The air was thick with the fragrances of a late November night. It was either a roast beef dinner, chestnuts over an open fire, toffee, or chimney smoke coughing into the damp air. It could have been all of those. In the distance, the Cathedral bells could be heard ringing over and over again, their sound growing louder all the time, as though struggling to compete with the pipe band that was leading the reindeer parade through town; the fight between the church and commercialisation taken to the streets of Oban. My brother and I were walking from his new flat to meet up again with our sister for the switching on of the Christmas lights, having spent the afternoon drinking mulled wine, in a family tradition we had started some years earlier. Before the 2018 ceremony we celebrated the beginning of the build-up to Christmas with the festive flavours in my town centre flat, and it was debatable whether we had gone to my brother’s as a flat warming of sorts, or because of the memory of a whole unpeeled orange sitting in a boiling pot of red wine in my kitchen twelve months previous. As the seminal Canadian pop poet Alanis Morissette once sang in 1995, “you live, you learn.”
We were really pushing it to make the advertised time of six o’clock for the seasonal lights being illuminated, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at my watch. When I checked my timepiece it was showing eleven-forty, though in those days it was always twenty minutes to twelve, no matter when I glanced down to my wrist. The battery in my watch had died almost a week earlier when I wasn’t looking, and although I still made sure to wear the thing every day, I could never remember to have the battery replaced. From our vantage point on the road running below McCaig’s Tower, we were looking out over the entire town, the mass of darkness broken only by a mushroom cloud of light around the station, where the festivities were taking place. The view was like staring at a Christmas carousel on a mantelpiece, and the church bells were the music, letting us know that it was almost six.
Earlier in the day, I was standing in line at McColl’s waiting to top up my electricity key, because at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there was only one place in town with PayPoint facilities. I had just invested in a new Christmas jumper, since the tradition we had introduced also required the wearing of dubious knitwear, and I was feeling pretty good about things once I had come across a tie that it could be worn with sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my bedroom. Walking uptown to the newsagents was a study in how it would be to be invited onto a catwalk for a winter catalogue. Every other person seemed to be dressed in a Christmas sweater, even the little brown and white terrier dog I passed outside the mobile phone shop was in a red and white knitted outfit.
I was fidgeting with the plastic electricity key in my left hand as I waited, its halves of green and blue much less festive than the canine coat. There were two people ahead of me in the queue, and when the older gentleman who was standing in front of me happened to look over the shoulder of his black winter jacket, he spoke with a voice which made him sound like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, both in accent and tone.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to me. If I didn’t know better it could as well have been an accusation, but I recognised him and was in agreement that it had been a while. I told him that it had been five years since the Co-operative supermarket had closed, which is where I was working the last time he laid eyes me. His facial features were inscrutable, like an artefact from the Natural History Museum, but I was certain that he had spent those years believing that everyone from the Co-op who he hadn’t seen since the day it closed had died.
“It’s frightening how quickly time passes,” he whispered in another classic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking barrels line as he stepped forward to the front of the queue and I looked down at my watch and wondered how many lottery scratchcards he was going to buy.
The official turning on of the lights was preceded by the ‘reindeer parade’, where a figure we are to believe is Santa is led through town by a trio of reindeer and a pipe band. By the time we had worked our way through three bottles of mulled wine and a box of mince pies the parade had already reached the station and the reindeer were in a makeshift pen, happily munching on some straw. None of them appeared to have a red nose, though under the spotlight of the Christmas lights it was clear that some of our faces were a little rosier than normal. Around the area which was usually reserved for the taxi rank were a selection of fairground rides which attracted the attention of the young and the old alike. There was a House of Fun which was taller than the clock tower, the standard spinning teacups, and an ‘extreme’ Helter Skelter, the frame of which was brightly-coloured and emblazoned with the animated image of two young women wearing bikinis. It looked an unfortunate choice of outfit for a parade in Oban in late November, though the scene did leave me feeling much more smug about the warm new Christmas jumper I was wearing.
My brother and I left the parade for Aulay’s, where we stopped for a couple of pints of lager before eating dinner at our sister’s. There was a steady hum of early evening revellers around the bar, where we managed to take our usual position close to the icebox, which was a spot where at least something managed to look cool. Looking across at us from by the fruit machine was a woman whose coat was as thick as the fur on a reindeer, although darker in colour, and her hair was white and curled like an envelope which has been crammed inside a pocket for two weeks. She wasn’t long in telling us that she was 73-years-old and enjoyed nothing better than coming to the pub on a Saturday night and talking to people. That much was evident when the woman went on to compliment my brother on having a nice nose, the way that someone might pay homage to a homegrown vegetable patch or a bed of flowers: it’s all the work of nature, but I suppose he helped it along the way.
Stood to the left of the woman was a similarly-aged man who she pointed to as being her husband. I wondered what he was thinking as his wife once more emphasised how she thought that my brother had a very nice nose, particularly when his own snout resembled a slice of pastrami. The more this woman was heaping praise upon my sibling’s sneezer, the more I was feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t mentioned mine, despite it having come from the same allotment. I wasn’t especially wanting to be noticed by a 73-year-old lady at the bar, but it would have been nice, and I was expecting that her husband was feeling the same way.
I gazed across the bar at the elderly man with a sympathetic eye, the same way I looked at anyone who was near the fruit machine. My elbow was pressed tightly into the surface of the bar as I spoke in his direction. “Don’t worry, I think your nose is fine.” It seemed like a gentle, reassuring thing to say, but the gentleman glanced back at me in a manner that suggested he didn’t know what I was talking about, or as if to say keep your nose out of my business. For a moment I considered that maybe I had read the situation all wrong, and the whole episode might just have been the couple’s bold attempt at sparking some renewed interest in their relationship. They would go to bars, or any public space, really, and she would compliment younger men on their more appealing features in an effort to inspire some jealous passion in her husband before they took a taxi home together. My brother was just a patsy, really. Who knew if it was really the case, but it was an explanation that would keep everyone happy.
At my sister’s, we ate a meal of roasted duck and potatoes, before drinking some more mulled wine and playing a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, which revealed much about us. Somewhere in amongst all that, the one-year-old daughter of my sister’s friend, who were both spending the night at the house, decided to walk for the very first time. It was an emotional thing to witness happen, even if technically the baby had initially walked on her own feet upstairs when her mum was getting her ready for bed. In the excitement, she was brought back downstairs and convinced to perform the act again, in front of an adoring audience who had mobile phones poised. In that sense, I hadn’t seen the girl walk for the very first time, rather it was like seeing only the encore at a Beyoncé concert.
It was a remarkable thing to be present in the room for, when suddenly for this little person the world went from being a very small space that was limited to places where she could be carried, to a place of never-ending potential. The entire world was there, ready to be explored. As I was watching the first steps being taken for the second, third and fourth time, I was thinking about how it was probably a similar sight to how seeing myself walk away from the bar in Aulay’s at the end of a night would look. The way that she first rose to her feet, shaky and looking very uncertain about it all. There was a look of stern focus on her face as she took a few steps forward, away from the safety of her mother’s arms, and slowly began to realise that she could do it; her legs were working and her toes were more than just hilarious little things to play with. She was growing in confidence with every step, building up an impressive head of steam, before finally collapsing onto her bottom in fits of laughter. The only difference was that the laughter was her own.
For anyone who doesn’t have access to Spotify, but does have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are the three songs I have been listening to most throughout November.
If I could, I would listen to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses all month long, but instead I settled for around three times a day:
I Can’t Think About It Now sounds like the best song Dire Straits never wrote. The section from 2:34 to the line “the everlasting wisdom of a sports bar” is remarkable: