Twas the night before Christmas, when all through my flat there was a great deal of stirring and noise, and I was finding it difficult to sleep. There was a commotion in the walls and pipes of the old block of flats, the same way there is at around the same time every night, whilst traffic was clattering past my window with abandon, like a drunk driven sleigh landing on a tiled roof. In the corner of my bedroom, by the door, was a gathering of shadowy figures cast in darkness. I couldn’t stop myself from looking at them, convinced that they could belong to the ghost which for a brief week or two earlier in the year I suspected was haunting me. I tried to ignore them, tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I was restless and I kept returning to stare at them through eyes which were heavy from four bottles of mulled wine and two bottles of Jammy Red Roo, which had been shared earlier in the evening with family to celebrate the arrival of Santa. I knew that the shadows were either from a benevolent spirit or from the three coats which were hanging on the back of the bedroom door.
My troubles with sleeping could be traced back to the night after my office Christmas party when, even following fifteen hours of continuous drinking the previous day, I found myself sitting with my brother and the plant doctor, drinking beers and eating dry roasted peanuts until 7.30 on Sunday morning. We listened to the George Harrison track Wah-Wah at least a dozen times, and despite promising to myself several years ago that I would never again make another New Year’s resolution, I vowed that in 2019 I would convince as many people as I could to listen to the song.
During an interlude in my sleeplessness, I had a dream which took place back in the days when I was working in a supermarket. I spent more than eight years in a variety of roles in the local Co-operative before it closed at the end of 2014, and they occasionally occur to me when I am in an unconscious state. In my dream, I was approached by a female customer to whom I was immediately attracted, and when she asked me about a product which had escaped my mind by the time I had woken, I began to attempt a series of jokes based on canned foods. Each pun exasperated her more than the last, and she went to great lengths during the rest of her time in the store to avoid making contact with me, including spending an inordinate amount of time in the customer toilets. By morning, I was unsure whether I had experienced a dream, a memory or an epiphany.
On Christmas Morning I started, and finished, wrapping my presents whilst watching an episode of the Netflix murder docuseries The Innocent Man. It didn’t seem like the most festive beginning to proceedings, but it did prepare me for the emotional waterfall of a day spent drinking gin. My sister and her partner hosted the family dinner for the third year running, which was wise when she has all of the poise and grace under pressure required for cooking a meal for more than one person. I often struggle with the timings of preparing a straightforward pasta dish, and burned sweet potato wedges have become my specialty, yet she prepared roast beef, goose and all of the traditional trimmings with aplomb and a plumb and cinnamon gin.
In contrast to hearing the details of a gruesome murder in a town in Oklahoma in the 1980s and a discussion of the DNA analysis of pubic hair, the scene inside my sister’s flat was filled with festive cheer. Her two-year-old daughter was hyper with the excitement of the day and the spoils of Santa. It was heartening to witness such joy and madness, unblemished by politics or religion. A little thing with nothing but happiness for the world around her. Strewn amongst the rubble of wrapping paper and musical toys and plush animals was a microphone which Santa had picked up for fifty pence from a branch of Poundstretchers in Fort William. For the entire day, this small pink amplifier was the most wondrous thing that had ever existed.
After a hearty feast of food, it followed that the board games would be dusted down and brought out of hibernation. My sister unveiled the WH Smith version of the stacking game Jenga, which was named Tumble and was exactly like the classic version, but with a different name. We each took turns removing a block of wood from the structure and placing it on top of the increasingly unstable pile, and after a few collapses we were getting the hang of the game. Even my niece, no more than three months away from her third birthday, displayed brazen and unnerving confidence when it came to pulling a plank from its place. As what turned out to be our final game was becoming more competitive and fraught with tension, I think that my sister could tell that I was becoming slightly intimidated by my niece’s unflinching ability.
“Maybe you should try thinking of it as being like when you are out on a Friday night. Try and find the loosest one in the group.”
It was a pretty good line, but I reminded her that all of the blocks were proving equally as difficult to influence, and that my romantic prowess is even less impressive than my board game expertise.
“So I just have to not talk to them?”
The game advanced to an impressive, and baffling, feat of engineering until, as with at the bar on a Friday night, my unsteady and uncertain movements caused the entire thing to collapse before me. I could see from my niece’s face that even though she wasn’t entirely understanding what was happening, she was feeling a certain smugness that she had gotten the better of me again.
Once a certain threshold of drunkenness had been reached, my brother, sister and I seized the opportunity to question our father about the songbook he had written some decades earlier. We had seen the songbook once, one afternoon in the nineties when it was briefly retrieved from the loft, and we held it in our hands in a triumphant scene reminiscent to the moment Indiana Jones first recovers the Ark of the Covenant. It was taken from our hands before we could fully appreciate it, and ever since we have been searching for its return. Christmas seemed like the ideal time to raise it again, and we vowed that if the treasure was ever handed over to us we would do something tremendous with it: my brother could put the songs to music; my sister could use her great social influence to make sure that the songs are heard; I would….well, we all agreed that it would be a family project.
On Boxing Day the bars were busy with festive revellers. The dancefloor in Markie Dans was crammed with gyrating bodies, whilst the air was thick with the fragrance of gift set body spray. I was wondering if there had been a generous sale on somewhere in the last week, because everyone seemed to be smelling the same way.
It was difficult to move amongst the mass of bodies, and I found myself stuck in the corner like a life-sized doll which had been set aside in favour of a fifty pence novelty microphone. I was looking around the crowded bar, trying to catch sight of a face I would recognise, but no-one was familiar and everyone else was looking exactly like one another. The more I looked around me, the more I was feeling something like the titular character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was an old man, getting older by the minute, and everywhere around me were young people who were only getting younger the more I glanced around the bar.
The situation reminded me of the previous Saturday night, where I had briefly been in conversation with an NHS staff nurse whose role it was to insert catheters into elderly patients. She made the announcement to our group that she “does catheter insertions”, and it was all I could do to throw myself into the conversation and ask: “but what do you do for your profession?” She didn’t understand nor care for my joke, and she repeated that she is responsible for the insertion of catheters.
I was biding my time, waiting for an opportunity to make a second impression, when the woman was making the exclamation that “nobody messes with me.” It was perfect, and I immediately coughed out my line: “they probably mess on you at work though, don’t they?” She buckled and complimented me on a very clever line, though I felt the need to confess that it was the most clever thing I had said in thirty years.
“But you said you are thirty-five?”
“That’s right, ” I admitted, and she didn’t acknowledge me again.
Having left the crowded scene in Markie Dans on Boxing Day night, I arrived in the Lorne to see a woman I recognised as being my neighbour from the top floor of my block of flats. She confirmed that a couple with a young child had recently moved into the flat opposite hers, and I felt relieved to learn that the stroller which had been sitting at the bottom of the stairs outside my flat for the past three or four weeks was not a cruel joke after all. She went on to note that every weekend when she passes my door at the end of the night there is music playing, and she remarked that for someone who looks like the most mild-mannered man imaginable, I seem to be quite the party animal. I chortled at this suggestion, and began to picture the look on her face if only she could open the door on one of these apparent parties and see the plant doctor and I sitting there, eating dry roasted nuts and listening to Wah-Wah on a continuous loop. Or on any of the many occasions in which I have fallen asleep on the couch in my full suit with a quarter drunk bottle of Budweiser.
By the end of Christmas week, the pale winter sky had been washed away by the wettest rain you will ever see. I went to Aulay’s for some catchup beers with a keen bird enthusiast and the VAT man, which proved to be significantly more enjoyable than my time in Aulay’s the following afternoon. Afterwards, the bird watcher and I made our way to the Oban Inn, where I saw a bar band play a cover of U2’s With or Without You for the second time that week, though on this occasion it was not dedicated to a newly engaged couple.
Along the rainswept Esplanade in Markies, a ceilidh band was playing to a much smaller audience than had been present earlier in the week. I spoke to a sandwich artist for the first time since the bread in a friendship baguette turned soggy several weeks earlier. I was feeling anxious when I saw her, the same way I felt days earlier when I was reaching for a delicately balanced piece in Tumble, though once we enjoyed a shot of Tequila Rose I was feeling more of the wah-wah.
The walk home felt shorter than it had done of late, though the rain was so cold and wet that it soaked me through to my bones. Even with my leather jacket zipped all the way to my throat, the rain reached through all of my layers and the next morning I could still feel it reverberate around my being like a voice through a cheap Poundstretcher microphone. I was alone again at 3am, but this time I felt sure that the only ghost was a wet leather jacket hanging on the back of my bedroom door.