“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?

A sort of mid tan

After nigh upon a year of regular wear with suits which were tweed, navy blue, and grey, my favourite pair of brown shoes were beginning to resemble my own appearance at the end of a night in Aulay’s:  scuffed, worn out and who could only tell what was happening with the tongue?  I persisted with wearing them untreated, firstly out of my failure to remember to purchase shoe polish on any of my shopping trips, and latterly due to my inability to find the product on the occasion I had finally gotten my act together and responded to my need to get myself some polish.  It was when I was soon to be attending a wedding dance that my requirement to source shoe polish to make my foot clothing seem as respectable as the clothes on my body became urgent.

On the day in question I ventured into Timpsons, feeling safe in the knowledge that if there was one place in town I would be able to find the shoe polish I needed it would be in a shoe repair shop.  There was a small elderly woman who was finishing up at the till when I walked into the store, which was no bigger than a kebab shop and equally as fragrant.  Even I could not miss the polish in its prominent display facing the entrance.  I was perusing the three or four shelves of the stuff when the gentleman behind the counter asked if I was needing any assistance. I looked up from the little silver tins stacked on the shelf before me and told him that I was just looking for some shoe polish.  He smiled, having studied me for a moment, and responded.

“I can see that.”

I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the state of my shoes, the way I would worry about my lapsed Catholicism if I met the priest who had given me my First Holy Communion, or about everything if I was talking to a woman.  I could at least usually hide those things, either by telling the priest that I sometimes still eat fish on a Friday or by avoiding talking to women altogether, but the shoes were a different proposition.  I couldn’t hide those.  They were a size twelve, which meant that they stood out like a lighthouse at sea:  they were the first thing anyone would lock their eyes on.

The worst thing about the shoe repair store incident was that the pair of brown shoes I was wearing, which I learned from the tin of polish that the assistant picked out for me were what was known as a mid tan colour, were not even the shoes I was buying the polish for in order to wear at the wedding dance later that night.  Those shoes were still standing on the rack at the foot of my walk-in wardrobe in my bedroom, scuffed and stained with Jameson.  Nevertheless, when I approached the counter with a small tin of mid tan polish and a brush, I was still charged £6.96.

In my adult years, I had come to learn that people enjoy a wedding dance.  It is an opportunity for those attending to dress up fancy and get drunk where ordinarily they wouldn’t.  In my case, I added a waistcoat to my usual Friday night outfit and I was still planning on getting drunk.  Some people get caught up in the excitement of a wedding dance, viewing it with the romantic visions of what their own future might look like.  I see it as being no different from participating in a charity bungee jump or standing in the audience at a Bruce Springsteen stadium concert.  It looks impressive, but I know that it’ll never be me up there.

When I was growing up, eating fish on a Friday and taking Holy Communion on a Sunday, marriage seemed like the ultimate sacrament, the one that you really would know you had made it if you achieved it.  I think, by the time I left St. Columba’s primary school, I had married at least six girls in my imagination.  They never knew about it, and that seemed to make things easier for me when things inevitably fell apart.  

My thoughts on marriage had changed as I grew older and it was becoming obvious that it just wasn’t something that was ever likely to happen, the way I had taken a few driving lessons in my early twenties with the thought of being able to drive anywhere I liked, whenever I liked in a beautiful car, but I was so terrified behind the wheel of the instructor’s vehicle that I decided that taking the bus wasn’t really all that bad.  I no longer have ambitions of driving a car or attending my own wedding dance, and these days I am happy if the bus is on time or if a friend decides to send me a message.

The wedding dance came at the end of another week when the raven-haired quiztress and I had united with the Bawbags to win The Lorne’s pub quiz for the second consecutive time.  We were joined by her flatmate, who put me in mind of the song Cigarettes & Violets.  It was after I had been to the bar following the general knowledge round when I felt it would be the sociable thing to do to introduce myself to her, seeing as I had been sitting next to her for twenty minutes and we had competed in two rounds of a pub quiz.  As I extended the hand which wasn’t busily clutching a pint of Tennent’s Lager, my friend intervened and informed me that she had introduced me to her flatmate several months earlier in Markie Dans.  I couldn’t recall the meeting at all and spent much of the next round of questions interrogating my memory as to what ridiculous thing I could have said on that occasion.  

Despite a torrid art and literature round, the makeshift Bawbags went on to claim the prize of a £25 bar voucher.  The quiz had begun with a wide-open field of eleven teams, which threatened to make it a close and competitive fight to the end, but six of them left at various points after the second round.  It was clear that they had all turned up with ambitions of winning the quiz, confident in their ability to identify the author of Gone With The Wind and to answer an entire racket of questions on Wimbledon, and after two rounds they were losing hope as a result of the strong start made by others.  They had eventually come to see the pub quiz the same way I did a wedding dance.  

The triumph of the pub quiz was in contrast to the experience of Saturday night.  It was the day after the wedding dance, and I was feeling like a mid tan shoe.  There was hardly a cloud to be seen in the sky, and the sun had sucked up what little energy I hadn’t tread into the dancefloor the previous night.  Barely a few minutes beyond ten o’clock I decided that I would have to leave Aulay’s, and I came to realise that it had been a while since I had seen what my flat looked like before midnight on a Saturday.  I heaped some incense onto the top of a candle holder and set alight a tealight candle inside.  It was the same blend that I had once burned in the company of a woman, who told me that the scent reminded her of being in church, and more specifically that it made her think of a funeral.  The fragrance was pulling at my nostril hairs as I fell asleep on the couch, and when I awoke some hours later it was obvious that if these were my glory days, they had passed me by.  

The day religion found me

The motivation to get out of bed and perform thirty minutes of yoga in the morning was proving to be scarce as January was fading into a frosty February.  Each day the first of my nine alarms would fill the bedroom with its shrill sound from the bedside table, and my first thought as my eyes flickered into life was to question what kind of an idiot would set an alarm for six o’clock in the morning.

Every morning the same tired routine was played out amongst the theatre of my crumpled bed sheets.  The 6am alarm was silenced and I turned onto the other pillow to face away from the offending technology, hoping that if I wasn’t looking at it, it wouldn’t screech again.  Inevitably it would, though, and I was forced to silence another alarm. I sank into my mattress and realised that if I was going to follow through with my goal to read a few pages of a book and do half an hour of yoga before work every morning I would have to get out of bed and make a cup of Earl Grey tea, but I could tell from the brief foray my hands had made to the bedside table that the room was much colder than the world beneath my sheets was. 

The alarms continued to furiously sound, each one more jarring than the last.  It was becoming a game of cat and mouse, where I was reluctant to be beholden to the alarms I had set for myself, despite knowing that a session of yoga would be better for my body and mind than lying lazily in bed.  As the week progressed, it was increasingly obvious that like the way you can lead a horse to water without being able to convince it to admit that it has a drinking problem, it is also true that you can set a series of nine alarms between 6am and 8am, but you can’t force yourself to get out of bed and face the world again.

As the mercury mirrored my motivation and continued to drop, my experimentation with soup recipes was reaching new levels of desperation when it came to utilising any loose ingredients in the kitchen without having to go out shopping for more.  I chopped up some onions, leek and garlic – the process of which caused me to scratch the point of my thumb with a knife – and seasoned it all in a pot with some thyme.  The resulting soup made for a pleasing and warming lunch on the following three days, though when I went to bed later in the night and could sniff the aroma of my soup, it brought a level of confusion I ordinarily feel when something I have said makes a girl smile.  Despite it being occupied by a thirty-five-year-old male, my bedroom is generally an odourless environment, so to find the air fragrant with soup was an unusual event.

I was going about the business of undressing myself for bed when my mind was busy with thoughts concerning the scent of soup in my chambers.  I couldn’t fathom how the smell could linger through from the kitchen into the bedroom; the only reasonable explanation I was capable of conjuring was that the ghost which I had briefly believed to be haunting my bedroom in the months after I moved into my flat had returned.

In a meticulous, distracted manner the buttons on my grey shirt were unfastened while I considered the re-emergence of my spirit company.  She had never before carried with her an essence of freshly boiled soup, and it seemed a remarkable coincidence that she would do so on a night where I had made a new batch.  I straightened the rainbow of dress shirts which were hanging in the wardrobe before getting into bed with a book.  The words were failing to register with me as the soup-smelling ghost dominated my thoughts.  It occurred to me that the timeline of my block of flats could point to the apparition being from a war-time era.  She possibly used her ration book to make soup for starving servicemen, in the way I used the restricted goods in my fridge to feed a hungry single man.  All she did with her life was to make soup for other people, and the stench would cling to her and define her character the way Joop and old books did mine.

My inability to read was similar to my lack of motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and I turned the bedside lamp off.  I was lying in my bed staring at the darkness where the ceiling would usually be when I remembered how I had stripped the clothes airer in the kitchen of dry and creased shirts earlier in the evening after I had boiled a pot of leek and onion soup.

A frozen scene outside Oban

During the week, I promised a friend that, along with another acquaintance, we would help her to move a bed between two rooms in the apartment she was about to move out of.  The view from the window of the living room was amongst the most sublime I have seen in Oban.  The sky was settling into a peaceful dusky blue as the last ferry of the day to Lismore was floating across the water against the backdrop of frost-tipped hills.  It was the type of scene an American or an Australian might find on their doorstep on the reverse of a written missive from a travelling relative.  High and to the right, McCaig’s Tower could be seen standing over the town, illuminated in fluorescent light.  It was a landscape which could not be compared to that on offer from my own living room, of the Oban Grill House and a weather-battered red postbox.  

Across the street, the entire top floor of an office block was being renovated, with two or three workmen busily crafting a bland and soulless environment.  The walls had been painted an unblemished white and dust sheets were covering a variety of furnishings.  It was either going to become a dental surgery, or we were unwittingly witnessing the scene of some criminal cover-up, like the meth houses in the television series Breaking Bad.

In the bedroom, we began to move the base sections of the bed.  Between two of us, they were light and easily managed, even after I had once again missed my session of yoga in the morning.  The mattress was propped against the wall, and through a glimpse from the corner of my eye, it appeared to have a small, although not completely insignificant, bloodstain.  I was focussing my attention on lifting the base of the bed in a way which wouldn’t scrape the paintwork of the rented apartment, trying not to acknowledge the splatter of blood on the mattress.  It was none of my business and surely easily explained, like the time I leaked blood all over my kitchen and bathroom when I cut my finger on a tin of tuna.

My effort to ignore the blood on the mattress was compromised when my friend asked me not to worry about the stain as we came to lift the mattress into the other room.  Suddenly it was all I could think about.  The booming base of a funk song was playing from the small speaker in the kitchen, and I began to wonder if this was how the scene across the street had started.

The longer the week wore on, the more strained my interaction with other people was becoming.  When drying myself after a morning shower, I discovered the first two strands of silver to appear amongst the wispy black hairs on my chest.  It was an unremarkable find, considering that I am not a television star from the 1970s who relies on such things for success, but it left me feeling aged and cantankerous nonetheless.  Even though I had been gifted an excuse for the lack of morning motivation I had been experiencing – the grey hairs on my chest invariably meaning that I am getting old and, as a consequence, finding it more difficult to get out of bed – I was unhappy when I left the flat on Saturday morning.

Outside my door, I could hear the chatter of two elderly women, their voices elegant and superior, like those I remember hearing on the steps outside the Cathedral after Sunday Mass.  The sound carried so loudly that it seemed to me that they were standing in the close of my block, but as I stepped outside I came to realise that the women were on the street, and I was ambushed by a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the entrance to my building, like a bird who unwittingly lands on the snout of a crocodile.  They immediately began to interrogate me on which number I live in, their idle stance suffocating me and rendering it impossible for me to move aside so that they could see the metallic 42 on the front of the door.

Their virtuous voices continued to question me on my living arrangement, demanding to know if my home was on the left or the right of the floor and whether I was living on the middle floor.  I told the two women that I do not live in the middle, but that I was feeling like a Stealers Wheel song.  They remained unperturbed and asked me again which number I reside in.  I had been waiting for more than a year for a woman to show an interest in the flat I am living in, but I had never imagined that I would have to lie to get out of the situation when it finally arose.  I excused myself and told the two Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was running late for a coffee date with a friend.  Any true God would have known that I don’t meet friends for coffee, but rather tend to catch up over a beer, and that I was only leaving my flat to buy sausages.  Nevertheless, the women parted like a sea and allowed me to pass, my deceit of another deity complete.

When I returned home on Saturday evening after spending the afternoon at my dad’s I was still feeling aggrieved by the grey hairs and Jehovah’s, when my favourite sandwich artist offered to drop off a six-inch Sub on her way home from work.  When I opened the door to her, I was greeted by the brightest smile I had ever seen in my doorway, and I was pleased when she handed me a baguette rather than a bible.  Five minutes of banter about mayonnaise were enough to make the ordeal of the week seem worthwhile.  I returned inside to my own company and to reheat the sandwich and watch a film about singing gunslingers on Netflix.  The scent of microwaved meat permeated through the flat, and at least this time I knew that it wasn’t the ghost of a war-time cook which was haunting me.