They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.

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)