Framed

Our weekly Zoom meetings can often go on as late as three in the morning, far beyond the regular closing time of the pubs they are supposed to be a substitute for.  The same barman whose thankless task it was to have to encourage us to leave the bar using the sort of vocal persuasion that a parent might enlist to convince a reluctant toddler to eat a forkful of broccoli – if you leave tonight you can have ice cream tomorrow – can now only watch if we decide that we would like to have another beer and continue to discuss the issues of the day, such as the integrity of shoelaces or the ingredients of an aubergine pie.  I once referred to him as being amongst the ten best bartenders in Aulay’s, an observation which earned me some scorn, but what couldn’t be disputed was that he was the best barman on our Zoom calls.  One of his favourite phrases for ushering us out of the bar at the end of the night was to bellow that “we’ve all got homes we’d like to go to,” and now we were all in our own homes and there was nothing that anybody could do about it. 

Such was the case on a recent Friday night that came at the end of a week which was the coldest February week in Scotland for more than thirty-five years; though as is usually the case, Oban was spared the snow which had blanketed much of the rest of the country.  The nights were fierce, and I was thankful that I could log out of the virtual pub at 3 am and go straight to bed, avoiding the long walk home from Aulay’s or Markies that a Friday would usually require.  I was eager to disrobe myself of all of my garments and get under the warm duvet as quickly as possible and began tugging at my clothing as though there wasn’t a moment to waste, just like I had envisioned every other Friday, only in my mind there was always another person there with me.  In my haste I pulled my navy v-neck sleeveless sweater vest up over my head and unwittingly brought my glasses with them.  Before I knew it, the glasses were at my feet on the dimly-lit Portland oak laminate flooring in two perfectly individual pieces, and my heart sank.  I looked down in glum horror, utterly helpless for what could have been an eternity had it not been for the fact that it was cold and I was wanting my bed.

When I awoke the next morning it was with the sort of blissful ignorance that only alcohol can bring.  I was lying luxuriously amongst my 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets as bony fingers of winter sunlight were stretching across the bed, making a mental list of everything I would get when I went shopping later in the day but would have forgotten about by the time I was in the shower.  I thought about how many eggs I would poach for breakfast and what I would make for dinner; contemplated whether I would go for a walk in early or late afternoon; considered how much longer I could stay in bed before I would have to get up if I wanted to see all of the regular Saturday card of televised football.  Something about watching television triggered a terrible realisation within my brain and I shot upright in my bed, reaching for the glasses case on my bedside table.  I prised open the lid with all of the hesitancy of a small boy who lifts up a rock knowing that he’s going to find the earth underneath teeming with worms, and there I saw my glasses, broken in two right down the nose, folded neatly away as though they were a loved one being laid to rest.  They were looking so peaceful, so dignified.  My glasses were broken, and I couldn’t think of a worse thing that could have happened.

I had been with that pair of glasses since the beginning of 2016 and had seen so many things through them – some things that I could never have imagined I would ever see.  Together we had looked out upon New York City, Budapest, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and beyond.  I wore them to every game in the two seasons where I had a season ticket at Celtic Park and when I went to see Bruce Springsteen, U2, and The Gaslight Anthem.  For nigh upon five years they had gone everywhere with me, and when I realised that they were broken it was remarkable how the dread that came with wearing glasses for the very first time wasn’t anything compared with the fear of not having them at all.

I think I was maybe around 14 or 15-years-old when I was told that I needed glasses, and it was the sort of news that couldn’t be easily soothed by the red lollipop that was commonly handed out after visits to the optician.(i)  When I was in high school in the mid-to-late nineties it wasn’t considered cool to wear glasses.  There was still a stigma attached to anyone who needed corrective vision.   People who had two eyes were respected, admired and looked up to; those with four eyes, not so much.  You would have been as well turning up at the school gates with two heads or eight arms and legs.   I dreaded the prospect of wearing glasses.  Other kids I knew who wore them seemed to disappear after a while, as though the glasses were an invisibility cloak.  I found it hard enough as it was to fit in at school without putting a pair of glasses on my face.  

The greatest irony is that I was never a nerd when I was in high school, which is how those who wore glasses were generally perceived.  While I enjoyed English, history and modern studies, I was never especially studious in any subject – something which I regretted as I became older.  I spent a lot of my spare time writing out jokes or short stories which I would use to impress my classmates, and while some people did find them amusing, I was far too shy and introverted to make conversation beyond my little written notes, and I struggled to make many friends.  If I could do it all over again and go to high school now, I would almost certainly be a nerd – but then I would also be a 38-year-old man sitting in a classroom amongst a group of teenagers, and it would be just as uncomfortable as it was twenty-two years ago.

Waves of panic washed over me as I tried to figure out what I was going to do about my glasses.  I sent a photograph of the stricken spectacles to everyone I knew, seeking advice and probably a little sympathy.  One friend responded simply “don’t use tape” followed by no fewer than five exclamation marks, which quickly ruled out the only tool I had at my disposal.  I understood why she had offered that opinion, though, particularly when I have so little sex appeal as it is without wrapping my glasses in sellotape.  With my reluctance to further diminish any sex appeal – or specs appeal – I might posses, I had no other option but to go out and shop for something that would fix my broken glasses.  Stepping outside that Saturday morning was one of the most terrifying things I have done:  everything looked so different, as though being viewed through a glass of salted water.  They appeared blurry and somehow smaller, while the faces of people were indistinguishable.  Crossing the road seemed treacherous; I would have been as well putting on a blindfold and rolling a dice for all that I could make out the distance between the cars and where I was standing on the pavement.  Eventually I made it across the road and into Tesco, where the entranceway was choked with men who were studying the enormous display of Valentines flowers which seemed to be as tall as the ceiling, though there was no way of telling.  My brother had provided me with uncannily accurate directions for where I could find the superglue, and once I had finally broken free of the supermarket Romeos I was able to get my hands on the stuff I required.  I stood staring at the shelf for several moments, in the end having to bring the package almost directly up to my face in order to be able to read the text and be sure that I was buying the right product.  It wasn’t a bunch of red roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolates, but I was at least leaving with something useful.

With the two halves of my glasses reunited again at the bridge, it was possibly the closest I had felt to joy in a long time.  My surroundings made sense once more.  I wasted little time in going onto the Specsavers website to use their facility to order a replacement pair of glasses, after remembering that I had received an email from the opticians around November-time suggesting that I should schedule an eye test since it had been a few years since I last had them checked – an offer which I refused when I went online and found that the nearest available appointment wasn’t until after Christmas.  For some reason I was incredulous that I would have to wait more than four weeks for an eye exam, even though I had no plans for basically the next year.  Nevertheless, now that my glasses were fixed and I had some new ones on the way, I had assumed a new-found confidence.  I felt like I could do anything, even though Covid restrictions meant that I could essentially do nothing, and the best I could make of it was to go to Lidl on Sunday for the groceries I had missed the previous day.  It was beautiful being able to see clearly again, even the large sign in the middle of the foyer warning customers that they should “shop alone where possible.”  

While other people were doubtless enjoying romantic dinners of steak or oysters served with bubbly Champagne, I was shopping mainly for instant mash – which I had taken a lazy notion for to accompany a beef casserole – when I received a phone call from the local branch of Specsavers.  The woman on the other end of the line wanted to inform me that they no longer stocked the glasses I had ordered – my glasses – and that they had been advised of a cancellation that afternoon if I would like to come in for an eye test and to choose a new pair of glasses.  It was difficult keeping track of whether this was all good luck or bad. 

No less than an hour later I was picking up a blue medical mask and being led upstairs to the testing site in Specsavers, where I was asked to take a seat while the machines were being cleaned and prepared for use.  I was sitting with my hands clasped across my lap, almost like I was in church, not knowing who I was supposed to be praying to.  In my mind I kept replaying the scene on Friday night when my glasses hit the floor.  I had taken a jumper off over my glasses hundreds of times in my life and never once knocked them from my face, but I suppose there are some things you can only get away with for so long.  Following a few moments of contemplation, I became aware that in the background the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts was playing over the in-store radio.  It was a surreal feeling.  If somebody had told me that in 2021 I would be spending Valentines Day in the opticians waiting for an eye test whilst listening to Everybody Hurts, well, it would have seemed about right, really.

“If you feel like you’re alone

No, no, no, you are not alone.”

The song hadn’t finished when I was asked to come through to the first room, where it was explained to me that there were two machines which were going to measure various things:  the first would use a series of lasers to analyse the insides of my eyes, and the second would blow a short puff of air into them.  I didn’t understand any of it, still thinking about why Everybody Hurts would be playing in the waiting area of any medical facility.  The optical assistant used the first device to look deep into my eyes, telling me when I should blink and when I should stare straight ahead, like I was participating in a hostage video and being commanded to communicate using only my eyes.  She would frequently repeat the phrase “now blink like normal”, and I had no idea how to blink like normal when there was a laser trained on my eye; a sniper waiting for me to make the wrong move.  It just wasn’t possible.  Instead I felt as though my eyelids were fluttering like a miller moth stuck in a net curtain, and it wasn’t a surprise that I screwed up and the optician later had to take me back through to redo part of the exam.  I always floundered any time there was a woman looking into my eyes.

After the first part of the test was done, the optician appeared in the waiting area and she summoned me into her office, which was dark except for the white light being emitted from the eye chart on the back wall and the glare from the computer screen in the corner.  I couldn’t help from noticing that on the optician’s monitor were the x-rays of what I presumed were my eyes, though I had never seen them in such graphic form to be able to recognise them for sure.  They looked hideous, like two cooked beetroots had been left out of their juices for too long and become shrivelled and dry and red.  Upon seeing the images I felt certain that the optician was preparing to give me some bad news, and I became queasy.  Why couldn’t I just have taken my glasses off before removing my sweater vest like any other normal person does?  

The optician asked me if I am familiar with the anatomy of the eye, a question which under ordinary circumstances sounded like it could have been a brilliant lead-in to a killer line, but I was in no mood for flirtation when I could see over her shoulder how sickly my own eyes were looking.  I smiled nervously behind my medical mask and told her that I wasn’t familiar with the anatomy of the eye, and the optician educated me in the basics before talking me through what she could see in the x-rays of my dried-up beetroots.  We were looking specifically at images of my retinas, and as she clicked through the graphics talking about deep craters and wide valleys, I realised that she would have been as well talking about the surface of Mars for all I understood.  Once the optician finished delivering her dissertation, she announced that my retinas are in perfect condition, which came as a pleasant surprise to me considering what I was seeing on her screen.

As a way of making small talk before we moved on to the eye charts, the optician asked what had moved me to make an appointment, and I told her the tragic tale of how my glasses had fallen to the floor on Friday night and broken in two.  She seemed neither up nor down when confronted by the saga, presumably because opticians hear all sorts of ridiculous stories about how people break their glasses.  Maybe R.E.M. were right after all?  I was gradually beginning to feel better about things, at least until we turned to the eye chart and I could feel my anxiety building again when the optician asked if I could make out the top line of letters.  I didn’t want to disappoint her after she had been so complimentary about my retinas, but the truth is that the letters were indistinguishable and didn’t make any sense to me, as though straight out of the pages of a Russian novel.  When it came to the part of the test where I was asked to determine the difference between various lenses – “is this one better or worse, or just the same?” – I felt like I was mostly just guessing, similar to the way that when a crow picks up a cigarette from the pavement it is simply acting on instinct and can have no way of knowing what it is really doing.  Snap judgments were never my thing; I always needed time to procrastinate over all options before coming to a decision, and even then it was probably with some reluctance.  There was one lens where the optician even prompted me, asking “are you sure?”  And I really wasn’t.

Despite all of this, even though I feel as though I can hardly see at all when I’m not wearing my glasses, it turns out that my eyes are healthy and haven’t changed at all since they were last tested.  I felt relieved.  As I was waiting to be taken back downstairs to pick out a new pair of frames, I heard the optician telling her assistant about how I had broken my glasses by trying to take my jumper off over them, and for a moment it was like being taken back to high school.  While she was measuring my face for the glasses I had chosen, the optical assistant looked down at my spectacles, bound together by superglue, as they sat in front of me on the desk.  She asked me where they were broken and I pointed to the area of injury on the nose.  The assistant commented that she couldn’t tell they were broken when they were on my face and insisted that I had done a good job of repairing them.  She could never truly understand how I had suffered for my craft.

My new glasses are due to arrive in a couple of days and natural balance will be restored in my life.  I should have been feeling pleased about things, or at least contented, but instead, by the end of last week I was feeling overwhelmed by feelings of dread any worry.  I hadn’t experienced anything like it in well over a year, not even through all of the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.  It was difficult to understand why, and even more to know what to do about it.  On Thursday night my heart was thumping as though I had downed a dozen cups of coffee in quick succession and sat down to watch the final scene of the movie Seven.  My hands were clammy, albeit that was kind of welcome in the grip of winter, and my head ached with a sensation like it had been split open all the way down the middle from temple to chin, just like my glasses had been.  Glasses are easily fixed, though.  How do you superglue a broken person?  The best I could do was to go to bed and play the Limp Bizkit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, which was the first one I had bought when I was 17-years-old.  The fact that I used to like Limp Bizkit so much often makes me cringe now, but back in 2000 I listened to that album on repeat morning and night whilst worrying about how I was going to fit in tomorrow.  It made me feel about as tall as a supermarket display of Valentines flowers, and I knew that’s what I needed last week.  I didn’t want to listen to Limp Bizkit any more than I wanted a new pair of glasses, but was I feeling better, worse, or just the same for having played that particular album on Thursday night?  At a guess, I would say that I was better.

(i)  Citation needed.  I can remember getting a lollipop after visiting the optician, but nobody that I have asked does.  It could have been the dentist.

One heart is better than none

During any conversation on the west coast of Scotland, it is usually only a matter of time before the subject turns to the weather, as if it were written into the local council bylaws that it must be discussed at every available opportunity.  I don’t know if it’s because there isn’t much else going on in some of the small communities around here, especially during these last ten months of lockdown, or if the weather is just such a dominant and dramatic part of the landscape that it demands attention.  After all, when you see the distant snow-capped hills rising from the sea looking like Tunnock’s Teacakes with the tops sliced off, it’s hard not to tell everybody about it.  Whatever it was, the topic of the weather always lingered in the air.  There were some people who you could tell wanted to talk about nothing but the state of the weather, while for others it took a little bit longer, but like a gentle breeze coming towards the shore from the sea, it would eventually get there.

Although the veil was slowly being lifted on winter and the daylight was nudging towards the evening, lasting as long as five o’clock by the end of the first week in February, the winter would still bear its fangs, and for much of January the talk seemed to be about how cold it was.  It had been freezing for weeks, with the temperature according to the Met Office sharing a lot in common with me, in that we were both a struggling single figure.  I had heard others say in conversation that it was the most prolonged cold spell they could remember, and I even used the phrase a couple of times despite not having any evidence to back it up.  I never wrote such things in my notebooks – weather reports, essentially – instead focussing on something I had eaten or worn on a particular day.  Recently I had written about a small purple blemish the size of a sunflower seed which had appeared on my right cheek, just below the rim of my glasses and in a position where a face covering wouldn’t hide it.  I noted that it was typical such a thing would happen to me just before Valentine’s Day, but when I read it back I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference.  Other things I had scribbled into my book included a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, minus the mushrooms, and a congratulatory piece about how I had managed to get out of bed to perform a session of yoga on three mornings one week, an achievement which I attributed to the fact that I had put a fresh filter in the coffee machine the night before – but nothing about the weather.  So much for my theory that a pretty notebook would encourage me to write better.

All through the chilly winter, I was wearing a brand new housecoat around the flat that probably turned out to be the best investment I had made in 2020.  I wore the robe every night and it provided great comfort and warmth in the face of the dire cold.  The coat was a fluffy navy blue colour with red trim around the lapels, and the belt tightened the garment snug around the waist, in keeping with its brand name; snuggaroo.  On either side there was a pocket which was about the size of a fist, and for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom what people were supposed to keep in those pockets.  They were big enough for a packet of tissues or a mobile phone, maybe, but if the whole purpose of a housecoat is that it is an item of clothing to be worn in the home, then everything you need is presumably within reach anyway.  It bothered me more than it should any reasonable person, but that’s what the long periods of lockdown had done to us; giving us nothing but time to sit and think about the reason for there being pockets on a housecoat.  I concluded that the only sensible use for the pockets would be to use them to stage my own Punch and Judy show if the options on Netflix ever dried up, but fortunately things hadn’t become that desperate yet. 

Whilst pondering the potential uses for the pockets, it struck me that I hadn’t owned a housecoat since I was a small boy, and the idea of getting one for myself hadn’t once occurred to me in the years since.  The way I saw it, the only types of people who owned a housecoat were children and the elderly.  I had never heard of anyone in the hinterland between the two groups wearing one, therefore it followed that by becoming a man who wears a housecoat I was accepting my fate as an older man.  I didn’t care about that, though.  The coat felt luxurious, and there were times when I was strutting about my flat where I felt almost as though I was Hugh Hefner.  An appreciation of robes is where the similarities with the founder of Playboy magazine started and ended, though,  Rather than being a millionaire publisher who spends his time partying in an extravagant mansion in Los Angeles surrounded by beautiful models, I was a single man who was happy to be breaking even, claiming a 25% discount on my council tax for being a single occupant in a tiny flat on Combie Street.  As for what Hugh Hefner would have kept in the pockets of his robe, the mind boggles.

With a slither more light in the morning, it was remarkable how things just seemed that little better than they had been a few days before.  While the country’s Coronavirus vaccination programme started to pick up some pace, the brighter mornings were a bit like a vaccine for the soul, and along with the promise of a fresh filter in the coffee machine, I was finding myself able to get out of bed earlier to indulge in my morning routine most days.  As well as being able to do a session of yoga, I finally started reading the English version of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar.  The book did a good job of making me miss my own local bars even more than I already was, particularly Aulay’s.  Many of his passages reminded me of the warmth of the pub, which is what I think I was missing most of all.  Not only the companionable warmth of another drinker, but the physical warmth of the pub, especially those nights where it was so cold that someone would fire up the little halogen heater which sat in the corner by the door that took you from the lounge to the public bar.  I don’t remember the heater ever making that much of a difference, but at least it was always warmer than my flat would have been.  I came to realise that there were times when I was going to the pub for the heat as much as for the company.   

My breakfast bar was finally being put to the use that I had always imagined, and if I wasn’t reading a book in the morning then I was flicking through the latest issue of Private Eye magazine during my lunch hour or reviewing the rare items of post I would receive.  Usually the letters were just a notification that the cost of my electricity or broadband was going up, or it was yet another leaflet from the Scottish Conservative Party that went straight into the recycling bin, but in the last week I received a pamphlet from NHS Scotland about the new organ donor legislation in the country.  Basically, from 26 March 2021, anyone who is older than 16 will be considered to have agreed to be a donor when they die; an ‘opt-out’ system rather than the current process where people have to make their own decision to sign up to the register.  Usually in early February it was heart donations of a different sort which were being exchanged by mail, or at least it was for other people.  

I think most folks believed that the change in the donor system was for the best, and for perhaps the first time it got me to thinking about what would eventually become of my own organs.  I presumed that my lungs would be useless to anybody on account of the years I had spent as a part-time smoker in my twenties, and even though it was known that the liver could regenerate healthy cells over time, I didn’t fancy the chances of mine being accepted by the health service, even in an emergency; though I did at least hold out hope that maybe my liver would be displayed in a beautiful glass case above the bar in Aulay’s, next to the really expensive malt whiskies, the way some other bars kept shinty trophies or golf shields.  That would be when I knew that I had truly made it.  As for the kidneys, I never fully understood what it was they did, other than sharing their name with a variety of bean, and I imagined that there would probably be plenty of them going around.

After some consideration, I decided that my heart would be the most likely candidate for any organ donation after my death.  I liked to think that I had a good heart, even if I had no expertise in cardiology to support this belief.  In the days after receiving my pamphlet from the government, I found myself walking around Oban sizing people up as potential recipients for my heart.  It made a change from judging them for the way they were dressed, or how they were wearing their masks – if they were even wearing one at all.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be looking at people and thinking of ways I could convince them to accept my heart, but this time it was different; this was for their own good.  Over the week I began to worry that any procedure might be like one of those countless science-fiction plots where the brain of some maniac is transplanted into the head of an innocent host who subsequently inherits all of the evil traits of the psychopath, leading him to an unwitting criminal rampage, and the scenario played on my mind.  

I got to thinking about the poor sap who would eventually end up with my heart; how he would likely be a ruggedly handsome figure who has all of the most attractive personality traits such as charm, intelligence, a razor-sharp wit, and he always knows exactly the right thing to say.  All that he was ever missing was a good heart, and when the day comes that he receives one from a donor, he is filled with joy and hope; finally his ills have been cured and he will be able to live a normal life.  But slowly, like in a bad sci-fi movie, he realises that something isn’t right.  He has become the kind of guy who opens a Tinder conversation with the line:  “Usually if I make a match on here I assume someone has swiped in the wrong direction.”  He’s a romantic illiterate and his love life has suddenly been ruined, to the extent that any time he approaches a woman he is filled with the same apprehension he experiences on the one day a year when he wears a red shirt and he knows that eventually he’s going to have to put it in the washing machine, so once he takes it off he stuffs it down into the bottom of the laundry basket and forgets about it until he next feels like wearing red.  It is woefully obvious to him that the heart he has been donated is a lonely heart, and in time he is spending his evenings performing puppet shows with the pockets on his housecoat.

Getting jiggy with it

It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody when the lockdown that was initially announced on 4 January for the entire month was extended until at least the middle of February in Scotland.  For all the promise of a fresh start at midnight on New Year’s Eve, suddenly we were living a longer version of the old one; the worst house of mirrors that anyone had ever thought of.  It didn’t seem to matter which direction we turned, we just expected to find the reflection growing larger and in the most ridiculous shapes.  This lockdown is different from the original one ten months ago, which felt almost like a novelty at the time, similar to the first day of snowfall in winter or when you buy a new pair of shoes.  Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and that made it exciting in a way, at least for a while.  There was naturally some uncertainty in the beginning, like when you can’t be sure how those new shoes are going to feel when you’re wearing them all day so you ‘break them in’ around the house to see if it hurts.  Gradually you feel confident enough to wear them outside, and before you know it you’re walking all over the place like it’s nothing.  That was the case until you realised that there was only so far you could go and so much you could do without the threat of falling flat on your face on a patch of ice.

Unlike in March, the winter lockdown has been dark, cold and wet, and because of it, people are truly forced to stay at home when they aren’t taking care of essential tasks.  It was difficult to tell exactly when it happened, but there came a point in the pandemic where we could measure our lives in lockdowns the way we used to with birthdays or summer holidays or football seasons.  I realised when I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t seen her since the beginning of the first lockdown; it was the period between the initial restrictions and the introduction of the tier system when I last had a drink in Aulay’s; I last had my hair cut the week before the second lockdown started, when the barber told me that he had trimmed my hair a little shorter than he usually does because he wasn’t expecting to be able to open again before the spring, as though the hairs falling from my head were tea leaves or some foreboding tarot cards and he saw some terrible events in them.  

The first lockdown was like the novelty of snowfall in winter

I took a real fascination in hearing about some of the different ways other people were passing the time during the extended experience of lockdown, mainly because they were more interesting than anything I was doing.  I had heard from at least a couple of friends who were watching the reality television series Married at First Sight Australia, in which complete strangers seemingly meet for the first time at their wedding.  I couldn’t get a single match on Tinder yet in Australia people were being married without having to put in any of the effort; without so much as a solitary swipe.  I never knew that such a show existed, and I asked what the point in it was if the people taking part had already got what they came for.   The viewer never saw the winning family proudly holding their prized fondue set at the start of The Generation Game, after all.

“It’s just easy television to binge,” it was explained to me.  The interesting part wasn’t the fact that these complete strangers were getting married without having never met, it was what happened after the wedding.  They would be followed by the cameras as they went on their honeymoon; when they met their new in-laws for the first time; when they moved into a home together.  And all the way through this they would be getting to know one another.  “Basically they’re doing everything in reverse.”  To me that meant that eventually the couple would reach a point where they are standing at their local bar and the man nervously approaches his wife with what in his head is a killer joke, but it only leads to a prolonged awkward silence before she turns and goes off to talk to the cool guys who are standing by the jukebox while he’s left wondering what he’s doing with his life.  He orders another pint, the camera cuts and the credits roll.

As well as binge-watching television shows, I knew of people who were reading as many as three books a week during the lockdown.  Others were engaging in crafts at home, while some had taught themselves how to cook some exquisite meals.  Most evenings the seafront was transformed into a cross between a running track and a camera club, and if the photographers were lucky they would get one of those clear winter skies that looked almost as though a nuclear reactor had gone off in the distance, or like a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon.  In my own social circle, there were as many people who had bought themselves a telescope as were watching Married at First Sight Australia.  The habits I had adopted were a bit more passive.  On a Sunday night, I liked to round off the weekend by lying in my bed and listening to the Absolute 90s radio station, which played nothing but music from the decade of its name.  I didn’t do this on any other night, just a Sunday.  It struck me as being a little peculiar, especially when I hadn’t paid much attention to the songs the first time around.  I wasn’t really into music at that age, and the only time I would hear it was when I played Nintendo in my brother’s room, where he’d usually be listening to Manic Street Preachers or Oasis, or occasionally Radio 1.  The only radio I ever listened to in the nineties was TalkRadio, where the presenters discussed the news of the day and took calls from listeners rather than play music, yet here I was in 2021 going to bed on a Sunday night with Absolute 90s playing until I fell asleep.  I suppose nostalgia is always comforting.

Through the week I often found myself gazing upon the drinks globe my sister had given me for Christmas with the same sense of wonder that I imagined other people must have for their children.  It’s so beautiful.  Sometimes I could just stare at it for minutes at a time without doing anything else.  I would think about a night when I could finally have folk around to serve them drinks from it, though I would need to invest in some more spirits since at the moment all that is inside the globe is three bottles of Jameson whiskey, along with some Jack Daniels on the bottom shelf of the trolley.  Although a generous supply of whiskey and bourbon wasn’t really giving any visitors a great deal of choice, I always liked to believe that Jameson could open up the world to anyone, and now I could actually see it happen.

When I wasn’t listening to music from a bygone decade or staring adoringly at my new bar, I most often passed the time by writing in my notebook.  My current book is a standard, unglamorous one picked up from WH Smith.  It has a black plastic cover which is bound by flimsy spirals, and there are 160 lined A5 pages.  I was down to the last few sheets when I started to take note of any old crap I could think of, so desperate was I to finish the notebook and move on to the new one I had bought towards the end of last year.  This is the drinks globe of notebooks:  a chestnut brown vegan leather hardcover; ivory white pages which are as thick as a fingernail; solidly bound.  I had ordered the journal from the London-based store Beechmore Books, and at £12.95 it was the most I had ever spent on a notebook.  I had convinced myself that if the book is prettier then the words I write on its pages will somehow be better and more meaningful.

This is the drinks globe of notebooks

To use up the remaining pages I took note of a story that appeared recently in The Scotsman newspaper about a DNA breakthrough made from the discovery of the 6,000-year-old remains of two men which were found in a cave in Oban.  According to the article, DNA analysis from a team led by a professor from Harvard University established that the men were descended from immigrants from the continent and were most likely related.  The report mentioned how the discovery tied in with previous research which has demonstrated that immigrant farmers from Northern France arrived in Britain in around 4,000 BC and brought with them a way of life that was entirely different to that of the indigenous population, who mainly relied on hunting, fishing and foraging.  These incomers had slightly lighter skin and darker eyes, and it is said that their DNA almost overwhelmed the indigenous DNA signature.  However, it has been discovered that seven people who were buried during the Neolithic period in Scotland were carrying a mix of both types of DNA, which perhaps shows that the immigrants were lovers and not fighters.  This was bourne out in a quote from Dr Allison Sheridan, who revealed the latest findings in a series of lectures.  She said:  “It is clear that some locals did get jiggy with some of the farmers.”  I underlined this line in my notebook and wondered if Dr Sheridan was also spending her weekends listening to vintage nineties music.

I often wrote down snippets from unusual news reports in the hope that I could use them later in conversation, making myself appear more interesting for knowing such things in the process.  I don’t know why I preserved this particular story about 6,000-year-old bones, however, other than to use up the last few pages of my notebook.  It’s not like I’m going to have any immediate use for the information with the country being in lockdown for the foreseeable future.  Yet despite that, it is hard to say how good an idea it would be to bring up the subject in the pub.  While I was often the butt of my own jokes whenever I tried talking to women, even I knew that I couldn’t approach a complete stranger at the bar when we aren’t even already married and bring up a story about 6,000-year-old remains and how there is evidence that even they had sex.  For the first time it seemed a good thing that the pubs weren’t open.

As the bars, like everything else, remained closed, our Zoom beer club continued to thrive into the new year, doing a good job of replicating – if not quite replacing – the Friday nights we used to spend in Aulay’s.  It was nice to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, even if it basically amounted to sitting in a different seat in my flat to stare at a screen.  Recently the plant doctor suggested that as a way of bringing some excitement to one of the meetings we could try playing an online Escape Room game, and he went ahead and bought us access to The Sinister Soirée.  Although only six people could participate in the game, a record high of eight people logged in to our beer club that night, ranging from such exotic locations as the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Italian Peninsula, to Campbeltown, by the Kintyre peninsula.   

A winter sky that looked as though a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon

The premise of The Sinister Soirée is that your niece, Victoria, has recently been the victim of an attempted murder at the party she had hosted to announce her engagement.  You, as a bumbling detective of no repute, are called upon to find the cloaked assailant, and you suggest that Victoria invites the same six people back for another dinner in the hope that you can figure out who the culprit was.  In order to solve the mystery and apprehend the would-be murderer, the players are presented with a number of puzzles that, once completed, offer up further clues which should help to crack the case.  The puzzles were said by the makers of the game to be of easy-to-medium difficulty, but I could feel myself floundering on the first one, which involved counting the number of petals on flowers around a fountain and coordinating them with the same colour of letter on the key to find the passcode that would unlock Victoria’s journal.  Everybody else seemed to get it without much fuss, which only heightened my anxiety.

As the games went on and I could tell that I was taking much longer to complete them than the rest of the group, I could feel myself becoming hot under the collar.  Deep down, I think everyone harbours some kind of belief that they would make an excellent detective, usually after watching a Columbo or Sherlock Holmes movie, when those characters make it seem like such an exciting living.  I was furious that my dreams were being torn apart in the cruellest fashion.  I was resorting to using the hints to help me solve the easy-to-medium difficulty puzzles, with the third hint being when the game would simply tell you the answer.  Somehow it didn’t seem like that would work in a real-life scenario.  I think my downfall was that I spent too much time focussing on the minutiae, jotting down into my notebook every small detail that might potentially be of use in the future.  Cecily spilt her wine; Franklin was behaving mockingly; Oliver doesn’t eat peppers; Adelaide is left-handed.

When it came time to guess which of the six suspects each of us believed had attempted to kill Victoria on the night of her engagement, my deduction was immediately met with derision.  I had somehow arrived at a theory that the dastardly diner was Victoria’s own fiancé, a fact that I had overlooked.  It went without saying that my guess was the worst, but in reality, nobody in the group managed to correctly identify the crook.  Considering that there were six of us playing the game, and that we had six options to choose from, that none of us managed to get it right was nothing less than an embarrassing sham.  I guess we were all pretty drunk, but since when has that been an excuse for not being able to do your job?  If there is one thing I learned from The Sinister Soirée as I looked around the screen at the faces of the rest of the beer club, it was that if there was ever a time when my bones would be discovered – maybe not 6,000 years from now, and perhaps not in a cave but somewhere else equally dark and cold, such as my flat – I hoped that no-one there would be responsible for investigating what had happened to me. 

DNA breakthrough of two men buried in a cave near Oban 6,000 years ago: click here to read the full article in The Scotsman.

Portrait of a Hogmanay at home (aka Accidentally maudlin)

When I first moved into my new flat and became a single occupant in January 2018, I had grand plans in mind for my morning routine.  I wasn’t necessarily a “morning person” by nature – it was something I had fallen into the same way I imagine some people fall into selling drugs:  you have to do something to earn a living.   I was forced into learning to live with early mornings after more than eight years of working six a.m. shifts in the Co-op, though by the time I was living in my own flat the Co-op had been closed for three years and my interest in mornings was reduced to a desire to keep the impressive breakfast bar in the kitchen from going to waste.

In the weeks before I was handed the keys, I would picture myself waking early in the morning and turning on the radio to catch up with the day’s events before getting up and stretching out in a session of yoga.  Feeling energised, I would savour my luxurious shower and skincare routine, leaving me fresh and nourished and eternally youthful.  After getting dressed, with the colour of my tie and socks being a near-perfect match, it would be time to sit down at the breakfast bar with a cup of Lidl’s own Fairtrade roast and ground Colombian coffee and a book, fuelling my body and my mind before walking to work.  I suppose it wasn’t so much a breakfast bar as it was just a place to sit, since in those days I didn’t really eat breakfast, but the rest of it sounded pretty good to me. 

And for a while it worked.  I was getting out of bed before daybreak, doing my exercises and moisturising my face, with enough time until I left for work to sit with a fresh cup of coffee.  The morning had almost become my favourite part of the day, a couple of hours of bliss before the reality screams in your face.  However, over time, as is so often the way of things in life, what is easy soon overwhelms what can make you happy.  It started when I grew tired of having to clean out the coffee machine every other day, lifting soggy, mud-coloured filter papers out of the tray and making sure the entire thing was ready to be used again the next morning.  Once I’d figured out that I could give myself another fifteen minutes or so in bed by giving up the coffee for a glass of orange juice, that was it for the coffee machine.  Gradually I would find myself stealing even more time in bed, using the sound of rain beating on the window as justification for not taking the long way to the office, or convincing myself that it wouldn’t matter if I missed my morning yoga because I could do it in the evening.  Sometimes I even moisturised my face without first using the deep cleansing facial scrub like some kind of hard-skinned heathen.

The first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 helped me to refocus a little and I at least managed to get into a habit of doing yoga twice a day, even if the rest of my routine was still lacking.  My new-found enthusiasm didn’t last for long, though, and by the bleak winter months I was staying in bed later than ever, only giving myself enough time to get washed and dressed and little more.  Darkness was yawning long into the morning, and when I would waken and ask my little Google Play device to tell me the latest news headlines, I usually lost any interest I had in getting out of bed to do anything productive.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in getting up early during the pandemic when every day was the same as the last.  I don’t know how anybody else was getting through December, but for me it was the moments after Google’s computerised female voice told me that she had played all of that morning’s news stories and I would sink back into my pillow and fall asleep until the next alarm went off.  It was an almost companionable silence.

A while ago I had promised myself that I would never make another New Year’s resolution, but it was difficult not to see the advancing of 2021 as anything other than an opportunity for improvement.  It just had to be a better year, even for those people who had vowed to afford themselves some more alone time or to do some work around the house and who were probably quite content with how 2020 turned out.  I decided that I was absolutely going to stick to my vaunted morning routine no matter how dark or wet the day was, or how often I had to clean the coffee machine, but that I would do it from the fourth of January since I knew that I would be suffering from a hangover on the first three mornings of the year, and there’s no point in setting yourself a target that you know is impossible to reach.

I was never a big fan of Hogmanay and the pressure that came with the 31st to be this picture-perfect landmark of the passing of time, and for maybe the first occasion during all of the tiers (and tears) of lockdown restrictions I was quite glad for the opportunity to not be expected to make any plans.  There was a relief that came with knowing that I wouldn’t be forced into spending ten minutes queuing at the bar to be served a Jack Daniels and Coke in a plastic tumbler, and that the reason I wouldn’t be sharing a kiss at the bells this New Year wasn’t due to my own ineptitude but was instead because a global pandemic had made everybody else just like me.

Earlier in the day I had taken a crisp afternoon walk along the Esplanade in what not only were the fading embers of the day, but also the year.  As I was nearing St Columba’s Cathedral, I happened upon the multi-talented young woman who had previously curated the successful Let’s Make A Scene events in town.  She was out walking with another gentleman who I didn’t immediately recognise.  As I approached her, I pulled the earphones out of my ears and she remarked that “this must be where all the Catholics go walking.”  It wasn’t until she happened to mention her companion’s name after a few minutes that it registered with me who he was.  It turned out to be my best friend from primary school who I hadn’t seen since leaving Oban High, though in my defence he didn’t have the wispy beard back then and his voice wasn’t nearly as deep.  Almost immediately he reminisced that, as a boy, I was the one who was responsible for wrestling being banned from St Columba’s primary school, though that wasn’t how I remembered it.  There was certainly a time when my brother refused to watch WWF shows with me anymore because I always insisted on having matches with him during the ad breaks, and it was during one of these impromptu bouts that I burst his bottom lip open with a stray knee, but I just figured that he was a sore loser.  Nevertheless, this chance encounter on the seafront was very nearly the perfect ending to 2020, and it probably would have been had there not been another eight hours of the year left.

Until now I had never fully understood why mum always cried at the bells, though it was undoubtedly part of the reason why I never particularly cared for New Year.  My memories of the night were mostly of the generous spread of finger food that would gradually begin to appear before midnight:  dishes of salted peanuts, bowls of crisps, sausage rolls, and cocktail sticks which were loaded with a block of cheddar cheese the size of a small piece of lego, a slice of ham, and a pickled onion.  The cocktail sticks were everybody’s favourite part of the 31st of December.  In some ways they were even better than Christmas.  Every year dad would wait until a couple of minutes before the countdown to open his bottle of Whyte & Mackay, and once we had passed into the new year he would take his first drink.  He only ever drank whisky at new year, one of those little traditions that people have around this time, and it was funny how drunk it would make him.  On the television we would watch BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Hogmanay street party in Edinburgh, where the countdown to midnight ended with the firing of the gun from the castle.  We always muted the sound so that we could hear the CalMac ferries sounding their horns in the bay, and then mum would start to cry.  It wasn’t until we were talking about it at my sister’s over Christmas that I realised they weren’t tears of sadness.  Not an unhappy sadness, anyway.  They were tears for the people who weren’t there; for memories and nostalgia.  

As things turned out, spending New Year’s Eve at home alone wasn’t any better than previous years spent in a packed pub, surrounded by a sea of people I didn’t know, barely enough room to wave a cocktail stick in the air.  I thought about the people who I couldn’t be with – not only that night, but all through the year – and I felt nostalgic for previous Hogmanays, even the ones where I felt anxious over not having any plans or not enjoying the celebrations as much as everybody else seemed to be.

I tried everything I could think of to amuse myself until midnight, but it wasn’t easy when the only living company I had was the crassula ovata houseplant that I’d bought in September just so that I could make up the minimum spend to use a £5 off coupon in Lidl.  At least I think the succulent was still living, it was hard to tell.  I wasn’t sure how those plants were supposed to look when they’re healthy and thriving; it was more common for me to see them when they were withered and miserable.  My entertainment for the evening was my Spotify playlist of the year, which was 43 hours and 47 minutes long, and to pass the time until the gun was fired from Edinburgh Castle I played some YouTube videos in the background of some of the places I had planned to visit during the year but couldn’t due to the pandemic.  I watched videos of Ljubljana, Zagreb, a 4K walking tour of Belgrade, the fountain in the square in Sarajevo where all the pigeons frequently gather, and even footage of Edinburgh.  Places that all felt a lot further away now than ever before.

In an effort to fend off some of the weariness I was feeling after a few beers, I put a tray of sausage rolls into the oven at around ten o’clock.  It wasn’t pickled onions and cheese on a stick, but it was the best I could do to keep myself interested.  The trouble with hot pastry goods is that once they are there, it is close to impossible to stop yourself from eating them, especially when I was the only one who could eat them.  After a handful of the sausage rolls I was feeling bloated and queasy, and my thoughts turned to trying to figure out how long the bag had been sitting open in the drawer of the freezer.  It isn’t the sort of thing that you ever think you’re going to have to remember, not like the date your home insurance is due for renewal or when you last had a dental check-up.  There was no way of knowing when I had opened the sausage rolls, but given that the bag was advertising the goods as being part of a Christmas party range and they weren’t typically the type of food I would eat if I was on my own, it was reasonable – if not entirely safe – to assume that it wasn’t within the last year.

The point at which I started to feel at my most lonely wasn’t when I had ignored any sense of uneasiness and continued to polish off the entire plate of sausage rolls, but rather it was when I downloaded yet another dating app.  The way I saw it, I couldn’t have been the only person that was sitting alone on New Year’s Eve and feeling nostalgic for the company of others, and surely out of all those numbers someone was going to be drunk and lonely enough to swipe on my profile.  To sweeten the deal, I considered an addendum to my biography that would let the single women of Scotland know that I had excess sausage rolls which I could do with a partner to help me finish, but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words.  A better man than me would have known how to make it sound romantic, but I just never had that ability.  Besides, any potential match would have been prevented from visiting my flat under the restrictions of the time anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to start a relationship with a promise that I knew I couldn’t keep.  I imagined the disappointment on her face when she arrived to discover that I had already eaten all of the sausage rolls, the sort of look that summed up so many Hogmanays before it.  Is that it?  By the time I had finished my beers and taken myself off to bed it was long after 3 a.m. and I hadn’t found a single match across any of my dating apps.  When I asked my Google Play device to play some Ryan Adams, the robotic voice all of a sudden wasn’t sounding so companionable. 

As a mass vaccination programme began in Scotland on the fourth of January, the government announced that the country would be going into a full lockdown until at least the end of the month to support it, though most people believed that it would go on much longer.  It wasn’t unexpected, but you could tell that everyone was demoralised by it all the same.  When I arrived home for lunch on the fifth, the front door to my close was pinned open and the concrete floor was strewn with a blanket of pine needles.  Someone in the block was really taking the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ seriously.  It was a mess, like a road traffic accident where the only recognisable piece of debris is the air freshener.

I had been doing a pretty decent job of sticking to my morning routine during the first week of the year, managing to get out of bed at half-past six on three out of the five days, and I was feeling good about myself for it.  The town seemed to be stuck in a perpetual frost that week, with the temperature mimicking the number of my recent romantic encounters, in that it was struggling to climb above zero.  I couldn’t remember a cold like it, though it made for a fantastic Instagrammable scene with the snow-capped hills hugging the backdrop of the town.  Some of the pavements around the station and George Street seemed particularly slippy underfoot, which was something that I had felt especially anxious about since the morning in either 2009 or 2010 when I fell on some ice three times on my way to a 6 a.m. start in the Co-op.  I bruised the bone at the bottom of my spine quite badly and for weeks it would hurt to sit down, though the damage to my pride lasted much longer.  Every winter I felt the same fear whenever the weather turned cold enough for the ground to freeze.  To any casual observer I must have looked like a trauma victim learning to walk again for the first time after a terrible accident.  I could hear the physiotherapist by my side, coaching me along, becoming exasperated.  “If you could just take your hand off the rail and put your left foot forward, it isn’t that hard.”  It was difficult to enjoy the winter landscape when I could see the ground approaching with every step I took.

On at least three evenings I passed the same guy who was out running, always wearing a pair of black shorts, a t-shirt that was a shade only slightly darker than my cheeks, and a winter hat.  I felt like the Michelin Man every time he jogged by me.  Here I was wearing as many layers of clothing as I could fit into, and this guy was in shorts and a t-shirt like it was nothing.   Just seeing him was enough to make me feel colder.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could be out running on those pavements when I could hardly even walk on them.

Soon the sight of this guy’s t-shirt became like a rag to a bull for me.  I had never hated anyone; sure, like anybody else I held on to petty disputes, but hate was a bit strong, something I reserved mostly for mushrooms and Boris Johnson.  But by the end of the week I found myself wishing that the runner would find a thick patch of black ice.  It wasn’t anything I could say out loud, even though it wasn’t like I was wanting him to be severely injured – just a minor sprain, enough to help me feel better about myself.  With my luck it likely wouldn’t make much difference anyway.  The guy would display all of the natural balance of Christopher Dean, and would probably manage to save a small child in the process.  Meanwhile I would be seen off in the distance, unable to move from the one spot I knew for certain was safe, shivering and helpless.  Obviously I knew that deep down what I was feeling towards the runner wasn’t hatred at all, it was more like envy, which in some ways was worse.  I was jealous of the confidence he had on his feet, the fact that he was seemingly impervious to the lowly temperatures.  I could tell just from looking at him that he wasn’t the type of guy who had to bargain with himself to get out of bed in the morning, like a contestant on a TV game show.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be leaving the flat in shorts and t-shirt, but maybe 2021 was going to be the year where I could at least settle for a cup of filter coffee.

As Scotland’s Covid vaccine programme begins, this song seems like the ideal anthem for the month of January:

The Queen’s Gambit

Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end.  For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year?  It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess.  The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it.  As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy.  The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess.  I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.

Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for.  There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess.  Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start.  For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger.  After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.  

Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course.  Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound.  If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!”  It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar.  Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on:  I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how.  Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face.  Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.

I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities.  Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense.  Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times?  I asked myself.  My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks.  Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus.  Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside.  Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him.  Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?

We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect.  The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background.  Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party.  I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.

It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree.  Santa had been.  I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic.  It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning.  I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve.  I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead.  Blunder!

Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year.  I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing.  Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.

I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day.  I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth.  It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it.  It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement:  my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge.  My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it.  They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years.  It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it.  Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles.  Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.

It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley.  I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted.  They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn.  Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within.  It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”

Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits.  Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy.  My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks.  It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask.  I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.  

One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows.  He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set.  We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows.  My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch.  My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.

Tagebücher eines einzelnen Mannes

As I have grown older, I seem to have gotten better at Christmas shopping.  My ability in the department of gift buying is seemingly akin to a fine wine; not that my budget would ever allow me to be that generous with my presents.  It isn’t that the quality of my gifts has improved over the years – just ask my sister, who to this day still regrets the 12-inch traditional crepe maker that I handed over on Christmas Day 2019 and which enjoyed substantial use throughout the subsequent months of lockdown – but more a case that I have become better at getting my shopping out of the way early in the festive period.  Of course, I would still be found on my knees on the floor of my living room on Christmas Eve 2019, surrounded by a jigsaw of discarded wrapping paper, grunting and cursing as I attempted to fold the corners of the red sheet neatly into place around a Peppa Pig sticker book, with scrumpled snowmen smiling smugly up at me, but at least I could say that I had done my shopping.

The main benefit of making sure that I had bought presents for everybody else early in the month was that it meant I could spend more time buying things for myself.  In the weeks before Christmas, I looked to get myself into the spirit of the season by making a couple of visits to the Oban Beer Seller to stock up on some suitably festive drinks for the period ahead.  The shop was a veritable Santa’s grotto of goodies tucked away in the shadow of McCaig’s Tower and opposite the Distillery on Stafford Street, which, when all lit up, could so easily have been a scene fashioned from gingerbread on a decorative carousel.  Christmas-inspired beers had long been one of my favourite things about the month of December.  Nothing quite said Christmas to me like drinking those themed beers whilst watching the Bill Murray film Scrooged by an open fire, or underneath around half a dozen layers as the case was in the years after I moved into my own flat.  The best ones were usually chocolate porters or dark ales, sometimes sweetened with flavours of berries or honey, and often finished with the spice of the season, cinnamon.  It was a different taste to the alcohol we were allowed to drink at the table during the Christmas dinners of our youth, usually a Babycham or a glass of Bucks Fizz, when I would like to try and convince everybody that I was drunk, unlike when I was older and I would insist that I wasn’t drunk and could handle one more drink.  Nobody was for believing it on either occasion.

Those beers always had the most wonderful names, sobriety breaking sobriquets such as Santa Paws, Fairytale of Brew York, Hoppy Christmas, and Winter Mess, which seemed a particularly fitting purchase in 2020 of all years.  I loaded a canvas bag full with beers, eleven of them in total, at which point Karen asked me if I would like to pick up one more, since she was offering a free glass worth £4.99 with every dozen beers bought.  In that moment, nothing made more sense to me than buying another can of beer and obtaining the free glass that it could be enjoyed in.  It always seemed foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth, let alone a gift glass in the rim, and I picked up an oat lager to complete my order.  I had officially finished my Christmas shopping for the year, and in the process was treated to my first gift with it.

There’s almost nothing that brings as much hope as a bag filled with beers does.  It is as though the entire world is within reach, just the cracking of a can away.  With hops the possibilities seem limitless, you can go anywhere and be anyone.  It was on one of those drunken journeys, I came to believe, that I finally got around to ordering The Tender Bar, a book which had been recommended to me by a woman in our album club.  She had suggested to me some months earlier that I would enjoy the memoir by J.R. Moehringer since he writes in the same loving, almost romantic, way about his favourite local bar that I often speak of Aulay’s.  By the middle of December, Aulay’s had become just like any other romance I had enjoyed in my life.  The pub had been closed due to government restrictions since October and the good times spent there had become a distant memory; the former lover who no longer calls or texts, its presence on the street not much more than a spectre.  Does she think of me as much as I think about her?  I would ask myself every time I passed the empty bar, the faint smell of Tennent’s still lingering in the mind.

The book was delivered to my dad’s like all of my packages were, since the mailbox at my flat was seemingly designed for nothing much larger than a Christmas card.  I could tell that something wasn’t right as soon as I tore open the World of Books package and spied the dog-eared red sticker attached near the bottom-right of the book’s cover informing whoever happened to be holding the copy in their hands that the book was a Der Spiegel bestseller.  I knew from my high school language classes that Der Spiegel is a popular German news magazine, and it struck me as being odd that it was considered that the fact The Tender Bar is a bestseller in Germany was something I should know about.  Who buys a book because it sold well in Germany?

When I turned the book over to read the synopsis on the back, I was given my second clue that things had gone awry.  The words were unintelligible and offered me no indication as to the romantic sentimentalities of the memoir.  It was printed entirely in German.  The book I was holding was the Deutsche edition which, according to the price on the barcode, retailed for €9.95.  I could hardly believe that such a thing could happen.  First I bought a pizza that unbeknownst to me had mushrooms amidst the topping, and now this.  It was apparent that I was going to have to pay more attention to product descriptions when I was shopping, though surely the fact that the book was printed in German would have been quite obvious on the website.  

I tried to console myself with the knowledge that, really, it wasn’t my fault that I had bought the wrong book, it could have happened to anyone. In an effort to lighten my mood, I liked to imagine that this particular copy of The Tender Bar had been bought and sold again over and over through the World of Books store, purchased by one bookworm after another, completely unaware that it was a German edition that would be useless to anyone who didn’t understand the language, then hastily sold on again out of embarrassment.  No-one would be willing to own up to the mistake they had made in buying a book that they could never read, and it would just be passed around for eternity without a word spoken about it, sort of like the way someone gifts you a bottle of vodka when you are a whisky drinker and you sneakily change the label on the gift bag and give it to someone else at their next birthday.

I wasn’t in the mood to re-gift my German copy of The Tender Bar, not even as a joke, and in fact, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about Christmas at all, especially after it was announced that Scotland would effectively be going back into lockdown from the 26th.  Despite feeling pretty pleased with myself for once again doing a good job with my shopping – for other people, at least – December just didn’t seem very Christmassy, even though many places around town looked to be decorated with much more flair than in previous years.  There were some especially striking light displays on the outsides of houses and hotels, although it seemed unusual to me that they would go to such an effort when presumably most of the hotels were empty due to the pandemic.  Lights of all colours would dance exuberantly around the exterior of dark hotels, giving the appearance of a disco that nobody had turned up for.  From my own perspective, things were bleak enough without me adding my own dismal decorations to the mix.  I just couldn’t bring myself to dust off the tiny old Christmas tree I had inherited from the 1990s or to line up along the edge of my mantel place the three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines I had bought a couple of years earlier, knowing that the little Santa, reindeer and snowman ornaments would be my only prospect of company for the foreseeable future.  That had been the case in previous years, of course, but at least then I could tell myself that there was a chance it wouldn’t be.  At times in December I was feeling like a cheap cracker that has just been pulled apart to no fanfare:  the bang just isn’t there, and all that’s left is a stupid joke that nobody finds funny. 

Christmas in the midst of a pandemic was always going to be a strange thing.  Ordinarily, the last working Friday before the big day would have been set aside for our office party, but like everything else, such things weren’t possible under the restrictions of the time.  Instead, I went to the Lorne’s beer garden with the plant doctor, where I met up with a work colleague and her friend.  It was the first time I had shared a drink with the young island woman since the night of the Royal Rumpus music event in February, when it would be more accurate to say that she had shared a drink with my shoes.  Perhaps one of the advantages of social distancing was that our groups were sat at separate tables and we could enjoy our drinks in the conventional way.  At an adjacent table was sitting a man who was shaped like a Christmas pudding, and he struck up a conversation with the plant doctor and myself by asking us how many grapes or potatoes we thought a person with diabetes was allowed to eat in a single day.  The plant doctor approached the question in a typically scientific manner, reasoning that it would depend on the diabetic’s diet and body mass as well as the type and size of the potato, amongst other factors.  All I could think about was how terrible an existence it must be to have to log every item of food you eat in a day, even a single grape.  It would probably be easier now, in the times of Covid, when people don’t have much better to do with their lives.  But any other time?  What a chore.

“And bananas,” the man interjected, as though suddenly remembering.  “How many of those are you allowed to eat if you have diabetes?”  He had initially seemed quite suspicious of me and the plant doctor when we arrived in the beer garden wearing our face coverings, his narrow-eyed glances almost questioning:  what the hell do you think you’re doing wearing that shit out here?  I wondered if all of these questions about grapes and potatoes were what he did when he sensed a weakness about another person, a test of sorts.  We tried our best to answer sensibly, but how could we know what it would be like to be diabetic?  It wouldn’t be much different to trying to read the German edition of a book you’d mistakenly bought online without knowing a word of the language.  “How many of those can you have?”  I finally asked, nodding my head in the direction of his half-empty glass of Tennent’s Lager.  “Ah, I drink pints of the stuff every day and it’s never done me any harm,” he said with a smile, and I presumed that we had passed his test.

The plant doctor and I turned our attention to reminiscing about the night a year or so earlier when I returned to his flat after the pub and he tricked me into eating mushrooms, which were deep within the biggest omelette I had ever seen.  Hearing the phrase “tricked me into eating mushrooms” seemed to draw the attention of the young women who were in our company at the next table.  Maybe they hadn’t been landed with the pair of dweeby dorks they first thought they were with.  “Were they magic?”  One of them asked, almost giddy.  We were quickly forced into confessing that we weren’t the fun guys the girls were suddenly picturing and we had in fact only eaten a mushroom omelette with regular store-bought mushrooms – or half-eaten, in my case, once I’d discovered the grizzly secret ingredient.

From across the garden another man was keen to have his voice heard.  The figure resembled a scarecrow who wasn’t having very much success in its role; a dirty red baseball cap sat atop a mop of hair the same shade as the fur of an invasive species of squirrel.  He was a fascinating fella who had clearly been rehomed in The Lorne from one of the town’s less salubrious establishments, though for all his quirks he seemed harmless enough, even if he did briefly threaten to ignite a Hebridean war with my colleague when he announced that he hails from Coll and anyone who is from Mull is a “fake islander.”  I never really understood his claim, though it did at least result in what at one stage seemed like it could have been an endless supply of “Coll girl” puns.

What struck me most about the man – who called himself George, though I wasn’t sure how much I believed it – was a particular turn of phrase he used at the height of his bombastic blethering.  I wasn’t paying attention closely enough to pick up on the context, but he was talking about a conversation he had apparently had with his mother, who it was to be presumed is dead.  In this discussion, she had told her son that she hoped to see him in heaven soon because, in his words, “I’m due a good few clatterings.”

It was a phrase that was stuck in my thoughts for days, the sort that you only ever hear when you’re drunk in the pub.  One night in the pub with friends and colleagues, listening to strange characters and their unusual ways with words, had given my bleak festive blues a good clattering.  I woke up on my couch early on Saturday morning, still fully clothed in my zebra-coloured tie and my black sweater vest, my trousers and my shoes, and I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was schadenfreude or a winter mess. 

A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.

The night I was told I smell like old books (a second reading)

It was the twenty-first of November – I knew this because it was Wednesday, and it always rains on the day the blue recycling bins are emptied.  The morning was remarkable only for the way it was like every other morning: I woke up as a single in a double bed, trimmed my stubble to a fine 1.0mm, showered, stood bare-chested in the kitchen as I ironed a shirt which was the colour of a custard cream biscuit, ate a handful of blueberries and drank two small glasses of orange juice; because I liked to get my vitamins and my bright colours early in the day.

Fully dressed and ready for work, I was approaching the door of my flat when something struck me as being peculiar and out of the ordinary.  In the close, snuggled in against the bottom of the stairs, was a baby’s buggy – or, at least, a buggy which belonged to the parents of a baby.  Its transparent plastic hood had amassed a collection of pearly raindrops, and on the thin layer of fabric at the back of the seat were three polar bears of varying size, coloured white, black and minty blue.  The bears looked friendly and happy, as though they knew that their only purpose in life was to look in reverence at the back of this baby’s head, and they were doing a good job. Cradled between the purple handlebars was a marshmallow-coloured blanket which looked like it would provide great comfort and warmth.  The blanket had little pink tassels that dangled loosely along the ends, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would look against my navy blue suit.

I was standing in the cold concrete surroundings of the close, the only light provided by a streak of winter sun which was shining through the glass pane on the back door, illuminating this baby’s buggy which had become the object of my curiosity; the lead actor on the stage of my life at that moment.  Nobody in my block of flats had any children, as far as I was aware, and the youngest living being was a one-year-old golden retriever who lived with her owners on the second floor, and I was feeling certain that she could be taken on walks without the aid of a pushchair.  I couldn’t imagine where the buggy had come from or why it was sitting outside my flat, especially when Christmas was more than four weeks away and I hadn’t indicated to friends or family that the gift I was cherishing the most was a buggy.

As the week developed, there was an increasingly cold wind which was ripping in from the sea, the kind that rattles in your bones and leaves a person feeling like they need to pee.  On my nightly walks along the Esplanade, I was finding that my hands were making for the pockets of my coat regularly, in search of warmth and in an effort to assure myself that I was still in command of my functions.  In Aulay’s, as I was entering into a debate with a bald-headed man about the percentage of a pint of lager which should be made up of the foamy head, a pair of women who were wearing woolly hats were ordering a measure of whisky each, and at that moment they were maybe the warmest people I had ever laid eyes on.

Downtown in the Oban Inn, a woman who was some years beyond middle age – if it is assumed that she won’t live to be a hundred – was dancing by the side of the bar with great gusto and enthusiasm, even if not entirely with rhythm.  She informed us that her father had recently died and that all she wanted to do was dance.  I was finding it difficult to judge a person’s ability to dance given the circumstances.  Over the shoulder of the middle-aged dancer, the one man bar band was preparing to resume his set, and as he sat on a chair alongside his pale electric guitar he was looking like a drawing a young child would produce if it had been asked to sketch the saddest man in the world.  His eyes were sunken shaded pencil outlines, and his mouth could have been a golf umbrella.

A short while later, in a bar along the bracing seafront, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was claiming to have cut my hair when I was little more than a small boy.  I didn’t remember her face, but she seemed trustworthy and I decided that I would believe her.  After all, I thought to myself, who would it really benefit to invent such a story?  The hairdresser was beginning to embellish me with further details when I could just about see the cartoon thought bubble appear above her head.  “I always knew he would struggle to keep his hair,” it read.

In a booth close to the door, my brother and I were talking to a couple of young women who we had met whilst stood at the bar.  The girl sitting closest to me had canary blonde hair that rested upon the top of her head, which was the size of a boulder.  Her facial features looked like they had been carved out of stone, the sort an archaeologist would spend an age studying.  She was a close talker who liked to speak almost directly into the eardrum.  Each time she leaned in to say something, her hair would wave across my cheek and I was picking up a distinctive scent which I couldn’t quite identify.  I speculated that it might be vanilla, and suggested this to the girl who had a face which vaguely resembled a rock, believing that vanilla is an inoffensive fragrance.  She didn’t dispute my sense of smell, and once again leaned into my ear.

“You smell like old books.”

To that point I had never been told that I have the aura of antique literature, and being that it was something I was not used to hearing, I misheard the words she originally used.  I don’t know why the question that I next asked occurred to me, but it was the only response that I could think of.

“The kind of old boots that someone might have died wearing?”

The girl’s stony features had the look of confusion you might usually see on someone who has happened upon a single slipper by the side of a busy road.  Her hair brushed my face once more, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about, before repeating that I smell like old books and that she found it comforting.

With it cleared up that I have the fragrance of words which go to the soul, rather than leather which goes to the sole, the archaeologist’s dream asked me if I had ever considered how sexy it would be for two people who work together in a library to hook up after a time.  I told her that I had not spent any time contemplating that particular scenario, though in my mind I was thinking how I would find it sexy to get with another person in just about any situation.

She sat closer to me as she started to elaborate on the fantasy she had in mind.  The young woman asked me to picture how it would be to work as a librarian, and I told her that I had no trouble conjuring the image of finding a way to make females stop talking, since it was a field I happened to be an expert in.  In her workplace ballad, the two participants would have been working in the same library for years but rarely crossed paths, which seemed terribly unlikely to me, but I was in no position to tread on her artistic license.  One day, she said, they would be returning books to the same section of the library, and their hands would touch as they were placing the books back on the shelf.  She illustrated this by touching my hand as she spoke.  I could tell that she was finding the idea of the saga quite stimulating, and I should probably have taken the role play more seriously.

“Which section of the library were they in?”  I asked.

“Why does it matter?”

“I like to paint a picture.”

“Oh, alright.  Non-fiction, I suppose.”

“So there was friction in the non-fiction?”

The girl with canary blonde hair took her hand from mine and suggested that I should get another drink, her words delivered in a manner which made it clear that not only were we not on the same page, but we were barely even in the same library.  Whilst at the bar I encountered a couple of friends, and once they left I found myself standing next to the fresh-faced homosexual.  It was the first time I had seen him since the night a few weeks earlier where he had suddenly appeared just as I had found myself in conversation with a young woman who seemed to have taken a liking to me.  I had never met the guy before, but he turned out to be a long lost school friend of the woman’s, and the pair of them sat on the end of my bed for several hours, reminiscing and catching up on lost time whilst I was drinking whisky in the kitchen.  As a gesture of good will, and a display of there being no hard feelings, I offered to buy him a drink.  The entire process of getting a round of drinks for our table took around ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I returned the two girls had moved elsewhere.  The fresh-faced homosexual joined me, and I reminded him of our initial encounter a few weeks previous.  He laughed and denied that he had ‘cock blocked’ me, though in an absurd twist of fate he had unwittingly contributed to my failure on this occasion, too.   Instead of learning what happens after hands touch in the non-fiction section of the library, the fresh-faced homosexual and I were talking until closing time about his time as a trainee chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, and about the planet Mars.

In the small hours of the morning, I returned to my flat to find the baby’s buggy still sitting in the close.  I was beginning to feel like it was haunting me, as though someone had left it there as a cruel play on the Christmas story.  Instead of a baby being bestowed upon a virginal woman, an empty buggy had been presented to a single man who can’t be very far away from regaining his virginity.  It was either that, or I had new neighbours.

This post was originally published on 25 November 2018.

Tiers for fears

It had been a week since Maria, the Escape Room game moderator who was using Tinder to find new friends, had last messaged me, and I was beginning to suspect that she had found a way out of our interaction.  By the ninth day of silence, I decided that Covid had created enough real-life friendships with people who I couldn’t see or talk to without adding another through messaging apps, and I unmatched myself from Maria, a step which felt more bold and powerful than I could ever have imagined.  She would never know what became of me; a dapper and elusive stranger who existed briefly before he disappeared into the darkness the day after the clocks had changed, or perhaps just someone who had spoken a little too much about his penchant for killing houseplants.  If only every problem was as straightforward to solve as simply blocking it out and forgetting that it had ever existed.

Argyll & Bute, like every other local authority in Scotland, was on tenterhooks as it waited to learn which of the government’s new tiers of coronavirus alert it would be placed in when the announcement was made two days before Halloween.  There was due to be five different levels in the system, with each level carrying various restrictions regarding things like household meetings and the sale of alcohol in hospitality settings which would be enforced on the people living in the council areas involved.  The lowest tier – level 0 – was described as being “nearly normal”, which is how things were said to have been for everybody back in August, whereas the highest tier in the system – level 4 – was effectively the lockdown we all experienced earlier in the year.  Very little was known about how areas could progress up or down through the levels, which only made them sound to me like when I used to play Super Mario Brothers as a young boy and I would get fed up with trying to figure out a way of beating the big monster at the end.   I knew that it could be done – because, otherwise, what would be the point in playing the game? – but actually getting the better of the beast and moving on to the next level of the game was always beyond me, and once I had used up all of my lives I would give up and do something else.  There were certain times in my life when I would find myself contemplating how different things might have been if I wasn’t one of the few people my age who had never completed the Super Mario console game; if only I had saved my invincibility stars or had better used the power-up mushrooms, who knows what I could have made of myself.

Throughout October, when most of the country to the north and south of the Central Belt was on the same level of restrictions which prohibited the sale of alcohol in indoor settings but still allowed people to enjoy a drink outdoors in a beer garden, all sorts of cunning canopies and tarpaulin shelters were being erected by those pubs and hotels that were fortunate enough to have the space to do so.  Some even went so far as to install those enormous patio heaters with the flame, and in a way the town was beginning to resemble an old Pagan festival, as though an exciting ritual was about to take place.  It made for quite a sight on some of my walks home in the evening.

Those autumn walks were a wonderful thing, a calm amidst life’s storm, for a little while anyway.  The dynamics of my nightly constitutional changed completely either side of the final Friday of British Summer Time.  Before quarter past five that evening there was still daylight, the sea had an uncanny calmness, and the leaves on the trees – those that remained anyway – had the appearance of a hoppy IPA; heavy grapefruit notes.  Deep into the seafront, the sun would set the windows of empty guest houses ablaze, staining the glass on the side of the church with splendid colour as it made its way back into the sea.  My progress was impeded when I found myself trapped behind a slow walking elderly couple, whose own stride was being stunted by the man’s trouble with lighting his pipe in the face of the sea breeze.  The frustration of being a fairly fast walker having my pace tempered by dawdlers in front of me was the pedestrian version of an agitated motorist whose journey has been held up by a caravan, or at least that’s what I imagined.  Eventually the old man succeeded in resuscitating his pipe, and a cloud of stinking smoke wafted its way back along the pavement in my direction, moving like a memory.  The stench clung to the hairs in my nostrils, somehow smelling stale by the time it had even travelled the short distance from mouth to nose.  

Even though it had been nigh upon six years since I had stopped smoking (in a phase of my life which wasn’t as much cold turkey as it was a leftover sandwich on Boxing Day) I had found myself thinking about it quite a bit during the seven months or so of the pandemic.  Not out of any desire to light up again, but more the sense of marvel I would feel any time I saw someone on the street who had reached to their mouth and pulled down the face covering which had been mandated to protect the wearer and everybody else from the spread of a potentially deadly disease, leaving it dangling under their chin like an extra layer of skin, just so that they could smoke a cigarette.  It wasn’t contempt I was feeling, though, but rather it was envy.  Smoking was a hobby, an outdoor pursuit for some; a momentary escape from everything else that was going on, when for a few minutes the only thing the smoker had to think about was the exciting fact that they were holding fire between their fingers.  I envied them greatly for having something different to do.

The pension-age pair had formed an impassable spread across the tarmac, making it difficult for anybody to walk around them, the way all couples seem to have a habit of doing.  Ahead of us, a tour bus had pulled into the bus stop, where a steady stream of tourists unloaded themselves and their baggage.  Once upon a time it would have been a regular sight in Oban, but not in late-October, and certainly not in 2020.  The holidaymakers were making their way across the North Pier to the Columba Hotel, one after another, like a line of lemmings, most of them wearing masks.  I was finally able to use the wide berth of the pier’s car park to stride past the elderly couple and most of the tourists, giving myself a clear passage once again.  In the distance I could see a familiar bobble hat which was the colour of mustard; Dijon or English, maybe somewhere in between.  I came to recognise the dog walker as someone who I was passing most evenings after work, usually around the same place at the same time, though it was impossible to know if she had noticed me the same way.  I had been seeing her for several months, throughout most of the pandemic to date, and soon that fleeting moment when we would walk the same stretch of pavement became the highlight of my day, like a cigarette break.  

There were times when I couldn’t be sure if I had become physically attracted to the young woman, or if my interest was due to the striking resemblance her dog had to that of Kelsey Grammar’s titular character in the hit television comedy Frasier.  Regardless, it seemed difficult to attract the attention of a complete stranger in the times of social distancing, particularly when it was not something I was all that good at in ordinary circumstances.  “Just say hello” friends would advise, as though they were talking to somebody else.  I could never say hello.  Instead, I was thinking that the best way of gaining the woman’s attention was through her dog, and I began devising ways that I could befriend man’s best friend.  Short of offering myself as some sort of personal dog walking service to my friends and family, the best I could come up with was the idea that I could tie a string of sausages around one of my ankles in the hope that her little dog would sniff them out and come bounding across the pavement towards me.  The pooch’s amorous attention to my ankle would, in my imagining of the scenario, pique the strolling stranger’s interest in me, perhaps causing her to ask herself how she hadn’t noticed me before.  She would shyly apologise for her dog’s sudden affection towards me as its nose desperately rooted around the hem of my trouser leg, while I would assure her that no apology was necessary.  “Don’t worry, people are always looking to see if the socks match the tie.”

The only flaw I could see in my plan was the possibility that the dog might actually get to the sausages.  How would I explain it if the mutt came away from my ankle with a mouthful of pork, like a successful raid on a butcher’s shop?  There was no plausible reason I could think of for the discovery of a chain of sausages beneath my trousers.  I could feel the awkward silence even just thinking about the moment when the dog is gleefully tearing the sausages apart with its bare teeth, me left staring at my feet as the young woman tries to drag the hound away.  Finally I would call out in vain:  “I was just hoping for a link!”

By quarter past five the following evening, which was the last Friday of British Summer Time before the clocks fell back an hour that weekend, the scene had changed.  The royal blue sky was gradually giving way to dusk, and as so often was the case for the time of year, a fine day erupted into rainfall as the heavens opened.  The downpour began as I was making my way as usual back up the Esplanade, just as my Spotify playlist started playing the song Prayers For Rain by The Cure, though that was a detail that nobody was bound to believe in the retelling of the story.  It was difficult to tell exactly how heavy the rain was, but the drops were at least the size of pistachio nuts.  Outside Bar Rio, a couple was sitting at one of the restaurant’s pavement tables, surrounded by another three or four tables which were unoccupied and soaked.  They had clearly just been served their drinks and so were in no mood to abandon them in the face of the weather, while the rules forbade them from taking their alcohol indoors.  The woman held a grey umbrella over their heads while the pair continued to sip at their drinks, sheltering them with defiance; he with his pint of Tennent’s Lager and she with a tall glass of white wine – Sauvignon Blanc, I think, since the glass remained dry.  In Scotland we had often envied the pavement cafe culture on the continent, but it seemed we hadn’t considered that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, whereas this was just plain misery.

I kind of admired their commitment, though I couldn’t be sure that it would have been me in the same circumstances, especially given my distrust of umbrellas.  With that said, I received an insight into the couple’s dilemma later that same night when I came to cook the pizza which I had bought from Lidl using a 20% off voucher from their app.  The offer was for any of the pizzas from their ‘Deluxe’ range of meals, which certainly sounded like it would be a luxurious treat, and I looked forward to enjoying it with a cold beer before joining our weekly pub replica Zoom meeting.  I selected the box which declared in large white lettering that the pizza was topped with buffalo mozzarella, salami, tomatoes, and bell peppers, though I didn’t come to realise until I removed the thing from its wrapping that there were also mushrooms present, a fact which was detailed in the smaller text on the front of the package.  It was like sitting in the pouring rain with a freshly-served pint of Tennent’s:  I had spent £3.29 on the pizza and I was determined to get my money’s worth, so I left the fungi where they were.   Eating the mushroom pizza became more than a meal that was slightly more expensive than I was used to having; it was a test of my character, a chance to prove to myself that I had grown up from the wee boy who would never even contemplate eating a mushroom.  I think I had eaten two of the four slices I had carved for myself before I decided that enough was enough and I had had all the mushrooms I could take.  For all that I had wanted to believe otherwise, I was still that guy who had never completed Super Mario Bros; who didn’t know how to properly use his mushrooms.  And mushrooms were still the most revolting thing I had ever put in my mouth.

When Scotland’s new system of tiered restrictions came into effect at the beginning of November, Argyll & Bute was placed into tier two, which wasn’t all that different to how things had been for us in the area beforehand; the main change being that bars and restaurants were now allowed to serve alcoholic drinks indoors with a main meal – a few weeks too late for the couple outside Bar Rio, perhaps.  Winter was beginning to close its bony arms around the year, dragging the morning out later and drawing the night in, as though closing a pair of curtains on the day between.  Somehow the November nights seemed darker than I could ever remember them being, though I couldn’t be sure if that was simply a symptom of the year in general or if it was because most of the hotels and guesthouses on the Esplanade were closed.  The winds were picking up around the hills, while lighthouses flickered in a ghostly sea.  I had taken a week off work, though with the restrictions being what they were across the country, the only things I had planned to do were to get my hair cut, buy some new notebooks and go for a drink outdoors with some friends.

On separate occasions I was able to meet with the plant doctor and the Subway girl, and it was remarkable how suddenly the gloom was lifted by the company of others.  The sartorial considerations of outdoor drinking were different from my usual visits to the pub, it now being about scarves and layers rather than colour schemes and pocket squares.  Though part of me felt that it was probably still warmer than drinking in my flat.  Under the canopy in Markies, the breeze coming in from the sea transformed the piece of paper with our contact details into a different sort of track and trace as it was blown to the ground.  The plant doctor observed that the bells from the cathedral chimed at eight o’clock, but not at nine or ten, and we wondered whether this was out of consideration for the neighbours because of the noise, or if the bell ringer had been flexibly furloughed.  Closer to us, the Corran Esplanade church seemed to have taken on the appearance of a frightened policeman in the darkness.  Once we had noticed it, it was difficult to unsee.  All things considered, the new system of tiered restrictions didn’t seem as bad as some had been fearing.  We just had to find a way of moving through the levels.

Old Spice

One of the more difficult things about the time of year was knowing when it was appropriate to turn the heating on.  There were several points in the weeks before I eventually relented that I could have used the heat, when conditions in my flat were becoming cold enough to make Greenland look like an appealing warm-weather getaway.  It seemed to me that determining when to put the heating back on was one of those decisions that people only ever had to worry about once they became adults, like figuring out what time it was best to go to bed.

I was reluctant to make such a move while it was still September, before the autumn had really taken hold and when we were still in meteorological summer, even though the climate on the west coast of Scotland had never recognised the seasons.  If I could have, I would have left it at least until the clocks went back, but that was pushing it.  Apart from anything else, the two heaters in my flat never seemed to make a great deal of a difference to the feel of the place.  Their performance had always been underwhelming, and raring them up for the winter seemed to be as futile a gesture as carrying an umbrella into the eye of a hurricane.  I could never get it into my head how the storage heaters were supposed to work.  As far as I understood it, their task was to gather energy during the night and release it as warm air through the following day, but it was hard to say if that was what they were actually doing.  To my limited knowledge, the heaters only seemed to be storing up disappointment, and I had never needed expensive equipment to do that for me.

It was the first of October when my resistance to the tumbling temperature broke and I flicked the switch on my two storage heaters, and by the fourth, I was standing in my kitchen at half-past ten on a Sunday night wondering why my neighbours upstairs had decided that it would be the best time to use the washing machine.  No-one gets off the couch at half-past ten on a Sunday night and thinks, “I know what this is a good time for:  I’m going to put an entire load of t-shirts in the wash.”  It had to have been a premeditated move by people who were much more organised than I could ever dream of being.  They had presumably put a lot of research into the matter and learned that the most cost-effective way of running your laundry – or anything really:  boiling a kettle, running the hover, utilising a power drill – was to do it at a specific hour on the weekend.  I envied their preparedness and their ability to save money.  My own policy for putting on a wash was a lot more staggered, effectively being whenever the wicker hamper beneath the window in my bedroom had more shirts in it then my wardrobe did, or when I was looking for some green socks to pair with a tie to make a particular outfit work, whichever instance arose first.

During that same week, I had begun to suspect that I had a new neighbour across the landing from me.  The place had been quiet for an indeterminate period of time and I hadn’t really noticed that the previous tenants had moved out until I saw the let sign in the window some weeks earlier.  Suddenly there was a great deal of activity which started one afternoon when I arrived home from work for lunch to see the door opposite mine sitting wide open.  There were removal men treading back and forth through the close carrying cardboard boxes and items of furniture which were stacked so tall that the men almost appeared to be headless.  The recycling bins in the back became choked with scrunched up balls of newspaper, while inside the close door a black CD storage unit was abandoned, a relic of time.  in the evenings I could hear the soft shuffling of footsteps on concrete and the door opening and closing so loudly that it suggested whoever was entering the flat hadn’t yet come to terms with the weight of the door.  There was no longer any sign of the let notice in the window, and it was clear that the residence was once again occupied.

Having a new neighbour seemed exciting, a lottery that could be either won or lost.  It could have been virtually anyone in the world who had moved in across the hall from me, and naturally I had my own ideas about who my ideal neighbour would be.  Over the subsequent days I spent much of my time contemplating the potential scenarios that may have landed on my doorstep.  I thought about how in my preferred outcome the new person living in my block would have been a young single woman, possibly new to the area and without any contacts.  We would happen upon one another on the landing when I would be wearing my finest colour combination, having run a wash a few days prior.  She would introduce herself, starved of any kind of social interaction and eager to meet her new neighbours.  We would hit it off, our interaction too brief and off the cuff for me to say something stupid, and she would suggest that since we are both single occupants we should form a bubble and hang out together.

My new neighbour would come over to my place on a night and we would gradually form an unlikely friendship.  I would invite her to comment on my lucky plant and she would observe how well watered it is for a succulent.  She would compliment the mood set by the crepuscular lighting in my living room and marvel at the warmth in the small space between it and the kitchen, where the second of my storage heaters hangs on the wall.  Her remark on my living space was that it had charm, an emporium of bachelorhood.  We would dine on a meal of one of the three pasta dishes I know how to cook and then listen to U2 for hours whilst laughing and getting to know one another.  The more consideration I gave to the situation, the closer the bond I could see my neighbour and I forming.  But even I knew the thought was ridiculous, and although I could see our friendship blossoming in the reel of my sub-conscience, it was clear that we would only ever be two grapes on the same branch of the stalk who are destined not to wind up in the same bottle of wine.  She would be destined for better things, surely forming an intoxicating blend with some other grape from a different stem, while I would finish up a tired old raisin, the one which sticks determinedly to the bottom of the box.

I didn’t want to feel miserable about being spurned by the new neighbour who I had never laid eyes on, so I took yet another swipe through the dating app Tinder, an act which seemed to be like striking a dud match against its box again and again and

The low sun appeared to bounce off the lighthouse in the bay like it was a fork

again, desperate for any sort of spark.  By some peculiar fate I made a match, and I resolved with myself that I would not rush in and make any silly jokes like I had done when I was last paired with a woman on the site.  I played it cool, even though I couldn’t be sure what that actually looked like, and we exchanged a couple of cursory opening messages after I initially enquired about what makes a good escape rooms game moderator, since that was her listed job title.  

My Tinder match later went on to tell me that she had read my profile and believed it to be funny, which immediately led me to suspect that I was talking to some kind of scam bot.  I was waiting to be offered a link to some expensive website where I would be forced to pay to interact with women, and I was already looking out my debit card so that I could hear more of the compliments.  I should have seen the signs, really.  A 21-year-old University of Glasgow graduate, an escape rooms game moderator named Maria – it was barely plausible.  Nonetheless, we continued chatting on the app without transferring any financial details, and after around five days it became evident that Maria too had experienced some trouble with keeping succulent plants alive.  We had established a connection, a common bond, and it naturally followed that she would tell me that she was only using Tinder to make new friends, since it was difficult to meet people in the post-pandemic world.  It was a confirmation, at least, that it was all for real, since only I could find the one woman who was using the dating app for plutonic purposes.  If we were going to make wine, it was going to have to be a non-alcoholic vintage.

Other than the torment over the question of when the heating should be switched back on, I always enjoyed the change in the seasons at this time of year.  The sky seemed to be a different colour every day, sometimes every hour.  Bright and brilliant then dark and brooding, grumpy like a grown man who has been told that the pubs will have to close for two weeks.  The sun setting early in the evening would bring into focus a horizon of slates and chimneys, and the air was always redolent of coal fires, no matter the time of day.  More than any other month, October seemed to be when the sun would sit lowest in the sky, being almost exactly at eye level when I was rounding the town on my walk home after work.  It made it difficult to truly enjoy the scene and caused me to rethink the resentment I had been feeling towards those people who I had been seeing carrying their face coverings in all sorts of unusual ways.  Perhaps they were onto something after all.  Only, instead of scrunching the masks up under their chin or hooking them around the elbow joint as though portraying a gentleman from a fifties silent movie, the coverings could be worn over the eyes as some sort of protection from the glare of the sun.  As it was, I made do with the menace of the low lying sun since if I managed to catch it at certain points, it was at least as warm as the four-foot spot between my kitchen and living room.

I arrived home from my walk on Friday evening with a commitment to an hour or so of babysitting, though I could no longer be sure if it was technically still babysitting when my niece was four-years-old and approaching a similar level of maturity to my own.  Nevertheless, we had a rare old time together catching up and familiarising ourselves with all the hiding places my flat had to offer, which was really just behind the net curtain where everything was automatically invisible.  Out of nowhere, my niece told me that she had recently watched the 1997 movie Spice World, and I thought that it would be a good way of passing a few minutes if I played the Spice Girls song Wannabe on YouTube.  Clearly it had been some months since my last session of childminding and I had forgotten that videos can never be watched just once.  I think we spent at least the next 35 minutes listening to the song on repeat, and my niece announced that she had aspirations of being Baby Spice.  She seemed to have been particularly impressed by her ability to kick, though not as much by my performance of the dance, which led to me being assigned the role of Scary Spice.  There was nothing I could say to dispute the point – it seemed pretty fair.  Two days away from my thirty-seventh birthday and this was where life had taken me.

After my niece left, high on girl power, I was in the kitchen preparing for another of the Friday night Zoom meetings which had become a placeholder for our usual visits to the pub when I heard a knock on my front door.  I was about as accustomed to hearing someone chap at my door as I was listening to the Spice Girls and I couldn’t begin to guess who would have been on the other side, so I decided to go and answer it instead.  I unlocked the door and opened it up to find the figure of a man who was holding out a Royal Mail missed delivery slip.  He was slightly shorter than I was, perhaps a little older, and he had a reasonably well-kept beard.  Extending the red piece of paper towards my face he asked me if the name on it was mine.  I took a closer look at it, since my vision had a habit of failing in near darkness, and directed the man to one of the flats upstairs.  He thanked me and turned to leave, before doubling back on his steps.

“I’m your new neighbour, by the way.”
Of course you are, I thought to myself, as all my hopes and dreams of a bubble were burst.  He introduced himself as being Norman, or Edward, or Nigel, or some name of that sort.  I had forgotten it as soon as he said it, my bitter disappointment making me reluctant to learn anything about the man.  He remarked on how surprisingly quiet the street was to live on, considering that the block of flats were right by the main road, and I felt like telling him that he should learn how to close his door more carefully, but he seemed like a nice person and I wasn’t really wanting to get into anything that would make me seem like a dick, particularly when the truth was that he was the dick for not being a lonely single woman.  He thanked me again before heading upstairs, and I returned inside, where I picked up my phone and continued the conversation I had been having on Tinder about my ineptitude with houseplants.  I leaned against the storage heater in the hallway and accepted that friendship on a dating app was probably the best I could hope for.