The night I read from my notebook for the second time

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.

By Thursday evening the sea was a mirror, and the sky had become the face of an angry child.

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.

My sountrack to the month of April: How A Resurrection Really Feels (an Easter playlist)

The night I read from my notebook

After a Valentine’s Day where the only mail I received was a Bank of Scotland envelope addressed to somebody else, I began to make a more concentrated effort to add a little more excitement to my life.  Although it isn’t a place I would ordinarily turn to for laughs, I was drawn to the obituaries section of The Times newspaper.  If I can’t lead a glamourous and thrilling life, I thought, the least I could do would be to read about people who had.

Being a man who has a penchant for matching the colour of his socks to his tie, it was the life story of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld which took my interest.  The German, who revitalised Chanel in the 1980s, was renowned for his eccentric dress sense, and it resonated with me that the same way people observed Lagerfeld’s trademark uniform of dark sunglasses, crisply starched white shirts with large stiff collars, black trousers, belt buckles encrusted with diamonds, fingerless biker gloves, and chunky rings on every finger, around bars in Oban they will ask “why’s that man wearing a pink handkerchief in his pocket?”

When Karl Lagerfeld died on 19 February 2019, he was unmarried and without children.  He was said to have once lamented the fact that laws prevented him from marrying his beloved Birman cat, and legend has it that much of the designer’s £150million estate will be inherited by his feline friend.  This was on my mind for many of the proceeding days as I was studying the fruits of my life and the wealth I would leave behind to bequeath upon another being.  I was considering, firstly, who would receive my personal belongings.  Much like Karl Lagerfeld was, I am a single occupant, and although I don’t have a cat I do house a family of houseplants, though I suspect with my track record in the field of keeping plants that it is unlikely that they will live longer than I do, even if they are cactus plants.

Even if I could determine someone who would inherit the possessions I would leave behind, it would hardly constitute the “fortune” that Lagerfeld was alleged to have written into his will for the cat.  I began to take a mental inventory of my worldly goods, though it didn’t take me very long to determine that all I would have to entrust following my demise would be eight bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, a multitude of notebooks, silk ties in nearly every colour, and a library card.  It was difficult to say whether the whiskey would be my legacy or the end of me.

With the monthly Let’s Make A Scene event at The Rockfield Centre approaching at the end of the week, I went from reading the obituaries to reading through my notebooks for material I might want to narrate to an audience.  Although I couldn’t imagine a circumstance where anyone would wish to listen to my socially awkward and anxiety-riddled ramblings, it seemed that the performance could be the exciting new thing I was looking for.  I began piecing my notes together into a newly written piece, like the saddest jigsaw puzzle anyone has ever undertaken.

As the week progressed I was sitting in my living room reading my words aloud, in a sort of practice for the night itself, given that I am not a naturally gifted public speaker, despite the appearance my attire suggests.  My audience was four cactus plants, and I was struggling to know what kind of tone I should be taking.  I worried that the cacti were finding the material dry, and their reactions remained muted.  Not quite hostile, but prickly all the same.  I remained unperturbed, however, assuming that the response of those in attendance for my first reading would closely resemble that of a few nearly dead houseplants.

My nerves were growing like Japanese Knotweed as Saturday neared.  The day before the event, I was feeling so unwell that I could only drink four bottles of beer in the evening, and I couldn’t even make it to Aulay’s.  My Google search history became a portrait of desperation

How do people speak in public?

Coping with nerves of public speaking

Which types of food help with nerves?

How do you maintain eye contact when there are girls in the room?

The internet proved to be a useful tool with many helpful resources, and I read several articles which, even if they may not have cured my particular worry, did at least make me feel better that there are other people who have difficulty with talking to strangers.  One of the more common and popular techniques suggested is for the speaker to imagine that their audience is naked, and while it seemed like a bold move for a man who struggles to talk to a woman in the scenario where the ultimate goal is usually to undress her, to the extent that he disintegrates into a puddle of saliva and Jameson, I thought that I would adopt the strategy at The Rockfield Centre.

Prior to the open mic event, I met in Aulay’s with a group of friends who were also attending.  It was the first time that the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had assembled in its entirety since some of its members had become considerably less lonely, and the gathering resembled The Beatles post-1970, although the only rancour between us would likely be the argument over which of us is George Harrison.  I managed to drink a pint of Tennents Lager before I was beginning to feel the sickest feeling I have ever felt.  A crippling unease was gripping me the way I had earlier seen my two-year-old niece take hold of a small cuddly toy in Tesco, and like the teddy in her gasp, it was proving impossible to shake.  I couldn’t look at anyone around my table or participate in the conversation, and the loud deranged, drunken ramblings of a man at the bar only unsettled me further.

I have vomited in the bathroom of just about every bar in Oban, with the exception of Aulay’s.  Nobody has ever presented me with a certificate to mark this achievement, but it is one which I valued all the same.  I have often heard it said that a person should not shit on their own doorstep, and it usually confused me that anyone would ever need to be told that defecating in their doorway anyway is a bad idea, but it logically follows that one should not be sick in their favourite bar.  It was that conclusion which was driving me to ignore the nausea that was beginning to crawl up my esophagus like a spider inching its way up a drainpipe with nasty intentions.  If I didn’t think about it maybe it would disappear, though that flawed way of thinking is why I still have a navy blue tie with a conspicuous stain which has been making it unwearable for months.

Not before long, I was striding through the bar towards the bathroom with the false face of a man who was determined to pee, not wanting it to be known that I was about to become the shameful sort who vomits before eight o’clock on a Saturday night.  A welcome relief washed over me when I nudged open the door and saw that the cubicle was vacant and wasn’t being used as a second urinal, as it often is.  I locked myself away, hostage to my own stomach, and hoped for the best.

I was standing starting at the still toilet water and nothing was happening.  This isn’t how being sick in the bathroom of a bar usually works.  It is meant to be involuntary and uncontrollable; the result of an ill-advised shot.  Instead, I was looking into the bowl with a feeling of desolation.  I decided that I would try urinating instead, if for no other reason than to give me a purpose for being there.  Maybe this is what happens when you become 35.  Maybe the body develops new ways of telling you that you need to pee.  Once I had flushed and I wasn’t feeling any better I was becoming angry with myself.  If you can’t even throw up, how are you going to speak in front of an audience of people? I questioned myself.

Eventually it happened.  I don’t know what brought it on, but I was crouching by the toilet pan, almost embracing it like a nervous lover, and it was the cleanest spew I had ever released.  A crack team of DNA specialists would have struggled to prove that I was ever in the bathroom, though I wasn’t necessarily feeling any less nervous for it.

Let’s Make A Scene was once again an unpredictable night with many varied and interesting performances, showcasing a great depth of local talent.  There was poetry on the theme of weather and the sea, a touching retelling of a first visit to the memorial in Amsterdam which pays tribute to the victims of the Holocaust who were gay.  One act initiated a wild debate over the merits of spending £6000 on dental implants, whilst we were treated to a smartly funny standup routine which focussed on veganism and utilised a PowerPoint presentation.  A smartly dressed man played piano and Bond themes and made some quips.

When it came time for me to get up to the front of the room – the last act of the night, like the headline slot at a festival, only without the material or the stage presence of a headline act – I had been drinking several cans of Innis & Gunn and any lingering nerves had almost been drowned by drunkenness.  I walked up with my satchel and took a seat in front of around twenty or thirty people, and I could suddenly feel around a dozen moths in my stomach, fluttering furiously against a dusty lampshade.

I removed my suit jacket and swung it over the back of the folding chair, in an act which wasn’t nearly as debonnaire as I was imagining it would be.  I unzipped my satchel and reached for a blue notebook and a 35cl bottle of Jameson which was being opened for the first time, the sound of the seal breaking and the whiskey lashing against the inside of the small wine glass provided the most dramatic moment of the night.  My right leg crossed over my left, acting as a book stand for the notebook, and I looked up at the audience with the intention of picturing them naked.  Then I glanced around the room and saw my brother.  I decided to change tact and instead look at the others in the room as though they were dressed in exactly the fine wear they had arrived in, and instead I was going to imagine that I was nude.  At least then, I thought, the experience would be as awkward for the audience as it was for me.

The reading went on for approximately thirteen minutes.  Nobody cried, least of all myself, and some people even laughed when I was hoping they would.  By the end, I was feeling a euphoric sense of relief and something which I suspect was even almost approaching enjoyment.  It was one of the most triumphant things I have ever done.

In the bar afterwards, still basking in my glory, I saw the Subway Girl, and experiencing a confidence which comes to me as easily as regurgitation in Aulay’s, I went up and talked to her without nervously waiting for her to notice me.  Along with her brightly-outfitted friend, we drank Jack Daniels in my flat until close to five o’clock in the morning, and although I had long since accepted that the sandwich artist was never going to be Lagerfeld’s cat, the night I read from my notebook may have been when I realised that there are plenty of good people in my life who will ensure that my eight bottles of whiskey are shared long before they are written into a will.

Firing an arrow straight into Cupid’s stupid little eye: My Spotify playlist for the month of February