The night I forgot my earphones

I put the idea of getting a dog on pause and returned to my more natural instinct of  looking after houseplants – or at least convincing myself that I could probably keep a houseplant living for a while.  On a recent afternoon I was walking the aisles of a local gardening outlet as I searched for something colourful to replace the plants I had thrown out last month when I noticed that there was an offer where I could buy two plants for around £4.  Even though I felt uncertain as to whether I could sufficiently care for one plant, let alone two,  the frugal part of me saw this as an opportunity to save some money should I buy one plant and it meets an untimely demise, leaving me with an immediate need to buy another.  I convinced myself that if two hands are better than one then it is probably also true that two plants are better than one.

Shuffling around the dirty, soil strewn displays of various orange and yellow and violet and red flowers with only another lone, much older male in close proximity reminded me a lot of the days spent as a young adolescent loitering around the section in John Menzies where they kept the adult reading material.  The awkward glances over the shoulder to see if anybody was looking; the sense of fear and shame and exhilaration and not really understanding any of it; the way that just as you reach to take a closer look at the glossy Gladiolus someone walks past and you hastily retreat and pretend that you have made a terrible mistake and you’re really looking to browse power tools; finding that the coast is finally clear and you throw the first two plants you can reach into your basket and quickly leave the scene, hoping that nobody notices the orange sunflower poking out.

As I took stock of the variety of plants on offer I became aware that my internal narrator was producing a running commentary on the imagined conversations between the foliage before me.  I tried to block it out and focus my energy on finding the flowers I could most effortlessly care for, but of late my internal narrator has become incessant and I couldn’t help but hear what was being said.

“Look at this guy, attempting to substitute human intimacy with a potted plant…the poor sap!”

“It’s July and he’s wearing a shirt and tie in the afternoon; who does that?  His socks are probably only vaguely matching the tie, too.”

“Best not laugh guys, if he takes any of you home you’ll be dead within a week.”

“Pffft — I can’t imagine he ever takes anything home!”

Then the plants all high-fived each other, or at least they would have done if chrysanthemums had hands and could perform a high-five.

I resolved with myself that the best practice going forward would be to incorporate the care of my plants into my morning routine – as I am washed and watered then so are my plants, although separately as I am not ready for that level of intimacy yet.  In recent times my morning routine has been half a Hogan:  I take my vitamins, but I grew out of saying my prayers many years ago.

In the shower my process has been hindered by the increasingly hot temperature of the water, which is making it difficult to wash off all of the Nivea Deep Cleaning face wash.  I’ve heard of being left with egg on your face, but having Nivea Deep Cleaning face wash on your face is surely the 2018 metrosexual equivalent.

Feeling some satisfaction that my houseplants were still alive after a couple of hours in my care I walked along to Aulay’s for the first of the World Cup semi-finals between Belgium and France.  The bar was busy and in the corner there was a table populated by somewhere between four and six young Belgian women, all dressed in the regal red kit and with their national flag draped over the stained glass.  They each shrieked with a primal excitement every time Belgium carried the ball into the opposition half and the sound pierced the eardrum with such sharpness that I found myself siding with the trio of Frenchmen who were sitting nearby.

As the game kicked off I ordered a pint of Tennents at the bar and contemplated the continental comeliness of the ladies.  As I brought the froth of the lager to my mouth my internal narrator began to comment on the situation, and upon glancing again at the ladies I immediately found myself regretting my decision to eat my homemade pasta sauce, which is heavy on garlic and onion.  I tried to focus on the game and forget about the circumstances of my hygiene, but my internal narrator continued to press on the point of my fragrant blunder.  It insisted that if I even dared to approach the Belgians they would only turn their noses up at me as I would surely smell to them as though I was wearing a ring of onions around my neck, and not even Joop! could mask that scent.

The screeches of the girls quietened to a dull bar chatter after France’s victory and I considered approaching them in a conciliatory manner, though the maths of the situation was troubling me.  How does a solo man approach a table of five Belgian girls without it being any more awkward than such encounters usually are when the numbers are more even?  I took a hearty mouthful of beer and looked with a longing gaze at the table of Belgians, who were deep in the throes of defeat, as I tried to figure out which would be the best angle to approach from and how I could possibly make my walk appear confident when inside my internal narrator was telling me that I was a fool for even contemplating such a move.  I began to recite potential opening lines in my head, but I was uncertain which of the girls I would even direct them to.  In the end it didn’t really even matter when it turned out that it was impossible to talk to them, although not for the usual reason of my social ineptitude, but because they didn’t speak very much English.

It was after another week of intense solitude that I started to appreciate how the desire for a woman is essentially the banana in the fruit bowl of life, because it seems to be what ages everything else around it.   All I really find myself craving is a mango:  something that is sweet and juicy, with an alluring rosy flesh and a heart of stone.  A good mango seems to be increasingly elusive, and following another fruitless evening in the bars on Saturday I embarked on the long walk home without my earphones after absent-mindedly leaving them at home.

The scene on my walk home on Saturday night suggested that I am not the only person in Oban who cannot look after flowers.

Everything was silent and still, besides the restless machine of monologue in my mind, and when I made it through my door I remembered that it would be a good idea to water the plants which hadn’t been nourished for at least forty hours.  They sat patiently atop the mantel place and I wondered if plants ever feel anything other than patience.  They only ever seem to be waiting.  I poured myself a whisky and fell asleep on the couch listening to Lou Reed, and the plants were going to have to wait a while longer.

The week I thought about getting a dog

After an hour and seven minutes of contemplation on the North Pier the previous Saturday I approached the week a lot like a barnacle on a boat:  low and lonesome.  Most people tend to go to the North Pier for seafood and luxury cruises but it seemed I was there for sorrow and emotional bruises.  Over the proceeding days I continued to experience the (what I presume to be) anxiety attacks I began having recently.  The symptoms were becoming more powerful and were lasting a lot longer – often hours at a time – like an especially unpleasant Duracell battery.  My mind was crackling in the way a bag of microwave popcorn does when it is approaching being ready, my hands and arms were tingling and at one stage it was becoming so difficult to breathe that I began to hyperventilate for probably the first time in my life, at least that I can remember.  It was then that I realised that memories are like the sort of hangover which doesn’t go away with a beer.

The continuation of the football World Cup presented further opportunities for visiting the bar on unusual days of the week and a chance to escape real-life responsibilities for a while.  It is on these midweek meanderings that I have become more acutely aware of an observation I have long held, and that is the way in which a group of girls will swoon over a dog when it is walked into a bar.  There are audible gasps of giddy excitement when a dog appears and it is possible to set the stopwatch app on a smartphone to measure the time it takes before the girls are enthusiastically petting the soft coat of the dog and talking softly and lovingly in a language the animal will never understand, and you can be sure it will be less than three minutes.  I have learned that it is impossible for a man with a pink pocket square to compete with a pooch.

As Argentina and Nigeria competed for a place in the knockout rounds of the World Cup I was competing with a couple of labrador retrievers for the attention of a table of Australian visitors.  It was an unfair match:  Argentina had Lionel Messi and the labrador retrievers had a fluffy golden coat which bested my greying stubble, particularly when Tuesday is a day where I don’t trim.

I watched as the girls flocked around these two labrador dogs and noticed how the male and female owners welcomed the attention.  In that moment I considered  how much more favourably I might be viewed by the opposite sex if I was to stroll into Aulay’s with a canine companion by my side.  I imagined scenarios where I would walk up to the bar and order a pint of lager and some implausibly beautiful woman on a barstool would ask me if I minded her patting my dog, and I would make some stupid remark like:  “you’d have to ask him that” and suddenly it would be quite funny because I had a dog and she could play with it.

It quickly occurred to me that procuring a puppy might be my best chance of finding a woman.  Man’s best friend could be my best wing man.  Nobody judges the sockwear of a dogs master when they are scratching it behind its ear, and the awkwardness of trying to initiate a conversation with a girl would surely be taken away by a wagging tail and a cold, wet nose.  With a dog sitting at my heel the only aspect of the flirtation process I would need to concern myself with would be the follow up chat.  While it is true that if attracting girls to talk to me in the first place is the most difficult thing then engaging a girl in a follow up chat is the second most difficult part of courting, but the dog would instantly give me the perfect proposition.  I imagined a softly spoken compliment on the cute appearance of my dog – and it would be merited due to the way his collar matched the colour of my tie.  I would thank the female stranger and proceed to tell her how he enjoys long romantic walks on the beach under moonlight, but how recently I have begun to notice a sadness in his eyes as he observes how I am never accompanied by another human on our walks.  I couldn’t imagine any woman resisting.

Despite the obvious potential advantages of having a dog around, the more I contemplated the idea the more flawed it became.  How would I suppose I could look after a dog when I can’t keep a simple houseplant alive for more than a few weeks?  And if my portion control of pasta is so terrible how would I provide an adequately nourishing meal for a pup?  I resigned myself to the acceptance that owning a dog wouldn’t be a very good idea for me, even if it would help end my romantic woes, and instead spent a day considering operating some kind of dog sitting service.  I could offer to look after local canines between the hours of 8pm and midnight on a Friday, during which time I would take them to Aulay’s and perhaps some other dog-friendly bars for some social interaction.  It didn’t seem like an awful idea, although I couldn’t conjure a solution for the problem of what I would do with the dog in the wildly optimistic scenario where I successfully talk to a girl and convince her that she would enjoy coming back to my place.  I couldn’t take the mutt to mine and as such I could already sense the disappointment of my imagined lover when she awakes in the morning to find that I don’t actually own a dog.  It would only heighten the disappointment any woman who has ever been intimate with me naturally feels.

I put a pin in the idea of running a dog sitting service as a means of attracting romantic interest and instead returned to the mundane daily tasks I use as a substitute for female company.  I faithfully polished the wooden interior of my living room with a regularity which almost became ritual like now that the windows can be opened and the dust is coughed in from the road.  I swept my floor often, because if I’m not sweeping ladies off their feet I like to sweep unidentifiable pieces of fluff off oak surfaces.

On Thursday I experimented with rocket in a spaghetti recipe and I allowed myself to daydream the possibility that Elton John wrote his hit single ‘Rocket Man’ as a stinging rebuke in response to a family argument over salad leaves.  The dispute would have become quite heated as various members of the Dwight household fiercely debated the merits of watercress, spinach and cos, which were the only leaves they ever bought.  The young Elton probably stormed out, furious that his love of the peppery rocket was never acknowledged by his peers and he penned the lyrics which would form a beloved song.

“I’m not the man they think I am at home
Oh no, no, no, I’m a rocket man.”

In a heady haze of Jack Daniels and sunshine, and possibly emboldened by a Friday evening spent listening to the Tears for Fears album ‘Songs from the Big Chair’ before I ventured to the bars, it suddenly seemed a good idea to communicate by text message my long held interest in a girl.  However, in the 24°C light of sobriety I was once again left questioning my judgment when drunk and I wanted to set fire to my phone and bury the smouldering remains at sea.  I opened a beer as I sought to cure the hang over and again my thoughts turned to how much more simple all of this might be if I could walk into a bar with a dog.

The night I stopped talking

The one man bar band – a man with a guitar who performs solo but has all the high-tech equipment to replicate the sound of a full band – was deep into his version of Purple Rain when we were served our drinks.  At the crowded left-hand side of the bar, closest to where the mosh pit would be if there wasn’t a small cluster of tables reserved to be kept empty to allow the musician to ply his craft or if this wasn’t a song about heartbreak played in an intimate bar setting, a bus party of older tourists bundled awkwardly in the door, looking bemused and borderline terrified.

It was Friday night and the drinks were agreeable.  Switzerland had just won their second game of the World Cup and I considered how the Swiss girl with the blue eyes had felt about that news having missed the match against Serbia on her flight to Amsterdam.  Under the bar lights, where everybody looks alright, I wore a navy suit and a silver tie which resembled the way the liquor bottles shine.  A woman with hair the colour of ginger ale was positioned to my right and she was luxuriously drunk; the kind of inebriation I was aspiring to reach before the end of the night.  She spoke to me, but her slurred speech played against the backing track of Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’ made the words difficult to translate into coherent English.  I took my default position of politeness and nodded and agreed with whatever she was saying, hopeful that she wasn’t confiding in me her enjoyment of torturing baby iguanas by forcing them to listen to Norwegian death metal or her surprising enterprise of selling home-made crystal meth to schoolchildren.

Much to my surprise this woman, who looked to be at least four inches shorter than I am, continued to attempt to engage me in conversation.  She nestled her head onto my shoulder and inhaled as best as a very drunk person can, like a dachshund sniffing out a sausage, only in this instance it was Joop on my neck.  The woman seemed to become increasingly agitated with my responses, or lack thereof, and after some time she queried:  “garble garble garble opposite species?”

I found this to be an odd phrasing and took it as an invitation to indulge in a fairly lengthy diatribe about aliens.  If they were amongst us how would they feel about the scene before me, I pondered.  She looked me in the eye with a cold stare and I worried that I might have enthused a little too feverishly with the talk of extra terrestrial life.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”  She asked, the first phrase of the night which I fully understood.  I felt confusion as to why she would pose this question at this juncture in our vague interaction and a flash of awkwardness streaked across me like a lightning bolt.

“No,” I responded, wondering if this was a wildly rare occasion where a woman was coming onto me at a bar.

“You could easily get one,” were the words which followed from her mouth, and I felt uplifted and as though this stranger didn’t really know me at all.

“If you would stop talking,” she continued and concluded.

I was still trying to process the appropriate level of insult I should have been taking from this drunken damsel whom I didn’t particularly have much interest in to begin with when she asked me another question.  I thought I was being amusing when I held my thumb and index finger to my mouth and drew them across my lips to mimic the fastening of a zip.  This joke didn’t seem as funny to my intoxicated inquisitor and she furrowed her brow and turned her back to me.

Along the seafront in the Cellar Bar – a bar which is situated below street level – we observed a group of three girls playing pool in the corner and we recognised them as being the same trio who were in Aulay’s the previous night watching Argentina.  Despite being the most hapless of our particular posse in the pursuit of harmonious relations with women it was left to me to insist that we go forth and disgrace ourselves in their company.  My attention was drawn to the girl who had blonde hair and who was dressed in white, primarily because she was a terrible pool player and I felt I could bond with her over our mutual lack of hand-eye coordination.  I asked where she is from and when she told me that she hails from California I realised that I had no follow-up chat.  I scrambled through the recesses of my mind and the only words I could conjure were “nice oranges” and with hindsight the line sounds a little seedy.

The Californian girls didn’t linger for long and shortly we were joined by a close talking chef from Dundee who had moved to Oban that afternoon.  In conversation he positioned himself so close that it would almost be possible to smell what he cooked for dinner.  He seemed eager for company, though after some time he began to view my suit with concern and suspicion.  He noted that I dress like a lawyer and asked at least a couple of times if I was sure that I am not a lawyer.  I felt certain that I’m not and began to wonder if the chef had left Dundee due to some complex legal issue which embedded in him a deep-rooted distrust of anyone who even resembles a connection to the legal profession.  As he stalked around the table with his cue in hand I wondered what possible reason a chef would have to leave Dundee in an effort to escape the law.  Under seasoning of a sauce was the most criminal act I could think of, although assault and battering would probaby attract attention, too.

Close to twenty-four hours later it was 2am and I was sitting on the North Pier for an hour and seven minutes listening to the Rolling Stones album Exile on Main Street.  A cool early morning breeze came caressing from the sea and there was a stillness to everything.  Not a single soul walked by and it was the most alone I have ever felt.  As I looked out to the endless darkness on the coast I considered that maybe I should have stopped talking much sooner than I did.

The night I decided to support Switzerland in the World Cup

When the FIFA World Cup began on Thursday it offered yet another excuse in the pantheon of reasons to visit the pub, and even if the only fixture of the day had concluded three hours before I walked in to Aulay’s it felt as though it could be justified because it is a World Cup year.

With the hushed tones of commentary from the live golf whispering to the thin spread of patrons in the bar, sounding more like a nature documentary than a large sporting event, I stood and took mental inventory of my collection of pocket squares after the formerly red-haired barmaid had commented on my failure to compliment my bottle green tie with an accompaniment of similar colour.  I don’t own a green pocket square and it suddenly occurred to me in that moment that I can’t be taken seriously if only some of my ties have a suitably shaded pocket square companion.

Not for the first occasion in recent times the formerly red-haired barmaid suggested that I should source some kind of lesson in the techniques required to talk to girls.  She is not the only person who has offered me this advice, and I began to consider whether there might be some education in the enticement of estrogen available out there.  I took a seat on a bar stool by the end of the bar and pondered where one might find lessons on talking to girls:  somewhere on the local college prospectus, perhaps; a Gumtree ad or a Facebook group; the local newspaper or a community noticeboard.  I felt that I would surely have seen such an advertisement if it were in the public domain and I imagined a scenario where I would walk into Waterstones in search of a self-help book on the subject of talking to the female sex.  In this scenario I expected that such a book would prove very difficult to find and I would be forced to track down a store assistant to help me locate a self-help book on talking to girls.

The following night I returned to the bar, where this time there was some World Cup action to enjoy, and I assumed my regular position close to the ice box – because it is the only time I can look cool next to something.  As well as the Spain vs Portugal game, this Friday was also the night when the formerly red-haired barmaid became a purple haired former barmaid and to mark the occasion she took a selfie with my three drinking companions and I in the background in which we were almost perfectly positioned should anyone ever wish to measure beard level, as we went from fashionably bedraggled to neatly styled to my careful 1.4mm stubble to recently trimmed.

The bar hummed with the excitement of a thrilling contest and the pints of beer flowed accordingly.  This was troublesome because I had made a considerably more substantial effort in the sartorial stakes which led me to wear a grey suit, a shade which can be susceptible to the particularly fierce splashback in the newly fitted urinals in Aulay’s if one isn’t careful.  Even before I put myself in the firing line I was forced to overcome a traumatic struggle when I couldn’t find the window in an unfamiliar pair of underwear.  My hand was fumbling around – literally – like a drunk man trying to find his way around the inside of a pair of trousers, and the situation was becoming increasingly desperate because the penis seems to have an inherent ability to know that it is close to a toilet; close to salvation.  Its internal GPS knows that it should be acceptable to let go now and its resistance quickly begins to fade.  It is like the countdown to a missile launch and it can’t be stopped.  The tension was mounting as I desperately searched for the window and without any further hesitation I had to delve over the waistband to prevent a much more severe splashback incident.

When I next returned to Aulay’s on Sunday each of the bar staff had their own naturally coloured hair and there was the excuse of two games of international football to distract from real-life.  As the rain guided in the evening and we embarked on a search for food before returning to the bar to watch Brazil play Switzerland, we found a couple of young women seated in the area where we typically stand to watch these big games.  I initially felt awkward standing behind them, worrying that they might feel concern that we would attempt to engage them in conversation, but they didn’t seem to notice us.  The game developed and I found myself distracted as I tried to deduce where the women were from.  Over time I detected the use of some French and I had noticed that each time Brazil were in possession of the ball the girls were looking pensive and holding their fingernails to their lips.  I suspected that they were Swiss and I soon found myself urging Switzerland to equalise, believing that it would be my only opportunity of seeing a look of ecstasy on their faces.

Upon the final whistle, with Switzerland having snatched a much celebrated equalising goal to draw the game 1-1, I was at a level of drunkenness where I could no longer stop myself from trying to talk to these two girls.  The semi-Arabic Harry Potter looking of the pair had stepped outside for what must have been her fourth cigarette of the night and I lurched forward and blurted out something stupid like:  “It seems to me that you ladies might be Swiss.”

The blonde-haired young lady was initially startled by my sudden outburst but she quickly composed herself and confirmed that she was indeed from Switzerland.  I raised my right-hand in the offer of a high-five and congratulated her on her nation’s success, noting that it has now been twenty years since I, as a Scotsman, felt the experience of watching my country compete at a World Cup.  She smiled warmly and our hands slapped together.  Her eyes were the sharpest blue I have ever seen and they had the appearance of something which should be displayed on a cushion in a jewelry store window.  She was, by some distance, the second most beautiful woman that I have ever talked to for more than thirty seconds, although on this night our conversation was approximately ninety minutes in length.

Any thought of seeking lessons momentarily left my head and our discussion spanned such matters as using spinach as a pizza topping, why Toblerones are so difficult to break, why her old cat is named Flip and whether it is because he is acrobatic (that wasn’t the reason,) Highland cows and her goal of becoming a lawyer in the next year by passing the bar – a joke which I milked much too often by pointing out that she could also reach the ladies bathroom in Aulay’s if she passed the bar.  She laughed with exuberance and frequently – although not often at the law jokes – and I hardly felt awkward at all.

The Swiss girl with the blue eyes was the designated driver of the duo and when her semi-Arabic Harry Potter looking friend finished her Guinness they left in preparation for their early drive to Skye the next morning, and once again the penis was thwarted.