. I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.
When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke. My aches were beginning to mount up. Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked. Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination. The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry. It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down. Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.
Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city. Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see. Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors. There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer. Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps. You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.
The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms. The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets. They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004. I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.
On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of. It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women. I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.
My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor. On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone. She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian. Yo a Stevie. And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English. I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer. She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.
The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home. She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency. I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.” She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password. The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.
Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer. I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there. So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins. Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing. She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat. I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch. I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette.
I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning. The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me. I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.
“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long. I was eating a chippy.”
“I haven’t been here too long. Sorry for disturbing your chippy. What did you get?”
The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls. I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.
I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later. The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool. He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation. I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s. The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.
“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar.
“It was maybe around two years ago. You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”
The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to. I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me. She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim. He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans. I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.
I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell. She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee. Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl. Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert. I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room. Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed. Already I was missing Budapest.
When you are a single occupant you eventually have to get used to the fact that everything has to be done yourself. Meals are only ever cooked for one, there is never any dispute over whose turn it is to polish the decorative mirror on the mantelpiece, recycling is a job that only you can do again and again, while romance is an awkward endeavour which only ever takes care of itself. On Easter Monday I was finally forced to accept that nobody but me was going to clean the conspicuous stain which had been haunting my navy blue tie for months.
I had been planning my outfit for my second reading at Let’s Make A Scene since shortly after my debut spoken word performance and long before I had started to consider what I would actually be talking about. In my mind, I was already wearing my brown tweed suit with a navy blue tie, socks, and pocket square, because I find it easier to match the colour of accessories to a suit than I do to decide which pieces from my notebooks are suitable for reading in front of people.
Washing a tie is not something I had attempted prior to Easter Monday, though the one thing I did know about laundering the garment was that they are not machine washable. I learned this the hard way when my favourite burgundy tie acquired a Merlot stain and I thought I could throw it into the washing machine along with the rest of my regular clothing. An hour or so later I returned to the load to find that the burgundy tie had been decimated, its fluffy innards were torn out like an especially cruel vivisection. It was almost enough to put me off the spin cycle for good.
I wasn’t entirely sure how a person goes about the task of washing a conspicuously stained tie by hand, but I was relieved and surprised to find a bottle of Persil Silk & Wool in the cupboard under the kitchen sink which I had obviously bought at some time in the past for one reason or another and forgotten about, in the same way people buy bay leaves or string. I filled the sink with hot water and a speculative amount of detergent before submerging the navy blue tie in the crackling water. It quickly rose to the surface and took on the appearance of an unusually dapper twig in a children’s paddling pool. I had no idea how long the tie should be in the water, but I figured that because the stain was a few months old it should be longer than I would normally expect, so I kept it in the sink for two hours. When I eventually fished it out, it was the wettest thing I had ever held in my hands, and it took most of the week before it was completely dried.
On the morning of Let’s Make A Scene, I awoke without a hint of the anxiety which had plagued me before my first reading at The Rockfield Centre a couple of months earlier. I was feeling strangely confident, which worried me because it wasn’t at all like me to feel good about anything. All I could think of was the story of Icarus: even if I didn’t have wings to melt, I had a newly cleaned tie that I wasn’t wanting to scorch.
It was around an hour before the open mic event when I was in my bathroom and finally felt the relief of being brought down to earth by an overwhelming urge to vomit. I was free to approach the rest of the night as a new version of my old self, and the best thing about it was that I hadn’t yet put on my tie.
My revitalised nerves led to me being the last person willing to perform their piece on the night; this one being about my trouble with talking to girls. Under the glare of a dozen fairy lights which formed something resembling a fractured spotlight, I began by telling the story of the time the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s suggested that I should seek lessons in how to talk to girls. The purpose of the anecdote was to lead into an elaborate pun about how my search took me to the local branch of the book chain Waterstones, where I struggled to find a self-help book on the subject of talking to girls and was eventually forced into asking a store assistant if she would assist me in locating the self-help section.
A hush fell over the room, not too dissimilar to the sound I had heard any time I had tried to make a witty play on words in an attempt to impress a girl. I didn’t know what to do. I had been thinking of the self-help book line the way other people think of their favourite recipe for a homemade pasta sauce, or of their first child. I loved it. Although the rest of my spoken word performance went on to be fairly acceptable and it seemed to achieve a few laughs, I couldn’t stop thinking about the part where it had flopped.
The following day I was wondering where the high I had felt after my first reading a couple of months earlier had gone, and if every other new thing I tried to do would only be an attempt at chasing that high, like watching the original Ghostbusters movie and then watching the next two. I could hardly conjure the desire to leave my bed, let alone go outside my flat, but I was hungry and had little in the way of proper food in my flat, and nobody was going to go to the supermarket for me. Feeling like a tie just removed from the washing machine, I sloped around the aisles of Lidl and picked up what I considered to be an adult grocery shop. At the self-service checkout, my minimal momentum was halted when the scales in the bagging area couldn’t recognise the weight of a packet of chillis, as the Tears For Fears song Everybody Wants To Rule The World was playing from my playlist. I was standing waiting for an assistant to acknowledge my plight and help me when I realised that maybe it wasn’t all that funny after all.
Good Friday started with the sort of hangover which only ever comes from stopping drinking before midnight, the type that is somehow worse than those experienced after you’ve been up until four o’clock in the morning and you awaken on the sofa wearing yesterday’s suit. If this was how Christ felt after taking a chalice of wine at the Last Supper, I thought, then crucifixion was probably a welcome relief.
In a bid to resurrect my health I took a long walk by the sea after getting a hair cut which only succeeded in helping me look around six weeks younger. It was the warmest day of the year to that point, and everybody and their dog seemed to be out enjoying the sun – even those without dogs. I was walking with a hungover gait which I expected was giving the impression to passers-by that I was suffering from some serious ailment. Near the war memorial, I was quickly overtaken by a couple who were wearing matching green lycra running gear. They were the kind of outfits that I imagined were probably not so much an expression of their love for one another, but more like an obligation which comes from a his and hers Christmas gift given by a friend. They had likely told loved ones that as a new couple who enjoy doing every waking thing together, they would accept presents which they could use together, such as a certificate for a day at a spa, or a pair of concert tickets, never expecting that they would be forced into taking up running as a hobby.
Nearer the centre of town, people were lined along the walls looking across the water towards the ferry terminal pier, where a small fishing boat which had sunk the previous morning was being raised from the bay. The symbolism of this happening over Easter wasn’t lost on anyone – or at least it wasn’t missed by people who think about such things like I spend my time doing. Most others were more interested in details like who the boat belonged to, where it had come from, how it had sunk and whether anybody had been hurt. That was all anyone had talked about in the barbershop, anyway.
The sunset at the end of a day of beautiful spring weather presented an opportunity for a lineup of a different variety on the seafront as swarms of people were jockeying for position for the best photograph. Couples were posing for selfies in front of the setting sun, as though the sinking star was any other prop, like those cardboard figures with their faces cut out you find at an amusement park. Just another object in the shadow of their affection.
It was Friday night, and although I had been happily lounging around in jeans during the day, I changed into a suit – without the jacket – in keeping with the carefully crafted appearance I had been putting together for four years. The diminutive barmaid in Aulay’s looked at me curiously and asked if I had been working. When I told her that I had been off for the day, and pointed out that I was dressed in casual wear, she laughed hysterically.
“But the only difference is that you’re wearing a sweater vest?” She said in the manner of a question, before laughing again.
I had a tinge of trepidation when I arrived in Aulay’s that night following the events of twenty-four hours previous, when I accidentally befriended my brother’s pub enemy. If we are to accept that the concept of having a pub enemy exists, and that such a nemesis is a figure who constantly seems to have a presence when something goes wrong, despite your best efforts to not acknowledge them, then my pub enemy would be the fresh-faced homosexual, the diminutive barmaid’s would be the top shelf where the malt whiskies are kept, and my brother’s pub enemy would be the Brexit Guy.
During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, my brother and I found ourselves in conversation at the bar with a pleasant and soft-spoken man who had blonde hair to match the tanned complexion of his skin. My attention drifted when the subject turned to politics, though I was soon aware of my brother’s tone becoming animated in the way it does when he disagrees with something. The soft-spoken man didn’t stick around for long after that, and it transpired that despite living in Colombia for half of the year, he was in favour of Brexit because it would curb the number of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work. Every time we saw him in Aulay’s after that night he was referred to as the Brexit Guy, and we never talked to him.
I couldn’t be sure how I ended up speaking to him the night before Good Friday, but I presumed that it was a drunken accident, the way someone picks up the wrong jacket or drinks a rum and coke instead of a Jack Daniels. Once again I found him to be pleasant and softly-spoken, though in the back of my mind there was a pang of gnawing (Catholic) guilt that if my brother could see the scene he would be disappointed by my interaction with his pub enemy. When it reached the point where the Brexit Guy was offering to buy a Jameson for me, I had to come clean and remind him of the incident a year earlier before I could accept the whiskey and at the same time force the diminutive barmaid to confront her own pub enemy.
The Brexit Guy remembered the confrontation well and implied that he feels awkward every time he sees my brother and me at the bar. This made me feel strangely powerful, that for the first time in my life I was intimidating another person, even if it had all been the work of my brother. I imagined that the Brexit Guy viewed us as figures similar to the Kray twins, unlike most other people in Aulay’s who see us as something closer to the Chuckle Brothers.
I was able to accept a drink from the Brexit Guy when he confessed that he was very drunk on the night in question and was probably taking a contrary opinion to my brother’s because he enjoys winding other people up when he has had too much to drink. I wasn’t sure how much I believed his story, but he seemed genuine and I, myself, have often considered the sporting merits of taking an opposing view to my brother, though have never had the guts to see it through. On Good Friday the Brexit Guy again approached me at the bar, and we were chatting when he told me that he felt the need to apologise to my brother. He called across to him and extended a hand, in place of an olive branch, which my brother shook. Brexit Guy apologised for “being a dick” in that initial meeting, and my brother conceded that he had probably been a dick too. It was an Easter miracle that I had brought these two pub enemies together. Not quite the resurrection of Christ, but closer to the raising of a sunken fishing boat.
By the time Easter Sunday came around, many of the faces around town had been reddened by the weather, and some in Markie Dans had been reddened by a day spent drinking. The bar was busy and had developed its own micro-climate. There were people crammed into every corner of the room, like the way that when you open just about any kitchen cupboard in the country there is a stash of novelty Cadbury’s mugs which have been gathered over the years, decorated in the style of chocolate bar wrappers such as Double Decker, Wispa or Caramel. The mugs are only ever used in emergency situations, the occasions where the number of guests overwhelms the stock of proper cups. I had recently looked in my dad’s cupboard and seen no fewer than seven mugs, which allowing for breakages probably amounted to around three Easter’s in our home.
Under the bar lights, a group of young ladies were organising themselves into formation for a pub selfie. Following much direction the girls were ready for their moment, and after a pause one of them broke from the pack and approached me. She had long brunette hair which was tied up into a tail, while on her back she was carrying a grey bag which was the size of a tortoise shell. I wondered if she had noticed my youthful haircut, or whether she was going to comment on my black checked shirt, but instead, with a European accent, she asked me if I could take a photograph of the group.
When I returned the phone to the brunette with the bag I was waiting for the critique of my lack of focus and disappointing flash when I asked the girl where she was from. “I’m over here from Germany,” she said. “Bavaria. Most people sound exhausted when I tell them I’m German.” I couldn’t really understand why this would be people’s response. Underwhelmed I could see; disappointed even. But exhaustion implied that the energy had been sucked from the very beings of those who had asked the same question I had, and that just seemed a bit of an over-reaction. I assured her that I wasn’t exhausted to learn that she is German and, on the contrary, quite liked her accent.
“You think my accent sounds German?” Asked the Bavarian brunette with the bag, her tone laced with something between disappointment and exhaustion. She went on to explain that she is studying American English and had been listening to her American friends in class in the hope of using their dialect to disguise her German accent. I told her that I couldn’t hear any American in her voice, and finding the expressions of the girl to be increasingly like the James Joyce novel Ulysses – too difficult to read – I eventually gave up trying.
There was a full moon sitting resplendent in the sky over the bay as I was walking home in the early hours of the morning, the largest substitute for company I could see anywhere. I was thinking about the miraculous events of Easter weekend as I rounded the North Pier, the historic happenings in Jerusalem and the handshake between pub enemies in Aulay’s, and I accepted that it was always going to be too much to make a German girl smile. I realised that it was probably for the best when I began to consider the his and hers gifts we might have one day received, and that I could have ended up wearing a bag as large as a tortoise shell.