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 wore a contentious colour combination

There is a lot to be said for the bar, though it is often what is being said inside the bar that interests me the most.  The more time I spend talking to people over a pint of Tennents or a glass of whisky, the more I find myself wishing that I could pick the most exciting parts from these wonderful bar stories and weave them together into a patchwork quilt representation of my own life.  I suppose, essentially, I have been keen to turn my existence into a lie, because the real thing hasn’t been earning me much credibility in the exchange of pub tales.  The trouble with creating my false existence, however, has always been my lack of guile and what I perceive would be my inability to make thrilling stories of adventure seem believable as my own.

A recent example of a story I was told in a bar which could never be passed off as my own was when the plant doctor told me of the night he spent talking to two German girls he had encountered for the first time.  Holding a conversation with one girl for any period of time is troublesome enough for me when every sentence is fraught with the danger of making some stupid joke, but to keep two women interested for many hours seemed like an outrageous achievement to me.  The plant doctor proceeded to offer the opening line he used to draw the two German girls into a conversation, and I listened with interest.

“I bet I know a way that I can make you smile,” the plant doctor told the Deutsche damsels before performing his patented magic trick.  The girls did indeed smile, and they stayed in the company of the plant doctor for the rest of the night, and as he regaled me with this story I knew straight away that I wouldn’t be able to pass it off as my own.  I pictured the scene in my mind’s eye, and it was clear to me that in such a scenario I would never know for sure if the German girls had smiled because I would have left the room immediately after using the initial line.

As the week wore on, the September rain which had been falling steadily for days developed into a series of storms, and it seemed as though everyone was talking about a spectacular thunderstorm that was ferociously loud and which had lit up the midnight sky over Oban.  The more people spoke of this electromagnetic event, the more it was beginning to dawn on me that the thunderstorm had taken place on the one night that I had gone to bed and fallen asleep without the nightly tossing and turning I usually perform.  As far as I was concerned, the explosive storm could have been a supermarket delivery lorry, or a group of drunks spilling home from the pub, for all the awareness I had of it happening.

The day after the thunderstorm which most people other than me had heard, I suffered my first anxiety attack in months.  It was brought on unexpectedly and came as suddenly as a bolt of lightning, and it rattled in my bones.  The ankles of my trousers were drenched from the rain I had encountered in the morning, and inside I was feeling a downpour which I didn’t know how to stop.  I had a similar experience on Saturday night, sometime around midnight, and it was only then that I could know for sure that I wasn’t feeling anxious about the thunderstorm I had missed.

It was presumably as a result of the confusion I had been feeling for several days that on Saturday I decided to wear a pair of navy blue boots, which I hadn’t worn for some time.  I had bought the Red Tape Crumlin navy boots prior to my first trip to New York City in the March of 2015, and they are the most comfortable boots I have ever owned.  I walked for miles and miles on that trip, and my feet formed a close and intimate bond with the boots.  To walk in them feels like how I would imagine it is to stroll along a pillow of clouds, a feeling which in itself probably resembles the effect created by three or four Jameson.

Despite the soothing comfort brought by my favourite footwear, my decision to wear navy boots had forced me to defy my own dress etiquette by not matching the colour of my belt to my shoes or boots, and that was causing me some distress.  I felt like the Aerosmith song Livin’ On The Edge.  My wardrobe is a lot like the karate student who cannot advance beyond the rank of green belt:  I don’t own a blue belt.  I only possess a black and a brown leather belt and wearing black with navy blue shoes weighed on my mind throughout the day.  It didn’t matter to me that the boots were so old and worn that the navy blue colour had begun to fade and muddy into a sort of dishwasher pastel; I still felt that other people in the bar would notice and critique my judgment.  They would look firstly at my feet, and upon seeing my navy blue boots they would immediately be questioning whether or not I was wearing a matching blue belt.

He doesn’t look like he does karate,” they would be thinking to themselves or speaking in hushed tones to their more appropriately dressed company, “there’s no way he owns a blue belt.  Nobody wears a blue belt, so why is he wearing blue boots?”  I consciously held the tails of my checked shirt over my waist so that nobody could catch sight of my belt.

If this guy can’t even match the colour of his belt to his boots then what else can’t he do?”  They would continue discussing amongst themselves in their perfect little bubbles.  “He probably can’t even keep his houseplants alive.  Or find a use for mushrooms.  Or make a girl smile.  Or…

Anthony Joshua was defending his world titles on Saturday night, and as usual for an AJ fight, the bar was busy.  I welcomed it as an opportunity to use a joke I had been working on in my internal monologue for a while, and when anyone would ask, “are you in for the fight?”  I would respond, “yes – and I’ll probably watch the boxing, too.”  Nobody found this line funny, except for the barman who used to wear glasses.  He laughed warmly, and I found myself thinking that his decision to switch to contact lenses had probably improved his judgment as well as his vision.

Long after the fight, and after the bell had been rung for last orders, myself and five other people retired to my flat, where we drank Jack Daniels and watched the Baby Shark Dance video until some time around five o’clock in the morning.  The drink and dance companions ranged from a good friend and skilled sandwich artist to someone I know, to a friend of those two friends, to a stranger met in a bus shelter.  The number of people made for a difficult seating situation, as my flat only has the furniture for five butts, although one of the group left fairly early and we were able to make it work.

One of the girls was heard to remark that my living room has “the wrong Feng shui,” and I could only assume that this was in response to the large coffee table which sits in the centre of the room and is much larger than most people.  Its size made it difficult for everyone to accurately follow the Monkey Banana Dance, and it clearly wasn’t something I had fully thought through when I moved in.

When I last looked at the clock on the mantelpiece it was approximately 6.20am.  Everyone had left in a taxi more than an hour earlier, and I had spent the time finishing off a generous measure of Jack Daniels and repeatedly listening to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses and The Wrong Year by The Decemberists.  November Rain has long been my favourite song, and I had learned that the sandwich artist is fond of it, and that was something that stuck in my mind.  I sat on the window seat and surveyed the scene around the living room.  Puddles of bourbon whiskey and Coca-Cola swam atop the surface of the Portland oak laminate flooring alongside broken fragments of Pringles.  On the coffee table sat an empty tealight candle, the wax having long been melted away, and in the discarded silver shell was a crushed cigarette butt.  The Jackson Pollock print above the sofa was hanging squint, angled to the right, and it was a visual representation of how I was feeling.

I picked myself up from the window seat and turned out all of the lights, though the streetlights formed an eerie reflection in the pools of whiskey on the floor and I couldn’t forget about the mess.  I staggered through to the bedroom in my comfortable navy blue boots, and it was like walking on top of a sea of clouds which were on top of another layer of clouds.  I tumbled onto my bed and thought about how if this was another person’s story it would surely have had a more exciting ending.