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.
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.
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.
“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?