“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things”

It was around four days before the shortest day when it occurred to me that I had forgotten to decorate my flat for Christmas.  The cobweb that was tangled around the five red candles which stood at the foot of the fireplace was white, but it didn’t bring the same festive feel that a string of tinsel would have.  While the temperature in my home was chilly and in keeping with the season, no-one ever wanted to come indoors to an actual snowman.  

The realisation of my festal faux pas was sparked by a little pink headband which had been sighted lying on the pavement outside my living room window some days before.  When I first saw the small piece of pink material I wondered, unwilling to stop in my tracks to study it completely, if it might have been a garment of underwear, and if people may have been impressed by the idea that it had perhaps been tossed from my flat.  As the winter days wore on, the wee pink headband became increasingly dirty and beaten by the inclement weather, trodden upon by people who didn’t care that it might have been the trophy of some sexual conquest I had enjoyed the previous weekend. Eventually, it had curled upon itself and become dramatically misshapen, and it reminded me of the nine-foot artificial pine garland I had bought from eBay a year earlier.

Removing the nine-foot artificial pine garland from the utility cupboard in the kitchen, where it had been stored since the early days in January when everybody was trying to eradicate all memories of Christmas from their homes, proved to be a much more challenging exercise than when I had squashed the awkward green thing in all those months ago.  When I pulled the beast out, it brought with it many other suppressed items: a 250 piece stationery set which hadn’t been used nearly as much as I had anticipated when I bought it, a 2018 Aldi Christmas magazine that wouldn’t have been of any use even if I wanted it to be, a roll of sellotape, and the charging cable for my stubble trimmer. I carried the garland through to the living room and struggled to mount it onto the mantel place, its twisted green ends dangling dangerously over the sides of the shelf.  I was trying to fashion a way of attaching the garland to the mirror, as I had done the previous year, but like a romantic interlude the whole thing unravelled before me, and the loose hanging end of one side of the decoration sent the candle holder sprawling across the oak flooring, the explosion of red wax resembling a crime scene.  I decided that the mantel place could do without the nine-foot pine garland, and I returned it to the kitchen cupboard where it wouldn’t be able to wreak any more havoc.

Midnight mass wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be

In contrast to my flat, the scene in The Lorne was much more festive when twelve teams gathered for the final pub quiz of 2019.  To mark the occasion, everyone from The Unlikely Lads turned up wearing their Christmas jumpers as we were seeking our first win as a breakaway outfit.   We had confidence in numbers, with six being the greatest number of people we had encouraged to join our crusade.  In addition to me, with my specialist knowledge in the fields of world beers, that one good round on Budapest and, occasionally, the nationality of Celtic players, there were five young women with varying degrees of expertise in medicine.  Amongst them were three ladies who I had never met before.  Given the anxiety I would feel when I encountered one woman for the first time, the nervous awkwardness was multiplied by three as we tackled the picture round, where we had to identify the famous Santas.  Even though I was never that great with maths, I knew that the numbers spelt trouble. 

My ability to focus on the numerous rounds of Christmas-themed questions quickly evaporated like the bubbles in a Christmas morning glass of Prosecco.  Far from being able to formulate a guess for the number of hours the Guinness world record was set for time spent inside an inflatable snow globe, my mind had been turned upside down by the dilemma of trying to think of interesting conversation for an audience of five women.

In particular, my attention was drawn to the woman whose hair was the same colour as the piece of coal which an unruly child might have found in his stocking on the twenty-fifth.  Her accent was musical, the sort of piece that when you first hear it you can’t identify the instruments or even understand what it is about it that you like, but you know that you do and you want to hear it again.  Every time she spoke it was all I could do to keep myself from singing along. It took me at least three rounds of Christmas-themed pub quiz questions before I could summon the courage to find out more about the voice that for days afterwards would float around the recesses of my mind like snowflakes in a shaken globe.  I leaned across the table to deliver the question which I felt sure would endear me.

“I’m fascinated by your voice,” I began.  “Where does your accent come from?”  I paused for a moment, my eyes locked on hers.  “Other than your throat, I mean.”

Although she smiled, it was the sort of smile you see when someone pulls away the wrapping paper on a Christmas present and finds a Lynx deodorant set inside.  A smile of resignation.  As if to say, I knew that was coming.  I knew there and then that the only place I would be hearing that piece of music again would be in the back of my head.

Meanwhile at the table, an elaborate tale was being told by the tallest girl I had ever seen, a story which at Christmas time emphasised the true value of friendship.  The episode centred on a group of girls, of which the fabulously tall lass was one, who were enjoying a night out in Glasgow some years earlier.  It was late on in the night, and the group were taking a taxi to a popular club in the city.  The effects of the evening’s festivities were beginning to be felt in the back seat of the car as it motored along the M8, and it became clear to some of the girls that their friend was suffering and on the verge of expelling some of the cocktails she had been enjoying.  The girl with the generous height extended her hands to act as a basin beneath the chin of her inebriated friend, while another of the group asked the driver if he had a carrier bag, each of them aware of the consequence of throwing up in a taxi.

“Someone isn’t being sick back there, are they?”  The driver responded to the request for a bag.  “You know it’s an eighty-pounds fine if you are.”  

The girls resigned themselves to their fate, worried that as students they could ill-afford to cough up £80 for a fine, or at least to have £80 coughed up over the back seat of a taxi.  They worked in unison, opening the windows of the car and cupping their hands under the mouth of their stricken pal to catch the next heave, funnelling it out of the window and onto the passing motorway with the care of a water carrier on their way back from the well in some sun-beaten desert village.  Eventually, they made it into Glasgow city centre with the interior of the taxi unscathed.  The heavy rainfall of the night helped to wash away much of their endeavour, and by the time they reached the club, the ladies were waved in without question.

It was the sort of story that once you’d heard you couldn’t stop thinking about.  The moral was so pure and lifting, maybe not the makings of a Hallmark movie, but it had a charm all the same.  I found myself questioning the lengths I would go to help another person, and whether I could cup a friend’s vomit in my hands in order to avoid paying a fine:  there were many times when I had nervously clutched my tie against my chest as I was throwing up into a toilet bowl, and so I considered that it would be unlikely.  At the end of it all, The Unlikely Lads finished fourth in the final quiz of the year.

Things seemed a lot more sedate on Christmas Eve when I stepped out to collect my final piece of Christmas shopping, which had been sitting in the Royal Mail depot for a couple of days.  On George Street, some pedestrians were seen wearing red Santa hats. Most of the women I saw around town were walking with carefree confidence, evidence that they knew they had everything under control.  Straggling amongst them were a succession of harassed, red-faced men, their cheeks puffed and their eyes filled with terror.  It was reminiscent of a scene from a Stephen King novel.  Each of them had hands which were laden with bags bulging with goods, the integrity of the plastic surely giving cause for concern.  Somewhere in between, I strolled through the crowds with a roll of wrapping paper purchased from WH Smith for £2.49.

On the night before Christmas, I decided to reward my efforts in having all of my gifts wrapped several hours before the big day itself, unlike in previous years, by indulging in a celebratory bottle of Rioja after I had come home from a few hours spent in Aulay’s.  All through the flat, everything was quiet, and the more I sank into the wine, the heavier the feeling was that something was missing.  I was thinking a lot about people who weren’t there, people who couldn’t be there, friends I hadn’t seen and friends who were far away.  I felt low and in need of something different.  It was 11.30 and I finished the last of the red wine and left for midnight mass.

Although the rain from earlier in the evening had cleared, the streets around Oban were virtually deserted as I made my way to St Columba’s Cathedral at the other end of town.  There were no cars on the road, and the only person I encountered on the fifteen-minute walk was a drunk who I could see from afar staggering away from the Oban Inn.  Even as I was approaching the church it was clear that there wasn’t a soul around, to the extent that I was questioning whether midnight mass was still a thing, or if it was even Christmas Eve at all.  It was an altogether more silent night than I was expecting. 

Nevertheless, I walked up the slick steps towards the entrance of the granite church, where I found that the door was closed over with a laminated white notice attached to its front.  It requested that worshippers “please use the side door” and was accompanied by an arrow which helpfully pointed in the direction of the entryway on the right of the building.  I breathed a sigh which was swallowed by the wind as it howled in from the bay.  I put my pink hand into my pocket and pulled out my phone, staring at the screen as though I had received a vital message, when the reality was that no-one was going to contact me at 11.50 on Christmas Eve and I simply wasn’t wanting to be seen to go in the wrong door.  I stood on the step, analysing my phone with a concentration I could have done with summoning at the pub quiz days earlier for what felt like an eternity, until finally the headlights of an approaching car appeared like a bright blazing star in the Bethlehem sky.  A group of three or four people emerged, clearly regulars at the church, and they walked up the path towards the side entrance.  I finished composing my fictitious text message and promptly followed them inside.

When I was much younger and my mother took me to midnight mass at the Cathedral she would be sure to have us there by half-past eleven in order to secure us a good seat, usually away from the drunks.  The church always filled up quickly, and often folk would be forced to stand at the back.  On this occasion I was the drunk, but it didn’t matter, because the place was surely not even a quarter filled and it was possible to sit just about anywhere.  There was an eerie silence in the building, barely even a cough, and none of the carol singing that I remembered taking place before the mass when I was a boy.  I was sitting in a row of seats all to myself, the fingers of each hand pressed against its respective twin on the other, wondering why it was that I thought that going to mass for the first time in six years would be the cure for the shape I was in.

Minutes after the service had started, the side door of the church creaked open and one last attendee groaned in.  The man, who was short and visibly older than I was, appeared a little disoriented as he slumped into the small wooden seat at the end of the row a few in front of me.  For whatever reason he was dissatisfied with his selection, perhaps his view was obstructed by a pillar he hadn’t been aware of until he sat down, and he got up and shambled into the row directly behind mine, sitting over my right shoulder.  He immediately took to kneeling and, amidst a cacophony of sniffling, he began gibbering away to himself, presumably in prayer although it was difficult to tell, so long had it been since I had said one.  In my head, I too was talking to God, cursing the arrival of the sniffling man and questioning if this was His way of punishing me for being absent from the church for all those years, by forcing upon me a man who would pass on a winter virus the night before Christmas.  So much for peace and goodwill to all men, I was thinking to myself.

Another moment of panic came later when I noticed the usher emerge with the long black collection purse in his hand.  I had forgotten that the offering of money was such an integral part of mass, and noticeably they were no longer trusting the collection to make it all the way around the church on its own accord, like when I was younger and we would pass the basket amongst ourselves, from front to rear, and it would always find its way back to the altar.  Now, as the usher walked from person to person, there was no getting away from it.  I worriedly rummaged through my pocket for my wallet and fortunately discovered that there were a few coins which I hadn’t spent in the pub earlier.  Though perhaps the fact that the usher had to walk the bag around the church shouldn’t have been so surprising when so sparse was the population of the congregation that some folk chose to walk across the aisle when it came time to offer a handshake as a sign of peace.  On the other hand, I, as with in most situations, largely kept myself to myself, though it was always going to prove difficult to make peace with myself.

When it came time to take Communion, I was finally faced with the sniffling man from the row behind me.  We had both reached the aisle at the same time, and it became obvious when I saw his eyes that his sniffling was not the result of a cold, but rather he appeared genuinely distraught.  Without thinking, I threw my arm around his shoulder and asked if he was alright.  He sniffled and said that he was, but I didn’t believe a word of it. “Are you sure?  You don’t seem okay.”

“Well,” he confessed with a sniffle.  “My gran passed away yesterday.”  I immediately felt a pang of guilt for all the terrible things I had been thinking about him since he had sat behind me, all the silent complaints I had made about his sniffling and his garbled, nonsensical prayers.  There was nothing I could say, and all I could do to show my sympathy for his loss was to let him go ahead of me in the line to receive Holy Communion.

In all my time of going to mass, I had never taken the Communion wine.  It wasn’t so much a concern about the hygiene of sharing a cup with dozens of strangers, but more because the wine – the ‘blood of Christ’ – was so far down in the chalice that I could never reach it.  To bring it from the bottom of the gold chalice to my mouth always required such an elaborate motion that it felt to me that the others waiting behind me would think that I was taking more than my fair share, so after a couple of awkward attempts where I never even had the drink touch my lips, I gave up.  Whether I was drunk with confidence on Christmas Eve or eager to have the taste of guilt washed from my mouth, I decided that I would try once more to take the Communion wine.  I said my amens and accepted the cup from the woman at the side of the altar, peering briefly inside it to measure the kind of swig I was going to have to take to bring the wine to my mouth.  The liquid peeled from the sides of the cup as I tilted it towards me, its colour having all the appearance of gooseberry jam, and when I finally tasted the Communion wine for the first time as an adult, I realised that it was nothing like the Rioja I had enjoyed at home.

When I returned to my row of empty seats, I kneeled on the little stool in front of me, bowing my head because that’s what everybody else seemed to be doing.  I was contemplating how much the midnight mass experience had changed since I was going as a child, how lonely the whole thing felt, and how terrible the wine was.  As I knelt in silence, the sniffling and gibbering began over my shoulder again.  “Thanks for that, Big Man,”  I was able to make out amongst it all. I couldn’t be sure if he was talking to me or to God, who was often referred to as ‘the big man upstairs’, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions by acknowledging it, even though I really enjoyed the idea of someone thinking of me as being a big man.  I continued staring ahead towards the altar, in perfect silence and reverence.

Some minutes later, when the service finally came to an end, having felt almost as interminably long as the subsequent walk home did, the identity of the Big Man was confirmed.  I turned to wish the sniffler all the best for the festive period, where he was still visibly upset.  “I appreciated what you said up there, Big Man.”  To me, it didn’t seem like that much of a deal, no more than anyone would have said when they’ve drunkenly wrapped their arm around a stranger in the aisle of the Cathedral.  But I accepted his words and shook his trembling hand.  I couldn’t be sure how I had become a Big Man, but I was determined to stay that way.

People enjoyed photographing and filming Kyle Falconer

It was three days after the midnight mass when something truly remarkable happened.  Kyle Falconer, the lead singer of the sometimes popular Scottish indie band The View, played a solo concert in the sometimes popular Oban nightspot The View.  I liked to imagine that the musician’s management and everyone involved were completely oblivious to the connection when they were booking the tour to promote his debut album.

“We could play this small seaside town on the west coast, they have a couple of venues worth looking at.  The Corran Halls might be a bit too big for us to sell, and Markie Dans is on the small side, but this place called The View looks perfect.”

“That sounds familiar.  Has Kyle ever played in The View?”

“No.  We’ve never toured in Oban.  He’s never been in The View.” 

The joke was an obvious play on words that everyone was bound to have thought of, but I enjoyed thinking that it was my own.  It was much the same when for several weeks before the gig I had been pointing it out to anyone who would listen that by the time the gig came around on Friday, my workplace would have been closed for the Christmas break since the previous Monday and so I likely would have had the same jeans on for four days.  I had been proudly telling so many people about my excellent pun that when the day of the show arrived I was forced to wear a pair of tan chinos, lest anyone believe that I actually had been wearing the same pair of jeans all week.

Although the venue was modestly filled on the night, those who were there managed to enjoy the performance.  I spent much of my time studying the room as people funnelled in, desperately seeking the faces of people who could be older than I was in an effort to pacify my growing worry that I was the most aged person at the gig.  The previous occasion I had been in The View was on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday when I had foolishly accepted a shot of Sambuca and quickly had to dart to the toilet and desperately try to avoid being sick on my purple tie.  The prospect of being the oldest attendee watching Kyle Falconer somehow seemed worse, and the relief I felt when I spotted a clutch of people who were surely my senior was matched only by the man himself finishing his set with Same Jeans, which it seemed was the one song everybody was waiting to hear.

Any sense of being the Big Man had dissipated by the late hours of Friday night.  I had left a group of friends in The Oban Inn to go and celebrate a friend’s birthday in Markies, but my timing was off and by the time I arrived there, she had left.  I was feeling so miserable for having missed her that even the presence of some people who were older than me wasn’t much consolation.  By closing time, I had been convinced by a quartet of friends that it would be a good idea to invite them back to my place for a post-pub drink.  Even though I wasn’t in the most sociable of moods, it would have taken a fool to reject an offer of having four female friends in his flat.

We sat drinking beer until five in the morning, listening to Frank Zappa songs and discussing the merits of an Oxford comma and whether anyone really cares about them anyway.  With hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done at the time, even as I was crouching by the toilet bowl the following afternoon.  I considered all of the things I had learned over the Christmas period:  how difficult it was to keep an artificial garland still, the price of friendship being £80, the wrong method of asking where a woman is from, how to become known as a Big Man, the true taste of Communion wine, that very few people were going to church anymore, that the only song I knew by The View was Same Jeans, and how to correctly use an Oxford comma.  Sometimes you just need to know the right place for something to go.

Links:

“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things” is a quote from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.

Christmas Wah-Wahpping – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of December
2019 – my cumulative Spotify playlist of the year (ie. 50 songs x 12 months less 11 Wah Wah’s and a couple of other duplicates)

For those who do not have a Spotify account but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three most played songs from December.

It’s difficult to imagine that the frontman from indie rock bores Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody, could be responsible for this beautiful piece of folk music, and yet I Am A Landside is breathtaking, and one of my favourite songs:

Over time, I have probably tried to use just about every line from Kathleen by Josh Ritter when talking to a woman:

What could be more romantic than getting together with someone for a drink and pretending that the world isn’t fucked up?

Crumb of comfort

“Fucking Fenian bastards,” came the yelp, similar to the sound a dog makes when its tail has been stepped on, from the table near the entrance of the bar at around ten to five on a Sunday afternoon.  The phrase wasn’t entirely in keeping with the season of goodwill, either in tone or content, even if it was something that most of the people in the lounge in Aulay’s at the time would have worn as a badge of honour.  As it was, a simple congratulations or a heartfelt happy Christmas would have been more appropriate.

Celtic had just beaten Rangers 1-0 in the final of the 2019 Betfred Scottish League Cup, and tensions were as frayed as the red tinsel which was pinned to the walls.  The atmosphere had grown heated and was ripe for dispute, the way a game of charades turns on Christmas night after hours spent drinking beer and gin through the day. Accusations of various folk being “a fucking clown” were being hurled back and forth across the decorative gold stars which were dangling from the shelf over the bar, and it was clear that no-one knew if it was a book, a film or a theatre production. 

The pub wasn’t as busy as many might have thought it would be for the football, a case either of supporters deciding to watch the game at home, the wild weather acting as a deterrent or people taking to heart the seasonal Ramones song Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).  The game was largely one-sided, with Rangers having so many chances that it seemed it would only be a matter of time before they scored, and for much of it I was feeling relieved to have the stars on the bar obstructing my view of the television.  The Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster produced a string of saves to keep the ball out of his net, and the longer the match went the less likely it seemed that he was going to let anything past him.  In that regard, he was proving as impenetrable to the Rangers attack as any woman I had ever attempted to talk to was to my charm.

On the final whistle, the vocal viewer in the corner belched his disapproval, his face contorted with fury and the colour of a Christmas tree bauble, but most everybody else was too triumphant to notice.  It was a scene not completely unlike the one I would find myself part of at the Christmas market in Edinburgh a few days later.  There were fairground rides and stalls the length of Princes Street Gardens, offering everything from crepes, fish and chips, sausages, gyros, cheese, beer, gin and mulled wine to crafts, toys, soaps, picture frames and authentic maps from the 1800s.  Feeling hungry, I spent five pounds on a German bratwurst which was almost as long as my forearm.  It was difficult to tell what it was about the sausage that distinguished it as being German, particularly once it had been doused with French mustard, but I felt good about holding it in my hand all the same.  It gave me the same sense of self-assurance that I had for years when I was a smoker.  I never felt as confident about eating a large sausage in public as I did about holding it, however, and it was a struggle to find a place where I could stand with my back to the swathes of festive market-goers, somewhere that I wouldn’t be seen trying to squeeze the end of a bratwurst into my mouth without leaking mustard onto my Cashmere scarf.

Everywhere I turned there were young families, groups of adventuring friends and romancing couples enjoying the spoils of the season, smiling and laughing merrily in one another’s company, while I was standing alone in the middle of it all, trying to get to grips with the geometry of a meat sandwich.  I felt like I was in a Smiths song, having all the appearance of the crumbs of toast that end up in the tub of butter, little dark stragglers in amongst the smooth, creamy goodness;  you just know that they don’t belong.  I was the crumb in the butter, the Rangers fan in the pub railing against fucking Fenian bastards.  

Things were much more sedate the following afternoon when I went to cast my vote in the General Election after arriving home from Glasgow on a train which had been delayed by forty-five minutes.  The reason for the delay, we were eventually told, was a “train fault”, which struck me when it was announced as being like a butcher who describes his missing thumb as being a cleaver fault.  It went without saying and didn’t really tell anybody anything.  I got off the train and dropped my bag off in my flat before heading across the road to my nearest assigned polling station, which I was visiting for the first time since I became a single occupant in the area.  The hall was positioned directly behind the parish church which I had often seen tourists stop to photograph from just outside my living room window, though as I was approaching the wide-open doors of the community centre it didn’t feel like I was walking towards a much-captured landmark, like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower.

After navigating a myriad of doors, though it could have been no more than three, I was inside the main hall of the building, which had hardwood flooring like a basketball court.  My depth perception was challenged as the room was laid out before me.  A few feet from the doorway was a long black table, behind which were sitting three women who were ageless and looking as though they were simply waiting for something to happen.  I imagined that it was probably like walking onto the set of a television talent contest, only I didn’t know what my talent was supposed to be and the three judges didn’t have a clue who I was.  I handed my polling card over to the first woman, who studied it as though I was eighteen and trying to buy a bottle of White Lightning.  She leaned over and whispered something to the second woman, and I was wondering if she had noticed a dubious stain on my black Cashmere scarf and the pair of them were mocking me in that camp, theatrical TV way.  

A moment of worry lingered in the air before the first woman turned to the other and said, “that’s off Glencruitten.  One hundred.”  As the second of the judges ran a ruler down a clipboard laden with paper, the first woman turned her eyes up to me where I stood at the front of the table.  “Just for security purposes, could you tell me your name?” I panicked.  I had no idea there would be revision needed for this.  I couldn’t remember which name was printed on the polling card I had just handed over to the officials; whether it was my full name, which had been born from indecisive parents, or just the first half, which at various points in my life a small selection of people had referred to me by.  All I could do was imagine the shame of giving the wrong name to the judges and being eliminated at the first hurdle of the television talent contest.  To break the deadlock, I took a gamble and went with my full Sunday name, which seemed even greater of a risk in the Church of Scotland hall, but nobody seemed to notice.

The third woman, seated at the far end of the table, tore a sheet of paper from her own clipboard and handed it to me.  “One box, one cross.”  It was like I was going to confession.

At the polling booth, which had four sides and could have used some decoration to brighten the mood, there was a shelf to rest your ballot paper on, and a small pencil which was attached to the station with a piece of string, presumably as a security measure.  It seemed unusual that after the millions of pounds spent pushing shiny campaign leaflets from every party through everyone’s letterbox for six weeks that there would be such concern over losing the odd pencil, and I wondered if at some point, probably during the 1980s, there was a spate of people walking into polling stations and stealing the pencils, stalking away shiftily whilst trying to avoid making eye contact with the judges.

There were four names on the ballot paper for Argyll & Bute, and it didn’t take very long to study them and make a decision.  In many ways, it was similar to my experience of walking up to the bar in Brass Monkey twenty-four hours earlier, where almost all of the beers they were serving on draught were unfamiliar to me.  There was a heady and dizzying selection before me, each one seemingly no different to the other.  Regardless of which one I went for, it was likely that there would be a profound effect, one way or another.  In the end, it seemed wisest to go with what I knew, the option which would bring the least terrible hangover the next day, and I folded up my paper and slipped it into the ballot box. 

Christmas party season was well underway by the time I was next in Aulay’s, where in the public bar a renowned accordion player marked the occasion with a rendition of the Bruce Springsteen song I’m On Fire.  It was a different sort of racket from the previous time I was there.  In the lounge bar, the jukebox was broken, like reaching into your stocking on Christmas morning and finding not even a lump of coal, but a voucher for a future delivery of coal, and there was nothing to drown out the festive fare from next door.  Standing at the other side of the icebox from me was a bloke who had ordered two glasses of rum and coke for himself, having eventually been prompted by the barman into remembering which type of rum he had been drinking.  He was a tall figure, with a jolly belly which was barely concealed by a t-shirt which was the same colour as snow when it has turned to slush.  I was studying the scene, wondering why the man would be ordering two single measures of the same drink, when he edged closer to me.

“It’s pretty bad when I can’t even remember what I’m drinking,” he said, his voice much softer than his appearance.

“Or it’s a sign of a good night,” I sourced a response from my well of experience.

Though it turned out that the man hadn’t been having such a good night when he took the opportunity to tell me that he had been in the pub drinking since eleven in the morning and had missed the last train home to Fort William at six o’clock.  He was waiting for a friend who was going to give him a place to stay for the night arriving on the train travelling from the opposite direction, and he decided that the best way of spending his time was to carry on drinking.  He seemed to be at ease with his predicament, while I was trying to determine in my mind if a forty-five-minute delay in Crianlaich was a train fault, then would completely missing the last train home be a rum fault?

The wayward traveller returned to his table, which was positioned beside the fruit machine, and I was shortly joined by the Brexit Guy, who had recently returned from a trip to Colombia and had the same skin tone as a turkey on Christmas Day.  Over pints of the familiar Tennent’s Lager and a shot of Cointreau, he regaled me with tales of his escapades in South America.  I was never sure if it was envy or the memory of my brother’s dispute with him over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but I always had a hard time accepting his stories about beautiful young Latin women who swooned over older white men because they saw anyone who could spend £25 on a meal as being wealthy and exciting.  But I indulged them all the same, thinking that they had to be more entertaining to hear than my own fables about the German sausage at the Christmas market in Edinburgh, or the way that the bus I boarded in the city had the noticeable fragrance of the minty oral spray that mostly older men carried.

As the two of us got ourselves further into the festive spirit with yet more lager, the conversation deepened to reflect on Brexit Guy’s experiences with the NHS:  the chronic staff shortages, the lack of experience, the idea that samples of blood were taken by taxi from Oban to Glasgow, at a cost of hundreds of pounds a time, because there was neither the facility nor the skill to test them locally.  The more we talked his passion on the subject was evident, and the more absurd it seemed that earlier that morning the United Kingdom had returned a government which had overseen nine years of cuts to the health service.  After everything has been said, maybe we’re all just crumbs of toast in somebody else’s butter?

The advent of a fashion faux pas

Although I didn’t have an Advent calendar, the third night of December still carried a surprise behind the window of my bedroom.  The festive discovery maybe shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me, or at least it wouldn’t have done if I had read the letter I received in the post a week or so earlier from the energy company SGN instead of tearing it up into snowflake-sized pieces of paper and tossing it into the recycling bin.  I was reminded of the contents of the communication at around ten o’clock when, in the way that a smiling snowman or a steaming pudding in the form of something resembling a piece of chocolate prompts you that Christmas is another day nearer, the dim and distant sound of a drill cutting through tarmac reminded me that there were roadworks scheduled at the end of my street.

My bedroom was lit up like a fairground park, only as usual without the amusement.  The curtains, which stood from the floor and were much taller than I was, danced along to the beat of a dazzling orange light, which was flickering wildly through the material, on and off and on again, in rhythm to the sound of a pneumatic drill.  I approached the beaming drapes with all of the excitement that a younger me had when holding a cardboard Thomas The Tank Engine Advent calendar, curious to see what was going on on the other side of the window.  I peeled back the curtain with the care of piercing a perforated, numbered square and craned my neck to look out towards the top of the street, where the works vehicles were stationed.  It soon became clear that for me it wouldn’t be a silent night, but for the men who were working on the road, it would be a holey night.

For nigh upon two years of living in my town centre flat, my bedroom had witnessed an underwhelmingly little amount of activity.  Suddenly, on the third night of Advent, there was too much of it.  As I was getting changed for bed under the glowing spotlight of an SGN van, minding my own business in much the same way that any single occupant does, I noticed a spider sitting around fourteen inches from the top of the ivory coloured curtain which hung across the front of my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe.  Having disrobed myself of my yellow shirt, I was feeling fairly certain that the spider, with its eight little eyes, was much more terrified of the situation we had found ourselves in than I was.  We hadn’t quite locked eyes, its being much too small to pick out from a distance, but we were bitterly entrenched in a stand-off across the room, neither party willing to cede ground.  Eventually, like whenever I thought about talking to a woman I liked, my feet grew cold – the disadvantage of having to stick to walking on the floor – and I gave up and got into bed.

From under the comfort of my two thousand thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, all I could think about was the spider.  Was it thinking about me?  Who knew.  But all I knew was that it looked ridiculous standing there on the curtain which my suits and shirts were neatly stored behind.  I stared at it and thought how it would be like me, as someone who gave up learning how to drive after four lessons, standing on the forecourt of a used car dealership.  Like every other spider, the one on my wardrobe curtain had eight legs, and just like every other shirt, the ones I wore had two sleeves.  Even if it was presumed that the arachnid could stretch two of its legs out into the sleeves, I had no idea what it would expect to do with the remaining limbs.  What colour of shirt would a spider even wear? It would be an absurd appearance.  And that would be without considering its ability to match the socks.

I settled back into my pillow and turned off the lamp on my bedside table, not that it really made much difference with the roadworks ongoing up the street.  With my glasses folded away and the light from the trucks illuminating the room every other second, the spider was resembling little more than a conspicuous smudge on the curtain, like an inkblot on an old-fashioned scroll.  As I was laying there, instead of laughing in the arms of a loved one, I was questioning the motives of a spider.  If it wasn’t trying to get into my shirts or to spin a web around the fly of my trousers, then what did it think it was up to?  Nobody ever spoke of finding a spider on their curtain.  A moth, usually, but never a spider.  I began to wonder if it might have been identifying as a moth. It wouldn’t matter because, in time, like anything connected with my bedroom, the spider eventually scurried over the horizon of the curtain and was never seen again.

A calendar, either traditional or Advent, wasn’t required to tell me that it was the first week of December and that the countdown to the twenty-fifth day was underway.  Across my social media accounts, Christmas trees had been popping up everywhere, as though most people had received the same notification alert.  The Instagram photographs and Facebook status updates were only a reminder to me of the pitifully sad tree I had erected in my living room a year earlier, where all of the 1980s novelty glass baubles had been hung on the lower branches, at arms reach of my two-year-old niece, and I wasn’t ready to think about festive decorations again.  It was similar to the way I felt when friends would post pictures of their latest romantic adventure with their partners when all I had recently done was to make a joke to a girl about dressing my mantelpiece with a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz.

Although I looked forward to Christmas every year; the festivities, spending time with family, seeing people who maybe hadn’t been seen for some time, I wasn’t quite able to get into the spirit yet, though it was hard to say if it was through a Scrooge complex or laziness.  I was treating the early December days like any other in the year, more concerned with matching the colour of my socks to my tie than mistletoe and yuletide.  In an effort to brighten my mood and embolden my dress, I took a rare midweek foray into wearing a red shirt.  I hardly ever wore my red shirt, a decision which wasn’t so much due to sartorial consideration, but rather was born more from a fear of putting the garment in the washing machine.  Nevertheless, sometimes a man has to throw on a black sweater vest and a tie, face his anxieties and, at the end of the day, hide the red shirt at the bottom of the clothes hamper if necessary.

Throughout the day, no fewer than four people, though no more than five, passed comment on my red shirt “looking festive.”  I tried to defend myself with my insistence that it was just a shirt with no cheery motive behind it, or inside it, but the charges of a festive appearance continued.  I was forced to accept that by innocently wearing a red shirt I had become accidentally festive, even if my mood was closer to the black tie. Would a spider be forced to endure such criticism if it left the web wearing a bright red shirt?

Worse was to follow the next day when I returned to a more standard combination.  In the comfort of my bedroom, I dressed myself in a pair of smart navy trousers which no-one could mistake for looking festive.  The shirt and tie were equally as unseasonal, and I was feeling more like myself.  I plugged my earphones in and left my flat, stepping out into the dirty daylight of a December morning.  I think I had reached the square, or maybe it was the station, when I realised that the trousers I had believed were blue were actually black, and my face had become as red as a festive shirt.  I thought about hastily retreating home to change, but someone was bound to have already seen me, and what would look more foolish than a man wearing black trousers with a purple tie, other than one who wore two different pairs of trousers in the same morning?  I could at least console myself with the knowledge that my shoes were black, and it wasn’t a completely ridiculous circumstance, but I was troubled by how such a mistake could have happened. It was apparent that the lighting in my bedroom was to blame and I would have to change the bulb, or at least consider dressing at night, when the roadworks were illuminating the street and I could compare notes with the spider on the curtain.