It was two days after the twelfth night when I was finally able to muster the motivation and the sobriety to declutter Christmas from my living room. The most miserable looking tree known to man, replete with baubles which had all been hung from the artificial branches at arms reach of a two-year-old and red and silver tinsel that was snaked lazily amongst the greenery by a thirty-five-year-old man, was deconstructed and squashed into a cardboard box which had last seen a good day in the late nineties. The 9ft pine garland which crawled along the front of the mantelplace and dangled over the ends like an abseiling anaconda was removed, along with the three plush Christmas figurines which were my most loyal companions for three weeks in December, in spite of their difficulty with communication.
My Victorian era flat has only marginally less storage space than it does living area, making the question of where to store the festive decorations a difficult one to resolve. The bedroom has a floor to ceiling wardrobe, with a top shelf which is so far from the ground that it requires a stepladder to reach the bed linen. It is by far the largest of the two utility cupboards in the flat, and my original instinct was to carry the boxed Christmas tree to the top rung of the ladder and push it to the back of the wardrobe. The more thought I put into the dilemma, however, the less enthused I was with the prospect of sharing my bedroom with an artificial Christmas tree. I imagined the look of confusion, dismay and borderline disgust on the faces of others while I explain to them that although I am single and technically live by myself, I share occupancy of my bedroom with a Christmas tree from the 1990s.
Convincing girls that it would be a good idea to date me would become an even more arduous challenge.
“Santa only comes once a year, but in my bedroom, it is Christmas all year round.”
I could already sense the blank stares and awkward tension.
In the end, I decided that I would use the cupboard in the kitchen to store the unneeded decorations. The cupboard was already home to many objects with varying degrees of usefulness: There is a boiler which often produces the heat which seeps through to most of the flat; a mop and a bucket that assist in keeping the floors of the kitchen and bathroom clean; a set of bathroom towels, some of which are a dull grey colour and others which are navy blue; a 2018 BT phone book for Lomond and Argyll, presumably supplied in the event that the internet breaks; an iron and ironing board; an ever-growing collection of environmentally friendly bags for life; a 225 piece stationery set containing pink paperclips, push pins rubber bands, map pins and binder clips; two rolls of sellotape; an Aldi Christmas food and drink brochure.
Once the Christmas tree and the 9ft artificial pine garland had been transferred into the kitchen cupboard, it immediately became the most festive part of my flat. All of the cheer and joy of the last few weeks had been crammed into a small space, out of sight and mind. The living room suddenly seemed a little larger without the tree which had been decorated in the way a blind person with a poor selection of tasteless clothing might dress. The mantelplace was looking bare following the removal of the garland and the three plush figurines, and the only way I knew how to fill the void was by adding three miniature cactus plants which came together in a set from Homebase. I had replaced artificial decorations with a false display of horticulture care.
On Friday night, the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was convening for the first time since the previous Friday. We had plans to find a bar with a pool table, but before I could leave the flat I was compelled to go through my weekly routine of polishing the large mirror which dominates the living room from its position on the mantelplace and dusting the dado rails. My need to dust the perimeter moulding so regularly is born out of a fear that if the rail is not clean and healthy, the dado could go the way of the dodo.
Our group, which was one short of a famous five, journeyed to the Kelvin in search of pool and adventure. The bar, which doubles as a hotel, was a regular Friday night haunt around two years ago when some friends and I would venture for its Brewdog Punk IPA on tap, the pool table, the Polish barmaid who once taught me all about the eastern European celebration of Halloween but who never succumbed to my flirtation, the owner who has a love of the Rolling Stones and her little Bichon Frise dog who is named after Keith Richards. None of those were present on this occasion; even the pool table had been taken away due to an apparent lack of use and failure to pocket money. The night was becoming just like any other Friday night: the opportunity to play pool was proving elusive, the same as my ability to pull.
We sourced a table in the sparsely populated bar and bought a round of drinks, the large void at the other end of the room where the pool table once stood was a constant reminder of our disappointment. Soon we were joined by an inquisitive woman wearing a leopard print blouse who was from Inverness and in town visiting friends, who were sitting at a table nearby. The spotty dressed woman seemed reluctant to believe that we lived locally, and her friends began the peculiar Oban thing of interrogating a person for every detail of their life in order to establish why they don’t know you.
Once we had answered their questions to a reasonable degree, the group announced that they were leaving to go to Markie Dans. The woman in the leopard print blouse was still having her doubts, however, and refused to accept that we drink in the seafront bar every week and would likely see her there. I insisted that we would be in Markies later in the night and enforced my point by offering a wager on the outcome. She was unwilling to take my original suggestion that she stakes her scarf on the bet, though she eventually conceded that she would buy us each a Jagerbomb if we did actually appear in the pub. Later in the night, we did see the spots of the leopard print blouse again, but she didn’t live up to her promise and failed to buy a round of shots. In a further cruel twist of fate, the plant doctor lost his scarf before the end of the night.
For a while, in the late months of 2018, there was a topic of conversation amongst our group regarding the merits of keeping a budgie as a pet. Although it began as a joking curiosity, the idea remained stuck in the cobwebs in my mind, and at points when I was sitting alone in my flat, I found myself considering what it would be like to have a budgie around. I would think about how the small bird would make for a more interesting point of conversation than the Henri Matisse print of the scene from a window which hangs next to my living room window. The sounds of song would provide more company than the continual soundtrack of a Spotify playlist, and I often liked to imagine a budgie flying around the high ceilings of my living room, frolicking amongst the houseplants.
My interest in an aviary ally peaked when I asked Google how a person would care for a budgie. A pet keeping website offered substantial advice on the subject of diet, cage keeping, training and the freedom a budgie requires. The idea of bird feces splattered all over the oak floor of my living room, and how difficult it would be to clean from the dado rail, began to dissuade me. A friend reminded me of how useless I am at keeping houseplants alive, and I turned to thinking about my struggle with feeding and cleaning myself on a daily basis without having to worry about a budgie.
I put a pin in the idea of getting a pet bird, though the subject returned to my mind this week when I was reading an article in The Times about research conducted by a team of Chinese scientists into the mating behaviour of budgerigars. They found that the female of the species will change her choice of partner once they see a male who appears more clever than their own mate. The scientists learned this by teaching a spurned male budgie to open a box before returning it to the cage, where the male showed off his new prowess, which caused the female to switch her affections.
Upon reading this article, I immediately began thinking about ways it could be applied to humans, and more specifically my own pursuit of romance. I was eager to use my new found information at the bar on Friday night, though nobody ever walks into a pub carrying a box, unless it is a massive game of Battleship. In Markies, my eye was caught by a girl whose hair was dark as a raven and who I recognised from previous nights out. As the bar lights came back on after the band had finished playing, I decided that I would approach her. She didn’t know who I was, and the conversation was pained from the outset, but I was feeling confident that as soon as the box was introduced, I would woo her.
“I’m glad that Christmas is over, all those Amazon deliveries…”
“I did all of my shopping locally.”
“There were so many packages that I became an expert at opening boxes by the time December finished.”
Her nose began to crinkle. Not in a cute way, or even a nervous way. It was an irritated crinkle of the nose. Her lips, the colour of a carnation, were sealed shut, like a cage door, and there seemed to be no prospect of getting any further response from her. The space between us was thick with an awkward silence, and all I could think about was how things would be so much better if only I had a large box to demonstrate my skills, or even a team of Chinese scientists who could study where I was going wrong.
I returned home in the small hours of the morning. As ever, there was no bird in my flat. In the living room, there was still a glaringly empty space which was tormenting me as I undid my burgundy tie. I staggered through to the bedroom and pulled back the white curtain which hangs over the front of the wardrobe. I was feeling relieved when I remembered that I wouldn’t be sharing my room with an artificial Christmas tree; if only someone had seen the expert way I resolved the dilemma with the box.