I had never been much of an enthusiast for pyrotechnics; they never sparked my interest the way they seemed to others. The last fireworks display I could remember attending would have been when I was much younger, when our mum used to take us out to Mossfield Stadium and the fifth of November was always a cloudy and drizzly night. As such, the squibs were invariably underwhelming and damp, and the most exciting thing about those occasions was sitting in the back of the car eating candy floss to the sound of raindrops crackling against the windows, while somewhere in the distance we were assured that there were some fireworks going off. Since becoming a grown-up single occupant, the way I saw it was that if I wanted a great deal of build-up to a short explosion which would be followed by hours of disappointment and recrimination, I would have stayed at home self-partnering.
Instead, I was invited to watch Oban’s 2019 Guy Fawkes Night display with a trio of women who ranged somewhere between acquaintances, friends and pub quiz team-mates. It was a more appealing prospect than spending another night pondering why my socks were taking longer to dry on the airer in November than they did in July or what had gone wrong with the tomato soup I had made on Sunday. And besides, it was probably warmer than spending the evening in my flat.
Walking through the centre of town prior to the event was an exercise in surrealism, as songs by Dire Straits were booming from the mobile unit of the local radio station Oban FM. The music could be heard almost the entire length of George Street, and we liked to imagine a scenario where Argyll & Bute council had decided to make the installation a permanent feature, where songs would funnel through the town all day, every day; a backing soundtrack to the hum of traffic. Better yet, I interjected into the fantasy scene, it would be Dire Straits played on a continuous loop. Everybody else would just have to learn to live with it. Earlier it had been reported that the fireworks display had been made possible by funding through the non-profit community organisation BID4Oban and had cost £8,500, which wasn’t quite a case of money for nothing, but it was your kicks for free.
At Station Square, there was a selection of charity stalls and children’s rides for the locals to peruse and be entertained by before the night was due to ignite at seven-thirty. Some of our group had decided that they wanted a hot drink from the snack van beneath the clock tower to help in fending off the falling temperature, so I stood in line and waited with them. I was quickly struck by the aroma of cooking onions, which was trailing through the black sky like an undercover operative seeking out its enemy target, hunger. I was enjoying the fragrance of the onions whilst at the same time wondering why they never smelled that way when I cooked them at home, but then nothing was ever like it ought to have been in my kitchen. I could practically smell the onions curling and crisping before me, when at home they were always sad and wet, like the Bonfire Night displays from my childhood.
The sound of the onions sizzling in the pan and the scent of them swirling around the atmosphere was dizzying. I was standing taking it all in as the queue moved forward and my friends ordered their coffees. On my right elbow, I felt a sudden, sharp nudge. I turned to be met by a woman who was wrapped up as though she was prepared for an Arctic expedition. She asked me if I was being served, at which point I realised that my friends were being handed their hot drinks and I would have been next in line if I was actually wanting anything. I apologetically stepped to the side. “Oh, no, I was just smelling the onions.” The woman gave me a look which was the type of glare a person has after chopping a couple of onions, and I moved off into the night.
From the Oban FM position, a local councillor began the countdown to the beginning of the display, going from ten to one as these things typically do, and many of the crowd of people who were packed along the pavements joined him, some out of anticipation of the event, and others surely just trying to keep warm. With the excitement at close to fever pitch, the countdown quickly reached one and everyone gathered to see what would follow. Nothing. There was stillness and silence and people waited some more. It was like when I would talk to a woman at the bar and eagerly wait for the moment where I could use the hilarious joke I had thought of and the tension would never combust.
Unlike my pub encounters there eventually was a spark, and the sky over the bay was lit up by a series of fireworks from the Railway Pier. It was bright and emphatic, and over much more suddenly than anyone was expecting. Some around us were disappointed and wondered was that it? But it soon became evident that the whole thing was a joke designed to mimic the disastrous display of 2011, when a technical error led to the entire arsenal of pyrotechnics being set off at the same time. The farce was immediately christened Obang and the video was since watched more than a million times on YouTube. As far as humour on a cold Tuesday night went, it was mildly more successful than my pub puns.
In the downtime between the joke display and the actual fireworks extravaganza, we decided to walk towards the North Pier in search of a better vantage point. As we passed the radio broadcast van we could hear that they were no longer playing Dire Straits, but instead, the airwaves had been taken over by a domineering instrumental number which was heavy on the brass and sounded like a military-style anthem from a Soviet-era state. Inexplicably, the music seemed to be growing louder the further away from it we travelled and I could feel my shoulders straighten and my steps develop into a march. I wondered if we should expect to see a large red flag rolling down the facade of the buildings along George Street, or if a brown bear was going to be paraded through the centre of town, but I remembered that they were still carrying out some resurfacing work on the road and it would have been silly to allow a bear to trample all over that.
The North Pier was busy with those who had taken up position for the original display, though we were fortunate enough to find a prime spot outside the Italian style restaurant Piazza. Inside we could see tables of people, predominantly couples, who were enjoying plates of food and bottles of wine as they were waiting for the nights’ entertainment to unfold before them on the stage offered by Oban Bay. Some of our group praised the forward-thinking and planning of the diners who had reserved their tables to coincide with the fireworks display, ensuring that they could eat their dinner while savouring the squibs from the warm environment of a restaurant. I preferred to see it another way, liking to imagine that a hapless man had thought to take his girlfriend out for a romantic and peaceful meal on a Tuesday evening in a restaurant with a beautiful sea view, completely oblivious to the date and any notion of Guy Fawkes night. The happy couple had sat down at their table, perfectly positioned by the window, totally in awe of one another and excited about spending the night alone with nothing but the other’s company. Suddenly the North Pier was beginning to fill and the entire town was standing in front of the windows, obscuring the postcard view. A series of loud explosions were going off in the distance and it was becoming difficult to hear the sweet nothings being spoken across the parmesan. On the other side of the restaurant was a young couple on their very first date, after months of an aching courtship, and the lad was sitting thinking to himself, “how the fuck do I top this?”
Oban’s 2019 display was widely regarded as being one of the best in recent times. I was still thinking about it when I went to Aulay’s the following night after another miserable attempt at winning the Lorne’s pub quiz. With a pint of Tennent’s Lager in my hand, I was questioned by a woman whose hair had the vibrant fizz of Irn-Bru over whether on a previous occasion I had written the word fizz or frizz. I assured her that there was no rogue ‘r’, although I began to wonder whether it would be more accurate to say that her hair had the qualities of the hot end of the sparklers I had seen around town the previous evening.
She reminded me of our last discussion in the pub, when she had complimented the effort I was putting into the colour combinations in my outfits and had suggested that she had been looking at scarves that could suit me. The woman, who was out celebrating her birthday, reached into her bag to fish out her phone, which she used to bring up the website of the designer Rory Hutton, whose pocket squares she assured me would bring an extra dimension of colour to my attire. I was viewing the rainbow of accessories with the same kind of wonder I had for the way the sky had been illuminated a night earlier, but the prices which were listed alongside the items seemed higher than a rocket reaches into the air, and I couldn’t think of a circumstance where I would like myself enough to spend so much on a pocket square.
The conversation at the table continued to my ongoing ineptitude with the opposite sex, when the flame-haired woman offered the suggestion that I should think about dressing down now and again as some girls may be reluctant to talk to me because a man who is wearing a suit can appear intimidating. I scoffed at the idea that anyone could be intimidated by a man sporting a pink pocket square and reminded her I had a tendency to feel nervous any time there was a woman within a one hundred yard radius. “Besides,” I argued, “I can wear jeans on a weekend and it makes no difference.”
She stuck to her task, like a pyrotechnic determined to get over a false start and set the sky ablaze. “Well then maybe you need to find a happy medium,” the woman advised.
I leaned across the table, knowing immediately how I wanted to respond. “Are you saying that I should seek a psychic who will tell me all the things that I want to hear?”
As far as jokes went, it was my version of Obang, but I could tell from her reaction that the countdown had reached one and she was still waiting for something to happen. At the end of it all, I was going to have to wait for the opportunity to put the theory of a happy medium into practice. By Saturday I had been struck down by a cold which had come on as quickly as a rocket explodes in the sky. I was burned out and in bed by ten o’clock, watching the hardly uplifting but classic movie The Silence of the Lambs. My nose was streaming, barely likely to capture the essence of any onions. Wrapped in a grandfather-like jumper, absent of all colour, it was a scene which wasn’t going to be intimidating anyone.