I was sitting at my laptop, on the internet auction site eBay, browsing the various categories in search of inspiration for Christmas gifts, but it didn’t seem that any of their retailers were selling it. Scrolling through pages of listings, my attention was grabbed by a collection of vintage 1980s glass baubles for a Christmas tree. For the price of £5, it seemed like it would be a mistake to not hit the blue ‘Buy it now’ button, and within seconds I was the owner of decorations for a tree I did not yet have.
Some minutes later, I happened upon a 9ft artificial pine garland, which I could imagine happily dressing in a festive fashion the mirror which sits on my fireplace. At £5.99 with free postage and packaging, it felt as though I was really sticking it to those eBay sellers when I bought one. What a bargain! I was thinking to myself as I got into the Christmas spirit of buying things for myself. Adrenalin was pulsing through my body: it was the most exciting thing I had done in months.
I had forgotten all about buying presents for other people by the time I arrived on the next page and found a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines which looked ideal not only for sitting along the end of the mantel place but also for providing more animated company during the season than the tired old cactus plant, which is collecting dust in the way a group of festive carol singers gathers elderly women. I placed a bid of £12.99 and went to bed to read a book written by Charles Bukowski.
The ornamental figurines had slipped from my conscience by the following morning, though when I received an email notification that I had been outbid for them, I suddenly found myself embroiled in a war for their affection. I was feeling strangely hard done by that someone should wish to deprive me of a plush Santa, snowman, and reindeer – and at Christmas, too! – so I logged back into my eBay account and set a maximum bid of £19.99, which seemed reasonable to me. For the next nine hours and 48 minutes, I was on tenterhooks. I imagined that this must be how a person who is in court accused of some petty crime must feel as they await judgment, wondering if they have done enough to plead their case. They might consider it unfair that they are even in such a position, arguing for their freedom, as I was feeling that it was unjustified that I should have to increase my bid for a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines that I previously hadn’t known I even wanted. When the judge finally returned his verdict, I was the owner of some new novelty ornaments.
Despite vowing to myself at the beginning of every December that I will make a concentrated effort to start Christmas shopping early, and maybe even have it wrapped up by the second weekend of the month, I always drag it out into the week before the day itself. I can’t keep my mind from thinking that, even though there is still time to get the shopping done early, there will still be time in a week, or two weeks, from now. It is a lot like the dilemma faced when there is an alluring girl at the bar and I am procrastinating over talking to her: I could go and speak to her and screw it up in that moment, but I know that there will still be time to make a stupid joke later in the night.
Things seemed much more simple back in the days when I was but a pre-teen boy; when on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in December I would venture out into the cold and rain with a budget of around £5 of my pocket money to spend per person. As an adult man, £5 wouldn’t cover the cost of a whisky chaser or a 9ft artificial pine garland, though I no longer have to shop in the rain and the majority of my purchases can be made online, in the cold of my flat.
In the halcyon days of the nineties in Oban, it was more or less a choice between looking in John Menzies or Woolworths for gifts, maybe Boots if I was really stuck, feeling inventive or shopping for my mum. I would return home after around an hour or so clutching a couple of plastic bags, my cheeks and big ears pink and wet and weather-beaten, like a sodden little elf. Feeling tired and unsure of my gift wrapping credentials, I would attempt to convince different members of my family that it would make my offerings look more presentable if they had been wrapped by someone else, and usually I would get away without having to touch a roll of gift wrap or struggle to find the end of the sellotape. As a young boy, like now, I cursed the festive season for reminding me that I am terrible at wrapping, whereas for the other eleven months of the year it is my inability to rap which frustrates me.
While over the years I have come to terms with my useless gift wrapping, it is so often the case that the truth is painful to hear, and that was the eventuality for the woman in Markie Dans who questioned whether the plant doctor, my brother and myself are all brothers. We glanced at one another, feeling amused that someone could think such a thing, and it seemed a harmless thing to say that we are all brothers. “Really? Youse don’t look alike,” was the woman’s response, which was accurate in so much as we don’t look alike and the plant doctor isn’t a sibling of my brother and me.
My two brothers spread around the bar to talk to other people, and I was left in conversation with the unsuspecting woman, who spoke with a Lanarkshire dialect. Over the course of ten cycles of the second hand around a clock, I learned that she is in her forties, had recently been divorced, returned from living in New Zealand and had made a bad impression at a job interview with the NHS. I was drinking all of this information in, whilst at the same time contemplating why I was the one who had been landed talking to her. As she stared across the floor at the two bearded men I had walked in with, she once more asked if we were really all brothers. I can’t be sure why I didn’t take the opportunity to come clean and confess that only one of the men is my brother, or at least tell the lesser lie and claim that I had misheard her to begin with, especially when the entire rouse didn’t seem as funny when it was only me hearing it, but instead I continued to insist that the plant doctor is a blood relative.
The story became more elaborate when I decided to throw in the additional detail that we probably don’t all look the same because the plant doctor was put out for adoption when he was two-years-old. This surprised the Lanarkshire lass as much as it did me, and she asked why our parents would decide to do such a thing. “Our mother was hoping for a girl,” I said as we looked over at the plant doctor’s hairy red beard.
“Does she have mental health problems?”
“She wasn’t happy with how the plant doctor turned out.”
“It’s really nice that you are all still friends.”
Returning to her time in New Zealand, the forty-year-old health professional asked me if I had traveled, and when I told her that I hadn’t, she chastised me for failing to experience life. As she took video footage of the bar band as they played in the corner, I decided that I would travel – and I walked out of the bar and traveled home along the Esplanade as I talked on the phone to a friend I don’t talk to often enough. It transpired that she later asked the plant doctor if we were all really brothers, and when he advised her that we are not, she left with a look of upset on her face.
I learned of this development the following evening when we all attended the Bassment event in the Cellar Bar. Bassment is a night of electronic dance music, and although it is not typically a genre of music I enjoy, I decided that I would go along after hearing my brother rave about their previous events.
When we arrived downstairs in the bar, the plant doctor joined a group of his work colleagues. I sat amongst them and soon attempted to engage a smoking French woman, and the rest of the table, in what felt like a deep and meaningful conversation about cigarettes and beer, and whether we can honestly say that we enjoy every one we have. As I listened to the smoking Frenchwoman’s voice, I was reminded of the few years I spent studying French during high school. For Standard Grade, students were given the option of continuing to learn either French or German, and I chose the former since I found German to be a quite brutal and harsh sounding language. I was never particularly good at French, though, and I can remember my teacher often criticising me in class for my failure to understand the French feminine form. Twenty years later, Mr. Wilson’s words still rang true.
On the dance floor, the scent of B.O. was clinging to the atmosphere the way a stray strand of tinsel holds on to a sweater. It wasn’t immediately obvious, or off-putting, but it was there. The DJ decks were sitting on top of a covered pool table, and when I first noticed this I was struggling to get it out of my mind. I couldn’t give myself up to the electronic dance music when all I could concentrate on was my attempt to think of a pun for the image of DJ decks on a pool table, but I couldn’t get anything. Eventually, my feet began to move like a kick drum, and my first night at Bassment wasn’t as bad as I feared.
Sunday was the day of the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen, and my intention was to go easy the night before so that I could enjoy the day and take part in the pub quiz on Sunday night. After a shot of tequila my mood lightened, and following Bassment my brother, my fake brother and I went back to my flat, where we drank beer and listened to George Harrison until five o’clock in the morning. In an effort to be a more mature host than on previous occasions, and as a means of not having to brush broken Pringles off my floor the next day, I opened a 400g bag of salted peanuts and shared them amongst three small bowls, which worked out at approximately 133g of nuts each. A scattering of savoury snacks were still strewn across the oak flooring, however, and when they were tread on they had been crushed into the wood. I observed this scene on Sunday morning and mused how it was not the first time that my nuts had been crushed in my flat in recent times.
Despite recovering from Saturday’s hangover in a manner that some might consider miraculous, and even after a generous serving of Baba ghanoush, the pub quiz quickly descended into a drunken shambles, and our team finished last out of a meager three teams. By the time the final questions arrived, I was left to single-handedly tackle the music round, and the tracks played were not kind to a thirty-five-year-old man. We were too luminous in liquor to wallow in our defeat, and instead, we were dancing to some terrible pop music which none of us recognised, a distraction which made it difficult for those guys who were still trying to finish their game of pool.
My attention was drawn to a girl who I felt I wanted to talk to, but I didn’t know how, and in the back of my mind I feared that she would only recognise me as a pub quiz loser. After some time thinking about it I approached her. All I was able to do was remark on her red glasses, and before my brain could catch up my drunken mouth had noted how they were similar in colour to her lips and her hair, though not her mauve nails. I wasn’t even entirely sure what colour mauve was, but it didn’t matter, I’d already said it. I retreated to my table and accepted that I should have treated the situation like my Christmas shopping.