There are two major organs in Christ Church Cathedral

There was a moment on Easter Sunday when I wondered if I would ever be able to have another alcoholic drink again.  It was around the time that instead of being at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall watching Ryan Adams perform an intimate three-hour set I was hunched over the toilet in a city centre Premier Inn throwing up for the fourth time in as many hours.  I couldn’t face going to the gig, so I stayed in my hotel room with a takeaway from Nando’s while watching episodes of Columbo.  Unfortunately, as it turns out, the Nando’s chicken stayed down no longer than my typical interactions on Tinder last.

I was booked onto a 7.15 flight to Dublin the following morning, and if I was going to have to miss one thing, it was better that it would be a musician who I have seen play more than 25 times before rather than a trip to the Irish capital.  So it was with a heavy heart and a heavier hangover that I sat on the bed and considered everything that had led me to that episode.

The arrival of Easter week is always an exciting time in a seaside town like Oban.  Seasonal businesses begin to emerge from their winter hibernation as tourists stream in from all over the world by train, tour bus, and cruise ship.  Some years the weather has even brightened enough to allow lighter jackets to be coaxed out from the wardrobe, though in other years it has been known to snow and there can be sledges seen rolling down hills instead of painted boiled eggs.

It is always fascinating to observe these wide-eyed new subjects when they’re introduced to the complex ecosystem of this quaint little place.  I like to watch them as they walk along George Street and ask myself which of them has it better, whether it is in comparison with the other tourists or in competition with my own life.  For example, is it the lonely old man who I saw shuffling slowly down the street gripping a white polystyrene chip box the way another might warmly clasp the hand of a lover or the salty-haired gentleman who could be seen mouthing the words “Oh for fuck sake” as his wife stopped to take another photograph of the view across the North Pier?  More pressingly, I was curious as to which tourist I would appear to be a few days later in Dublin.

Since Thursday evening marked the beginning of the long Easter weekend, a few of us decided to make the most of it by paying a visit to the Oban Phoenix Cinema.  We had been keen to see the new film Cocaine Bear, but since that particular carnivoran mammal’s party had long since departed the big screen we had no option but to watch Scream 6, which is at least three more Screams than I was aware were even in the franchise.  Our group of seven met firstly in Wetherspoons for dinner and drinks, a location which in itself seems more frightening than any slasher flick could be.  

On our way to the cinema, we stopped off in the corner shop to pick up as many beers as we could reasonably carry without being detected by the usher.  I brought an empty satchel with me for the job, though others simply stuffed the bottles into their pockets believing it to be more discreet.  As a man who is approaching forty years of age, this is about as close as I get to breaking the rules, and there was a minor surge of adrenaline as I deceived a young man who is likely earning minimum wage into believing that a carton of sweet and salted popcorn was all that I was carrying into the cinema.

Screen Two in the Oban Phoenix Cinema is probably no bigger than my living room, and indeed the only discernable difference between them is the absence of dead houseplants in the cinema and the fact that I wasn’t the only person who was getting drunk while watching a movie. Our varying degrees of effort to disguise the cargo we had brought with us was immediately made a mockery of when we walked in to find that the place smelled like Nories chip shop and the people sitting in the back row hadn’t gone to the trouble of sneaking in their contraband fish takeaway. Theirs was a Last Supper everybody knew about.

Despite sitting in Aulay’s until closing time drinking in our favourite highlights from the scary movie and filling the jukebox with songs from the Full Monty soundtrack, I was feeling surprisingly sprightly on Friday morning.  It has become something of a tradition in my Easter weekend that Good Friday is a day where I get shit done.  By midday, I had already changed my bedsheets, put on a load of washing, vacuumed the floor, done a grocery shop, and polished my dado rail.  Something about a religious holiday seems to bring out the best in my housekeeping.  Even though my faith has practically turned to dust over the years, I can’t help from feeling that I would at least be more capable of cleaning it up if we had more religious holidays.  I felt good about my morning and toasted my success with a Lidl’s hot cross bun.

When I returned to Aulay’s in the evening, Brexit Guy was standing by himself at the bar.  He had spent much of the afternoon in Wetherspoons, where he complained that the San Miguel was as much as £4.25 a pint.  The pub seemed quiet considering that it was a holiday weekend.  There were a handful of small groups scattered around the place.  Sitting amongst one of them was a young woman who I had worked with maybe nigh upon 18 years ago and who I of course had an unspoken crush on at the time.  She looked much the same as she did back then, save maybe her blonde hair had become darker the way a dimmer switch lessens the brightness of a lightbulb.  Brexit Guy had moved next door to bemoan the price of Spanish beer, which enabled my former colleague to step into his place.  

I was surprised and thrilled that she recognised me.  What is this?  I thought to myself.  Some kind of a good Friday?  We exchanged the usual pleasantries and she asked me what I had been doing with myself.  “Mostly this,” I responded, nodding to the pint of Tennent’s which I was holding in my right hand the way an elderly tourist cradles a box of chips.

“I don’t usually see you in here,” I said, before realising that all of this was probably giving the impression that I had spent the last 18 years in Aulay’s when in reality it has only been some of the time.  “Not that I’m always here,” I hastily added in a bumbling manner.  “Just two or three times a week.”  Internally I was kicking myself.  It hadn’t been my intention to reintroduce myself to this person who I hadn’t seen in so long as though we had run into each other at an AA meeting.  I could feel my entire face burning with the fury of a thousand suns, while my heart was a stick on the drum skin of my ribs.  Although we continued to speak for a few minutes more, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I had already ruined it all, whatever all could have been.  Eventually she wished me a good night and shook my hand in a way that suggested we had agreed to ship several tonnes of paper to an associate in Belgium rather than that we would ever talk again.

I was still processing my thoughts and nursing my wounds when the VAT man and a birdwatching accountant arrived expecting to be able to watch the Partick Thistle versus Queen’s Park Scottish Championship fixture.  Unfortunately for them, their hopes were dashed when minutes earlier a group of men who were visiting from Burnley requested that they watch their team’s game, in which a win would have them promoted to the English Premier League.  We took a seat at the table next to theirs, as if to live the moment vicariously through them.  It was nice seeing other people experiencing true joy in the pub, and in a way, it seemed as though getting close to them was my best chance of feeling it for myself.

After a brief stop in the recently reopened Mantrap, we ventured forth to the Oban Inn, where I was relieved to stumble upon the barmaid who on the occasion of my 39th birthday vanished from Bar Rio after my niece bound my wrists together with the gold chain from her bag and I made a remark about needing the keys. Part of me had long since feared she had skipped town in protest at the joke, so abrupt was her departure from waiting on our table that night. She appeared at the bar next to me as I sipped at my pint of Beavertown Neck Oil, and in a moment that felt almost dream-like in its surreality, this beautiful young woman said that she remembers me. However, it wasn’t the fairly recent incident at my birthday dinner that she could recall, but rather the first Saturday afternoon that the pubs could reopen their outdoor seating areas in May 2021 following the winter Covid lockdown.

Typically, after a period of promising sunshine, it began to pour with rain, and there was nothing we could do about it.  We had full pints, and drinking them indoors was forbidden at the time, so we were forced to take the soaking.  The barmaid returned after some time to take our next order, when I seized on the opportunity to steal a joke the Plant Doctor had made and suggested to her that we should really be drinking cocktails rather than pints so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas.  With the face masks everyone was wearing at the time, it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually achieve when I try to make a woman laugh.  But a few moments later, she came back to our table with a small plastic box full of cocktail umbrellas and invited us to help ourselves.  It turns out that not only did she enjoy the joke at the time, but it was still on her mind almost two years later.

Despite this relative triumph, I couldn’t stop myself from asking her about the handcuff remark.  I tried describing my memory of the night as best I could, but her carefully painted facial features seemed unmoved.  It was clear that she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about – which, all things considered, was probably for the best.  There was a more visible reaction from her when she realised that the Plant Doctor and I were drinking shots of Fireball, which meant that the least I could do was offer to buy her one.  I didn’t know it at the time, but taking a shot of Fireball with the barmaid from the umbrella day would be the pinnacle of my Easter weekend.  It could also be marked with a signpost that reads:  this is the point where things started to go wrong.

Drinking a Canadian whisky mixed with cinnamon which shares its name with an extremely hot and highly luminous spherical mass of air hours before a 12:30 kick-off in a Celtic vs Rangers game that would inevitably require around 11 hours in the pub doesn’t seem like the brightest idea in hindsight.  Celtic won 3-2, which put us in celebration mode like the Burnley lads the night before.  When you spend so much time in the same place the hours kind of blend together, the way a bottle of ginger ale does in a glass of Jameson.  Aulay’s becomes a sort of vacuum on days like these where things like time and the outside world cease to exist.  The last thing I can reliably remember is when somebody played the Simple Minds song Don’t You (Forget About Me) on the jukebox and we gaily belted out the chorus.  It wasn’t as much Breakfast Club as it was boozing duds.

As fate would have it, in the same way that someone finds a black fly in their Chardonnay or ten thousand spoons when all they need is a knife, Ryan Adams played the song as part of the Glasgow set that I missed whilst vomiting a Nando’s dinner down the toilet in my Premier Inn.  I was furious with myself.  In another of a series of bad decisions, I booked the earliest flight available from Glasgow to Dublin because it saved me around £40 if I flew at 7:15 am rather than 9:35.  Consequently, I was walking through Glasgow city centre to the bus station at the same time as the night clubs were emptying.  It was a striking contrast, a glimpse of the night I could have had if only I hadn’t pissed it all away on Saturday.  While these folks all seemed to be having the time of their lives, I was still nursing what appeared to be the mother of all hangovers, though I was beginning to suspect something deeper at play.  At Glasgow Airport, I was prodding a fork at something closely resembling a cooked breakfast at half-past five in the morning while stag dos and hen parties carrying inflatable grooms were downing pints and proseccos.  I don’t know how they do it.

My stop off the airport bus was at the famous Ha’penny Bridge, which has been around since 1816 and is one of 21 bridges which cross the River Liffey.  Alongside the Brooklyn Bridge, it is the crossing on which my walking pace has been most disrupted by people taking selfies.  The scene across the river was exactly what you might expect if you asked a young child to sketch a picture of what they believe Ireland to look like.  It was grey, drizzly, gloomy, atmospheric, beautiful.  In my pursuit to save those precious pennies by taking a 7:15 flight, I hadn’t considered how I would spend the nearly six hours until I was able to check in to my hotel, least of all when I was feeling under the weather.  I found myself wandering aimlessly around the slick cobblestone streets in Temple Bar, meandering in and out of narrow alleyways, and sitting by the river with a coffee and a salted caramel and pistachio sourdough doughnut from The Rolling Donut.  This small, colourful store had a constant stream of customers and a line stretching out onto the street.  The window was pure Instagram bait, with row upon row of gleaming glazed doughnuts in every flavour imaginable.  My tooth is far from a sweet one, but even I couldn’t resist.

Traversing the streets of Dublin is a sometimes peculiar experience.  It’s no different to any other city centre, with buskers playing on Grafton Street, homeless people sheltering in the doorways of abandoned retail premises, and in one instance I saw two Starbucks franchises situated across the road from one another.  But what sets it apart is the faint beep, beep, beep noise you hear as you approach a pedestrian crossing, before all of a sudden there is a zapppp! followed by several seconds of more urgent beeping.  It’s like something you might have seen on an episode of The X-Files.  For a moment, you aren’t sure whether to cross the road or brace yourself for an alien abduction.

Even more curious than the sci-fi pedestrian crossings was the sight of all the rubbish bins on the streets around Dublin Castle being covered up with black bags, which were secured at the base by a cable tie. It isn’t something you see every day – or even any day – and it wasn’t until I joined a walking tour later in the afternoon that I learned the reason behind concealing the city’s bins. We were told that President Biden was due to visit the Irish capital later in the week, during which he would be attending a ceremony at the castle. As part of the security measures in place prior to the trip, all of the bins in the area surrounding Dublin Castle had sacks placed over them, seemingly to prevent any would-be assassins from planting a bomb. We couldn’t tell if this said that the Irish just aren’t all that persistent anymore, or if their bin bags are much more resilient than the tie-handle sacks I’m buying from Lidl.

Walking tours are often a fantastic way of seeing many of the important historical aspects of a city as well as giving you the opportunity to meet new people.  Amongst my group of seven were four Australian PE teachers who were travelling around the UK and Ireland.  It was a measure of how tired and unwell I was feeling when I couldn’t summon the energy to attempt conversation with any of the women.  Not even when the perfect line to impress the Aussies with my Scottish wit and charm presented itself in the grounds of the medieval Christ Church Cathedral could I bring myself to use it.  Our guide was telling us the story of the patron saint of Dublin, Laurence O’Toole, whose heart was preserved and displayed in the church in a wooden box within a small iron-barred cage for more than 800 years until it was stolen in 2012.  Nobody knew who had taken the heart or why, and it took six years for the relic to be recovered.

In addition to the heart of Saint O’Toole, the cathedral is also home to another infamous organ.  The story goes that for around 90 years the organ in the church was silent.  Nobody could get the thing to play a note, and it wasn’t at all clear why.  Finally, they called in one of the world’s leading organ experts to take a look at the instrument.  He spent a couple of hours playing around with it, but even he couldn’t get a tune out of it.  This organ guru was dumbfounded; he couldn’t understand why there was nothing happening.  He was ready to call it quits and fly back home to the continent when the church pleaded with him to try again since he had travelled all the way to Ireland.  

Not willing to be defeated, the organ expert went back to have one final go at resurrecting the enormous instrument.  This time, he noticed that there was one pipe in particular that seemed to be causing the problem.  He rolled up his sleeve and stuck his arm up the narrow pipe, hoping to find out what was troubling the tube.  At stretching point, his hand was suddenly tickling a furry little something.  Pulling the mystery object carefully out of the pipe, the expert was astonished to find that it was a fully intact, perfectly mummified cat.  Feeling triumphant, he sat back down to play the majestic organ, eager to hear the wind be transformed into beautiful music.  But still, there was nothing.  That same pipe was still causing a blockage, so he reached up deep into it again, anxious to discover if something was still stopping it from playing.  Sure enough, right up there in the pipe, just beyond where he had found the cat, the organ expert pulled out the mummified corpse of a rat.  Just like the heart of Laurence O’Toole, the two animals are currently on display in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral, positioned side-by-side in a way that has the cat perennially chasing the rat.

From the minute the guide began telling the story of these fascinatingly morbid discoveries in the pipe, the perfect joke sparked a fuse in my brain.  I was desperate to interrupt the guide with my line, which I just knew would have the four Australian PE teachers in raptures.  “So…there are two major organs in Christ Church Cathedral?”  

But I just couldn’t do it. Like I heard Yo La Tengo perform in their encore later that night, My Heart’s Not In It. All my energy was still working its way through the Greater Glasgow sewage system.

Through the tour, we heard a lot about the lyrical qualities of Irish Gaelic.  The language seems to me to be the equivalent of dressing words up in neatly-pressed trousers and shiny shoes; they like to use a lot of them to exaggerate their effect.  It is for this reason that Irish Gaelic is a key influence in the success of famous Irish writers like James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Becket, Bram Stoker, and Bono.  The example he liked to use to emphasise the wordy romanticism of the Irish language was the English phrase “I am hungry,” which the Gaelic counterpart can roughly be translated as saying: “The hunger of the world is upon me.”  I wondered what the Gaelic expression describing my attempts at interacting with other people would translate into.  Something like “the ineptitude of the universe resides in him,” I expect.

As it goes, I could probably be summed up in the story our guide told us about the origin of the famous ballad of Molly Malone.  Although says otherwise, believing the tale to be about a fictitious woman, we were assured that the song was written by a Scotsman who while visiting Dublin fell in love with a young lady who by day was an actress in the theatres and by night was a prostitute struggling to make ends meet.  He became infatuated with the woman and eventually asked her to travel back with him to Scotland, where he promised her a much better quality of life.  Molly considered the proposal, but ultimately rejected the Scotsman and sent him packing with his heart broken.  He returned home across the Irish Sea and penned a sweet ode to his would-be lover, with the bitter twist in the final verse that he now considers her a ghost.  I suppose it would be harsh to think of the Australian PE teachers as ghosts since I wasn’t spurned by any of them, but that’s likely only because I couldn’t summon the strength to make my joke.  Ultimately, I was only frustrated with myself.

Some relief came in The Black Sheep, where my fears that I might never be able to face another pint of beer again were allayed by a delicious chocolate truffle stout. It wasn’t the pint of ‘black stuff’ that people normally come to this part of the world to have, but it was the nicest beer I have tasted in Dublin. I think it was around six o’clock when a member of the bar staff walked around each of the tables placing down a red glass candleholder with a lit tealight candle held inside, bringing a level of intimacy I wasn’t expecting to enjoy with alcohol so soon after the trauma of Easter Sunday. Meanwhile, the large table of a dozen or so people to my left broke into a rendition of Happy Birthday and began to play a board game whereby somebody stuck a card to their forehead and asked the other players questions that would lead them to guess who or what they are. There was much rapture and hilarity.

Amidst the usual pub hustle, the candles and board games, I noticed a young woman who appeared to be sitting by herself just a few tables away from me.  The candlelight lent a certain aura to her; it wasn’t amplifying her loneliness the way it felt it did mine.  She had a book open in front of her, but she wasn’t reading it, more glancing around the bar.  We had that much in common, at least, since I was sitting with my notebook open on a blank page and a pen by the side of my beer, having already journaled all I could remember about the two organs in Christ Church Cathedral.  I knew why I was sitting in a bar by myself with a notebook on my table to give the appearance of me being a considered and thoughtful individual, but I wondered what this woman’s story was.  While I’m barely an expert in the field of dating, I presume that you don’t bring a book along if you’re meeting someone and expecting it to go well.  Apart from the additional baggage of carrying a book around with you, where does it end when it comes to bringing your hobby with you on a date?  Are there people bringing instruments into restaurants in case there is a lull in the conversation?  Or a canvas if the picture isn’t working out the way you want it to look?

Within five minutes of seeing the stranger across the crowded bar, I’d managed to convince myself that she was just like me:  an ordinary person enjoying a quiet drink on a Monday evening while using a book as a social crutch.  Eventually, in my mind anyway, our eyes would meet over the awkwardly-placed candles on our respective solo tables.  She would probably smile and look away shyly, and by the time she glanced back in my direction, I’d be writing about it in my notebook.  We would no doubt sit in pained silence for an interminable time while from the table next to mine come occasional shouts of “Am I a primate?” or “How many legs do I have?”  In my imagined scenario, which felt increasingly likely the more I thought about it, I took a hearty swallow of the last of my chocolate truffle stout and strode purposefully up to the bar to order another.  The tension is palpable as I pass her table with another pint in my hand.  I lean over her shoulder and say something suave like “What are you reading?”  or “I never like to judge a book by its cover, but I don’t mind telling you that is a lovely blouse.”  We would spend the rest of the evening talking, and it seemed certain that the outcome would be the complete opposite of the Scotsman who came to Dublin and was spurned by sweet Molly Malone.

Suddenly, the table immediately between us was cleared, leaving a clear line of vision. This was it, the moment of truth. I braced myself for the instant that my life would change forever. Now she was interested in reading her book! As I turned to write about these latest developments in my notebook, into the bar walked a man who was carrying an umbrella that was as long as a snooker cue. He took a brief look around the bar, but it didn’t take him long to spot the person he was looking for. Of course, it turns out that the book-reading stranger was in fact waiting for someone all along and did bring a book to pass the time.

By the time I left The Black Sheep to make my way across the River Liffey to the 3Olympia Theatre where Yo La Tengo were performing, the rain had subsided.  The sky was the colour of a cup of tea when the bag has been removed much too soon.  It had the benefit of amplifying the Irish tricolour fluttering in the distance from the roof of City Hall as I approached one of the 21 bridges which span the river.  Over the Ha’Penny Bridge, where I was dropped off earlier in the day, a large rainbow arched the full length of the horizon.  It seemed a ridiculous, albeit gorgeous, stereotype for nature to be pulling.  Was I to follow the leprechaun across the thing to find the pot of gold waiting on the other side?  I had already allowed myself to believe one fairytale and wasn’t ready to fall for another so soon after.

Having missed Ryan Adams the previous night in Glasgow, I decided to take things easy at the Yo La Tengo gig.  While drinking a few chocolate truffle stouts surely constituted an Easter miracle of sorts following my ordeal in the Premier Inn, I was still feeling out of sorts.  Instead of going straight to the bar as I ordinarily would upon entering a venue, I immediately found my seat, which was three rows away from the stage.  The night turned out to be a proper theatre experience.  Before the performance began, there was a five-minute countdown warning people to take their seats.  There was an intermission midway through the set to allow people in the audience to purchase ice creams and beverages, while the young couple who were seated next to me munched through a box of popcorn that was surely the size of the young lady’s head.  In fact, they had bought two boxes and, when realising how large they were, offered the second helping to anyone who wanted it.  Admittedly, it was a tad strange being sober at a gig, but in the end, I think I kind of liked it.  I was able to see the entire thing for a start, which hasn’t always been the case, and Yo La Tengo were more than worth it.

Ira Kaplan turned out to be one of the most fantastically talented guitar players I have seen perform live, strumming the instrument behind his back and using the reverb from the amps to make it virtually play itself. I could almost have cried with happiness when within the first three songs of the set they played Our Way to Fall and Black Flowers, two tracks that I never used to think of as being amongst my favourites by the band but which played as I took the bus to Glasgow Airport at 4.30 that morning when I was still feeling tired and ashamed from the Easter Sunday episode. With my cheek pressed against the cold, trembling pane of the window and my heart still somewhere around my stomach, I decided that these were songs I would like to hear played at the Olympia later. Black Flowers has almost taken on an anthemic quality for me ever since. I’ve listened to it at least once a day, and things usually work out alright.

When I saw U2 at Croke Park in 2017 I spent the evening following the gig by taking part in the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which has been operating since 1988.  The tour combines Dublin’s wealth of literary history with the pubs which helped shape it through professional actors who tell the stories and perform some of the works of Wilde, Joyce, Behan, and Beckett.  It’s not that I had such an unquenchable thirst for Irish literature that I couldn’t resist going on the tour once again, rather I was hoping for a repeat of that previous trip when I found myself in the company of three women from Boston who had also attended the U2 concert.  We had a fun night discussing Bono and the lads, the Claddagh ring, and how you would deal with inadvertently turning up for dinner at the home of a couple of swingers.  One of the Bostonians in particular was enjoying my craic, to the extent that I was feeling confident about my chances of having a nightcap with her, until her more sensible friends reminded her that they were due to take an early bus to Belfast.

The pub crawl convenes upstairs in The Duke, which has been a favourite watering hole of Dubliners since 1822.  I was met at the entrance by one of the two actors who was going to lead our journey through literature and libation.  He seemed impressed that I had signed up for the tour despite having already been on it.  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my interests were closer to women than Wilde.  The room was quick to fill up with fellow attendees, but none of them looked like they could fill the role of the Bostonians I met in 2017.  Instead, I ended up in conversation with a 55-year-old man from Aberdeen who was visiting Ireland for the first time in search of his ancestry.  He told me that he became interested in tracing his family roots more than thirty years ago.  The traditional methods weren’t giving him much information and he was growing frustrated, so he started studying genealogy himself.  It was only then that he began to discover more about where his family originated from, leading him to a farm in County Offaly, which he was going to visit later in the week.  This seemed remarkable to me.  It’s the equivalent of having a medical condition that conventional medicine seems incapable of curing and becoming a doctor to treat it yourself, or being a single man who longs for the touch of a woman and eventually deciding to become one just to get it.

Our night ended in Davy Byrnes, which is famous for being the pub in which chapter eight of the James Joyce novel Ulysses is set, although that is six chapters more than I have ever managed to read.  Myself and the Aberdonian genealogist were the last men standing in the group.  We stood around the bar with the two actors who led the tour, where the conversation naturally centred around Ireland’s relationship with alcohol and writing.  It was only very recently that Ireland allowed its bars to open and sell alcohol on the religious holiday of Good Friday.  I couldn’t help but wonder how different my weekend might have been if that was the case in Scotland.  There would have been no shots of Fireball, I would probably have seen Ryan Adams perform in Glasgow, and I might even have had the heart to make my joke about there being two major organs in Christ Church Cathedral.


The fine art of Valentine’s week

In my time as a single occupant, I have found a variety of ways of spending Valentine’s Day.  Over the years, the date in the calendar set aside for celebrating the patron saint of beekeepers, plague, and epileptics has seen me dining alone on a frozen lasagne, drinking at the bar, loaning books from the library, and listening to Everybody Hurts play in the waiting room of Specsavers.  For most people, the fourteenth of February is the most romantic day of the year.  For me, it is just Tuesday.  

This year I was determined to do Valentine’s differently.  In many ways, I had no choice.  My current mortgage deal is due to expire at the end of the month and needs to be renewed, a task I had been ignoring for several months after the UK government sent the economy into a tailspin with a catastrophic mini-budget just days before I received the letter from my bank reminding me that I would need to arrange a new mortgage before 28 February.  I waited until after dinner before getting down to the job at hand.  After all, I assume that is when most of the hot action happens on a Valentine’s night.

My mobile banking app advised me that the entire process of renewing a mortgage can be completed online, which while convenient seemed terrifying to me.  The idea that the next few years of my life could be determined with a few swipes, in the same manner as ordering drinks from the app in Wetherspoons or playing a game of Candy Crush, is absurd.  Yet there I was, scrolling through the numbers of deal after deal whilst listening to a podcast about the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  It hardly felt real considering how important a thing it was, and after no more than ten minutes I had agreed to a new mortgage.  Ultimately, all I truly took from the night is that the Royal Bank of Scotland’s 4.34% is the greatest amount of interest I have seen on Valentine’s Day in a long time.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when I would likely have felt depressed about the absence of romance from yet another Tuesday, but I know better than that these days. I think that I’ve seen enough from other people to understand that being in love is not the be-all and end-all of our existence. As ever, this realisation came over a pint of lager in the pub. It was around a week before I renewed my mortgage when I was in the Oban Inn with Geordie Dave and the Nut Tax Man that I saw how fragile the act of celebrating a date with grand romantic gestures can really be. The bar was quiet for a Friday night and we were easily able to get a table in a prime location. We were approached by the bloke who was sitting by himself at the long table in the middle of the pub. He was dressed in a thick navy checked shirt and a deerstalker hat and had thin yellow tufts of hair on his face, similar to the balls of fluff a kid might stick to an Easter bonnet.

His glass was left behind on the table as he gestured towards us asking if we would watch his drink while he stepped outside for a cigarette.  These sorts of requests are always difficult to refuse when you are sitting directly in the eye-line of the item concerned, even if you’re the sort of person who obsesses over these minor details and worries that it’s all a ruse and the owner will never return.  To add to that, the would-be huntsman picked up two plastic bags of shopping from under his table and placed them next to ours.  As a reward, he invited us to help ourselves to the packets of crisps he had at the top of one of the bags.  It was a pretty foolish offer to make to three guys who had been out drinking all night, for his entire haul of savoury snacks was quickly devoured.  It struck me as unusual that someone would buy several single packets of crisps instead of a multipack, especially when he also had a couple of six-pack cases of sparkling water.

When he returned inside from smoking his cigarette, the crisp-sharing stranger joined us at our table, where we were able to learn more about what makes a man who buys single packets of crisps tick.  We discovered that he was visiting Oban for the weekend with his girlfriend to celebrate their first anniversary.  They had met at a karaoke night in a pub in Dumbarton, though he couldn’t remember which song either of them performed, which seemed a key piece of information in the story.  For their first date, they went to a Wetherspoons pub in Glasgow city centre before going for dinner.  The experience was too much for our new companion.

“I’ve never seen so many people in one place,” he told us.  “There were more people in there than there are in the town I come from.”

Following drinks in the crowded bar, the dating duo ventured forth to their dining destination.  The fella told us that they went to a fancy restaurant, which naturally led us to ask which one.  “I don’t remember the name,” he said, “but my girlfriend is vegetarian…so it was probably Italian.”

What brought me to recognise the frailty of celebrating a significant date such as a first anniversary or Valentine’s Day was the fact that this guy was spending his evening with a trio of unknowns and not with his partner, who we were told had found the bed in the couple’s hotel room so comfortable that she wanted to stay there, insisting that he go out by himself instead.  Although the couple would have an entire Saturday together in Oban and the guy was masking any disappointment he might have been feeling very well, the first night of his anniversary weekend away can’t have been any more memorable than spending Valentine’s evening renewing your mortgage.

When I’m not organising my household finances, one of my favourite pastimes is seeing live music.  On the fifteenth of February, I took the train to Glasgow to see one of my favourite artists, Jesse Malin, perform a concert to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of his debut album The Fine Art of Self Destruction.  I’ve been listening to that record since at least 2004 and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Jesse play live.  It has to be upwards of 20.  This time I went to the show with my Glasgow gig buddy Laura, which usually means that things are not going to be entirely straightforward; and so it proved to be the case.  We never meet up with the intention of the night going awry, but there’s an implied inevitability about it when you’re introducing Jagerbombs to the mix at tea time on a Wednesday.  You should never act surprised if you release a fox into a chicken coup and suddenly find that your feather allergy is playing up.

Before we met for the fateful pre-gig drinks, I made a solo pilgrimage to the Thundercat Pub and Diner on Miller Street. The place was recommended to me by friends for its Chicago-style deep dish pizza pies and American staples, and it was all I could think about for days before I finally made it there. When you walk down the short stairway into the restaurant, you are met with bright neon lights and smooth soul music. It feels like walking into every roadside diner you’ve ever seen on the silver screen. I was led to an open table on a raised platform that must have had me looking like the worst centrepiece on a Christmas dinner table. As someone who has dined alone in enough establishments to know, it’s becoming clear to me that it must be an unwritten rule of hospitality that solo diners are situated in the spot that will draw the most attention to our plight.

I already knew what I wanted to eat from my days of salivating over the prospect, though looking over the menu again had me second-guessing myself.  It’s times like these when I wish I had a second stomach and another bank account.  I stuck with my gut instinct and ordered a deep dish pizza with black pudding and chorizo topping.  When the pizza arrived at my table it became abundantly clear why they are described on the menu as being “designed to share”, because the base was as thick as my fist.  By the time my enormous portion of food was delivered, the previously vacant table adjacent to mine had been filled by two young women.  It’s ridiculous how often this happens when I am about to tuck into some messy finger food.  What must they have made of the sight of a pizza the size of a small island nation being carried to my table as I sat there with a pint and a half of Brooklyn Lager in front of me is anybody’s guess.

As soon as I began to slice the pie with the pizza cutter, thick blobs of tomato sauce went squirting all over the place.  My table was starting to resemble a crime scene, and I was certain to be caught red-handed.  I picked up a slice of the pizza, which I imagined was almost as heavy as a newborn baby, and brought it to my mouth.  Wiry strands of mozzarella cheese dangled from the roughly-cut edges, while a couple of cubes of chorizo leapt towards the wooden board below for temporary safety.  Meantime, the two ladies at the next table were discussing booking a holiday to Croatia in September when the temperature hopefully shouldn’t be as hot, though it might depend on what Beth says since she is already going to Tenerife during the summer.  I couldn’t bring myself to look in their direction the entire time I was there.

It must have taken me twice the length of time it usually would to waddle down Argyle Street to The Solid Rock Cafe where I met my gig-going companion.  I felt bad about leaving behind a slice of pizza, but just couldn’t get through it all, and I was beginning to worry that my antics were disturbing the other patrons.  Laura and I have always met in the Solid.  I’m not sure how that started since I’m not your archetypal heavy metal guy, but I believe at one point they used to play some Gaslight Anthem on their rotation.  I was into my second beer and standing at the bar amongst a sea of black leather jackets and Iron Maiden t-shirts when she arrived with two of her classmates from college.  At the time, I couldn’t fathom how she was able to pick me out from the crowd so easily, but on reflection, I was probably the only person to have ever drunk in Solid Rock dressed in corduroy.

The four of us went downstairs to find a space to sit by the snooker table at the rear of the bar. What caught our eye more than anything down there was the carpet that they had covering half of the floor. It was a deep blue shade of tartan and looked like it belonged in a museum rather than a heavy metal bar – either on the floor or as part of an exhibit of things that went out of fashion in the 1980s. The Solid Rock seems like the least likely place in Glasgow to find a carpeted pub, purely on account of it being the bar I would most expect to see a drink spilt in. I don’t know if any of this contributed to our decision to start taking shots at an hour when most people are eating dinner, but before long there were glasses of Jagermeister and Sambuca alongside our pints of lager and cider. I can’t stomach the sight of Sambuca at the best of times, and it wasn’t any better here. Laura’s friend is Slovakian and had recently been offered a modelling opportunity in Manchester, despite in her words having the body but not the face for it. She used to only drink vodka until her new boyfriend introduced her to Sambuca. “I fell in love with him and Sambuca,” she told me, which was enough to give me two reasons not to like the guy.

Our other companion was also downing shots of Sambuca as well as pints of dark fruits cider.  He had vowed to only go out for one drink after work, but he’s young and isn’t to know about the inevitability of having a drink with Laura and me.  After numerous rounds, the young man disappeared to the bathroom for a while.  We were alerted by someone leaving the men’s room that the guy seemed to be having some trouble in there, and being the only other male at the table it was left to me to find out what was going on.  I tentatively walked into the toilet to find our friend locked in the cubicle.  The floor resembled the sewer scene in Ghostbusters 2, with a river of pink cider and Sambuca-infused slime trailing across the tiles to the stall.  From behind the closed door he assured me that he was alright, and sure enough, he returned to the table a few minutes later as if nothing had ever happened, with the sort of swagger that a person usually has when they’re debuting a slick new outfit.

It could hardly have been eight o’clock by the time things started to unravel. Soon the Slovakian sparked up a cigarette at the table, which somehow went undetected by the barmaid who came over to clear the empty glasses from around us. We had earlier predicted that Jesse Malin would be taking to the stage at around nine and so agreed it would be a good idea to be at Stereo by then. As the hour approached, we still had nearly full pints in front of us, so the ladies simply put the glasses inside their jackets before we walked out. We walked up Hope Street necking pints of Budweiser, and it came as no surprise when we arrived at the venue to have the gentleman who checked our tickets inform us that Jesse Malin had been playing since 8:15 and we’d missed half of the gig.

My time in Glasgow wasn’t all shots and slices.  Before I’d even made it to Stereo to hear the back half of The Fine Art of Self Destruction I had been matched with two women on Tinder and another on the Bumble dating app.  It was an unprecedented level of interest which had me considering how different my romantic life would be if I lived in the city.  For better or worse, I felt that honesty was the best policy, so I messaged each of the women and told them that I was only in Glasgow for the night and actually live in Oban, adding that Oban “is not a million miles away (it’s only 93.)”  The two Tinder women unmatched me immediately, but the lass on Bumble was unperturbed.  We continued chatting for much of the night when I returned to my hotel room after the pubs closed, and things seemed to be going well.  She had U2 listed among her favourite bands on her profile, and our conversation was littered with laughing emojis from her side.  It was beginning to feel like she could be the one.  I learned that she plays the guitar, and her favourite song to play is Stay (Faraway, So Close!) by U2.  It is a fantastic love song.  Despite this, she hasn’t practised the track in a long time, leading me to comment:  “It sounds as though you’re an Edge without a Bono.”  My match told me that it was one of the best dating analogies she had ever heard, and she even went as far as to agree to come with me to my next gig in Glasgow in March.  Our interaction had slowed by the time I was back in Oban the next day, though, and by the end of the week we were like a couple celebrating their anniversary weekend away.  Although I might not be one for commemorating a significant date such as Valentine’s Day, I’m beginning to think that I might buy myself a card if a woman ever talks to me for any longer than a week.

The final cut

I first noticed it on Thursday following the first Lorne Bar quiz of the year.  I was sitting on the end of my yoga mat putting my socks back on and looking every bit as limp as the fern on the coffee table to my right.  Because it had been more than four weeks since I last took part in a pub quiz, I had just about forgotten how much of a struggle the hangover can turn the next day into.  Often I would forgo my daily yoga practice on account of it, persuading myself that I was ‘too tired’ for a 30-minute exercise.  My intention, if not my resolution, is to get better at sticking to my movement routine – mostly because I have found that days with yoga are much nicer than days without yoga, and the hangovers last longer without the mindfulness of half an hour on the mat.  Effectively, I am trying to get in touch with my inner peace rather than my inner pissed.

My socks were coral pink and still a little damp from the rain, which forced me to immediately change out of them. Whilst peeling the socks from my feet again, I caught the distinctive whiff of smoke passing my nostrils.  It was a peculiar thing to smell in my living room.  While I could feel the burn from my side planks and tree poses, I knew that they weren’t sizzling that much.  In the hallway, the aroma was so pungent that it could have been coming from inside my flat.  For a moment, I was forced to convince myself that I hadn’t started smoking again.  It was only a few beers after the quiz I kept telling myself, like it was a meditative mantra.  Minds were only put at ease once I opened the door to my flat and found that the entire close smelled like a Marlboro production plant.

Usually the scent of cigarette smoke is inoffensive to me.  In many ways, it is the thing I miss most about being a part-time smoker.  The rest of the habit I found to be pretty disgusting and ultimately pointless, but I really enjoyed the smell of tobacco on my fingers – especially the morning after a night out.  I could have lain in bed for hours savouring the space between my index and middle fingers.  Sometimes it seemed a real pity to have to shower and lose everything that I had worked so hard for hours before.  These days I find myself walking behind people on the street who are smoking and positioning myself in their slipstream, waiting to catch a puff of that sweet second-hand cigarette smoke, only to get a mouthful of wet melon or cotton candy.  It is often tempting to wish for the vapers to walk into traffic.

In truth, my understanding of the physics of cigarette smoke is as paltry as the next person’s. I don’t know why the fragrance is so strong in my flat. There have been smokers living in the block before, but never anything like this. Considering that there was not a hint of smoke before I took to the floor for my yoga practice, it was remarkable that it would be so pungent less than thirty minutes later. They had to have blown through an entire packet of the things to create this much of a stink. You never get a neighbour’s batch of freshly baked bread or a homemade curry wafting under the door, at least not on Combie Street. What’s all the more difficult to comprehend is how the smell can be so overpowering in the living room and the hallway and for there to be no trace of it in the kitchen or the bathroom, the two rooms that have windows looking onto the garden. I also can’t smell it in the bedroom, but then nothing has ever been smoking in there.

I purchased a pre-owned copy of a book which has a warm birthday greeting for Margaret. I think this now makes me Margaret.

If there was one positive to come from the unseemly smoke saga it is that it at least served to take my mind off the other matter which has threatened to consume the early part of my 2023.  At the tail end of last year, my barber announced that his wife had accepted a new job in Dundee and the couple would be moving there in February, therefore closing the barber shop that he had opened in its current location more than thirty years ago.  The news was swirling around my head like a cloud of nicotine.  Some days it was all I could think about.  Apart from the few years in late childhood and early teens when most boys seemed to get their hair cut at home, I have always gone to the same barber.  It isn’t that he necessarily snips sideburns better than anybody else in town, that his scalpside manner is more entertaining, or that he keeps the best selection of newspapers for people to read while they’re waiting.  Visiting the same barber for a lifetime is one of those things that men seem to do, the same way that we use only one butcher, trust the same tailor, or call on the same electrician.  Mostly it is through laziness dressed up in the guise of “ach, he’s always done that for me.”

Throughout my adult life, I have never had to think about where I would get my next haircut.  The laziness that I inherited from being born a male means that there has only ever been one person I could entrust with that job.  Now my entire world has been blown up, it feels as though everything is all over the place, like my hair after a walk along the Esplanade on a February morning.  I don’t know where to begin looking for someone to cut my hair.  It’s not as if there can be an audition process – once a haircut has been fucked up, you’re forced to live with it until the next one.  Apart from anything else, Oban these days seems to be suffering a dearth of traditional barbershops.  There are plenty of hair salons and Turkish barbers, but very few old-school barbers.  One of the guys who we play football with on a Monday night is a Kurd who works for one of the many Turkish barbers in town and I have considered taking my short back and sides to him, but I worry that it is enough being skinned by him on the football pitch without being skinned in the style that Turkish barbers are known for.

I went for my final cut on the morning of the latest Let’s Make A Scene open mic night, where I read a piece concerning the storage of my herbs and spices that sparked an intense discussion around the room.  When I arrived in the barbershop on Saturday morning, there was already a student in the chair who had enough hair to help his secret lover scale a tower.  I worried that I might miss our family’s weekly coffee at eleven, but to my relief, the young man was only in for a minor procedure.  Taking my seat in the barber’s chair for the last time was a curious feeling.  It was tempting to ask about getting a little more taken off to make up for the barber’s imminent departure, and were it not for genetics giving me a sparse head of hair as it is I probably would have.  

Although this was definitely different to any other time I have been in the barber’s over the years, it was also exactly the same as always. As the sound of the clippers began to buzz around my ears like a determined bee, the barber told me about how he had recently entered into an eBay auction for an antique guitar. He was mostly just curious to see how much the vintage instrument would sell for, but as things developed his bid ended up being the winning one. I don’t remember how much he told me he paid for the guitar, which he believed he could sell for a profit in a few months anyway, but I know that I was suddenly thinking that £10 for a haircut doesn’t seem so outrageous after all.

While the barber was initially sceptical about his and his wife’s move to Dundee, he has recently found himself warming to the new life ahead of them.  He is seeing it as his retirement and is planning on hanging up his scissors and working a small part-time job to allow him to pay for things like antique guitars.  “I won’t even be telling people that I used to cut hair for a living,” he told me in a way that made it sound as though he is going on witness protection.  

“If anybody asks what I did in Oban, I’ll tell them that I used to work in the distillery rolling barrels.  Nobody asks any more questions after telling them that.”  This has always been one of his favourite things to say.  You usually hear him bring it out when he’s about to go on holiday to Italy or Spain.  I’ve never fully understood why being a barber is something that he feels the need to be so secretive about, but I believe that it’s out of a fear that once people know that you can cut hair, they will start asking you if you can do them.  Before you know it, you have a queue of folk looking to have their hair cut.  I’m not convinced that’s the way it works.  You might be on the flight to your sunny destination when another passenger takes unwell and the cabin crew ask if anyone on board is a doctor, but you never hear emergency requests for a hairstylist. 

I don’t know if I’ll find another barber in town who has the same turn of phrase and the ability to turn a haircut into an adventure down all sorts of rabbit holes.  The last hair was snipped on the back of my head, and the barber asked me to put my glasses back on and review his handiwork.  This always struck me as the most awkward part of the haircut process.  There isn’t a lot anyone can do about a terrible haircut when the hairs are on the floor of the barbershop.  Like asking how a meal was after it has been digested, or if a demolition job was suitable when you’re standing amongst the rubble.  I said that I was happy with the haircut, and the barber handed me a tissue, which I presumed was for dabbing the stray hairs from the back of my neck and not the anticipated tears from my cheek.  When I left, I was walking into a world of uncertainty, a place that wasn’t the same as it was twenty minutes before.  For the first time, I was a man without a barber or any idea where my next haircut would come from.  It was unnerving, no different to coming up from a downward dog and finding the scent of cigarette smoke in your living room.

To Sweden with love

I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Day with my laptop open on a PDF of the Argyll & Bute Council refuse schedule for 2023, setting a reminder on my phone for each date in the year that the bins would need to be put out for emptying.  It isn’t that I don’t have anything better planned for the twelve months ahead.  On the contrary, the Google Calendar app on my device is filled with a smorgasbord of activities.  For example, on 28 January I will be performing at the first of our quarterly Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights; the Oban Beer Seller is hosting her second ‘The Love of Beer’ tasting event at The View on 18 March; by mid-April, I will have attended four gigs, which is as many as I made it to in the whole of last year; the fourth of those gigs will take me back to Dublin for the first time since 2018; I will be attending two wedding dances during the summer; and in June I’m planning on returning to Sarajevo.

My sudden enthusiasm for the bin schedule wasn’t born of a renewed concern for the environment or part of a New Year’s resolution.  It wasn’t even the hungover equivalent of making a drunk purchase on eBay.  By the first of January, I had arrived at the realisation that without a proper structure during the Christmas break from work, I collapse into anarchy.  More accurately, when my daily routine revolves around going to the pub on as many nights as possible, things very quickly become shambolic.  One night I might come home from the bar and stay up until the small hours watching music videos on YouTube and then lay in bed until after midday.  On another, I’d start watching the Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn and decide that midnight is a perfectly good time to open a tube of Pringles, reasoning that they are already in the cupboard anyway and what else are you going to do with them?  Everything was a negotiation that concluded with the promise, “I’ll do better in January.”  Chances are that I would have eaten pizza for dinner every day for two weeks if not for the fact that would have required the effort of leaving the flat to buy another one.  The way I was living my life was as if my 16-year-old self had been put in charge.  It was disgusting.

Filling my phone with serious adult tasks seemed like an easy win over the teenager who had assumed control of my life during the festive period; an acknowledgement that I was going to get back to leading a responsible lifestyle while knowing that I wouldn’t need to act on it for another couple of days yet.

The final Saturday of 2022 brought many of the same things that feature on any other Saturday night where nobody is spending their time watching the clock:  food, drink, and music.  A group of us went to The Lorne to eat our last meal of the year, where we amused the soulful barmaid who smiles as frequently as the traffic lights at Argyll Square used to turn red before they were fixed.  We complained first that the starter of mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic sauce will have dashed The Algae Man’s hopes of receiving a kiss at the bells, and followed that up with the proclamation that we didn’t have any reason to laugh about it since one of us would be forced to take it on the chin, so to speak.  The barmaid’s smile turned to a laugh, which left some of us wondering why we had waited until the last night of the year to be funny.

When we arrived in Aulay’s, the Plant Doctor and his better half had already taken residence at the table in the corner of the bar; a location they had purposefully chosen so that we could mark the one-year anniversary of New Year 2021, when three of us tested positive for Covid a few days after celebrating in that same spot.  In truth, I hadn’t thought about the Covid corner in all the times I had been in the pub since, but then most sites of significance are usually marked with a plaque, whereas the most remarkable thing about this table is that it is the closest seat to the jukebox.  It was intended as a funny moment of reminiscence, which it undoubtedly was, at least until nigh upon six days later when I registered a positive LFT almost a year to the day after my first bout with the virus.  My illness this time felt far worse than in January 2022.  The symptoms were much the same as before only stronger, and even now I can hardly walk the length of the street without being left feeling like a 1997 song by the popular Scottish band Texas.  Of all the traditions that people in Scotland have to mark the turn of the year, being infected with an airborne contagion ranks right up there with never receiving a kiss on the bells as my least favourite.

It has always seemed to me that the pub on New Year’s Eve is exactly the way a theatrical production set in a pub on New Year’s Eve would look. Nobody is anyone you would recognise from any other night in the bar. They are all dressed in their finest outfit, some even wearing a kilt, ordering drinks like bottles of Peroni, port, or gin and tonic. The enthusiasm for the countdown to midnight – something that by my watch happens every day – is portrayed in the manner of the pinkest of ham actors. Sitting in the Covid corner dressed in corduroy and denim, we resembled the understudies; the people who turn up every night hoping that this one might be their turn. It’s a role we are well familiar with and we played it with all of our hearts, choking the jukebox with coins whilst drinking our fill of beer.

Last orders at the bar were called at 11.30, which meant that we left Aulay’s with around ten minutes left in the year.  That gave us enough time to saunter along George Street towards the Oban Inn as crowds of people were gathering on the pavement to seek out the best vantage point for the imminent fireworks display.  In the dark of the distance, a lone piper could be heard serenading the cold as a countdown from ten began to filter through the masses.  I found myself stuck contemplating how it is that these things get started.  After all, how could anyone be confident enough to kick off an accurate countdown to midnight when the clock in the town centre has been showing two o’clock for as long as anyone can remember?  Get this one wrong and everybody’s year is out from the very beginning.

As the clock struck midnight, or close to it, fireworks erupted from the mouth of McCaig’s Tower and the sound of the horns from the CalMac ferries berthed in the bay pierced the night sky.  People were exchanging wishes for the year ahead while tiny flakes of snow started to fall.  It was a jarring juxtaposition to see snow as the sky was being lit up with rockets, one that surely would be easy to interpret as some kind of meaningful symbolism for the coming year if only we weren’t too drunk for that.  I moved closer to the Rogerson Shoes store to get a better look at the scene as fireworks were sent up into the snowy sky above McCaig’s Tower, crackling and sizzling to the delight of whooping crowds.  Even as someone who is never especially moved by a fireworks display, I could happily concede that this was the most spectacular one I’d seen all year.

Once safely entrenched in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn, we once again found ourselves surrounded by people we didn’t recognise; actors in a play. Where do people from Oban go on Hogmanay? In the end, we were ingratiated into a table of complete strangers. Amongst them were two Irish women who visit the town nearly every New Year; they could hardly have spoken more highly of their travels to the area. A couple of gentlemen from our group entered into conversation with the women at opposite ends of the table, and from afar it appeared as though their interactions were going well. For a time I was standing at the bar nursing a Jack Daniel’s, wondering if I might be the only one of us who was going home alone. Just as it was looking like 2023 might finally herald a change in fortunes for our group, the guys almost simultaneously learned that the Irish women are married to one another.

They were a charming couple who enjoyed regaling us with the story of their engagement.  We were told about how the pair were walking along Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, which with a sheer drop of 658ft is the highest waterfall in Scotland, and indeed the entire United Kingdom.  It was a breathtaking setting, one which inspired a marriage proposal.  What really made the story sweet was the added caveat that to make the prospective wedding official, the recipient of the popped question had to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage in return.  While it perhaps seemed like unnecessary additional bureaucracy, I thought it was a nice touch and told the couple as much.  

“That sounds like the opposite of what Demi Moore received,” I commented as we were all walking towards Markie Dans, which turned out to be full.  I was met with blank looks.

“What I’m saying is it was a decent proposal.”  Much like our group’s luck with the opposite sex hadn’t changed with the beginning of a brand new year, it seemed that my streak of being able to make a woman laugh was going to be restricted to one night at the end of 2022.

After the blue recycling bins had been emptied and I was about over my brush with Covid, the first big event entered into my Google calendar was our planned leaving dinner for The Algaeman, who was departing Oban to take up a new career opportunity in Sweden.  He had come into our lives barely a year earlier, just a fresh-faced boy from India.  For a while it was hard to know what to make of him, the fact that our accents were barely decipherable to one another probably didn’t help.  But over time he became an integral part of our group; always smiling, always up for a beer.  If a social group can have a heart, then The Algaeman was ours.  He put himself forward for everything we had an interest in, even our weekly game of indoor football despite, I suspect, having never previously seen a football.  Aulay’s became a second home for him, where his early claims of never experiencing a hangover were soon in tatters once he was introduced to malt whisky.  Before long he was like a puppy chasing a toy when the jukebox was turned on; always the first person with loose change in his hand, usually with a view to playing Eternal Flame by The Bangles or Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler.  You could set your watch by it.

Organising a secret leaving dinner for someone who is always around and such a central part of the group became akin to a top-level military operation.  At one stage I think we had at least four group chats on the go across Facebook and WhatsApp.  We had to employ powers of subterfuge that I don’t think any of us knew we were capable of.  The Algaeman’s last day in Oban coincided with The Plant Doctor’s birthday, and knowing how much the Sweden-bound scientist enjoyed celebrating other people’s birthdays, it was the perfect foil.  As predicted, the closer we got to Friday the 13th, the more excitable The Algaeman was growing over the forthcoming birthday, as though he had just spied the jukebox loading up.  He was eager to arrange a meal and put together a list of people who we could invite, oblivious to the fact that we had already booked The Waterfront Fishouse for fifteen.  Eventually, we had to admit that there was a dinner planned, convincing The Algaeman that we were having a small gathering for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  A web of lies was spun in an attempt to stop him from going overboard.  We told him that The Plant Doctor is bashful and wouldn’t appreciate a fuss being made over him, even that he doesn’t like cake, as if he’s some kind of sociopath.  

The harshest untruth was the story we concocted to keep him out of Aulay’s before dinner to allow us to hang the flag of Sweden and put up our “we never liked you anyway” banner over the bar.  None of us enjoyed having to be so dishonest to the sweetest and most innocent person we had ever met.  In a lot of ways for me, it was no different to the deceit we pull off every winter when we’re convincing our six-year-old niece to eat all her breakfast otherwise Santa might not visit.  It doesn’t seem right, but it’s necessary.

On the day of the dinner, we were updating our multiple group chats with The Algeman’s location, like a really underwhelming episode of the TV show 24.  When the rest of us met in Aulay’s an hour before dinner to turn the place into a territory of Sweden and gather signatures inside his copy of the book Morvern Callar, The Algaeman was off the grid.  Nobody had seen him in hours, and he had turned down an offer to meet The Nut Tax Man in Wetherspoons to keep him off our scent.  We feared that the lure of the jukebox would prove too strong and he would walk into Aulay’s and catch us all in the act of planning his surprise leaving night.  As it turned out, The Algaeman arrived late to his own leaving dinner because he was saying goodbye to a friend and shopping for a gift for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  Nothing could have summed him up more. 

People come and go in life, like New Year’s Eve, fireworks displays, and snow flurries.  Some disappear, never to be seen or thought of again, like bad actors in a terrible play.  Others leave an indelible imprint, a touching decent proposal and a total eclipse of the heart.  That was The Algaeman.  For all the dates filling up my Google calendar at the beginning of 2023 and as much as there is to look forward to, it will be a very different year without The Algaeman.

Homage to the 1984 Winter Olympics

Our final game of indoor football before the festive break was played on the Monday night following a three-day weekend that resembled a line from the hit 1997 song Tubthumping by Chumbawamba.  There had been the office Christmas party on Friday, a Saturday night spent in Aulay’s, and the rare occasion of a World Cup final taking place on a Sunday in December, all of which combined to produce the most torturous hour of my life in Atlantis Leisure.  It’s challenging enough trying to compete against your ageing body without adding extreme amounts of whisky drinks and lager drinks to the equation.  The five-a-side game, from my perspective anyway, was less decking the halls with boughs of holly and more decking the halls with balls of folly.  By the time it had mercifully been brought to an end, my shirt must have been drenched with enough Jameson to refill an empty bottle.

When I awoke on Tuesday, my nostrils weren’t filled with the usual scents of the season, such as a coal fire, pine trees, mulled wine, or mince pies, but rather the air was pungent with the deep heat gel I had applied generously to my aching leg muscles. In some ways, it came as a surprise that this was the first time I was using the heat rub in several weeks. First of all, the warming sensation of the gel was most welcome amidst the freezing temperatures of the last week and it turns out is probably at least as cost-efficient as turning on the heating. Apart from that, the weekend just passed brought the first snowfall of winter in the area, which in turn had left much of the town’s pavements unwalkable due to the ice. It seemed miraculous that a painful injury never occurred, particularly with my history.

Heavy snow, like a really hot summer or a woman accepting an invitation to go out with me, is always something that happened “around ten or eleven years ago” whenever it is talked about.  It’s memorable in so much as you know that it occurred but is rare enough for it to be uncertain when.  It was maybe around 2009 or 2010 when Oban experienced the most dramatic snowstorm that I can remember.  The stuff was several inches deep when it first fell on a Saturday evening, and another coating was added to it on Sunday afternoon.  In my memory, it lay around the street for days afterwards, and the ice was especially troublesome.  That was the year frozen water joined the top tier in my list of nemeses, alongside mushrooms and people who stand at the traffic lights by a busy road and don’t think to press the button.

I was working as a supervisor in the Co-op supermarket at the time, which involved starting at six o’clock in the morning to take in deliveries and prepare the store for opening at seven.  The walk down from Lower Soroba was like something out of a comic book sketch.  I left home with all the confidence of a man who had never fallen on ice, and by the time I’d reached the bottom of our street I had hit the tarmac.  I fell again just outside the hospital, then for a third time at the traffic lights opposite the high school.  My tailbone was the shade of a ripened plum, but even it wasn’t as bruised as my pride.  The only comfort I could take from the ordeal was that it had taken place under the cover of darkness and so there were no witnesses to my calamity.  With that in mind, I could probably have gotten away without anybody ever knowing about the failure of my feet, but I was soon betrayed by the wince on my face whenever I moved an inch.

Ice has been my mortal enemy ever since that December morning. There is nothing I dread more than the prospect of having to go somewhere on a frozen pavement. A 39-year-old man, afraid to walk. Much of the snow in the town centre had turned to a slush the colour of dishwater when I was going home from the office party in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was deceptive, however, and the conditions underfoot were treacherous. On George Street, I walked past an abandoned shoe shortly before I almost lost my own footing, while on Combie Street a wheelie bin was on its side. How anybody loses a shoe on a night out has always baffled me. A scarf or a wallet I can understand, but how do you not notice that one of your feet is wetter than the other? By Saturday when I went to my dad’s in Lower Soroba, I was filled with fear. The Facebook page Information Oban was teeming with posts from people who were warning of the dangerous state of the pavements and car parks and bemoaning the shortage of available grit.

I knew it was bad when I walked around the corner to Lidl to pick up my morning rolls and found myself gripping the rail at the back of the loading bay the way a nervous child clutches a comforting favourite toy.  It was impossible to travel anywhere with any kind of grace or poise, or at least it was for me.  Others seemed to be managing it just fine, striding along without a worry in the world.  I used to be like them, I thought.  Now I find myself hating anybody who shows just an ounce of composure on a frosty street.  I heard a lot about the 1984 Winter Olympic Games when I visited Sarajevo earlier in the year, and now I was being forced to channel Torvill & Dean just to be able to eat a bacon roll.

Walking back into town from Soroba, several beers deep on Saturday night, was one of the most challenging expeditions I have embarked upon.  A rain shower on the frozen pavements earlier in the evening had left the surface glistening under the streetlights like a jewellery store window.  Nothing has looked as menacing.  If I had put as much focus, concentration, and determination into other aspects of my life as I did into staying upright on that walk home then there’s no telling what I could have achieved.  There were points where the pavement looked so terrifying that there was no option but to walk on the road.  Having weighed up the potential outcomes, I guess that being struck by an oncoming car was preferable to the embarrassment of falling on my arse again.

Making it all the way to Aulay’s without incident felt like the greatest triumph I have experienced all year, maybe beyond.  It was certainly worthy of a celebratory pint.  The bar was thriving with festive revelry; groups of work parties filled the booths while stragglers boogied in the space between the jukebox and the ladies’ bathroom.  In a moment of surrealism from a virtual stockingful of them, someone selected the Marilyn Manson song mOBSCENE to act as the soundtrack to the Christmas scene.  One woman approached the bar and reached into her shirt to find the drinks order for her table.  Then she pulled her phone out from in there, and finally, after a prolonged period of fumbling around, she produced the kitty the group had collected to pay for their drinks.  I was mesmerised by the act, struggling to come to terms with the idea that this approach was any easier than carrying a bag.  The longer she spent searching for the next item, her torso resembling a bedsheet when a puppy has become trapped underneath and it’s trying to wrestle its way free, the more curious I became to see what would come out.  When a magician performs the trick where they pull tissue from their sleeve, you know that the paper is eventually going to run out, but with this, it genuinely felt as though it could go on all night.

Later, a group of young women came in to toast a birthday. One of them was wearing a large badge which was emblazoned with the number 22, presumably to indicate that she was just turning twenty-two. She ordered a glass of pink gin and asked the barmaid if she could “down this in the toilet.” Just when you think that you have heard everything in Aulay’s, someone will always come along and prove you wrong. Sure enough, she waded through the mass of bodies and took her drink into the bathroom, emerging moments later with an empty glass and a look on her face that would have matched mine after I made it down Soroba Road unscathed. The unusual request was all I could think about for the rest of the night. I can only imagine that it was part of some social media challenge that an older person like me wouldn’t understand.

Some form of normality was restored a few days later when, in Aulay’s after the final Lorne pub quiz of the year, Geordie Pete was seen for the first time in many months.  It would be a stretch to classify it a Christmas miracle, but I don’t think any of us expected to see Pete in the bar again, and there can’t be many things that are more warming than his big, toothy grin.  His smile belied the fact that he was using a crutch due to an injury he had recently sustained.  Pariss reached over from behind the bar and asked him if she could borrow the instrument.  She disappeared into the public bar with it, and we were left to assume that she had a troublesome customer who she was needing to resort to extreme measures to convince to leave.  However, she returned moments later with the crutch wrapped in a sparkling string of red tinsel.  

Initially, Pete didn’t like the Christmas crutch, since red is the colour of Newcastle’s fiercest football rivals Sunderland, but he quickly warmed to it and was seen showing it off around the bar like an excited kid with a new toy.  I couldn’t help but feel a little envious.  The crutch was colourful and striking; a charming piece of festive fun that would make for a real talking point as an accoutrement to my tweed jacket.  People have recently been telling me that I dress like a disgraced geography teacher, and the Christmas crutch would surely change all that.  Maybe I was too fast in trumpeting my recent transformation into Torvill & Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics.  Deep heat soothed me on Monday, but ice might have been my friend after all.  There’s a Christmas message in there about embracing your fears and you never know what might happen, which is probably easier to get behind than the one about an Instagram Reel featuring you downing a glass of gin in a public toilet.

After midnight

While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years.  It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought.  These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep.  Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different.  For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.  

There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on HogmanayDid they change the rules after Christmas?  Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember.  Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party?  I could have sworn that was the year before.  2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022.  Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year?  I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then.  Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe.  Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books.  What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?    

Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now.  It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident.  You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know.  People have more important issues to be thinking about these days:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.

Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.

The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off.  We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour.  A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves.  A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find.  Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess.  That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.

Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos.  We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place.  Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade.  On this night, however, it belonged to us.  Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation.  We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground.  It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.

Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me.  She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line.  It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance.  I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.

The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around.  She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear.  People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them.  This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing.  I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.

I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket:  my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook.  Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it.  She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself.  “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.

Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.

Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual.  It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all.  Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground.  People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements.  Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.  

We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine.  Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display.  Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets.  The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.

The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019.  I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year.  When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid.  Everyone is doing their best to recover that time.  Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered.  In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila.  Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either.  I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night.  My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room.  Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner.  There are some things that are best forgotten.

Bumbled lines

Bingo is one of those pastimes that I could never imagine enjoying.  Some things you just develop a notion that they aren’t for you and so you don’t bother wasting your time trying them.  I know that there’s nothing I’m ever going to need from one of the local tourist shops such as Highland Experience or Thistle Do Nicely and I’ve never stepped inside them, for example.  In my mind, based on nothing other than reputation, M&S is much more expensive than the budget meals I can put together from Lidl, so I don’t go shopping there, not even to browse.  Nobody needs to be exposed to the sight of my downward-facing dog, which is why I stick to doing yoga in my living room rather than attending a class.  People have a pretty good knack for knowing these things, or at least thinking they do, and so it is with bingo.

Previously when I thought of bingo I imagined dank, dusty halls reeking of Bacardi and L’Oréal; tables of competitive elderly women with screeds of bingo books spread out before them like a road map, the furious sound of dabbers and tutting heavy in the atmosphere.  Nothing about it appealed to me.  It, therefore, came as a surprise when my sister held a bingo night to help raise funds for her Happy Wee Health Club and I found that it is quite a lot of fun.

The bingo came at the end of the first week following the end of British Summer Time, when the night was continuing its relentless march as the daylight shrivelled and curled up at either end. Temperatures were moving in the opposite direction of energy prices, while hardly a night passed without me arriving home from my regular walk soaked through to my underwear. There is good reason why this is the only time of year I listen to the Guns N Roses song November Rain. Residents in some parts of town have complained that the streetlights in their neighbourhood haven’t been working since the clocks changed, whereas Argyll Square has been brightly lit by the Christmas lights which aren’t due to be switched on for another few weeks. In years to come, when social scientists are studying the complete collapse of society, it is easy to see this being exhibit A.

It was on the Sunday after our most recent Let’s Make A Scene open mic event that things really began to take shape.  These weekends always follow the same pattern.  There was the triumph of Let’s Make A Scene, where I felt pleased with how the material I read from my notebook was received.  It’s always nice being told by people that they have enjoyed my set, even if at the time part of me is consumed with wondering why the audience laughed at some of the lines that I have never thought of as being funny but were almost entirety silent come the punchline to the story.  A more considered person than me might dissect their performance for the parts that got the most positive response so that the act is even better next time, but I’m usually so weighted with relief that I spend the rest of the night guzzling Tennent’s and don’t stop to think about how it went.  Retiring to the Oban Inn afterwards is usually my favourite part of Let’s Make A Scene.   I found myself chatting with a couple of ramshackle scallywags whom I had met for the first time, and I even left with a phone number scrawled in my notebook.  Though just like every other number I’m picking up these days, it was from a guy who is looking to play indoor football.

After the high invariably comes the low. Days do not come more diametrically opposed than Saturday and Sunday, especially on a Let’s Make A Scene weekend. I went from being surrounded by friends and an admiring audience to spending an entire day with only my fern for company, waiting for the washing machine to complete its cycle and at the same time preparing a goulash in the slow cooker. I hated the humdrum routine of it all. It used to be that I would revel in it, bundling myself up in a big blanket of misery. I would write page after page in my journal about the frailty of trying to position wet socks on the airer so that there’s enough space for everything; the annoyance of slicing a carrot and having pieces fly like shrapnel from the chopping board to the floor; the elderly man who stands at the bus stop across the road from my window at the same time every Sunday, seemingly waiting for a bus that never comes, and how that’s exactly like the punchlines to my jokes. But that isn’t me anymore. These days I live for the nauseous feeling I get before reading; the sound of an audience laughing, or even not laughing; the celebration of talking to new people and hearing words used in conversation that you hardly ever hear.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re hungover and you know that you’re not going to the bar again for another three days, even more so when it’s the Sunday that British Summer Time has ended and there’s an extra hour of monotony to deal with.  The comedown from the previous night was particularly harsh.  I couldn’t shake it, and I spent the afternoon swiping through Tinder, hoping for something to come along and drag me out of my funk.  However, it turns out that I’ve pretty much exhausted Tinder.  Nobody new in the Oban area ever appears, and even when they do, they inevitably don’t match with me.  Sometimes I hit the “expand your distance” button so many times that I am seeing users close to the border ‐ the border between England and Wales.  I grew so tired of it all that I downloaded a couple of alternative dating apps ‐ Bumble and Hinge ‐ and worked on creating a profile that would be less Bangor and more banging.

Bumble was the most appealing of the two.  Their premise is that female users hold all the cards, so when two people like one another’s profile, it is down to the woman to make the first move.  She has 24 hours to send her potential partner a message, after which time the match disappears.  I liked the idea of having the pressure of the opening line taken out of my hands, since on the rare occasion that I have ever been paired with someone on Tinder my introduction has almost exclusively been met with either no response or being unmatched.  This way seemed better for everyone.

I took some time to scroll through some of the many prompts the app offers you to complete to give other users a better idea of your personality.  Things like:  “I get way too excited about…”, “If I could eat only one meal for the rest of my life it would be…”, My personal hell is…”, “I’m a real nerd about…”, “I quote too much from…”,  “If I could have a superpower it’d be…”, or “I’m a great +1 because…”  I wanted something that would really stand out and show me for who I am, so I settled on the following three:

The quickest way to my heart is…

with a scalpel and a degree in cardiac surgery.

I promise I won’t judge you if…

you wear a black robe and a wig.  Hey, that makes you the judge, not me!

The world would be a better place with more…

action and a little less conversation.

Within ten minutes I reached the limit of maximum ‘likes’ allowed without a paid-for subscription in 24 hours and I never made a single match.  As far as I could tell, Bumble was exactly like Tinder, only with better jokes.  By the time the working week began and I was amongst people again, playing football and thinking about the pub, I forgot all about Bumble.  Some things you have a notion for, and I’d long known that dating apps just aren’t for me.  Which is why it came as a surprise when I awoke on Friday morning to find that not only had I made a match on Bumble, but she had sent me a message well within the 24 hour curfew.  According to her profile, Emma* is 28, based in Oban, and a fish biologist.  She appeared to be smart, funny, and attractive as all hell.  It seemed ridiculous that such a person could even be paired with me, let alone that she would get in touch.  I could hardly wait to read her missive.

“Hey,” it read.

That was it.  She hadn’t given me much to work with, though to be honest, I was too giddy to care.  In a way, I admired that she had found the perfect loophole in Bumble’s system.  The app only requires the woman to send the first message, there is nothing in the terms and conditions about it being a good message.  Emma* had managed to put the opening line pressure back onto me.  I read her profile once more, seeking the key piece of information that would help me formulate the perfect response.  I liked that there was nothing vague about her.  Some profiles on these apps are like a badly‐buttered slice of toast, where what little butter there is is concentrated in the middle of the bread and doesn’t come close to reaching the crust.  

In her bio, Emma* noted that she is a certified forklift driver, so I decided that I would ask her what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate. It seemed light enough to grab her attention ‐ after all, she must have seen the responses to my prompts ‐ whilst also enquiring a little about her. I thought it was a good opening message, but I decided to canvas opinion around the office before hitting send. After all, these are people who are either married, engaged, or in relationships. Almost universally, I was told: “why don’t you just ask how she is?” I wouldn’t hear of it. How are you? is the worst question. It is the “hey” of questions. You seldom receive a truthful response to it, unless everybody on the planet is “fine”. I refused to go down that route and instead stuck with my original gut instinct.

By the time our pub quiz team met in The Lorne to spend some of our hard‐earned £25 bar vouchers on a meal before heading round to The View for the bingo, I had not received a response from Emma*.  She doesn’t owe me anything, I attempted to soothe myself, and besides, she’d likely had a busy day.  With a bellyful of burgers and beer at a discounted bargain, we ventured forth in search of witty numerical calls and raffle prizes.  The scene in The View was nothing like what I’d been imagining all week.  It was bright, vibrant, and had the fragrance of just about any other bar.  The room was full of people, hardly any of them of pension age.  Overwhelmingly they were female, which immediately had me rethinking my attitude towards the noble pastime of bingo.  We each bought a book and a dabber, as well as enough raffle tickets to have our table resembling the ground outside a church after a wedding.  

Nobody has ever considered a bingo dabber to be the height of man’s engineering achievement, yet it defeated one member of our group.  Nobody saw it happen, but seemingly my brother struggled with the screw-off lid to such an extent that he ended up pulling it off with so much force that the green ink erupted all over the table.  Everything was green:  the table, his bingo book, his jeans, and his hands.  It was like watching Bruce Banner transform, and nobody knew what would happen if my brother got angry about this.  Our niece was incredulous with her amusement.

Despite having a book that was almost entirely ruined by the ink spillage, my brother managed to win a cash prize on a line in the only game that wasn’t covered by green.  I could scarcely believe that anyone could have that kind of luck.  As it turned out, most of the people at our table won a prize of some sort, either during the five rounds of bingo or in the raffle.  My niece drew the winning tickets out of the hat for the raffle, the proceeds of which were going to my sister’s Happy Wee Health Club.  She revelled in the role of pulling numbers out at random and delivering the prizes to the winning table.  Most of the time, she was coming to us.  By the end of the night it was getting embarrassing, and people from our group were returning goods to be redrawn, though I couldn’t be sure if the Nut Tax Man was just being overly sure of his own scent when he handed back the Jimmy Choo perfume set.  Other tables were jeering when yet another prize landed our way.  The whole episode was reminiscent of the Maryburgh meat raffle a year earlier where my niece once again had a skill for picking the raffle tickets that had been bought by her own family.  Just like then, I was one of the few amongst us who didn’t win a single thing all night.

Even though I wasn’t having any success, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bingo.  It was tremendous fun.  What was noticeable was how deeply involved everyone became in the game.  There was tension as folk edged closer to winning a line or a house, drama, and no shortage of competitive action.  You immediately become engrossed in finding the numbers in your book as they are called as rapidly as a chopped root vegetable hits the floor in my kitchen.  I hadn’t afforded as much concentration to something since putting together my profile on Bumble.  Ultimately, when we convened in Aulay’s to analyse the night we’d just had, it transpired that I’d had as much luck on Bumble as at the bingo.  Emma* had unmatched me without ever telling me what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate.  On Bumble, just as at the bingo, I couldn’t get a single line.

Usually these things don’t bother me.  I’m well used to not receiving a response on dating apps, or not making a match at all.  But these are always women from other parts of the country.  This was different.  Emma* lives locally; it somehow seemed more real.  In my head, I had already been dating her for most of the day, imagining all of the things we could be doing together.  I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that it hadn’t worked out.  People will always say that there are plenty more fish in the sea, but then, who would know about that better than a fish biologist?

*Emma’s name has been changed.

39 not out

That a man will attract some interesting looks when he walks into the bar holding a fern is just one of the lessons I learned on the recent occasion of my 39th birthday.  Of course, it isn’t every day that a man appears in Aulay’s carrying a leafy houseplant in his hand, but the eyeballing me and my fern took was something else, as though I was drunk driving into a handicapped space.  Sure, the scene had an element of farce to it, with me trying to navigate the busy bar to find a spot where I could rest my large birthday gift that wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s view of the football, but you’d think that people had never seen a 39-year-old man lovingly cradle a fern the way some of them were acting.  Maybe it was when I sat the ceramic pot down on the end of the bar and one of the leaves made a beeline for a glass of vodka and coke that things threatened to take a turn.  Eventually, it was decided that on the floor by the coat rack was the best place to store a fern until closing time.

On the face of it, the fern was a thoughtful present from my friends, but it felt like a cruel joke.  The fact that I can never keep a houseplant alive is almost as notorious as my ability to kill a flourishing interaction with the opposite sex.  All they had done was pass down a sentence on an innocent plant.  Some might say that by thirty-nine a man ought to be capable of showing some form of responsibility, and my friends clearly felt that I had a better chance of that with a fern than a female, but I wasn’t convinced.

A Tuesday afternoon is not my usual slot for getting my hair cut, though sometimes the head has to rule the heart and you are forced into breaking some habits.  My hair had grown into an unruly state that needed tending to before we went out for my birthday dinner in the evening, even if it was at the expense of the barber’s projected Saturday takings.  There’s always a fantastic story when you get into the barber’s chair, no matter what day of the week it is.  This time he told me about his recent holiday in Italy, which has resulted in an ongoing dispute with a popular package holiday operator.  In an effort to raise awareness of his struggle and to force the agent into refunding him the money he feels he is due, the barber is in the process of using the GoPro footage from his travels to produce a protest vlog of sorts.  It sounded extravagant, the means he was going to when most folk would simply fill in a form.  I wasn’t sure about it.  Something about the idea of a video blog made me uncomfortable.  What is it with people having the need to put every aspect of their lives online?  

The responsibility for organising the night out in celebration of my 39th birthday was taken into the hands of The Algaeman and the only person who I have ever seen pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern.  As far as I understand it, the sole condition they attached to their guest list, aside from that they would be our usual circle of friends, was that the invitees should be female.  Therefore it seemed pretty damning that the only women they could convince to join us for dinner were my sister and niece. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t thrilled to see them.  Everybody had a great time, and I could tell that my niece especially enjoyed having a larger than usual audience to play to.  She would wander between us like a trick-or-treater, performing for the gallery and seeking a response.  Her favourite game on this occasion was to unclip the gold chain from her purse and show us all how it could wriggle between her hands like a worm.  It was the sort of act that had endless amusement for a six-year-old, but for the rest of us, there was a limited shelf-life.  I foolishly suggested that, since the chain had clips at either end, it could be used to curate a pair of handcuffs.  Little did I realise that my niece would heartily take my advice.  With a relish I have seldom seen in anyone so young, she untangled the web of golden worms and wrapped the chain around my wrists, clasping it shut at either end.  As a jailer, she had done a pretty lousy job and my hands would still have been free if I wanted them to be, but there’s an unwritten understanding that you play along with these things.  I wrestled and struggled and proclaimed my innocence against the crimes I had been convicted of.  Then the waitress appeared with plates filled with pizza and pasta, and I sensed a way out of my predicament.  She placed a “Rio” before me – a pizza topped with all of the meats you can imagine – and I took my chance.  

“Would you happen to have the keys for these?”  I pleaded, holding my bound wrists up in the air.

“No.” The response was blunt. Not only was the rest of our food served by a much older and definitely more masculine employee, but we didn’t see the waitress anywhere for the rest of the night. There was a part of me that was feeling guilty for making the handcuff remark. Amongst our table, we imagined her fleeing to the city of Glasgow and beyond upon hearing my line, quitting her job and everything. I felt terrible about it. There will never be any way of us knowing why her shift ended at that exact moment, but much like with all of the games my niece will play, it is easy to join the dots. Perhaps there is a lesson there about the jokes you can attempt when you are 39.

Outside Bar Rio, on our way to Aulay’s to watch Celtic play RB Leipzig in the Champions League, the gang presented me with my fern.  I cannot think of an instance where I have felt both so touched and terrified at the same time.  I have been gifted a houseplant in the past, but that was a succulent which didn’t require much care or attention – and still it died within months of being introduced to the environment of my home.  The fern was different.  It was big, easily the size of a newborn baby, and a living, breathing being.  While it was nice that my friends trusted that I would be capable of looking after something so green, it has to be remembered that most of them are scientists who have been trained to consider the chance that all outcomes are possible, no matter how unlikely.  If there is a 98% probability of a houseplant dying within four months of falling under my guardianship, they’re going to look at the 2% prospect of it living for a year.

As far as the likely outcome of certain events goes, the Algaeman’s decision to drink his first-ever (and consequently second) cocktail was as predictable as the fate of my fern; a joke made to a waitress; a Celtic game in the Champions League.   When he first joined our group early in 2022, the Algaeman had a fresh-faced innocence about him.  He used to boast about how he had never experienced a hangover, though by summer that claim was flushed down the toilet when he arrived at work one Saturday resembling Linda Blair’s character in the Exorcist movie, only without the Satanic chanting.  We all knew how a dalliance with Passion Fruit Martini and a Strawberry Daiquiri would go, but sometimes you have to put your belief in that 2% chance.  Of course, on this occasion, the overwhelming odds proved to be correct once again, and the Algaeman was asleep on the table before half-time.

The thing about youth is that these setbacks are quickly brushed off as if they had never happened, and within minutes the Algaeman was leading a further presentation of birthday spoils.  A chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” barely rippled beyond our table as the group lit a ceremonial Colin the Caterpillar candle and stuck it into the flesh of a half-ripe mango.  It was a beautiful homage to the night a few of us were served a platter of sliced mango in the public bar, still the best time we have had in Aulay’s.  Next, I was presented with a copy of the book Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which was another callback to a historic episode in the bar.  Inside, the paperback cover was signed by all of the people with whom I spend the majority of my time:  the bar staff in Aulay’s.

It wasn’t long after Celtic’s inevitable defeat that the jukebox was switched on and we could get down to business. If there’s one thing we do well as a group, it is feeding pound coins into the jukey. On the face of it, it seems an easy thing to do, but there is almost an art to playing the right song. It would be easy to revert to your favourite Ryan Adams track or to request No Pussy Blues by Grinderman on repeat, but in a pub full of people who don’t share your taste in music that can quickly come across as obnoxious. Not many folks can balance this quite as well as our own jukebox Romeo, who has an uncanny knack for pulling out the most obscure and yet perfectly-timed tracks, mainly from the nineties. Jimmy Nail, George Michael, Coolio, Limp Bizkit, Backstreet Boys. On this occasion, it was another boy band, Blue with their hit One Love. I’ve often longed to have the command of the jukebox that he possesses. His unflinching ability to find the ideal mood music on the touch screen has earned him the nickname Dirty Finger. He’s the Bond villain that you find yourself rooting for.

While I was busy keeping an eye on my fern by the coat rack and Dirty Finger was slipping silver into the slot of the jukebox, the Plant Doctor became engaged in conversation with a man who was wearing the green jersey of the South Africa national rugby team.  The guy was only passing through Oban for a couple of nights and had a keen interest in science, which made it easy to see why he was so eager to talk to a group of blokes who are in the field.  Since he invariably became part of of my birthday night, we asked him to sign the inside of my book, where his signature took up almost the entirety of the back cover.  He even used the loose leaf on the other side of the last page to write down his email address.

Perhaps with hindsight and the benefit of my 39 years of experience, I should have known that there was more to Randy Ron when he began talking to us about how all women are nothing more than succubus who are only interested in sucking the souls from men.  “Domineering soulsuckers” is the phrase I believe he used.  It’s the sort of thing that someone says and it sticks in your head for days afterwards, particularly in this instance where it’s clear that if all women are looking for is another soul to harvest, I am wasting my time making stupid jokes about handcuffs.  The pieces really fell into place when we were all going our separate ways at the end of the night.  I gathered my fern and was left alone with Ron, who was hoping for an after-party.  I explained to him that I was working in the morning, so I walked him to the taxi rank, where he was seeking a ride to a destination in town he wasn’t familiar with.

“Can you tell me how I get here?”  He asked, handing me his phone, which was open on a text message he had received from a guy who had provided him with an address, followed later by the information:  “I’ve just gone to bed but the door is open.”

When we all reconvened in Aulay’s on Friday night, a handful of days older than 39, the rest of the gang was curious to know how I had gotten on with Ron and if I had been able to “shake him off.”  It was an odd question when I hadn’t thought of him as being a nuisance in any way.

“He seemed to have taken a shine to you,” they said.  “He even asked Dirty Finger if he would mind him going home with you.”  I was shocked, and more than a little annoyed.  I mean, here’s this guy who was presumably attracted to me, yet he’s arranging a rendez-vous with somebody else the entire time.  Of all the lessons I learned during the week of my 39th birthday, discovering that I can’t even be hit on by a guy was the harshest.  If it’s true what they say about life beginning at forty, then I have finally entered the embryonic phase of my existence.  If I am on the cusp of a period in my life filled with new and exciting experiences, I’m not saying that I want any of them to be with gay men, but it would be nice if they could at least hit on me right.

I will be reading excerpts from my notebook at Let’s Make A Scene at the Corran Halls, Oban on Saturday 29 October. The link is below if anyone feels like checking it out.

Interest like confetti

In these days where turning on the news or opening your social media brings yet another wave of stories about energy price caps, inflation, the cost of living, markets collapsing, or interest rates soaring, it feels more important than ever to take all the pleasure you can from the small things in life. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for why I was standing at my bathroom sink for what seemed like several minutes one morning this week staring straight into a freshly opened jar of Lidl’s own brand moisturiser. It was so perfectly smooth and unblemished. I imagine that I was viewing the cream the same way some people peel back the paper on a new tub of butter and admire how nice it looks. That moment when your knife skims across the surface to make the initial disruption in the butter is such a quietly satisfying one. For the first time I can remember, I caught myself looking at the pure white moisturiser and questioning if I was even worthy of spoiling it by applying it to my face.

The thing is, it wasn’t the cream’s flawless appearance that had me reluctant to take my finger to it like a knife through butter, it was the new label on the plastic container.  It used to go under the name ‘Vitality Regenerative Day Cream’, which was neat and uncomplicated for a man who was new to the concept of moisturising.  Such is the way of life in 2022, however, things don’t tend to remain simple for very long.  The cream had been rebranded and is now known as ‘Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream’.  Nothing stays simple, you see.  This had me questioning everything from why I need to moisturise at all, to Lidl’s marketing department, and what am I doing with my life anyway.  Most of all, I couldn’t understand why I would need my cheeks to be extra firm.  The cheeks on my butt, yes, but the cheeks on my face?  It didn’t make any sense to me, but the tub was already open by this point, so I sliced my finger right through it.

I’ve never been one to let anything go to waste; you can’t afford to when you’re a single occupant. I’ll squeeze every penny of value I can out of my goods, whether it’s a tube of toothpaste or a lemon. This prudence seems all the more necessary now that we’re experiencing this cost of living crisis that everybody is talking about. Last week, just days after the new UK Government’s mini-budget caused the pound to crash, markets to panic, pensions to evaporate, and interest rates to rise, I received a letter from my bank reminding me that my original mortgage deal will end in February 2023. I mean, the timing alone was like rain on your wedding day or a black fly in your Chardonnay. From March, I will be paying interest on my loan at the Standard Variable Rate of 4.99%, rather than my current fixed rate, which is 3.92%. The difference is the cost of a decent night in Aulay’s. With a variable rate of interest, anything can happen. In theory, I could be making a different payment every month for the rest of my term. I’d be as well writing my future budgets behind a scratchcard.

It turns out that the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is Capitalism.

Money is far from the greatest concern in my life, though.  I’ve found that you can have a lot more fun if you don’t even think about it.  Time spent with friends and family is where true wealth is found, and of late I’ve been rolling in it like Scrooge McDuck.  I didn’t know The Algaeman before the turn of the year.  In fact, I can’t pinpoint exactly when we all met him, but he has become a constant in our Friday nights.  It is difficult to imagine a time before The Algaeman was part of our group.  He smiles all the time, which is useful when it comes to helping me believe that at least one person has found something I’ve said funny.  The fact that he smiles isn’t all that distinguishes him from the rest of us.  When we are lined along the bar in Aulay’s, we could easily be described as a coffee shop order of four glasses of milk and a chocolate milkshake.  His Indian accent is one I have come to associate with pure, undiluted joy, while his words are almost musical.  One night recently, we taught him all about the word cunt.  It was a beautiful thing to hear him repeat it over and over again, and before long, there was cunt being thrown around like confetti.

The Algaeman recently submitted his Master’s thesis after a year of hard work, giving us all cause for celebration.  We joined him in the Whisky Vaults on Friday, where the staff were busy erecting a large tent in preparation for their German-themed beer event Oktobanfest the next day.  It’s amazing to see what finally completing a 36,400-word, 160-page paper does to a person, having a similar effect on The Algaeman’s complexion as dipping your finger into a tub of Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream.  I was feeling just as buoyed when I learned that I had been included in the acknowledgements section of his thesis.  Even if the mention was only for my ability to make an appearance in Aulay’s every Friday, it still represents my best chance of ever having my name published in print.

Most of the people in the bar were also marine scientists from SAMS, except for myself and the only man who I have ever seen being forced to pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern. We took a seat at the end of a table opposite two women we had never met before. I sat down and, for reasons that might seem peculiar with hindsight, decided to break the ice by announcing that “we may as well make this as awkward as possible.” One of the ladies smiled the way someone does when you tell them a piece of distressing news and they don’t know what they can say to reassure you.

Knowing that SAMS is the most multinational institution in town, and having heard an unfamiliar dialect in the woman’s voice, I attempted to advance the conversation by asking her where she is from, anticipating an exotic answer such as Portugal or Spain.  “Nairn,” came the response.  It transpired that the accent I was hearing was English, one that had been passed down from a parent.  Even by my standards, it felt as though the interaction was going terribly, though it recovered enough for me and the nut tax man to glean some of the most interesting pieces of information I have heard in a while.  We learned that she was named after one of the Shetland Islands, just like her two older siblings, and that because her parents couldn’t decide on a name, the midwife who helped deliver her chose one for them.  I couldn’t get over the pressure the nurse must have felt in that moment.  It’s one thing to deliver a healthy baby, but to then give it the name that is going to follow the person for the rest of their life is a whole other level.  I thought about the way that I can barely come up with something original to write in a birthday card, when a name is going to be repeated on every card a person ever receives.

Naming is a complicated business, as we discovered when we tried to talk to one of the other women from SAMS who was at the table. She was Italian and not yet fluent in her English, so much of what was being said wound up getting lost in translation. Even trying to find out which part of Italy she is from was an ordeal which resulted in the entire group striving to explain why I had asked which part of the boot she comes from. It didn’t get any easier when we had a go at talking cuisine; specifically what her region is best known for. Alan told a story about a friend of his whose surname is Gateau. This guy had a pizza named after him in an Italian restaurant he ate in often. Our companion was incredulous at hearing this. She couldn’t understand anyone naming a pizza Gateau, no matter how many different ways Alan tried to explain that it is true. It felt as though someone could have written an entire thesis on the concept of how things get their name in the time that passed before someone at the table came to realise where the confusion was coming from: the Italian word gatto is a male cat, and the woman couldn’t comprehend why Alan was talking about a cat pizza. It was easy to see why the idea was ridiculous.

Like completing a thesis, the first day of October doesn’t come around very often. This year, the Whisky Vaults marked the beginning of the tenth month with Oban’s first Oktoberfest. They had a menu of seven different German-style beers, as well as a selection of barbequed meats, and people dressed in traditional festival attire. We sat outside under the tent that was covering most of the beer garden. To begin with, the sound of the rain pattering against the roof sounded like tiny baby steps, though after six beers they could just as easily have been from an elephant. We opened with a wheat beer, the sort that could be enjoyed for breakfast if breakfast was at five-thirty in the afternoon. We were joined briefly by a Canadian marine biologist who told us that she had tried five of the beverages on offer, recommending the caramel-tasting Red Lager. She wondered how many we had sampled, though having just arrived we were at the start of our beer journey.

“This is just our first,” I said.  “But I hope I’m looking as good as you are after five.”

I am never so nakedly flirtatious, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to be in that moment.  What’s worse is that it was impossible to tell how it was received.  The Canadian smiled shyly before walking away from the table and returning to her group.  Who knew whether I had complimented or offended her?  Even apart from that, it was ridiculous for me to think that I could look as good as anyone after five pints, let alone an effervescent young woman.  All the Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream in the world won’t do that.  I returned home hours later, the remark still playing on my mind.  To distract me, I put on the 1980 film Airplane! and opened a Tennent’s Lager, placing the can on my coffee table next to the letter from my mortgage lender.  It’s still the most reliable way for me to see any interest.

Pure morning

Monday 12 September 2022:

Tonight we played our tenth week of indoor football in Atlantis.  Our game has grown quite significantly during that time.  In the beginning, we were eight men with a severe lack of fitness and no footballing ability who knew each other primarily from the pub; now we are fifteen men who met mainly through the pub, are a little fitter than we were but still have no footballing ability.

In those ten weeks, we have played with a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Polish schoolboy, and adopted a Turkish barber originally from Iraq who is so much better than the rest of us that he has taken to finishing games playing in his socks.  Our squad currently consists of, I think, four scientists, two accountants and six spectacle wearers.  It is the most placid collection of individuals you could care to meet in a leisure centre, yet people have suffered strained quadriceps, bruised ligaments, damage to their fingers, and on one occasion, a dislocated shoulder.  We aren’t a competitive bunch, but I guess if you throw a ball into a hall for a dozen or so men to chase after, these things are bound to happen.

Despite the rash of injuries, people seem to be enjoying the weekly game, so much so that there has been some discussion of potentially playing twice a week.  Apart from anything else, it seems that before long, hiring the hall for an hour is going to be cheaper than paying for heating at home.  Tonight I scored for the second time in ten weeks, which although a paltry tally when compared to most of the other players in our group, is a much more prolific return than in other areas of my life.

Tuesday 13 September 2022:

Other than the indoor game in Atlantis, there hasn’t been a great deal happening over the last few days. It has been an unusual time. There has been nothing on the television, sporting events across the UK have been postponed, the cinema was closed on Friday night, and even the Oban Pride Festival was cancelled over the weekend. To fill the void, I have found myself spending a lot of time listening to the 1986 album released by The Smiths. The title track is a classic, and surely one of the best-ever opening songs on an album.

Wednesday 14 September 2022:

After a fairly successful streak sometime around July, The Unlikely Bawbags are on a barren run at the Lorne pub quiz.  If we don’t win we are usually close, though there was one week where we fell down the rankings as far as fourth or fifth.  Tonight we were second, a point off the eventual winners.  It’s frustrating when that happens, and we’ll spend some time afterwards dwelling over it, trying to count the points we could have won if only we’d made different decisions and gone with the right answers; but this time there really wasn’t any more we could have done.

Despite telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a refrained night on account of my plans to travel the following day, I once again ended up in Aulay’s after the quiz.  The winning team, Quiznae Me, were there celebrating their success.  It was all I could do to sit at the end of the bar and furiously contemplate what might have been.  Over the froth of a Tennent’s Lager, I watched as an elegantly dressed woman approached and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio.  She remarked to her friend that she had recently made the switch from red wine to white, and the reason why became the question I most wanted answering for the night.  There’s little more fascinating to me than the thinking behind the seemingly mundane decisions people make, usually because it leads to an exchange of other similarly beige nuggets of information.  For example, the wine-quaffing quiz winner told me that she had been finding that red wine was going straight to her head, but that the green grape isn’t nearly as potent.  I noted that the glass of white wine she was clutching in her hand complimented the colour of her nails, which she told me had been manicured for the very first time the previous week.  I learned that the process behind picking a colour for your nails is broadly similar to when you enter a hardware store and you’re seeking the perfect tin of paint for your new kitchen.  The buyer goes in and thumbs through a colour chart which gives them the opportunity of seeing how a certain shade looks against their finger before having the material applied for real.  On this occasion, the woman had gone for a colour which resembled sand on a beach before it becomes wet, since she considered it a safe option for her maiden manicure.  

“Would it impress you if a guy could tell you that your nails are shellac?”  I enquired, immediately dispensing my only piece of nail knowledge, kindly offered to me years ago by a young woman who was standing in almost exactly the same spot when she insisted that a female would enjoy it if I could point out that “they’re shellac, bitch.” 

“I don’t think it would.  I don’t even know what shellac is, and I’d probably be busy wondering why the guy knows.”  My demeanour darkened, though in truth, I don’t especially know how to identify a shellac nail either.

The wine drinker has a pleasing, peaceful aura, and she smiles as often as the traffic light on Argyll Square turns red.  She told me that she has recently embarked on a new initiative to do one thing each week as a treat to herself.  Last week she had her nails done, while this week she visited a hairdresser for the first time since the pandemic began.  She picked up her drink and made to return to her group.  “Thank you for the great conversation,” she said in parting.  I didn’t know how to respond.  Nobody had ever thanked me for talking to them before.  I took it as a treat for myself.

Thursday 15 September 2022:

France’s largest air traffic control union, the SNCTA, has called a strike for tomorrow. Ordinarily, these things wouldn’t bother me and I would find myself on the side of the underpaid worker, but I was due to travel for a weekend break in Sarajevo, and the elaborate route I had sourced was to take me from Glasgow to Dublin, onwards to Paris and finally to Sarajevo. The final flight has been cancelled due to the strike action. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey itself, since it was going to require a seven-hour overnight stop in Dublin Airport followed by a further six-hour wait in Paris Beauvais, but I was excited for my brief return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than anything, I was keen to see some of the friends I had made there during the summer: Aid, Kenan, Medina, and the bar staff at Gastro Pub Vucko. To have the trip cancelled so close to departure was disappointing, but I suppose it was better than learning about it upon arrival at the airport. The task now is to find a way to enjoy the weekend that will keep me from mourning that I am not in Sarajevo.

Friday 16 September 2022:

On days like this, Oban scarcely looks real; more like a series of postcards have been pinned to the horizon in some dramatic exhibition.  McCaig’s Tower pierces the sky, leaving barely a scratch in the pinball blue.  From up there you can see for miles, islands in the distance are exposing themselves to the sun.  The sun itself dances provocatively on the surface of the still sea.  Beer gardens and al fresco dining areas are doing a roaring trade, pavements packed with the sudden jolt of tourists who spy a photo opportunity, while on the Esplanade, a couple with an A3 pad sprawled across their knees are sketching the scene on the bay.  I guess that’s easier than writing a thousand words.

In the evening, I joined a few friends in attending the Pictish Trail gig in The View.  I had listened to only a small amount of the Island of Eigg native’s material before the night, but there was enough of it to span two sets:  the first a solo acoustic warm-up for the full-band, lo-fi psychedelic folk experience that followed.  It was pretty great; energetic, interactive, and a lot more fun than I could ever have expected the performance to be.

Saturday 17 September 2022:

I like to buy whichever vegetable Lidl has on offer and then Google what I can do with it.  This week they are selling courgettes for £1.29 per kilo, which weighed out at 37p for the courgette I picked out.  The extent of my typical recipe search is usually to ask the internet for suggestions of pasta dishes I can cook using that week’s vegetable.  Easily the most awkward part of my shopping experience today was when I was approaching the sale items in the fresh produce aisle and the song Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin began playing in my earphones.  The track is the audio equivalent of reading the articles in Playboy Magazine.  To my memory, it is the first time that I have been checking a courgette for firmness while hearing the sound of a female breathing heavily in my ear. 

I added the song to my monthly Spotify playlist due to an incident that occurred in Aulay’s last Friday. Amongst our group, we had become aware of three French women who were seated at a table in the corner of the bar. Given that most of us have no idea how to approach a table of French women, we were feeling pretty hopeless. Eventually, it came to me that the best way of communicating them might be through the true language of love – music – and so I dropped a pound in the jukebox and played the LaBelle classic Lady Marmalade. The song appeared to delight the damsels since they were seen dancing at their table, though they presumably never acknowledged our existence on account of there being no way of knowing who has requested which song. Besides, I had become distracted by our usual game of themed playlists and followed Lady Marmalade with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and some track by The Jam. It was during his round of picks that the Plant Doctor played Je t’aime, but the ladies had long since departed by the time it came on. We were left only with speculating as to how they would have reacted to hearing it.

Sunday 18 September 2022:

Many people throughout the UK have the day off work tomorrow, and since there doesn’t appear to be anything better to do with the time, I decided that I would embark on the nearly mythical ‘Sunday sesh’ – an entire Sunday spent in the pub.  To start the day, Gary and I went to the Tartan Tavern to watch Celtic lose 2-0 to St. Mirren, which was the first time either of us had reason to grieve in well over ten days.  A pint of beer in there retails at £4.50, surely putting it around the mid-point of the prince range in Oban these days.  Gary arrived later than I did, joining my table with a pint of Guinness and a packet of KP salted peanuts.

“Help yourself to some nuts if you like,” he said.  “I only bought them to get the total up to five pounds.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a five pound minimum charge for card payments, so she asked me to get something else to make the bill up.”

It’s true that above the bar there is a sign clearly stating that the minimum card payment the place will accept is for £5, yet I was able to pay for my £4.50 Budweiser without having to buy a bag of nuts.  We found the discrepancy curious, and I was alert to it when I was next at the bar.  I studied the scene closely as the transaction unfolded.  Drink ordered.  Pint poured.  Bill rung up.  £4.50 paid by card.  As far as the things that happen in a hospitality setting go, this seemed fairly unremarkable, but we were perplexed.  Some time passed before Gary needed to have his Guinness refreshed.  This was the moment of truth.  The barmaid repeated the same process she had gone through with me, right up until the final step, where she invited Gary to buy something else to bring the bill up to the £5 minimum charge.

“Why are you having to pay the nut tax and I’m not?”  I wondered.  It was a question neither of us could answer, and as much as we were curious to know, I wasn’t going to be the idiot who asks a barmaid why he isn’t paying more for his drink.

We left for Aulay’s with Gary a pound lighter in the wallet and 100 grams heavier in peanuts.  There we were joined by a rolling cast of characters through the afternoon as we discussed our favourite cheesy eighties movies and quizzed the barmaid on her habit of adding items to her online shopping basket without ever checking out.  In a way, I guess it’s the modern equivalent of window shopping.  She had more than £400 worth of goods in her basket just from that day’s shift behind the bar.  In her view, she isn’t the type who cares for branded clothing or spends a lot of money on herself, she just likes imagining that she could own them with one click.  I tried telling her how I like to do the same on the World of Books website, with the difference being that I had recently gone through with spending more than £30 on second-hand titles, but she didn’t have much interest in that.

The most fascinating thing about spending an entire afternoon in the pub is observing the different people who come and go.  One minute it is quiet and the next there is a cacophony of flamboyantly drunk young women singing along to 4 Non Blondes in celebration of a 30th birthday.  From where we were standing, it seemed impossible that they could last the day, but by the end of it all, we would discover to our cost that we were underestimating the group.  

Unperturbed by the earlier nut tax, Gary found himself in conversation with an older Irish woman.  She was dressed as though she had been attending a funeral, though we knew that couldn’t have been the case since we had heard of nobody else who had died recently.  The woman integrated herself into our company, and we learned that she had in fact spent the afternoon at the classic car rally that was held at the station square.  Some of the antique automobiles on display were so beautiful that “they would take the knickers off a nun,” or so we were told.  People had always tried telling me that my life would be simpler if I had learned how to drive, and I might have been more willing to listen if they could have put car ownership in such convincing terms.

The Plant Doctor and Gary had spent much of the afternoon in competition over ‘the Guinness challenge’, which requires the drinker to take a continuous mouthful of the black stuff with the aim of leaving the base of the creamy head resting in the tiny space between the bottom of the harp and the top of the branded lettering.  On observing this, I have calculated that a successful Guinness challenge should have six gulps; a skill that The Plant Doctor seemed to have mastered on approximately 50% of his attempts.  Our Irish guest had never heard of this highly-accomplished art and was eager to try it for herself, so she ordered a pint.  We stood back in expectation of witnessing a masterclass from someone to whom Guinness comes as natural as oxygen, water, or whiskey.  None of us had ever seen a Guinness challenge like it:  the mouthful went far beyond the white letters, all the way to the middle of the glass.  It was difficult to know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

I believe it was sometime after the nationwide minute’s silence at eight o’clock was observed by turning on the subtitles during Frozen Planet 2 that we left the pub to get something to eat before heading for Markies to take part in Oban’s second-best quiz.  We believed that the team we had assembled was capable of achieving great things, even after a long and emotional day.  Things were going well for a time, though we found ourselves trailing by several points going into the final music round.  A strong score of 16 out of 20 salvaged a tiebreak situation for us, but our miserable knowledge of the number of windows on The Shard skyscraper scuppered the whole thing.  It turned out that the young women from the 30th birthday party know their pub trivia as well as their alcohol better than we could ever have considered.

Monday’s bank holiday was already beginning to look bleak when we decided to partake in some consolation shots of tequila laced with Tobasco sauce.  Nothing was happening on Monday that I was aware of, so as far as I was concerned, I might as well confront it with the mother of all hangovers.  All that was left was to play that 1986 album by The Smiths one more time.