A portrait of Valentine’s Day in Oban

Storm Ciara hadn’t long ceased from battering the country with gale-force winds when Storm Dennis came howling in on its tail.  In February, storms on the west coast of Scotland are a lot like buses in London:  two or three come at once, and you never know where they’re going to go.  I couldn’t recall exactly when the Met Office began the practice of naming storms, but when the country had gone from Ciara straight into Dennis, it sounded like an underwhelming Jane Austen novel.  

When the first storm landed the previous weekend, there weren’t many people around outside braving the elements.  I had made the short walk to Lidl for some parmesan cheese and the only thing I encountered was some leaves that were dancing across the pavement like drunks during the last song at a wedding reception.  On the other side of the street, someone had left three blue recycling bins sitting outside their block of flats; an invitation for catastrophe.  One of the bins had been blown over by the wind at least twice, on one occasion causing a load of cardboard to be carried off towards Argyll Square, reminiscent of the opening scene of a film depicting a dystopian future.  I presumed that somebody’s Alexa wasn’t talking to them that morning.  Why else would you put your bins out in the middle of a storm three days before they were scheduled to be emptied?

Between two storms

 

In my living room, the sound of the wind wheezing down the chimney made me think of asthma and it was unsettling, though not as painful as when the finale of the first of the winter storms arrived a day or so later and I was caught in a hailstorm as I was walking home from work along the Esplanade.  The hail was the size of pumpkin seeds and started to fall as I was rounding the North Pier.  It rarely ever comes just as you are reaching the front door of your building.  By the time it stopped a few minutes later my cheek was surely the same shade it turns whenever I have tried talking to a woman.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does.  Nothing except maybe Valentine’s Day.

The fourteenth of February was never a day of great significance for me; I rarely felt inclined to celebrate the patron saint of lovers and the Hallmark greeting card company, though Saint Valentine was also recognised as the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, plague and travel, which just seemed like a reckless portfolio of jobs to assign to the same person.  However, like birthdays, anniversaries and New Year, it was always a date that served as a mile marker in life’s journey.  By the reckoning of my own internal odometer, I was on a streak of around eight or nine years of uninterrupted loneliness on Valentine’s Day during which I hadn’t received so much as a card or a heart-shaped piece of chocolate.  By far the most prolific period in my life was the few years in primary school when on the morning of the fourteenth the postman would deliver to our house a red envelope which had within it a card from a secret admirer, though since the sender appeared to share the same handwriting as Santa Claus I was always suspicious.

I wasn’t expecting anything different on the Valentine’s Day of 2020.  The evening before had seen a peaceful calm between the two storms where it could easily have been mistaken for a midsummer’s night had it not been for the biting cold and the snow on the hilltops of Mull in the distance.   I was walking along the seafront after work, where I saw a woman who was sitting on one of the benches with a box of chips balanced on her knee.  I presumed that she was a tourist, on the basis that a local probably wouldn’t sit so close to the shore on such a chilly night.  In her hand she was holding a book – although it might have been a mobile phone – while behind her, on the short stone wall which surrounded the little grass verges along that part of the Esplanade, was a crow.  The bird was standing in the shadow of the bench, waiting patiently in the seemingly vain hope that a chip might fall from the precariously positioned polystyrene and onto the ground where he could pick it up.  It looked to be a game of hope more than anything:  without anything other than someone else’s cruel luck, the crow was going to go hungry.  When I witnessed the scene, it made me think that it was how my own Valentine’s Day was destined to be.

Since the fourteenth fell on a Friday I was feeling hopeful that anyone who was out in the bars during the night without an obvious partner was single.  There was bound to be an anomaly here or there, but otherwise it seemed like a safe conclusion to reach.  With that in mind, I had been thinking of what I was hoping would be the ideal line, in the form of the traditional Valentine’s Day verse, in the event that I should find myself talking to another person with a similarly lonely heart.  When the prose suddenly came to me I was giddy with excitement, and it was all I could do to try the quartet of lines out on unsuspecting colleagues around the office during the afternoon.  Almost all of them were either married or with a partner, so I figured that they would be experts in the matter.  One by one they unanimously announced that the verse was terrible and that I would be better off considering a different approach, but by then I had memorised it and it was all I could think of.  I still believed that with a little work it had the potential to be a success with a fellow single occupant.

Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
Though I never received either
And obviously neither did you.

In response, one colleague swivelled around in her chair to look at me.  On her face was painted a look that resembled the outcome if you were to ask an artist to sketch puzzlement, bemusement and dismay.  She claimed to have a much better line that would practically guarantee success.  It was a line that my colleague and a group of her friends had passed on to their male friend to use while on a night out in Edinburgh.  The story went that he was lauded by all of the girls he recited the line to for his great sense of humour, and that sounded like something I would like to hear for myself, so I asked her what the line was.

“Were you brought up on a farm?”  The initial question asked.
“No.”
“Well, you sure know how to raise a cock.”

Although in my thirty-six years I had never been especially good at reading women or putting myself in their shoes – though, after all, I wear a size twelve – I was feeling fairly certain that opening with borderline misogyny wasn’t the way to go.  Most people agreed that my original verse was probably more suitable than the faux chicken pun, though it was suggested that neither would be appropriate to use.

Sandbags were lined in preparation for Storm Dennis

 

There wasn’t an obvious presence of love in the air in Aulay’s, although there were a few adoring glances being cast toward pint glasses.  Early in the night there was an unusually high quota of bald men; in parts of the pub the hair count matched my Valentine’s card count.  The plant doctor was standing at the bar wearing a black t-shirt which had animations of peeled bananas spotted all over it.  He was with his work colleague, the Czech marine biologist, and our discussion came around to chat-up lines.  Once again my verse was dismissed for its folly, and we began exchanging alternatives, one of which centred on the premise of me asking a woman to touch my navy blue tie and prompting her to guess the material it was made of.  After several guesses which would inevitably be wrong, I would interject and inform her that it was “boyfriend material.”  None of this was impressing the Czech marine biologist, who questioned why there was any need for a chat-up line at all and why I couldn’t just talk to a woman.  I reminded her that the last time we were speaking, at the Distillery before my reading in September, I had spent the better part of fifteen minutes telling her about my socks.  She was familiar with the occasion and acknowledged that it might be better for all concerned if I didn’t say anything at all.

The night developed like any other Friday in the pub.  One man, who walked in with the distinct scent of oil clinging to his person, was refused service from the bar staff, and when he questioned why he wasn’t being allowed to buy a drink he was told that it was because he looked drunk.  The man glanced down at the large item of luggage he had removed from his back and defended himself.  “You’d look pished too if you were carrying this bag.”  It was the sort of line that just hangs in the air like an empty crisp packet caught in the wind.  I wondered what could possibly be in the bag that was making it so heavy that it would give a person a look of intoxication.  Sometimes this place was like a continuous episode of The X-Files.

The plant doctor and I were feeding pound coins into the jukebox; finally a Valentine that would respond.  We curated a soundtrack that was in keeping with the mood of the day, playing songs such as Heartattack And Vine by Tom Waits, Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams, and Kashmir.  The latter enticed the man who was sitting at the table in the corner with his wife, and who seemed to be drinking at a ratio of two drinks to every one of hers, to make his own trip to the jukebox, where he engaged in a Led Zeppelin-off with the plant doctor.  They both reached for some deep cuts, and if I wasn’t in the mood for love, I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin, who were a band I had never really paid much attention to.  I promised to seek out their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, if only because when I was in New York City in 2016 I had made a point of finding the building which was featured on the album cover.  The conversation brought me to look through the photograph library on my phone for the picture I had taken that day, only to realise when comparing it with the actual album cover that I had only captured half of the building.  It was yet another thing to add to my bulging emotional baggage.

I had somehow only captured half of the Physical Graffiti building in NYC in 2016

 

I left the Led Zeppelin-off and made my own pilgrimage to Markie Dans.  It was after midnight and the streets were deserted, without a soul or a lonely heart to be seen.  In the doorways of some buildings along the Esplanade there were sandbags which had been laid in anticipation of the arrival of the week’s second big storm.  Nobody was taking anything for granted.  There was disco music in full flow in Markies, and I was able to catch up with a couple of friends.  The young women were out as part of a collective who were referring to themselves as “single shambles”, and it sounded like a group I was meant to be a part of.

One of the girls I knew invited me to join the rest of the single shambles at a house party after the pub closed, and despite always feeling socially inept at such gatherings, I agreed to go.  The apartment building seemed new, clean and much too nice for a wretch like me.  I spent most of my time there standing in the corner of the room with a can of Dark Fruits cider in my hand, resembling the well-dressed but awkwardly shaped antique ornament that you can’t find the right place for.  I occupied myself by studying the plants which were lined along the windowsill.  There were four or five of them, and they appeared to have things like red peppers and green beans growing in them.  It was a nice touch.  I left for home once I had finished my can of cider.  It was just after four in the morning and the wind was beginning to pick up, while the pavements were slick with freshly fallen rain.  Valentine’s Day had passed for another year and there was a new storm about to crash onto the coast.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does…

This week I have been mostly listening to:

Valentine’s Day Mascara

When I left for work on the morning of Valentine’s Day the postman had not yet delivered to my street, and I was able to deceive myself for a few more hours into thinking that I might return to find a red envelope or two in my mailbox.  A year earlier I had just become a single occupant and moved into my new flat, a circumstance which I had used to convince myself was the reason why none of my suitors or secret admirers had been able to send a declaration of their love through the post, even if it didn’t necessarily tally with the previous thirty-three years of empty postboxes.

Although I did not receive a Valentine’s card in 2018, I did send my first one since whenever my last courtship ended.  The recipient was the then red-haired barmaid, who became a formerly red-haired barmaid and who would later become a red-haired former barmaid.  A few days prior to the event she jokingly suggested that I should send her a card, and because I am a man who rarely backs down from an opportunity to humiliate himself in front of the opposite sex, I took this as a challenge.  

For days I was agonising over the literature I would use on the inside of the card, which was probably decorated with an animated teddy bear or a puppy or something which similarly suggested a tacky attempt at romance.  I was searching for a verse which would be light-hearted enough to be in keeping with the joking nature of the endeavour, though with enough charm that the barmaid would be made aware that I had a favourable impression of her.  Eventually, I settled on four lines which I wrote in my finest scrawl and felt confident captured the sentiment of the occasion.

Roses are red
Violets are blue
You pull a great pint
Can I pull you?

Satire and seduction proved not to make successful bedfellows, and like a bad meal, the card was spoken of once and never again.

The mailbox which is positioned on the wall outside my front door is immaculately white and looks like a house which was designed by a fabulously drunk and deeply flawed architect, with its long and thin streak of windows stretched across the eaves of the property and a small door which is no shape for any reasonable person to use as a point of entry.  Most of the time it lies empty, but when I arrived home after work on Valentine’s Day I could see the pointed edge of an envelope protruding from the slot.  A sense of intrigue captured me and I placed my bag of shopping between my ankles and reached for the key to open the box, feeling the way I would imagine a treasure hunter does when they happen upon a rare antique chest.

I opened the mailbox as far as the hinge would allow, studying the envelope forensically, more in hope rather than expectation, the way a dog watches intently as a sausage is being eaten.  I took the large white envelope between my thumb and index finger and quickly became aware that it was a communication from the Bank of Scotland and that it was addressed to my neighbour across the landing.  With my hope dashed, I fed the envelope through the letterbox on my neighbour’s door and accepted that at least someone would be having a more underwhelming Valentine’s experience than my own

The light in my kitchen had begun to flicker the previous evening, the way electrical fittings do in horror films when something ominous is about to occur.  Within moments of it being turned on, it suddenly fell into a darkened obscurity, like an anticlimactic Valentine date, and I was left standing in a dim kitchen where the only light was provided from the floodlight in the yard behind the garden.  I had just returned from the shop and felt certain that I wasn’t going to be the victim of a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, so I decided that I could survive a night without a light in the kitchen.  For a while, I was considering that I could inflame a few tealight candles and line them along the breakfast bar, though I dismissed the notion as being much too intimate for a solo dining experience where the only item on the menu was a frozen lasagne.  Maybe if I had had the time to construct the dish from scratch I would have indulged in candlelight, but a single man eating a frozen lasagne on Valentine’s night was probably best kept in the dark.

After eating the second most tasteless lasagne meal I have had in recent times, I went out to Aulay’s to watch the football, where I believed that if I couldn’t spend the night with my beloved, I could at least enjoy it with beer lovers.  I arrived at the bar prior to the game kicking off, armed with the knowledge that as well as being the patron saint of lovers and beekeepers, Saint Valentine is also the patron saint of plague and epileptics, which made spending the night amongst the unwell of a bar population seem fitting.  The lounge was sparsely inhabited, six stems short of a dozen red roses, and the football was doing little to spread the love, the result only adding to the defeat of the day.

When I awoke in the harsh light of the following morning, I was reminded of my need to get a new lightbulb for the kitchen.  In a bedraggled state, I was forced to iron a baby blue shirt in near darkness, though nobody commented that I looked any different from usual.  In the evening I went shopping for the item I was needing which would allow me to eat reasonable meals and iron my shirts in a civilised manner.  In the entranceway of Tesco was a display of flowers of various colours, some of them matching the palette of my own outfit.  Next to the floral island of unwanted Valentine’s goods was a sign which was indicating that there was ‘75% off the marked price’ and it struck me how the existence of reduced roses and cheapened chrysanthemums was a lot like that of a single occupant in Argyll & Bute.