The night I was given the wah-wah

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.

 

 

Deck the halls with a December playlist (my soundtrack to the month): A Spotify playlist (opens in a new window/tab)

 

The night I made a move in a game of Battleship

Although I had only heard Fairytale of New York once – on the dark journey home from Edinburgh, whilst travelling through a sleepy village on Sunday morning – I could tell that the Christmas party season was in full swing by the end of the week.  Around Aulay’s there were ladies flaunting their finest frocks, some men were attired in tasteful Christmas jumpers, and no more than one gentleman was resplendent in a kilt which had been thoughtfully gifted to him by a co-worker, despite the seasonal conditions outdoors.  I was standing at the bar drinking the scene in.

At a table in the corner of the room, I observed a group of three women who had carried their drinks from the bar to sit down.  They each removed their scarves and their jackets and took a seat, one by one, the way a squad of synchronised swimmers might.  The women all had a shade of blonde hair, which made it difficult not to question whether it was by coincidence or if having a certain style of hair was a prerequisite to joining their group.  They were seated along the cushioned couch side of the table, in a perfect line from lightest shade of blonde hair to darkest.  From my vantage point at the bar, it was almost like looking at a magazine article depicting the appearance of a turkey during the process of cooking Christmas dinner:  the way it starts out pale and tightly held in place, gradually yellowing under the burning light in the oven, here represented by the gentle glimmer of a bar light, before finally coming out a crisp, luscious texture.

After a while, continuing their commitment to synchronicity, the trio of blondes reached into their respective handbags, pulling out smartphones in the way, once upon a time, they might have withdrawn a compact mirror.  They were each gazing into their screens, swiping through social media and interacting with the world; save for the life which was going on around them.  For several minutes there was no communication amongst the group, neither through eyes nor voice, as the three of them became lost in technology.  I was wondering how much they could be enjoying their night.  Then, bearing witness to the scene, I wondered how much I was enjoying mine.

My fixation with the non-communicative trio of blondes was broken when an unrelated woman with fair hair appeared beside me at the bar to order drinks for her table, who were a group on a work party.  She asked the banker who was moonlighting behind the bar which whisky he would recommend for her boss, and he turned the question over to me.  I have never considered myself an expert in the grain, or in anything for that matter, and I felt sure that if anyone else was standing at the bar they would have been better suited to offer advice.  As it was, my knowledge of whisky extended to two varieties:  the type which would make me brilliantly drunk and aid in an enjoyable night, typically Jameson, or the kind of whisky that would have me falling through my shower screen and waking up the next morning in my bathtub.

I asked the fair-haired woman if she would point out her boss to me.  We turned in the direction of her table, where there must have been around a dozen people, and she told me which of the figures was her boss.  He was dressed casually and had floppy silver hair, although I still couldn’t be sure why I had asked for the information.  It did nothing to help me, but I supposed it was adding to the air of whisky authority I had somehow assumed, and I went along with it.  After a moment which was heavy with consideration, I suggested that he would enjoy a Lagavulin.

Some time later, the girl was returning from the bathroom when I stopped her en route to her table to ask whether her boss had liked the malt whisky I had selected for him.  She said that he considered it better than the Famous Grouse he had been drinking for much of the night, and I felt quietly satisfied.  As our brief conversation developed beyond whisky, the woman with the fair hair informed me that it had occurred to her when she was in the toilet that she knew me from a time when I worked with her mother.  I knew that she was right, but I was immediately distracted by my attempt to think of an occasion when something had occurred to me whilst in the bathroom.

Things just don’t tend to occur to me when I am standing in the men’s room, particularly the men’s room in Aulay’s, which is an intimate space.  Do other people experience these flashes of inspiration when they are splashing their urination?  Could I be the only person who doesn’t experience a moment of clarity in the toilet?  We continued to talk, and I was wondering if I had ever been an occurrence in the mind of any other women when they were in the bathroom.  The thought disturbed me, and the fair-haired woman soon wandered back to her table.

“Just a wee bit of ice…naw hunners,” was a phrase I heard uttered over my left shoulder.  The gentleman in question was requesting that his empty pint glass, which was intended for a bottle of cider, be supplied with only a few ice cubes, but I couldn’t get past the idea of hundreds of blocks of ice being fitted into the pint glass.  In my mind, I was imagining the last person who served this customer, the member of the bar staff who caused him to ensure in future that he asked specifically not to be given a glass with hundreds of pieces of ice in it.  I could see the look of determination on his or her face as they were focussed on angling the cubes in such a way that they could get another in, like a cold game of Tetris.  I looked at my own glass, which was still around half empty, and reckoned that I could only manage 33 ice cubes at best, but then I was never very spaciously aware.

In the upstairs of a bar overlooking the sea, a young woman was carrying a large handcrafted version of the popular board game Battleship.  It was attached around her neck with a piece of cable and was housed in a box which was the size of a very big pizza delivery box.  When she lifted open the lid, an elaborate maritime warfare scenario was revealed.  I expressed wonder at the impressive work which had gone into the board, though she seemed to be burdened by the effort of carrying it around her neck all night.  She asked me if I would like to make a move, which is a question that ordinarily results in me crumbling into a small pile of bones and dust before a woman.  I realised before I said something stupid that she was referring to her ongoing game of Battleship, and I studied the board for a while before settling on B9.  She looked back at the scorecard on the base of the lid, and as is typically the case with the moves I make, nothing came of it.

Beyond the Battleship beholder, I could see the moonlighting barmaid who, months earlier, disputed my claim that Kenny Anderson of King Creosote was dressed like a homeless man.  I was keen to find a way of getting across the bar to talk to her, but the floor was crowded and I didn’t know what I would say to her without introducing myself as the man who thought King Creosote appeared underwhelmingly dressed.  It seemed like the most difficult level of Minesweeper, and before it could all blow up in my face I left for a bar further along the seafront.

An inconsequential number of minutes passed and I became aware that the moonlighting barmaid had arrived in Markies.  It was all I could do to stare across the sparsely populated bar, and eventually, I managed to convince myself that I should approach her.  The Jameson I had been drinking earlier in the night ensured that I would never remember the words which stumbled from my mouth, but I felt confident that she had moved past the King Creosote incident, and like with the game of Battleship, I hadn’t triggered any fatal explosives.

The night I gave the worst travel advice

The streets of Edinburgh were bulging with city goers seeking some festive spirit, with crowds of people so thick that it was barely imaginable that a line of a hundred white LED lights could be strung through them.  It required a real effort and a measure of ingenuity to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other at any kind of regular pace.  There were families exploring the vast Christmas market, whilst couples were walking with their arms linked along the street, their knitted hats and scarves straight out of a page they saw in a catalogue.  A pair of large dogs, Great Danes, I think, were striding alongside their owners, each dressed in a red and a green elf costume.  Meanwhile, I was on my way to dine alone at a French restaurant I had read about earlier.

Everything about the city was lit up.  In the gardens, by the Scott Monument, stood a massive Big Wheel which was flashing a brilliant bright red as it turned.  Positioned so close to the Victorian Gothic structure, built in 1844, the scene looked like a Pixar production of Lord of the Rings.  On George Street, there were Christmas lights as far as the eye could see, more than any person could reasonably count.  In the windows of department stores, there were colourful and joyous displays, depicting all sizes of Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer, and sweet haloed angels.  Over on the South Bridge, the neon blue sign of The Church of Scientology was burning in the cold night air, and I thought to myself how nice it was that all of the crazy beliefs were being catered for.

Down a cobbled side street, I found the traditional French restaurant I was searching for.  Opened two years ago and run by a French couple, the restaurant was small and intimate, housing only six tables and seating a maximum of four parties at any time.  At the door, I was greeted by the wife of the couple, whose role in the partnership seemed to be to act as the most diminutive French waitress I have ever seen.  She led me to a table at the back of the room, taking me past a long table in the centre of the dining area which was showcasing a range of Christmas figurines arranged into a festive scene.  When seated I became aware of the fact that the woman was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of her footwear, which was a pale colour.  Once I had seen it I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was wondering if she knew.  Soon it was as distracting as the waitresses’ habit of approaching my table as I was deep in contemplation, and I never did get to finish my thought.

After a short while, the waitress – no taller than a mid-size Christmas tree with a star on top – presented me with two menus:  one was the dinner selection and the other a seven course Christmas menu.  I perused the festive feast on offer, considering whether the duck foie gras would be like the French Christmas dinner equivalent of a pig in a blanket.  Seven courses seemed like five too many for someone who has never dined in a French restaurant, however, and after a quick consultation with Google to pinpoint which dishes on the menu might contain mushrooms, I ordered from the regular evening selection.

Along with my Venison Parmentier, I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was the only words I understood the waitress say.  She returned from the wine rack with an ice bucket and the bottle of my choosing, in a presentation which seemed much too elaborate for a single man who was really only wanting to get drunk.  She opened the bottle, the glass dripping with an enticing condensation, and asked me if I would like to taste it.  I have never known anyone to say no in such a scenario, though a panic streaked through my mind as I considered how awkward it would be if I tried the wine and found it was disgusting.  Would I have the guts to turn it away after she had gone to all the trouble of opening the bottle and resting it in a chilled silver bucket?

The waitress poured a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc into my glass, and I raised it slowly to my mouth, pausing to take an exaggerated inhale.  I wasn’t sure what I was sniffing for, but it seemed like something a person would do when tasting wine.  “That’s acceptable,” I said, in the most ridiculous manner possible, after drinking the fruity white.

I was reveling in the adventure of trying French cuisine for the first time.  It was in contrast to my dining experience earlier in the day, on the train from Oban to Glasgow, when I was forced into eating an entire mango on the journey – rather than saving some for the later leg to Edinburgh – after forgetting to pack my tangerines.  I had never before eaten so much mango in a single sitting, and the thought crossed my mind that there could be some kind of unexpected side effect, the way children become hyper on too much sugar, or I transform into a bumbling buffoon around women after a certain amount of beer and Jameson.

Across the aisle from my seat was a girl who had olive skin and who was wearing a fluffy red hat.  I noticed her staring as I brought another chunk of juicy yellow fleshed mango to my mouth.  I couldn’t help but worry that she had seen how much mango I was eating, knowing the crude effect it would have on a person.  She had doubtless seen the way that the skin around my nostrils had the appearance of a window which has been decorated with spray-on snow, the aftermath of a cold earlier in the week, and we both knew that I would have been better off eating an orange.

There was no muzak in the background of the restaurant, a feature which I considered would be ideal in the wild event of me dining with a woman on an intimate date, allowing you to really talk to a person.  Sitting by myself in the corner, it made things eerily quiet, and I was left to dwell on my own thoughts.  Part of me was wanting to create some atmosphere by plugging my earphones into my phone and playing something on Spotify by La Fouine, but I wouldn’t have known where to begin.  After finishing my meal, I sat for what felt like at least fifteen minutes trying to catch the attention of the waitress in order to ask for my bill.  It was another scenario in which I was left to rue my inability to make eye contact with a woman, and it was only after my second attempt at raising my arm in the air that I was able to draw her to my table.

After eating, I retired to my favourite bar in the city, Brass Monkey, where in contrast to the manic streets outside, I found a surprising solitude.  I sank into a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn.  On the chalk menu overhead, there was an offer of a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie for £3.25.  It seemed appealing, though I decided that it would contradict the fine French wine I had just enjoyed.  As I was mulling it all over in my mind, I wondered whether they would use the whole orange, or would they peel it and cut it into pieces first?

I was nearing the last mouthful of my third pint and considering moving on to The Advocate, which wasn’t so far from my hostel and in my thinking would save me a walk later in the night.  To my left, there was a man ordering around four or five drinks.  He was sitting at a table with a group of friends, and once he had paid for his round he carried three of the drinks over to them.  He mentioned to the barmaid that he was doing this, and noticing that the head on his pint was evaporating, she asked him what he was drinking so that she could top it up in the meantime.

“It’s a beer,” he responded, quite matter of fact.

“What kind of beer?”  The barmaid enquired.  “We sell several of them.”

The man informed her of his tipple and took the rest of his drinks to the table.   “It’s amazing the number of people who come in here and ask for ‘a beer’,” the barmaid said to me, standing behind rows of taps.  Her voice was sounding faintly Irish to me, and her hair was nearly as dark as the tattoos which were covering the arm she was using to pour pints.  My soul was on fire.  I was put in mind of McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which to this day only serves two varieties of beer:  light and dark.  Having made contact with the barmaid, I decided that I would remain seated in Brass Monkey, and I had the perfect line for her.

“Since you brought it up,” I began, leaning forward on the oak surface of the bar, excitedly.  “Can I have a beer?”

The barmaid laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time.  “What kind of beer?”

I stayed until shortly after midnight, but the barmaid didn’t talk to me again.

Whilst standing at Aulay’s Bar in Oban, thinking about another beer, a quartet of Greeks arrived.  They were talking about their travel plans for the following few days, and when they mentioned their intention to drive north to Inverness, I felt that it would be useful for them if I shared my experiences of making the same journey as a child, when we would often take family car trips to visit my mother’s side of the family.  The Greeks – two couples – were listening with interest as I enthused about the beautiful scenery they would witness on the drive, which is in excess of three hours long.

“I used to suffer from terrible travel sickness when I was younger, though,” I warned.  “There would be many an occasion when mum would have to pull over so that I could be sick at the side of the road.”

“Come to think of it, much of that was probably the Smarties I was eating,” I recalled.

“There was one time I vomited on the banks of Loch Ness.  Dad tried to make me feel better about it by convincing me that we had seen the Loch Ness Monster while I was throwing up, but I never believed it.”

“So, if I could offer you one travel tip when you are driving to Inverness, it would be this:  don’t eat Smarties.  And carry a plastic bag.”

The group was looking at me with their big, dark Mediterranean eyes, expressionless and uncertain.  They shuffled off towards a table in the corner of the bar without saying another word.  It occurred to me that I should have mentioned the mango.

The night I went to an electronic dance event

I was sitting at my laptop, on the internet auction site eBay, browsing the various categories in search of inspiration for Christmas gifts, but it didn’t seem that any of their retailers were selling it.  Scrolling through pages of listings, my attention was grabbed by a collection of vintage 1980s glass baubles for a Christmas tree. For the price of £5, it seemed like it would be a mistake to not hit the blue ‘Buy it now’ button, and within seconds I was the owner of decorations for a tree I did not yet have.

Some minutes later, I happened upon a 9ft artificial pine garland, which I could imagine happily dressing in a festive fashion the mirror which sits on my fireplace.  At £5.99 with free postage and packaging, it felt as though I was really sticking it to those eBay sellers when I bought one. What a bargain!  I was thinking to myself as I got into the Christmas spirit of buying things for myself.  Adrenalin was pulsing through my body: it was the most exciting thing I had done in months.  

I had forgotten all about buying presents for other people by the time I arrived on the next page and found a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines which looked ideal not only for sitting along the end of the mantel place but also for providing more animated company during the season than the tired old cactus plant, which is collecting dust in the way a group of festive carol singers gathers elderly women.  I placed a bid of £12.99 and went to bed to read a book written by Charles Bukowski.

The ornamental figurines had slipped from my conscience by the following morning, though when I received an email notification that I had been outbid for them, I suddenly found myself embroiled in a war for their affection. I was feeling strangely hard done by that someone should wish to deprive me of a plush Santa, snowman, and reindeer – and at Christmas, too! – so I logged back into my eBay account and set a maximum bid of £19.99, which seemed reasonable to me.  For the next nine hours and 48 minutes, I was on tenterhooks. I imagined that this must be how a person who is in court accused of some petty crime must feel as they await judgment, wondering if they have done enough to plead their case.  They might consider it unfair that they are even in such a position, arguing for their freedom, as I was feeling that it was unjustified that I should have to increase my bid for a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines that I previously hadn’t known I even wanted. When the judge finally returned his verdict, I was the owner of some new novelty ornaments.

Despite vowing to myself at the beginning of every December that I will make a concentrated effort to start Christmas shopping early, and maybe even have it wrapped up by the second weekend of the month, I always drag it out into the week before the day itself.  I can’t keep my mind from thinking that, even though there is still time to get the shopping done early, there will still be time in a week, or two weeks, from now.  It is a lot like the dilemma faced when there is an alluring girl at the bar and I am procrastinating over talking to her:  I could go and speak to her and screw it up in that moment, but I know that there will still be time to make a stupid joke later in the night.

Things seemed much more simple back in the days when I was but a pre-teen boy; when on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in December I would venture out into the cold and rain with a budget of around £5 of my pocket money to spend per person.  As an adult man, £5 wouldn’t cover the cost of a whisky chaser or a 9ft artificial pine garland, though I no longer have to shop in the rain and the majority of my purchases can be made online, in the cold of my flat.

In the halcyon days of the nineties in Oban, it was more or less a choice between looking in John Menzies or Woolworths for gifts, maybe Boots if I was really stuck, feeling inventive or shopping for my mum.  I would return home after around an hour or so clutching a couple of plastic bags, my cheeks and big ears pink and wet and weather-beaten, like a sodden little elf.  Feeling tired and unsure of my gift wrapping credentials, I would attempt to convince different members of my family that it would make my offerings look more presentable if they had been wrapped by someone else, and usually I would get away without having to touch a roll of gift wrap or struggle to find the end of the sellotape.  As a young boy, like now, I cursed the festive season for reminding me that I am terrible at wrapping, whereas for the other eleven months of the year it is my inability to rap which frustrates me.

While over the years I have come to terms with my useless gift wrapping, it is so often the case that the truth is painful to hear, and that was the eventuality for the woman in Markie Dans who questioned whether the plant doctor, my brother and myself are all brothers.  We glanced at one another, feeling amused that someone could think such a thing, and it seemed a harmless thing to say that we are all brothers.  “Really?  Youse don’t look alike,” was the woman’s response, which was accurate in so much as we don’t look alike and the plant doctor isn’t a sibling of my brother and me.

My two brothers spread around the bar to talk to other people, and I was left in conversation with the unsuspecting woman, who spoke with a Lanarkshire dialect.  Over the course of ten cycles of the second hand around a clock, I learned that she is in her forties, had recently been divorced, returned from living in New Zealand and had made a bad impression at a job interview with the NHS.  I was drinking all of this information in, whilst at the same time contemplating why I was the one who had been landed talking to her.  As she stared across the floor at the two bearded men I had walked in with, she once more asked if we were really all brothers.  I can’t be sure why I didn’t take the opportunity to come clean and confess that only one of the men is my brother, or at least tell the lesser lie and claim that I had misheard her to begin with, especially when the entire rouse didn’t seem as funny when it was only me hearing it, but instead I continued to insist that the plant doctor is a blood relative.

The story became more elaborate when I decided to throw in the additional detail that we probably don’t all look the same because the plant doctor was put out for adoption when he was two-years-old.  This surprised the Lanarkshire lass as much as it did me, and she asked why our parents would decide to do such a thing.  “Our mother was hoping for a girl,” I said as we looked over at the plant doctor’s hairy red beard.

“Does she have mental health problems?”

“She wasn’t happy with how the plant doctor turned out.”

“It’s really nice that you are all still friends.”

Returning to her time in New Zealand, the forty-year-old health professional asked me if I had traveled, and when I told her that I hadn’t, she chastised me for failing to experience life.  As she took video footage of the bar band as they played in the corner, I decided that I would travel – and I walked out of the bar and traveled home along the Esplanade as I talked on the phone to a friend I don’t talk to often enough.  It transpired that she later asked the plant doctor if we were all really brothers, and when he advised her that we are not, she left with a look of upset on her face.

I learned of this development the following evening when we all attended the Bassment event in the Cellar Bar.  Bassment is a night of electronic dance music, and although it is not typically a genre of music I enjoy, I decided that I would go along after hearing my brother rave about their previous events.

When we arrived downstairs in the bar, the plant doctor joined a group of his work colleagues.  I sat amongst them and soon attempted to engage a smoking French woman, and the rest of the table, in what felt like a deep and meaningful conversation about cigarettes and beer, and whether we can honestly say that we enjoy every one we have.  As I listened to the smoking Frenchwoman’s voice, I was reminded of the few years I spent studying French during high school.  For Standard Grade, students were given the option of continuing to learn either French or German, and I chose the former since I found German to be a quite brutal and harsh sounding language.  I was never particularly good at French, though, and I can remember my teacher often criticising me in class for my failure to understand the French feminine form.  Twenty years later, Mr. Wilson’s words still rang true.

On the dance floor, the scent of B.O. was clinging to the atmosphere the way a stray strand of tinsel holds on to a sweater.  It wasn’t immediately obvious, or off-putting, but it was there.  The DJ decks were sitting on top of a covered pool table, and when I first noticed this I was struggling to get it out of my mind.  I couldn’t give myself up to the electronic dance music when all I could concentrate on was my attempt to think of a pun for the image of DJ decks on a pool table, but I couldn’t get anything.  Eventually, my feet began to move like a kick drum, and my first night at Bassment wasn’t as bad as I feared.

Sunday was the day of the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen, and my intention was to go easy the night before so that I could enjoy the day and take part in the pub quiz on Sunday night.  After a shot of tequila my mood lightened, and following Bassment my brother, my fake brother and I went back to my flat, where we drank beer and listened to George Harrison until five o’clock in the morning.  In an effort to be a more mature host than on previous occasions, and as a means of not having to brush broken Pringles off my floor the next day, I opened a 400g bag of salted peanuts and shared them amongst three small bowls, which worked out at approximately 133g of nuts each.  A scattering of savoury snacks were still strewn across the oak flooring, however, and when they were tread on they had been crushed into the wood.  I observed this scene on Sunday morning and mused how it was not the first time that my nuts had been crushed in my flat in recent times.

Despite recovering from Saturday’s hangover in a manner that some might consider miraculous, and even after a generous serving of Baba ghanoush, the pub quiz quickly descended into a drunken shambles, and our team finished last out of a meager three teams.  By the time the final questions arrived, I was left to single-handedly tackle the music round, and the tracks played were not kind to a thirty-five-year-old man.  We were too luminous in liquor to wallow in our defeat, and instead, we were dancing to some terrible pop music which none of us recognised, a distraction which made it difficult for those guys who were still trying to finish their game of pool.

My attention was drawn to a girl who I felt I wanted to talk to, but I didn’t know how, and in the back of my mind I feared that she would only recognise me as a pub quiz loser.  After some time thinking about it I approached her.  All I was able to do was remark on her red glasses, and before my brain could catch up my drunken mouth had noted how they were similar in colour to her lips and her hair, though not her mauve nails.  I wasn’t even entirely sure what colour mauve was, but it didn’t matter, I’d already said it.  I retreated to my table and accepted that I should have treated the situation like my Christmas shopping.