A unicorn walks down the street

When word began to spread around the office on a Friday afternoon in November that Oban’s ninth annual Winter Festival would be starting at five o’clock that evening with a unicorn parade through the centre of town, the primary concern of most people was how they were going to get home from work when the busiest roads would be affected by the festive fanfare.  As someone who uses his feet to travel most places, my thoughts went directly to the claim that unicorns were going to be walked down George Street. The creatures we had only ever read of in fairytales or seen in Disney movies were going to be trotting past Boots, Superdrug and the bank where I had my mortgage.  All I could think about was how they were going to pull off such a feat, and why was the world’s media not converging on the town for the happening.  In my head I was imagining some kind of trickery; a small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head, for example.  In reality, that’s exactly what the unicorn turned out to be.

As a thirty-six-year-old single man I had some concerns about how it would look if I was walking my usual route home after work while there was a unicorn parade going on, yet at the same time I was anxious to see it happen, so I messaged my sister and asked her if she and my niece knew about it.  Fortunately they didn’t, and with giddy excitement and multiple renditions of Jingle Bells, we converged at a spot on George Street where we could witness all of the magic unfold before us.  One by one the lights in the stores along the high street were gradually turned out, like watching an awkward power cut which was lacking in confidence, in preparation for the Winter Queen to arrive on unicorn back and switch on their Christmas window displays.  Anticipation was growing, although for the younger ones around us who weren’t yet old enough to have developed that emotion, it was only restlessness.  In the distance, we could see the flashing of blue lights against the blanketed winter sky, and we knew that something enchanting was happening.  It wasn’t quite a Disney family favourite, but it was a unicorn receiving a police escort through Oban town centre.

Such was the wonder and mystique of the unicorn, nobody was quite sure which route the parade was supposed to be taking.  The official festival programme had suggested that the otherworldly beings would be guiding the Winter Queen down George Street and through to Station Square, despite it being not much more than a fifteen-minute walk for a mere mortal, but if you could ride on the back of a unicorn then why wouldn’t you?  Once the parade had passed us on George Street, my sister, niece and I walked the short distance round to Station Square along with all of the other enthusiasts of horned mythical creatures, where we waited for the procession to loop back around.  A few minutes had passed, though who knew how long that translated to in unicorn years, and some were beginning to show signs of impatience again when the parade had not reappeared as expected.  

A small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head

There were mutterings of, “they definitely said it was coming back round this way,” before the police escort was finally spotted on the corner of Argyll Square.  It was sitting stationary, as though uncertain, like a shy, rosy-cheeked elf.  Beyond the emergency vehicle we could see a fluffy spectre in white, and it was apparent that the unicorn parade was taking a left turn up onto Albany Street.  We wondered what was going on and why nobody knew the precise route of the pageant, but none of us was truly qualified to question the ways of the unicorn.  When the gathering had eventually made its way to Station Square and we were as close as I could ever have imagined we would be to the Winter Queen, we found ourselves merely feet away from a pair of unicorns.  For all those people who had ever told me that there was more chance of me seeing a unicorn walk through the centre of Oban than there was of me finding a woman who was willing to date me, it seemed they had been proven right.

Of course, the unicorns had the appearance of two little white horses which had become separated from a birthday party, their dishevelled wee hats having slipped down onto their foreheads.  And that’s what they were, to an extent.  The young children around us were thrilled to have encountered a unicorn in their own town, but I couldn’t help but survey the scene and wonder what the horses were making of it all.  How did they feel about wearing what amounted to an ice cream cone on their faces, like some once amusing internet meme?  Were they feeling comfortable amongst a large crowd, or were they like me, cold and worried about what they were wearing?  

Later in the night, at the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop, the winter festival was warming up with the traditional whisky tasting.  The store, which sat on the corner of George Street and Stafford Street and looked out towards the ferry terminal pier, was an intimate space that felt like standing in someone’s living room with its leather chairs situated by a well-stoked fire and tall oak shelves that could have been stacked with high-brow books, but were instead teeming with high-volume alcohol.

A whisky centrepiece

At £10 a ticket for six drams, the whisky tasting seemed like too good a value deal for a single occupant to miss, even if my appreciation of whisky was akin to a youngster’s love for a parade unicorn:  I knew that I liked something simple, like a Jameson, but stick a cone on a horse’s head and I would never be able to tell the difference.  The bottles were lined up at the front of the room, the way a piece of artwork hangs in a prominent place in a lounge, where all eyes are drawn to it, and we were told that the whiskies would be poured in 15ml measures to ensure that no-one would become too drunk before the sixth drink and that we would begin our journey with a couple of less complex blends as we worked towards the final bottle, which was a special and rarely seen thirty-year-old Bowmore.  It was a similar idea to if I was introducing someone to the music of the Irish four-piece rock act U2, in that I wouldn’t take them straight to Achtung Baby.

A young woman who had flowing red hair like a Disney princess and who came from the nearby island of Islay, meaning that her pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ went on for days and had a charming lyrical quality, stepped forward to guide us through each of the whiskies and offer her own tasting notes.  She inhaled the fumes from her glass and described such elegant fragrances as a hint of marzipan, yellow skin apple, light wafts of plum, liquorice and even leather.  Already I could tell that I was out of my depth as I glanced around the room and could see other people nodding along to the distiller’s sketch of what she was smelling, a look of quiet content drawn across their faces.  I was cradling my glass under my nose, contorting and flaring my nostrils like a manic little sniffer dog, desperately trying to catch a whisper of maple syrup, but the only thing I could smell was a future hangover.

I wasn’t much better when it came to identifying the tastes which were washing over my palette.  With each different glass, the distiller from Islay talked about tastes as wide-ranging as butterscotch, freshly-baked shortbread, ginger, smoked fish, grape, charcoal and strawberry flavour Haribo.  I was getting none of it, and for all I knew I could have been as well walking across the road and dipping my glass into the cold seawater.  This was no better evident than when a couple of us lingered around after the whisky tasting had finished, the way a peaty malt hangs on the tonsils long after the drink has been swallowed.  We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample the thirty-year-old Bowmore again.  There were only one hundred and ninety-one bottles produced from the cask, and the sole bottle for sale in the shop had been purchased for £350 that night. It was said that even to buy a single measure in a pub would likely cost around £50.  Being unaware of what had been poured into our glasses I turned to my friend and readied myself to make my most insightful contribution of the evening.

“You know, I think this is even better than the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” I said with the heady confidence that only the eighth whisky of the night can bring.

“This is the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” the bird watcher advised me.  Having spent £10 on a ticket for the event and received two whiskies with a value of around £100, as well as the others in the tasting, it seemed that no matter how much defeat would come, I would finish the night in profit.

Down the street, through the wreathed arch of The Oban Inn, I became involved in a conversation with a woman who was dressed from head to toe in tweed.  On her right lapel she was sporting a white badge which read “I love walking,” with the emotion being signified with a red heart symbol rather than a four-letter word.  I wondered aloud if she would have still felt that way now that Oban had a fleet of unicorns offering public transportation, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about.

The wreathed arch around the entrance of The Oban Inn

Undeterred, and feeling somewhat drawn to another soul who enjoyed wearing tweed in public places, I told the rambler about the evening I had just spent at the whisky tasting.  I explained that although I enjoyed a whisky, I didn’t know very much about the spirit, and I had spent the event feeling uncomfortable being amongst a group of people with whom I didn’t belong.

“Do you often feel uncomfortable?”  The woman asked, the expression on her face indeterminable through the haze of malt and barley.

My mouth took inspiration from her badge and ventured on a lengthy preamble.  “I start the day off feeling uncomfortable, plateau sometime around late afternoon, and then I go to bed and replay the events of my day and become even less comfortable.”  Finally, the words strayed even further off the beaten path when I returned to the whisky tasting and offered the insight that all I really knew about the whisky I had drunk was that I was about to go and splash around £50 of the stuff against the urinal.  I staggered off towards the men’s room and never heard from her again.  The profit on my winning night was diminishing all the time.

Spirits were still high on the first frosty Saturday of the Winter Festival.  The sky was a crisp marble blue, the kind of colour one could only ever smell with the aid of some whisky tasting notes.  The roads were slick with dew, the low hanging winter sun causing them to shimmer like crystals on a Christmas tree.  Into the cold air, I could see clouds of Bowmore leaving my system.  The streets were thriving with well-wrapped locals seeking the wealth of events on offer in the festival programme, while the distant yells of a town crier could be heard over the festive chatter and shop music.  In every corner, there seemed to be something different going on.  A craft market of local handmade goods – glass, jewellery and embroidery – brought colour to the Perle Hotel.  There were food markets in The View, with cheese, venison, chocolates, chutneys, foraged mushrooms, fish and other things that I should likely have been able to taste in a whisky.  Behind Oban Distillery, children were having their photographs taken with two Shetland ponies.

The local fire brigade was on hand offering passers-by the opportunity to sign up for a home fire safety check, where anyone who put their name on the clipboard would receive four free cinema tickets once the visit had been completed.  My sister filled the form in with enthusiasm, and standing a few paces behind I was compelled to put my name on the next line, lest the fireman be given the impression that my sister’s life had drastically hit the skids.  We were told that the cinema tickets would be given either as a package of passes for two adults and two children, or for an adult and three children.  I wondered how that could be useful to a single occupant whose days of feeling close to thirty came only at a whisky tasting.  When I thought about it more, the four cinema tickets I was bound to inherit were going to place a lot of pressure on the £25 Lorne bar voucher that I still had on my pinboard to work miracles, and quickly.  The voucher for the meal was due to expire on the ninth of January 2020.  It seemed more likely that I would witness a unicorn walking down the street.

Further information:
The 2019 Oban Winter Festival programme can be found here.

I will be reading winter tales of a single occupant from my notebook at Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 30 November. The event is part of the Winter Festival, and details can be found on the Facebook page here.

You say Elyounoussi, I say Elhamed

When I returned to Oban from my trip to Budapest, everything was just as I had left it five days earlier.  The entire flat had a chill in the air, in keeping with the dipping September temperatures, and in the kitchen sink there was a cup three quarters filled with stale dishwater and topped with a ringed coffee stain a few inches from the rim, like the tidal mark you find on the walls by the sea.  A damp red and white striped tea towel which had questionable shades of grey was lying discarded on the kitchen counter. The scene was one you might expect to find if someone had been called away to attend to a drastic emergency; news of an accident or a kidnapping.  I was reminded that I had left in a rush that Monday morning to catch the early bus, and immediately I was back in the old routine of cursing my decisions.

It was the longest I had been away from home since I became a single occupant more than a year earlier, and it seemed like a weird sensation the way that it felt as though I was moving into a new place all over again.  In my absence, the surface of the oak flooring had gathered small pockets of dust and other unidentifiable debris in areas, while the whole place carried the scentless smell of somewhere that has been uninhabited for a while.  After a few hours of procrastination, I unpacked my rucksack of all the things I had taken with me, many of which I didn’t need anyway, and I tried to figure out where they should go.  

The washing machine was soon filled with a week’s worth of travel wear, and my next mission was to visit the supermarket to replenish my supplies of milk, fruit and food.  I had arrived home to a fridge which was as empty as the day I moved in, with the exception of a tub of butter and a jar of Dijon mustard which was looking as tired as I was feeling.  Everything else had been used up in a mad dash before I flew to Hungary, the result of an inherent mistrust that food wouldn’t possibly keep to its expiration date if I wasn’t around to check on its health every time I opened the fridge door, as though the remaining portion of cheese, a bottle of milk and packet of meatballs would reunite to get one over me by spoiling when I wasn’t there.

Oban Distillery on the morning of 21 September

Nine months had passed since the idea of me reading in front of an audience had been conceived as a joke amongst friends, the thought being that the most socially awkward of us would sit before a gathering of people at The Rockfield Centre’s monthly open mic night dressed smartly in a suit and read stories of ineptitude from his notebook while someone else played a ridiculous instrument in the background, like the triangle or the panpipes, and no-one would quite be able to decide if the entire act was deliberately absurd or just a complete shambles.  As it turned out, nobody in our group owned a triangle, and our attempt at an artistic exhibition went the way of all of my romantic endeavours and I was left to perform as a solo act.   

Even though I had only done it on a handful of occasions, I had recently been invited to read at the launch of the local acoustic duo The Blue Moon Traveller’s new album, and despite the ferocious anxiety which greets me when I attempt to do anything in front of other people, I accepted the offer.  By the time I arrived home from my trip to Budapest, there was less than a week to prepare for the big night and I was trying to keep myself as occupied as possible in an effort to hold my nerves at bay.  I cooked a large pot of goulash, making use of some of the paprika I had brought back from Great Market Hall, and the aroma of spiced beef and potato and carrot was clinging to the washing and everything else in the flat for days.  Later I participated in the pub quiz in The Lorne and watched the latest two IT movies, which between them totalled more than five hours in run time and distraction time. 

Although we had made an unremarkable start in the first two rounds, our team, which was as much three ladies and a tramp as it was The Unlikely Lads, was developing an increasing confidence that we were about to experience our breakthrough pub quiz victory when we scored a maximum of 18 points from the round of questions on Hungary.  The tremendous gain saw us surge into joint-first place at the halfway point, and we were finding it easy to visualise our eventual win, the moment when our little breakaway outfit would finally be rewarded with a £25 bar voucher.  A wave of excitement and optimism was sweeping across the table, along with waves of Tennent’s Lager down our throats, but I was struggling to get over a blunder I had made in the previous general knowledge round which I feared could be the Vesuvius question repeating itself all over again.

The silver-haired host had asked us to name the nationality of a footballer Celtic had recently signed, and I snatched the pen from a team-mate’s hand with the assuredness that only a person who knows the answer can legitimately display.  I wrote Israeli on the corresponding line and took a mouthful of beer to congratulate myself on my contribution.

When the answer sheet was returned to us after it had been marked at the end of the round there wasn’t a tick next to the word Israeli, and I was wondering how the quizmaster could possibly have made such a mistake.  I was listening with interest as he went through the questions once more, this time revealing the correct answers alongside them. Eventually he reached the one I was desperate to hear.

“What nationality is the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi?”

I realised immediately what had gone wrong.  In my exuberance, I had misheard the name Mohamed as Elhamed, ignored the rest of the question, and taken it to be in reference to Hatem Abd Elhamed, the Israeli international footballer, rather than Mohamed Elyounoussi, the Norwegian.  I was kicking myself, and the longer the quiz developed into a three-way fight for the prize, the more I was worrying that my error, which was the equivalent of lunging in with a two-footed tackle in footballing terms, was going to cost us.

In the end, it wasn’t only hearing the name of the Celtic international which proved to be our downfall.  In the slim 3 point defeat, we also failed to identify which musician collaborated with Michael Jackson on his song The Girl Is Mine, or calculate the total numerical value of three Scrabble tiles, amongst other cracks in our pub quiz knowledge.

The Michael Jackson tree, outside the hotel in Budapest where his fans gathered hoping to see him during his stay there in 1993

We finished joint-second, and although the win we desired would have to wait another while yet, we were in the mood to celebrate our achievement, or nearly achievement, so we walked round to Aulay’s for one last drink to end the night.  As we were approaching the doors to the lounge bar it occurred to me how I had spent countless nights inside the pub hoping to find female company and it would never happen, with tales of failure becoming my thing, like wearing matching socks, ties and pocket squares, when all around me there were people meeting other people and being happy about it.  This time I was about to stride into the bar with three women who most people would kill to be seen with, and I couldn’t help but feel smug about it.  The door opened with the kind of dramatic swing you would ordinarily see on the silver screen, and the four of us walked inside to find the bar completely empty.  I would have been as well walking in with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney for all anyone would see or care about it.

My efforts to distract me from any nerves I might have been feeling about my forthcoming reading led me to binge-watching the two newest IT movies over two nights.  I had never felt much of an inclination to see the 2017 adaptation of Stephen King’s book about a murderous clown until I was invited to the cinema to view the newly-released second chapter with my friend who constructs sandwiches, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend.  I was asked to go along as a friend who could be grabbed and punched at the arrival of any particularly frightening scenes, and that was enough to have me searching my subscription streaming services for the first film.  Even if my awareness of what was happening was flimsy at best, it seemed that the least I could do would be to make an effort to familiarise myself with the story, sort of like when someone in a passing car is enthusiastically waving at you and you can’t fathom who it is, but you give a conciliatory gesture in case it is someone you know.

When I arrived at the Oban Phoenix Cinema on Friday night with a bottle of Coca-Cola which had its chemical balance transformed by seven 25ml measures of Jack Daniels I was considering how I was surely the least likely figure a person would turn to in the situation of anxiety caused by scenes from a horror film, or anything, really.  It would be like crafting a scarecrow out of seeds and fat balls.  Nevertheless, I was happy to be invited, even if the second chapter didn’t produce nearly as many scares as I would have liked.  Indeed, the most harrowing part of the three-hour movie came after around ninety minutes when I had finished my stash of Jack Daniels and coke and I found myself in an increasingly desperate need for the toilet.  I was reluctant to leave my seat through fear of missing a truly terrifying scene and failing in my role as a stress punch bag for the night, so I valiantly held out until the closing credits.  The feeling of relief was one I had rarely experienced.

On the last Saturday of summer, the sky was a sapphire blue shade and the clouds had been scared off by a vibrant warm sun.  At station square the final producers’ market of the season was taking place, where there was on offer an abundance of local meats, cheeses, handcrafted goods and talk of how it was a good day for it.  It made for a busy scene by the glowing harbour.  I was walking aimlessly through the bustle, free of my usual weekend hangover but filled with the growing recognition that later I would have to read in front of an audience.  Even a killer clown couldn’t save me now.

Despite having lived in Oban for all of my thirty-five years, I had never been inside the Oban Distillery, where the town’s most famous and most popular export had been produced since it was built in 1794.  It occurred to me that this would probably be like living in New York City all your life and never seeing the Empire State Building, or being a Parisian who had never stood next to the Eiffel Tower.  My whisky of choice wasn’t even Oban Malt.  It was always Jameson, which I supposed made me like the Italian who prefers the Mona Lisa to The Last Supper:  I enjoyed the local product, but I liked it better when it was bottled elsewhere.

A placard the day after the Global Climate Strike in Oban

Although I had never been on the inside of a whisky barrel, my first impression of the interior of the bar at the Oban Distillery was that it was probably quite similar to drinking inside an old cask.  The intoxicating fragrance of malt barley was hanging in the air, to some the very essence of love itself, while everything in the place was wooden. The flooring was oak, the bar, the tables, the seating, the walls were all made from wood.  At £5 for a bottle of Guinness Hop House 13, even the prices wouldn’t bend.

As well as the microphones on the stage, gathered around it was an array of audio and visual recording equipment, the sum of which was probably similar to the number of people who had previously listened to me read.  If the price of a bottle of beer hadn’t already made me feel queasy, then the constant stream of people entering the room was really making me nervous.  The bar was beginning to fill up with folk I recognised, some I sort of recognised, a couple of former work colleagues, but mostly with people who I didn’t know at all.  By the time the evening got underway, there were around a hundred spectators squeezed into the whisky barrel, and I was feeling sick over it.

A small group of regulars from the Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights were in attendance, and it was the Czech marine biologist who didn’t have a ticket but who had blagged her way in who I remember talking to first.  She complimented me on my suit, and nothing made me dissolve into a puddle of self-deprecation like someone saying something nice about me or my choice of outfit, especially when it was a woman with an accent.  I thanked her and proceeded to list all the things I had made a special effort to do on that day for the occasion of reading aloud to people I mostly didn’t know.  “I thought it would be a good idea to shower for a change.  I trimmed my stubble.  I decided that I would comb my hair.”  I couldn’t pinpoint precisely where it had happened, but I knew that I had said too much.  “Please…don’t give me any more details,” she said as she walked away towards the oak bar.  

Before The Blue Moon Travellers could perform the first of their two sets of the evening, we were provided with a safety demonstration by an employee of the Oban Distillery.  He informed us that as the place was still a functioning whisky distillery there was a possibility that something could go horrendously wrong and some piece of machinery could explode during the single occupant’s performance, and if you need to make an emergency exit, either in the event of physical disaster or emotional catastrophe, the fire exit is located here.  Or at least that is what I heard him say.

The more I watched Jim and Sheila of The Blue Moon Travellers handle their initial set of cover material with grace and professionalism, the more I was worrying that I was in over my head.  Sheila’s voice owned the room, while Jim’s guitar playing was so good that even my brother commented on it, and he had never mentioned anyone’s string plucking in Oban.  As the duo were nearing the end of their first performance of the night, it was all I could do to go to the bathroom and seek refuge in the unblemished porcelain surroundings.  I wasn’t feeling sick enough to throw up, but I always liked to pee right before I was due to read, if only to give me one thing less to worry about.  I took the only free urinal at the far left of the trio, and all of a sudden the thing that I was most nervous about getting out from within me wasn’t my words.

Before I knew it, I went from performing to a theatre of one at the urinal to sitting in front of a room of around a hundred people, trying to juggle my thick navy blue notebook in one hand with a green plastic party tumbler filled with Chilean Merlot in the other.  The choice of drinks ware was intended as a joke to accompany the piece I was reading, but the only joke turned out to be my attempt at turning the pages of my book without spilling red wine on the dry white sheets.  The chair felt as though it was the tallest I had ever sat on, rising so far from the ground that my feet could barely touch the oak floor.  I was like a toddler who was reading to an audience of adults for the first time, and after the opening couple of paragraphs, I was forced to rest the wine on an out-of-reach wooden ledge, as much for the sake of my trousers as for comfort.  It was the first time I read without the stage crutch of alcohol. 

From the tall seat behind the microphone, the only sound I could hear was the constant chatter which rustled across the room from the bar like a golden leaf down an empty street.  To me it sounded like everybody in the place was talking during my set, and although I was later told that the noise was only coming from the bar area, it was unsettling.  Still, I persevered with reading my material, like a drunk who is determined to walk home despite everyone insisting that he takes a taxi, and I was feeling hopeful as I approached the point where I was going to make a second public attempt at performing my favourite joke.  

I had once before read the story about the red-haired former barmaid in Aulay’s and how she on more than one occasion advised me that I should receive lessons in how to talk to women, which in turn led me to seek out a self-help book in Waterstones on the subject of talking to women, but it was proving difficult to find and so I approached a sales assistant and asked her to assist me in locating the self-help section, and the punchline received little reaction.  This time there was around a hundred people in attendance, and I was hoping that at least two or three of them would give me the laugh I had been craving.  I told the story again, and for a moment, even the sound of chatter from the bar fell silent.

Despite having to endure the farce of sitting through my own round of applause after I had finished reading because I had forgotten to mention my Diaries of a single man Facebook page and I wanted to get the plug in, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself after I gave up the stage for The Blue Moon Travellers to showcase songs from their new album Into The Blue.  The relief was unlike anything I had ever experienced, greater even than when everyone else had vacated the urinals earlier in the night.  As the night developed, I was approached by a clutch of people who wanted to tell me how much they had enjoyed my piece, and once again I was feeling awkward in dealing with compliments.  If there was one thing that made me nervous more than reading to an audience, it was having to actually talk to people.

Firstly a woman walked up to me as I was finishing the last dregs of the bottle of Chilean Merlot.  She was sweet and humble, and I had actually noticed her amongst the crowd when I was performing my reading.  I thanked her for her kind words and told her that she had caught my eye from the stage because she reminded me of Beetlejuice.  The woman seemed affronted, her eyes narrowed with a look that was a cross between confusion and annoyance, the kind I might have flashed at the pub quiz when our answer sheet was returned without a tick next to Israeli.  I noticed the woman’s displeasure and clarified my comment, assuring her that I was referring to her shirt, which had black and white stripes like the suit worn by the character in the Tim Burton movie, and not to her hair, which was not white and unruly.  Even the friends in my company couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

Later I found myself in conversation with a woman whose hair was the colour of Chardonnay, uncorked it flowed past her shoulders and over a scarf which was presumably worn for purposes of fashion rather than warmth.  I noticed that her fingernails were the colour of the Parma Violets sweets that I could remember from childhood, though at the time I couldn’t recall where I had seen the colour, and it was impossible to concentrate on talking to her when I was so distracted by that absent detail.

Despite my inability to communicate in a normal manner with people, the night was one of the most triumphant I had experienced.  I was feeling flattered and even happy with the way things had gone, as though I had achieved something. It was a good feeling, but even after it all, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Beetlejuice remark.  I could have said anything else in that moment and it would have been better; I could even have asked her the nationality of the Celtic player Mohamed Elyounoussi.

Links and things:

Wake me up when this September playlist ends: my Spotify playlist for the month of September

For those without access to Spotify, the following are the two most significant songs from the last month.

I will never be able to hear the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry again without thinking of a wildly drunken Hungarian man in a bar in Budapest:

Digging for diamonds at the bottom of the sea…

The Blue Moon Travellers can be found on Facebook here.
I will be reading from my notebook at the Rockfield Community Centre on Saturday 26 October. Full event details can be found here.

The three nights of Thirty-five

A few things had made it obvious to me that it was October.  On my nightly walk home from work through town, the air had recently become fragrant with the chimney smoke coughed up by coal fires which were being lit ever since the rain and wind had adopted a brisk autumnal chill.  Rusted leaves scampered down desolate streets, their movement making a sound that put me in mind of kitten claws on a wooden floor.  Supermarkets were displaying their seasonal offers of Halloween costumes and Christmas selection boxes side by side, bringing back to life the ancient dispute between Paganism and Christianity.  On my smartphone, the calendar application had been reading October for more than a week.

Although October is the month where I not only age day by day and week by week, but also by an entire year, it has always been one of my favourite pages on the Gregorian calendar.  In the days when I was growing up, it would usually be every other October when we would go away on a family holiday.  The school term would end around the week of my birthday and the five of us went to Butlins, or on the bus to Blackpool, or on three occasions, to Walt Disney World in Florida.  It was on the third of those trips, in October of 1998, when I turned fifteen and fell in love with a girl from Tallahassee over a weekend in the hotel swimming pool.  She was petite and blonde, and her skin was the tone of a freshly varnished bookcase.  We played Marco Polo late into the nightand her inability to tag me gradually convinced me that she had at the very least developed a sympathy for me, and quite possibly held romantic intentions.  It wouldn’t occur to me until a few years after the fact that she was simply terrible at water sports and was struggling to identify the Scottish accent.

On Sunday morning the Tallahassee girl and her father were checking out of the hotel, and our family was scheduled to visit the Magic Kingdom.  As at age thirty-five, my ability to talk to girls when fifteen-years-old was comparable to this particular girl’s Marco Polo strategy, and I left the hotel swimming pool bound for Disney without being able to make her it.  I felt heartbroken, and my parents realised that they could never take us on an extended family holiday again due to the threat that I would ruin it with puberty and emotions.  We traipsed around the Magic Kingdom that afternoon, with my eyes memorising the pure white laces of my trainers, and It’s a Small World gnawing away at my soul.

The week of the thirty-fifth day marking my birth contrasted greatly to the week of my fifteenth birthday in 1998.  Whereas that week was spent visiting theme parks in the baking Florida sun with my mother making sure that my siblings and I were wearing an appropriate level of sunscreen at all times, the week I turned thirty-five was a challenging one for footwear.  The rain which had been falling in an almost constant cycle since the end of August had left puddles the size of moon craters by the sides of the road, and Oban even made the national news due to the severe flooding parts of the town was suffering.

There were reports of shoes struggling to cope with the deluge, and in the office socks lined the storage heaters in the way patients sit around a doctors reception, waiting for the prognosis on whether or not they’re going to make it.  Avoiding the tidal waves which would erupt over the pavement, at least four feet into the air, every time a vehicle was driven through the puddles was an arduous task, and one which demanded a great amount of skill and judgment.  A quick calculation was required to measure the speed and size of the oncoming traffic against my own walking manner, in order to decide whether I could step across the length of the moon crater before the next car would drive through the body of water and leave me drenched.  In what was an unlikely turn of events, and surely my finest triumph in months, my socks were left completely dry.

The flooding was a pain in the neck for many, but an incident in the shower caused me to suffer my own neck pain.  As I was raising my left arm overhead to wash away the ‘Lynx Black’ Frozen Pear and Cedarwood Scent body wash from under my arm, I had a simultaneous need to cough, and those two actions together seemed to strain a muscle in the back of my neck.  It hurt tremendously, although I was not sure if the greater injury was to my body or my pride.  As the day progressed and every turn of my head brought a sharp reminder of my shame, I found myself questioning if this was something a person’s body does as it ages.  Are everyday chores like showering or polishing the dado rail or recycling empty milk bottles going to bring with it the added risk of doing myself physical harm now that I am 35?

In an effort to reclaim a feeling of my fading youth on the day before my birthday, I wore a striking red shirt.  A combination of confidence and anxiety washed over me as I left the flat that morning and the thought occurred to me that I haven’t seen many men wearing a dress shirt the colour of a bashful cherry tomato.  Certainly, if any men are sporting such bright and bold fashion they aren’t approaching forty, and I wondered if this was my equivalent of buying a motorcycle or going skydiving.

The shirt attracted many comments, such as “That’s a very red shirt,” and “You’re looking very red today.”  I admired their observation, though naturally, they couldn’t have known that I wasn’t wearing the shirt as some extravagant statement of fashion or a grand announcement of my mood.  It had been several months since I last wore the bright red garment, and I only wear it so infrequently because I am scared to wash it.  To be exact, I am worried about what will happen to the rest of my laundry if I introduce a red shirt to the load, and so it is left hanging in my wardrobe while all the other cool and more trendy looking shirts are taken out, in much the same way that I remain standing at the bar while the more suitably attired guys are taken and worn out by the girls.

In keeping with the belief that dabbling in new and adventurous experiences would restore some form of youth, I decided that my birthday meal out with my family would be eaten at BAAB Meze & Grill following a few positive reviews from friends.  Their dishes are all eastern Mediterranean recipes which are served in a manner that encourages sharing and bonding, which is a departure from our standard Saturday night in Wetherspoons where my father and brother will inevitably become involved in a debate about politics and my interest will rapidly diminish, until I am casting glances around the bar, dreaming up scenarios in which I humiliate myself by talking to women.

Although our waiter carefully described the idea behind the menu and the various foods on offer, our inexperience in this culinary heritage was obvious for anyone to see.  The waiter took our order, and later in the night, it was all I could do to imagine the scene in the kitchen when he returned with his pocket notebook and tried to explain to his colleagues that the table of five had ordered two Baba ghanoush and no fewer than three other dips.  In the end, we were forced to ask for another bag of pita bread as we came to terms with our folly and made a desperate attempt to use as much of our dips as possible.

The food was terrific and plentiful – obviously – and the discussion at the table turned to the different social occasions this kind of dining would be best suited for.  A drunken rabble seemed obvious, but I remained unconvinced that it would be a good place to take a date.  Although the location is luxurious, and the nature of the experience would be a fine talking point, I couldn’t get my mind past the potential for calamity.  How well could a date really go when there are two dishes of rich, garlicky Baba ghanoush to get through?

I had been thirty-five for roughly nineteen-and-a-half hours when I went to Aulay’s for some beers with friends.  It was just like any other time I had been at the bar when younger:  the lager was quickly accompanied by whisky, I was exuberantly over-dressed, we watched Scotland lose a game of football, and we were tormented by an unknown girl.

Our crew was joined briefly by a fresh-faced Englishman who reduced the beard ratio amongst us.  His girlfriend was once a barmaid and recently became appointed a sustainability manager, and the fresh-faced Englishman insisted on buying for me my favourite minty green shot on her behalf.  I wondered whether I would manage to sustain such a level of drinking on a Thursday night, though my doubts were soon forgotten when I became distracted by the girl who was sitting at the table behind us.  She had more than a hint of mischief in her character and seemed to revel in being contrary.  She refused to believe that I was out celebrating my birthday, though my ability to perform a squat seemed to convince the contrarian of my worth, and we followed her onto the next bar.

The View is not my regular scene, on account of its predominantly young clientele and the dance music they tend to play.  The curtains were drawn across the large windows, meaning that the bar which probably has the best view in town had no view.  After some time the Arsenal supporting barman from Aulay’s arrived, and he handed me a shot of Sambuca.  Even a faint whiff of the anise-flavoured liqueur is enough to turn my stomach queasy after too many a night in my early twenties spent downing the flaming spirit, and I should have had more than the measure of reluctance I felt when given the drink.  The wisdom and experience I’ve gained over my thirty-five years should have been enough to warn me about what would happen if I took the shot, but I ignored all of that and accepted the token of celebration.  Within moments of throwing the Sambuca down my throat, I was striding towards the bathroom with a purpose I hadn’t displayed in years.  I swung the cubicle door open and was instantly Linda Blairing all over the toilet, my right arm clutching my purple Paisley pattern tie to my chest as I desperately tried to protect it.  I continued to retch and heave, and in that bleak moment, I was finally returned to my youth, as I remembered how it felt to be a fifteen-year-old boy in the Magic Kingdom.