Scene from a sci-fi movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Music makes the people come together

There aren’t many things like a song for marking out the moments in your life.  Sometimes a scent can awaken certain memories, but music has an inexorable ability to act as a highlighter pen and bring colour to people, places and the emotions you were feeling when a particular song was playing during an experience.  I can vividly remember the churning of car sickness in my stomach as a child sitting in the back seat during those long journeys to Inverness with Sit Down by James playing every hour or so on dad’s mixtape.  I still feel the same anticipation each time the opening piano refrain of November Rain begins as I did the time I waited up most of the night because a Northern Irish girl I briefly knew had requested it on Kerrang music television in the days before YouTube was popular.  The weekend during which I first heard the David Gray song Shine and Dollskin by Toadies lingers in my mind, as does the sense of thrill and adventure I was experiencing at the time.  The intoxication of the night the plant doctor and my brother introduced me to Wah-Wah is relived frequently.

Of late I have been creating monthly Spotify playlists in the way other people collect commemorative plates.  As small wooden figurines decorate a mantelpiece, serving as a reminder of a thoughtful anniversary gift or an enticing offer in a brochure from a newspaper, so too do playlists in my Spotify library.

I mention the memories made by music because I was recently listening to the Prince album Dirty Mind whilst cooking a pasta sauce.  Although my regular homemade sauce isn’t terrible and does a job when it comes to using the tremendous amount of onions I always end up with in the store cupboard, I had been looking for something to make it a little more interesting.  I found a recipe on the BBC Food page which looked straightforward enough for me to follow, and where the only addition to my usual ingredients was a tablespoon of tomato purée and the use of oregano instead of my usual method of indiscriminately dusting mixed herbs over the bubbling red liquid until I think it might change the flavour.

The olive oil was heating in the pan and the ingredients for my sauce were lined along the kitchen counter like schoolchildren in a class photograph.  The chopped onions were the first to be introduced, and as they were beginning to soften, the song When You Were Mine started to play from the Discover Weekly playlist which Spotify creates for each of its users every Monday.  I was enjoying the rhythm, it was a funky beat for agitating onions in oil, and I decided that I liked it so much that I would listen to the entire album as I was preparing dinner.  I had never heard a full Prince album from beginning to end before, and this particular record was released in 1980, a time before I had even been conceived, let alone born.  1980 is a year that I know happened, because I have read about it, but the idea of it had never registered with me and seemed almost alien, like the suggestion of putting tomato purée into a recipe which already has chopped tomatoes.

When I added the garlic to the pan it sizzled like some of the lyrics which Rolling Stone magazine had described as “complex erotic wordplay”, and my mind was drifting to the way some of my neighbours might react if they knew that I was making a pasta sauce while listening to a song titled Do It All Night.  If I can be standing in my hallway and hear someone sneeze as they travel through the close, then it is surely likely, I was thinking, that someone could have been innocently going about their recycling duties as my shoulders were swooping and my sauce was stirring to this salacious eighties funk record.

By the time everything had been cooked and I was ready to sit down to enjoy my meal the Prince album was nearing its end.  The additions of tomato purée and oregano didn’t do much to enhance the flavour of the sauce for me, and Dirty Mind proved to be the more significant discovery of the evening, though I would always remember the underwhelming culinary experience whenever I thought of it.

A curious arts installation along a pavement in Lower Soroba didn’t hold much appeal

Some days later the west coast of Scotland band ‘Creel’ were playing in the upstairs lounge of The Oban Inn.  My brother and I went along after a few hours in Aulay’s, and as we were being served drinks in the bar downstairs we got to talking to a guy who was somewhere around our age and who recognised the two of us as being related.  Upon confirming his belief that my brother and I are in fact brothers, the guy informed us that he had once taken part in a threesome in the house we had grown up in.  When I thought about it later, it was obvious that he was expecting that the story would impress us, the way someone might mention the horsepower of their car engine or how many pints of lager they had drunk the night before.  But in the moment it only had the consequence of having me thinking about maths, and how I am never going to be comfortable in any situation which requires me to perform an equation.

If our familiar friend is ‘V’, and the other participants in this problem are ‘W’ and ‘X’, then V + W + X = Y.  As in:  Why was this guy able to have sex with a number of people in the house I grew up in one night which was equal to the number I achieved over the course of a decade?

Against the sound of traditional Scottish music with a modern twist which was whistling downstairs, the claim of an orgy took on added weight.  I remembered the way our parents would react whenever an ornament was broken in an accidental act of mischief, or the terrible guilt I felt when mum found out that I was going through a several-years-long phase of smoking cigarettes, and somehow it just didn’t seem fair that this guy had gotten away with enjoying a threesome in our home.  Shouldn’t he be made to sit in his room for a couple of hours and think about his actions?  Won’t someone lay the evidence of his betrayal out across his desk so that he knows that we know?

I woke up in my bed alone on Saturday morning with Dirty Mind still in my thoughts as I was lying amongst my untangled cotton sheets.  There was a brilliant spring sun in the sky, the first day it hadn’t been raining or threatening to rain in recent memory, so I decided that I would take a walk along the Esplanade to freshen my mind.  There was a cold breeze coming off the sea, but the sky was clear.  On the shoreline, a woman was removing her black leather glove as she crouched down to pick up a shell.  A couple were leaning against the railing taking photographs of the streams of sunlight as they were bouncing off the white wake of an approaching CalMac ferry.  Across the road from the Cathedral, I was accosted by a woman who I didn’t know.

The Blur song Out of Time was humming through my earphones as the woman was approaching alongside a man, who I presumed to be her husband.  Her hair was the colour of wet sand, and although it was windswept, it didn’t look out of place for her character.  She was wearing a red jacket which was puffy around the shoulders, and beneath it I could make out a long floral patterned dress.  Her boots, which came up to her shins, were the colour of a camels foot, and about right for a woman her size.  In all, she wouldn’t have looked out of place as a mannequin in the window of a charity shop.

As she neared I could tell from the movement of her mouth that she was attempting to talk to me.  If it was anywhere else in town I might have felt bold enough to continue walking, feigning ignorance of her presence, but despite everything I wasn’t capable of doing that in the shadow of St Columba’s Cathedral.  I plucked the earphones from my ears to hear the woman’s softly spoken voice ask, “Are you out enjoying some music?”

The bass from the track was reverberating in the palm of my hand as I clutched the earphones, looking down at them forlornly.  I was enjoying the music, I was thinking to myself.  “It’s a beautiful morning for a walk,” I responded as I noticed that the man had continued walking a few paces further on, the way a person does when the other half of a couple is raising a complaint in a shop and they want nothing to do with it.

“Would you be interested in a free magazine?”  The soft voice thrust a small bundle of paper in my direction, each piece no bigger than a Farmfoods leaflet.  When I think of a magazine I imagine a publication of at least sixty pages, like the glossy spread which comes with The Times on a Saturday.  These looked as though they would hardly be worth the wind’s effort to carry off in a light breeze.

I squinted in the midday sun to get a look at the title which was printed on the front of the sheet of paper.  “The 12 secrets to a successful family” it read, alongside an image of a family of three who appeared to be happy that their success had allowed them each to dress in the same white clothing.

“No thanks,” I sighed.  “I wouldn’t have any use for that.”  Maybe if it could tell me the 12 secrets to finding a girl who would smile at my jokes, I was thinking.  Or the 12 secrets to meeting a woman who enjoys a man who wears pink socks which match his tie.  But I didn’t feel like getting into that with the woman.  She nodded knowingly and wished me a good day, while I returned to my walk and Blur.

My mood had changed, though, and all of a sudden I was thinking about Dirty Mind again.  I was thinking about my recent efforts to make things more exciting, and how other people seem capable of doing it with ease and having a threesome in another person’s house, when rather than spicing up my life all I am doing is adding oregano to a pasta sauce.

March comes in like a lion: my soundtrack to the month of March (a Spotify 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

The night I was given the wah-wah

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through my flat there was a great deal of stirring and noise, and I was finding it difficult to sleep.  There was a commotion in the walls and pipes of the old block of flats, the same way there is at around the same time every night, whilst traffic was clattering past my window with abandon, like a drunk driven sleigh landing on a tiled roof.  In the corner of my bedroom, by the door, was a gathering of shadowy figures cast in darkness. I couldn’t stop myself from looking at them, convinced that they could belong to the ghost which for a brief week or two earlier in the year I suspected was haunting me.  I tried to ignore them, tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I was restless and I kept returning to stare at them through eyes which were heavy from four bottles of mulled wine and two bottles of Jammy Red Roo, which had been shared earlier in the evening with family to celebrate the arrival of Santa.  I knew that the shadows were either from a benevolent spirit or from the three coats which were hanging on the back of the bedroom door.

My troubles with sleeping could be traced back to the night after my office Christmas party when, even following fifteen hours of continuous drinking the previous day, I found myself sitting with my brother and the plant doctor, drinking beers and eating dry roasted peanuts until 7.30 on Sunday morning.  We listened to the George Harrison track Wah-Wah at least a dozen times, and despite promising to myself several years ago that I would never again make another New Year’s resolution, I vowed that in 2019 I would convince as many people as I could to listen to the song.

During an interlude in my sleeplessness, I had a dream which took place back in the days when I was working in a supermarket.  I spent more than eight years in a variety of roles in the local Co-operative before it closed at the end of 2014, and they occasionally occur to me when I am in an unconscious state.  In my dream, I was approached by a female customer to whom I was immediately attracted, and when she asked me about a product which had escaped my mind by the time I had woken, I began to attempt a series of jokes based on canned foods.  Each pun exasperated her more than the last, and she went to great lengths during the rest of her time in the store to avoid making contact with me, including spending an inordinate amount of time in the customer toilets.  By morning, I was unsure whether I had experienced a dream, a memory or an epiphany.

On Christmas Morning I started, and finished, wrapping my presents whilst watching an episode of the Netflix murder docuseries The Innocent Man.  It didn’t seem like the most festive beginning to proceedings, but it did prepare me for the emotional waterfall of a day spent drinking gin.  My sister and her partner hosted the family dinner for the third year running, which was wise when she has all of the poise and grace under pressure required for cooking a meal for more than one person.  I often struggle with the timings of preparing a straightforward pasta dish, and burned sweet potato wedges have become my specialty, yet she prepared roast beef, goose and all of the traditional trimmings with aplomb and a plumb and cinnamon gin.

In contrast to hearing the details of a gruesome murder in a town in Oklahoma in the 1980s and a discussion of the DNA analysis of pubic hair, the scene inside my sister’s flat was filled with festive cheer.  Her two-year-old daughter was hyper with the excitement of the day and the spoils of Santa.  It was heartening to witness such joy and madness, unblemished by politics or religion.  A little thing with nothing but happiness for the world around her.  Strewn amongst the rubble of wrapping paper and musical toys and plush animals was a microphone which Santa had picked up for fifty pence from a branch of Poundstretchers in Fort William.  For the entire day, this small pink amplifier was the most wondrous thing that had ever existed.

After a hearty feast of food, it followed that the board games would be dusted down and brought out of hibernation.  My sister unveiled the WH Smith version of the stacking game Jenga, which was named Tumble and was exactly like the classic version, but with a different name.  We each took turns removing a block of wood from the structure and placing it on top of the increasingly unstable pile, and after a few collapses we were getting the hang of the game.  Even my niece, no more than three months away from her third birthday, displayed brazen and unnerving confidence when it came to pulling a plank from its place.  As what turned out to be our final game was becoming more competitive and fraught with tension, I think that my sister could tell that I was becoming slightly intimidated by my niece’s unflinching ability.

“Maybe you should try thinking of it as being like when you are out on a Friday night.  Try and find the loosest one in the group.”

It was a pretty good line, but I reminded her that all of the blocks were proving equally as difficult to influence, and that my romantic prowess is even less impressive than my board game expertise.

“So I just have to not talk to them?”

The game advanced to an impressive, and baffling, feat of engineering until, as with at the bar on a Friday night, my unsteady and uncertain movements caused the entire thing to collapse before me.  I could see from my niece’s face that even though she wasn’t entirely understanding what was happening, she was feeling a certain smugness that she had gotten the better of me again.

Once a certain threshold of drunkenness had been reached, my brother, sister and I seized the opportunity to question our father about the songbook he had written some decades earlier.  We had seen the songbook once, one afternoon in the nineties when it was briefly retrieved from the loft, and we held it in our hands in a triumphant scene reminiscent to the moment Indiana Jones first recovers the Ark of the Covenant.  It was taken from our hands before we could fully appreciate it, and ever since we have been searching for its return.  Christmas seemed like the ideal time to raise it again, and we vowed that if the treasure was ever handed over to us we would do something tremendous with it:  my brother could put the songs to music; my sister could use her great social influence to make sure that the songs are heard; I would….well, we all agreed that it would be a family project.

On Boxing Day the bars were busy with festive revellers.  The dancefloor in Markie Dans was crammed with gyrating bodies, whilst the air was thick with the fragrance of gift set body spray.  I was wondering if there had been a generous sale on somewhere in the last week, because everyone seemed to be smelling the same way.

It was difficult to move amongst the mass of bodies, and I found myself stuck in the corner like a life-sized doll which had been set aside in favour of a fifty pence novelty microphone.  I was looking around the crowded bar, trying to catch sight of a face I would recognise, but no-one was familiar and everyone else was looking exactly like one another.  The more I looked around me, the more I was feeling something like the titular character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  I was an old man, getting older by the minute, and everywhere around me were young people who were only getting younger the more I glanced around the bar.

The situation reminded me of the previous Saturday night, where I had briefly been in conversation with an NHS staff nurse whose role it was to insert catheters into elderly patients.  She made the announcement to our group that she “does catheter insertions”, and it was all I could do to throw myself into the conversation and ask:  “but what do you do for your profession?”  She didn’t understand nor care for my joke, and she repeated that she is responsible for the insertion of catheters.

I was biding my time, waiting for an opportunity to make a second impression, when the woman was making the exclamation that “nobody messes with me.”  It was perfect, and I immediately coughed out my line:  “they probably mess on you at work though, don’t they?”  She buckled and complimented me on a very clever line, though I felt the need to confess that it was the most clever thing I had said in thirty years.

“But you said you are thirty-five?”

“That’s right, ” I admitted, and she didn’t acknowledge me again.

Having left the crowded scene in Markie Dans on Boxing Day night, I arrived in the Lorne to see a woman I recognised as being my neighbour from the top floor of my block of flats.  She confirmed that a couple with a young child had recently moved into the flat opposite hers, and I felt relieved to learn that the stroller which had been sitting at the bottom of the stairs outside my flat for the past three or four weeks was not a cruel joke after all.  She went on to note that every weekend when she passes my door at the end of the night there is music playing, and she remarked that for someone who looks like the most mild-mannered man imaginable, I seem to be quite the party animal.  I chortled at this suggestion, and began to picture the look on her face if only she could open the door on one of these apparent parties and see the plant doctor and I sitting there, eating dry roasted nuts and listening to Wah-Wah on a continuous loop.  Or on any of the many occasions in which I have fallen asleep on the couch in my full suit with a quarter drunk bottle of Budweiser.

By the end of Christmas week, the pale winter sky had been washed away by the wettest rain you will ever see.  I went to Aulay’s for some catchup beers with a keen bird enthusiast and the VAT man, which proved to be significantly more enjoyable than my time in Aulay’s the following afternoon.  Afterwards, the bird watcher and I made our way to the Oban Inn, where I saw a bar band play a cover of U2’s With or Without You for the second time that week, though on this occasion it was not dedicated to a newly engaged couple.

Along the rainswept Esplanade in Markies, a ceilidh band was playing to a much smaller audience than had been present earlier in the week.  I spoke to a sandwich artist for the first time since the bread in a friendship baguette turned soggy several weeks earlier.  I was feeling anxious when I saw her, the same way I felt days earlier when I was reaching for a delicately balanced piece in Tumble, though once we enjoyed a shot of Tequila Rose I was feeling more of the wah-wah.

The walk home felt shorter than it had done of late, though the rain was so cold and wet that it soaked me through to my bones.  Even with my leather jacket zipped all the way to my throat, the rain reached through all of my layers and the next morning I could still feel it reverberate around my being like a voice through a cheap Poundstretcher microphone.  I was alone again at 3am, but this time I felt sure that the only ghost was a wet leather jacket hanging on the back of my bedroom door.



Deck the halls with a December playlist (my soundtrack to the month): A Spotify playlist (opens in a new window/tab)