The day religion found me

The motivation to get out of bed and perform thirty minutes of yoga in the morning was proving to be scarce as January was fading into a frosty February.  Each day the first of my nine alarms would fill the bedroom with its shrill sound from the bedside table, and my first thought as my eyes flickered into life was to question what kind of an idiot would set an alarm for six o’clock in the morning.

Every morning the same tired routine was played out amongst the theatre of my crumpled bed sheets.  The 6am alarm was silenced and I turned onto the other pillow to face away from the offending technology, hoping that if I wasn’t looking at it, it wouldn’t screech again.  Inevitably it would, though, and I was forced to silence another alarm. I sank into my mattress and realised that if I was going to follow through with my goal to read a few pages of a book and do half an hour of yoga before work every morning I would have to get out of bed and make a cup of Earl Grey tea, but I could tell from the brief foray my hands had made to the bedside table that the room was much colder than the world beneath my sheets was. 

The alarms continued to furiously sound, each one more jarring than the last.  It was becoming a game of cat and mouse, where I was reluctant to be beholden to the alarms I had set for myself, despite knowing that a session of yoga would be better for my body and mind than lying lazily in bed.  As the week progressed, it was increasingly obvious that like the way you can lead a horse to water without being able to convince it to admit that it has a drinking problem, it is also true that you can set a series of nine alarms between 6am and 8am, but you can’t force yourself to get out of bed and face the world again.

As the mercury mirrored my motivation and continued to drop, my experimentation with soup recipes was reaching new levels of desperation when it came to utilising any loose ingredients in the kitchen without having to go out shopping for more.  I chopped up some onions, leek and garlic – the process of which caused me to scratch the point of my thumb with a knife – and seasoned it all in a pot with some thyme.  The resulting soup made for a pleasing and warming lunch on the following three days, though when I went to bed later in the night and could sniff the aroma of my soup, it brought a level of confusion I ordinarily feel when something I have said makes a girl smile.  Despite it being occupied by a thirty-five-year-old male, my bedroom is generally an odourless environment, so to find the air fragrant with soup was an unusual event.

I was going about the business of undressing myself for bed when my mind was busy with thoughts concerning the scent of soup in my chambers.  I couldn’t fathom how the smell could linger through from the kitchen into the bedroom; the only reasonable explanation I was capable of conjuring was that the ghost which I had briefly believed to be haunting my bedroom in the months after I moved into my flat had returned.

In a meticulous, distracted manner the buttons on my grey shirt were unfastened while I considered the re-emergence of my spirit company.  She had never before carried with her an essence of freshly boiled soup, and it seemed a remarkable coincidence that she would do so on a night where I had made a new batch.  I straightened the rainbow of dress shirts which were hanging in the wardrobe before getting into bed with a book.  The words were failing to register with me as the soup-smelling ghost dominated my thoughts.  It occurred to me that the timeline of my block of flats could point to the apparition being from a war-time era.  She possibly used her ration book to make soup for starving servicemen, in the way I used the restricted goods in my fridge to feed a hungry single man.  All she did with her life was to make soup for other people, and the stench would cling to her and define her character the way Joop and old books did mine.

My inability to read was similar to my lack of motivation to get out of bed in the morning, and I turned the bedside lamp off.  I was lying in my bed staring at the darkness where the ceiling would usually be when I remembered how I had stripped the clothes airer in the kitchen of dry and creased shirts earlier in the evening after I had boiled a pot of leek and onion soup.

A frozen scene outside Oban

During the week, I promised a friend that, along with another acquaintance, we would help her to move a bed between two rooms in the apartment she was about to move out of.  The view from the window of the living room was amongst the most sublime I have seen in Oban.  The sky was settling into a peaceful dusky blue as the last ferry of the day to Lismore was floating across the water against the backdrop of frost-tipped hills.  It was the type of scene an American or an Australian might find on their doorstep on the reverse of a written missive from a travelling relative.  High and to the right, McCaig’s Tower could be seen standing over the town, illuminated in fluorescent light.  It was a landscape which could not be compared to that on offer from my own living room, of the Oban Grill House and a weather-battered red postbox.  

Across the street, the entire top floor of an office block was being renovated, with two or three workmen busily crafting a bland and soulless environment.  The walls had been painted an unblemished white and dust sheets were covering a variety of furnishings.  It was either going to become a dental surgery, or we were unwittingly witnessing the scene of some criminal cover-up, like the meth houses in the television series Breaking Bad.

In the bedroom, we began to move the base sections of the bed.  Between two of us, they were light and easily managed, even after I had once again missed my session of yoga in the morning.  The mattress was propped against the wall, and through a glimpse from the corner of my eye, it appeared to have a small, although not completely insignificant, bloodstain.  I was focussing my attention on lifting the base of the bed in a way which wouldn’t scrape the paintwork of the rented apartment, trying not to acknowledge the splatter of blood on the mattress.  It was none of my business and surely easily explained, like the time I leaked blood all over my kitchen and bathroom when I cut my finger on a tin of tuna.

My effort to ignore the blood on the mattress was compromised when my friend asked me not to worry about the stain as we came to lift the mattress into the other room.  Suddenly it was all I could think about.  The booming base of a funk song was playing from the small speaker in the kitchen, and I began to wonder if this was how the scene across the street had started.

The longer the week wore on, the more strained my interaction with other people was becoming.  When drying myself after a morning shower, I discovered the first two strands of silver to appear amongst the wispy black hairs on my chest.  It was an unremarkable find, considering that I am not a television star from the 1970s who relies on such things for success, but it left me feeling aged and cantankerous nonetheless.  Even though I had been gifted an excuse for the lack of morning motivation I had been experiencing – the grey hairs on my chest invariably meaning that I am getting old and, as a consequence, finding it more difficult to get out of bed – I was unhappy when I left the flat on Saturday morning.

Outside my door, I could hear the chatter of two elderly women, their voices elegant and superior, like those I remember hearing on the steps outside the Cathedral after Sunday Mass.  The sound carried so loudly that it seemed to me that they were standing in the close of my block, but as I stepped outside I came to realise that the women were on the street, and I was ambushed by a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses at the entrance to my building, like a bird who unwittingly lands on the snout of a crocodile.  They immediately began to interrogate me on which number I live in, their idle stance suffocating me and rendering it impossible for me to move aside so that they could see the metallic 42 on the front of the door.

Their virtuous voices continued to question me on my living arrangement, demanding to know if my home was on the left or the right of the floor and whether I was living on the middle floor.  I told the two women that I do not live in the middle, but that I was feeling like a Stealers Wheel song.  They remained unperturbed and asked me again which number I reside in.  I had been waiting for more than a year for a woman to show an interest in the flat I am living in, but I had never imagined that I would have to lie to get out of the situation when it finally arose.  I excused myself and told the two Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was running late for a coffee date with a friend.  Any true God would have known that I don’t meet friends for coffee, but rather tend to catch up over a beer, and that I was only leaving my flat to buy sausages.  Nevertheless, the women parted like a sea and allowed me to pass, my deceit of another deity complete.

When I returned home on Saturday evening after spending the afternoon at my dad’s I was still feeling aggrieved by the grey hairs and Jehovah’s, when my favourite sandwich artist offered to drop off a six-inch Sub on her way home from work.  When I opened the door to her, I was greeted by the brightest smile I had ever seen in my doorway, and I was pleased when she handed me a baguette rather than a bible.  Five minutes of banter about mayonnaise were enough to make the ordeal of the week seem worthwhile.  I returned inside to my own company and to reheat the sandwich and watch a film about singing gunslingers on Netflix.  The scent of microwaved meat permeated through the flat, and at least this time I knew that it wasn’t the ghost of a war-time cook which was haunting me.

The day there was snow chaos

The observations of the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were still percolating through my mind the morning after I had met them as I was standing in my cold kitchen trying to remember how much ground coffee the machine is supposed to take.  I was fumbling with the filter paper, trying to fold it into place, my fingers and thumbs existing only to hinder my progress as I attempted to fashion the shape needed to guide the flow of the liquid coffee. With the little beige paper finally in position, I poured three cupfulls of water into the tank and pushed the green button which told the coffee machine that I was hungover and in need of a kickstart.  

I went about poaching some eggs as the machine groaned into life.  Soon steam was coughing angrily from the vents on its body, and by the time I had presented the eggs, which had been poached perfectly to the point where the yolks would gush the way a girl laughs at any other man’s joke, on a couple of slices of toast, the coffee was ready to be served.  I excitedly released the jug from its cradle and directed its spout towards the waiting cup. A stream of water which resembled the colour of stale dishwater cascaded into the clean porcelain cup, and it soon occurred to me that I had forgotten to put ground coffee in the filter.

Hours earlier, the middle-aged couple from Hamilton were confiding in me their astonishment at the level of drug use they had seen in their few hours in Oban.  I was somewhat taken aback by their surprise, which was expressed mostly by the mild-mannered gentleman, given that they had arrived from Lanarkshire, though much of this talk was likely prompted by the karaoke renditions the three of us were bearing witness to in the Claredon.  I couldn’t help but wonder what they would have thought if only they could have seen me standing in my kitchen with my jug of dirty water.

In the evening, hours after I had reverted to the more traditional kettle for solace, I met with the plant doctor and the bird watcher prior to us all attending the Rockfield Community Centre’s monthly open mic event ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.  The Rockfield Centre is a former primary school building which was opened in 1877 and closed in 2007 and came to fall into a state of disrepair until the Oban Communities Trust took ownership of the building in 2015, transforming it into a creative and cultural centre for the town.  Each month people are invited to attend the laid back setting of ‘Let’s Make A Scene’, where acts are encouraged to perform music, poetry, spoken word and stand up comedy.

On this night there were around thirty people crammed into the small hut.  Rows of chairs were sitting around small tables which each had plates of crisps and grapes on offer for the hungry.  Alongside them, in the centre of each table, was a tealight candle, all of them combining to comprise the only lighting in the room.  It was an intimate environment which was reminiscent of how I imagined a Prohibition-era jazz club in New York City might look. I was standing at the back of the room with my two companions who could be a David Attenborough documentary.  It wasn’t clear if we had elected to position ourselves there in order to present ourselves as brooding hipster types, or because it was closest to the bottled beers.

A broad palette of local artists were displaying a great range of talents, from stirring string acoustic ballads to poetic verses and Islamic chanter music.  My attention wasn’t entirely focussed on the performances at the front of the room, however. Earlier in the night, it was jokingly suggested amongst our group that if there was a lull in proceedings I should stand before the room and read items from the small notebook I was carrying in my pocket.  The idea that anyone would want to listen to my journaled observations in such a cultured committee seemed preposterous to me, but as the night wore on my mind was continuing to play with the possibility. I could imagine myself ambling to the performance area at the front, pulling the black notebook from the inside pocket of my jacket in a dramatic fashion and sitting a bottle of Jameson on the table before me.  I would pour myself a glass of whiskey and begin to read passages from the book. Meanwhile, in my mind’s eye, I could see the plant doctor, or some other acquaintance, playing the panpipes or the triangle in the corner of the room to bring an absurdist twist to the reading. The more I was thinking about it, the more I was considering that it would be quite a scene for a future ‘Let’s Make A Scene’.

It was early in the week when the snow which had been threatening to fall the previous Friday finally arrived, when following the break of dawn there was a break in the resistance of the clouds.  By the time I was leaving my flat for work, the pavements were covered with a dusting of white and resembled my kitchen counter the one time I tried home baking.  There didn’t appear to have been a significant fall of snow, and much of the streets were already forming a dull slush which was the shade of a jug of water which had been filtered through a coffee machine without the addition of ground coffee.  The rush hour traffic travelling outbound from town was at a standstill, and later the region’s newspaper of record, The Oban Times, reported that Oban was gripped by snow chaos.

screenshot 2019-01-27 at 1.46.44 pm
The front page of this weeks Oban Times

The tumultuous Tuesday morning storm caused commuters all over town to be up to half an hour late for work, with extreme cases forcing people to clock in after ten o’clock.  Some larger vehicles became trapped down rural roads, while fears of icy stretches on some routes caused the popular Soroba-to-Dunollie bus service to terminate on the Esplanade, leaving the public transport using residents of Dunollie cut off from the rest civilisation, and even the local Tesco supermarket, until the afternoon.

Amidst the scenes of a white winter horror, I learned that my black shoes have as stubborn a resistance to wet, slushy pavements as many of my houseplants have had to death.  More specifically, I discovered that while the left shoe of the pair performs all of the functions one would expect from a leather shoe, the right had been acting as though it was under the impression that it is a sieve and had allowed the yellow sock I was wearing on that foot to become sodden.  I was feeling bitter about this revelation, the sort of bitterness which a soggy cotton sock holds onto all day long.  What is it that suddenly causes a shoe to decide to go rogue?

Although there was no further snowfall during the week, the chaos continued when the plunging temperature caused the slushy pavements to become iced over in a recreation of the scene in Arendelle.  I had embarked on my morning perambulate to the office on Thursday, wrapped up warmly and wearing more appropriate footwear, when by the time I had reached the clock tower at station square the trek was already looking treacherous and laden with the potential for a slip-up, like when I am approaching a girl at the bar.

I was feeling uneasy on my footing, and shortly into my journey, I was forced into adjusting my steps to reflect those of a small child who is just learning how to walk.  As I was travelling nervously beyond the bus shelter, a group of three or four schoolchildren were striding sternly, strongly and confidently across the icy pavements to catch the school bus.  They were literally walking on water, and as I was struggling to negotiate the ice with my baby steps, I could feel the tiny eyes of the children glaring at me with a look of mockery.

Beyond the young schoolchildren, I could see an elderly gentleman who was sitting prone on the edge of the pavement beside his car.  He had propped himself up with his elbow, surrounded by a couple of loud neon suitcases and an elderly woman, presumably his wife, who was looking at the stricken man with sympathy and concern.  The woes of the stranger were doing nothing for my state of anxiety, and I was thinking to myself how easy it is to shoulder emotional hurt without anybody else seeing that something isn’t right, but a broken arm would draw a lot more attention.  I couldn’t imagine an outcome where I would find a sling that would compliment the colour of any of my ties, so I conceded that my morning walk by the sea wouldn’t be worth the risk.

My inability to walk only added to the pervading sense of hopelessness I had recently been encountering.  At times I had the feeling of a storm brewing behind my eyes, and although it didn’t bring chaos or dampen the sock on my right foot, it was something I could have done without.  I decided that the only way of dealing with such things would be to get back into a routine of doing yoga twice a day, so I dusted down the black mat I hadn’t stretched on in around eight months and tried to motivate myself out of the permanent struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  Once I had finally arisen, I rolled the yoga mat out across the wooden flooring of my living room and inhaled.

I was feeling pleased with my effort as I was manipulating my muscles and limbs into various shapes, per the workout I was following, though as I worked myself into a downward dog and came face to face with a sad speck of dust and a lone strand of artificial pine from the Christmas tree I had removed three weeks earlier, I was finding it difficult to focus on yoga.  As I formed a cobra on the mat I could hear the sound of a bus sloshing through slushy snow outside my window, and it was all I could do to think about my shoes.  I supposed that I would try again the next morning.

Wah-Wahnuary: My soundtrack to the month of January (a Spotify playlist)

The morning I re-started yoga

The weekend just passed turned out to be a lot like the story of Easter if it was told in reverse:  Friday was a day where I felt revitalised and re-energised and full of life.  It was, quite literally, a Good Friday.  By Easter Sunday, however, I felt drained and lifeless and as though I was pushing against a giant stone to no avail.  There is, I suppose, a limit to how much alcohol a thirty-four-year-old man can responsibly drink, and a four-day weekend is at the very peak of that limit.

The full moon scene over Oban Bay on Easter Sunday night

Although Good Friday was a day on which I wasn’t working I had grown quite restless and bored sitting around my flat in a pair of dark jeans and a checked shirt and felt an urge to suit up before I went to Aulay’s Bar, as though it was any other Friday and I was indulging in post-work drinks.  A part of me feels like I have a certain appearance to uphold having dressed this way on so many Friday nights, even if that appearence is of a man who has had too many whiskies and is woefully inept at talking to women but at least is sharply dressed.  He was often very drunk and he certainly didn’t know how to talk to a lady, but at least his socks were almost matching the colour of his tie; is what I expect will be etched on my epitaph.

This could rarely have been more true than on Friday night, where the bar staff were witness to some crude form of dark comedic entertainment when the formerly red-haired barmaid who often smiles was able to convince a trio of tourists that it would be in their interests to move from the public bar to the lounge, where I was waiting to seduce them with my purple pocket square and some carefully prepared and beguiling introduction.

Unfortunately the bar staff were about to take the role of Pilate’s court to my Jesus Christ, only rather than turning water into wine I was going to transform romantic opportunity into sour grapes.  I became fixated on the fluffy white bobble hat with light shades of blue and pink one of the girls was wearing and after a time all I could think about was passing comment on this hat.  When she removed it her hair was the colour of a sunset which had bled most of its warmth into the ocean and she had a pale face which demanded a lot more attention than I was giving it, but I couldn’t move past the bobble hat.  Eventually I determined that something had to be said, only the timing was horribly wrong:  she had put the bobble hat back on her head and she and her friends were preparing to leave.  I lurched towards her in an awkward fashion which betrayed my navy blue suit and congratulated her on the beautiful bobble hat she was wearing.  She thanked me and told me that she is Welsh and I remarked that “I suppose that explains why it looks so cosy” and I never saw her again.

I stood at the bar nursing a Jack Daniels and coke, contemplating where things might have gone wrong with the girl with the bobble hat, when I became aware of two English women at the end of the bar ordering malt whiskies.  I was able to put aside the feeling of inferiority which was washing over me as I clutched a bourbon whiskey sorely watered down by a sugary soft drink and I enquired about the story which led these ladies to explore whisky in Scotland.  They were receptive to conversation and I went some way to making amends for my appearance as a Scotsman who drinks Jack Daniels and coke when I ordered a round of Lagavulin, a proper whisky which I have not imbibed since the night it coaxed me into collapsing through the screen door on my shower.  The whisky was commended and the conversation was progressing remarkably well until I mentioned the ghost which I suspect haunts my bedroom.  It was then that I learned that telling a woman about the female spirit which lingers in my bedroom and seems to be more interested in escaping than making contact with me isn’t at all a move that will entice said woman into visiting the bedroom.  In fact, it strikes me that the one certain way to convince a woman that she shouldn’t go to bed with you would be to make it clear that even a ghost would not molest you in the night.

Although Good Friday was indeed a good night it also brought me to realise that all I have in my romancing repertoire is the colour of my socks and the way that I have laid my wardrobe out so that it goes from dark shirts to light.  I have no escapades to regale, very little in the way of exploits and certainly no high jinks to speak of.  It was this watershed moment which convinced me that I had to once again start doing yoga each morning, even if only to give me something else to talk about.

This morning I reached for the black yoga mat which had been stored on the top shelf of my wardrobe since I moved into my flat – an act that I suspect will be much easier after a few days of stretching and bending – and I tried to find a suitable spot in my living room for my routine.  The room is quite small and there is little space for complex body movements.

The area inside the doorway seemed the most suitable for my daily exercise, despite the tips of my fingers almost threatening to brush the dado rail with every stretch and my nose very nearly making unwanted contact with the coffee table as I moved into a downward dog.  What proved more difficult than the spacial constraints was trying to get into a mindset of ‘Zen’ when laying on a wooden floor and spying a piece of fluff under the couch or the discarded plastic tag from a recently purchased tie, which had somehow made it into the living room despite being cut in the bedroom.  It is hard to be at one with one’s spirit when you are disturbed by specks of dust on the floor.

A different frame of mind to the peace of yoga is required when preparing dinner – particularly when chopping onions.  I always end up with an abundance of them due to the fact that my nearest supermarket doesn’t sell them loose and so, like with lemons, I have to buy a net of five at a time, which often means that every recipe requires an onion.  This isn’t a terrible imposition and onions do not have an unpleasant taste, but they do have a tendency to irritate the eyes and if drinking Jack Daniels and coke at a bar in front of a woman who enjoys malt whisky isn’t bad enough then crying over the creation of a pasta dish surely is.  Recently I have devised a foolproof method to prevent this from happening, and that is to think of something sad before taking a sharp knife to the skin of the onion.  Usually I will contemplate the futility of my romantic life or imagine what kind of dirt I might encounter on my living room floor while doing yoga the next morning, and at least if tears do stream down my cheeks I can convince myself that I am not crying over something as silly as an onion.

That, at least, is my interpretation of the proverb about how April showers bring May flowers.