The mild irritation caused by Tony Hadley

As I was getting older it seemed that every day was a ‘National day of’ something and that at some point anything you could think of had a National day.  It wasn’t a phenomenon that ever really bothered me, and I couldn’t remember knowingly celebrating National Croissant Day, National Lego Day or National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, but I did sometimes wonder where such things came from, when they became popular and who decided that a particular cause was worthy of having a national day dedicated to it.  It was in the penultimate week of January that I got to really thinking about these events.  I discovered that there was a website dedicated to calendaring national days and that there were eighty-eight of them during the first month of the year. 

I had been provoked into searching for the history of days of celebration the day after ‘Blue Monday’, which was the name given to the third Monday of the month in January and was claimed to be the most depressing day of the year due to a calculation that was derived from a formula using factors such as weather, debt level, time since Christmas, and time since failing New Year’s resolutions.  ‘Blue Monday’ wasn’t a national holiday, but the following day was apparently ‘National Hugging Day’, which just seemed like bad planning on the part of those who determined such things.  Of all the days out of the year that someone might need a hug, it was surely going to be the most depressing day, rather than the day after.  No-one takes paracetamol the day after a migraine.  

I was deep in the throes of considering the thinking behind ‘national days of’ when I was preparing dinner early in the evening.  I would often go through phases of obsessing over one particular ingredient and would try to include the same thing in as many dishes as I could.  At this time I was using a lot of chilli, particularly red chillis, especially since I had learned how to cut them so that they were properly deseeded and I could be confident that they weren’t going to make my taste buds feel as though they’d had a flamethrower taken to them.  I was preparing a vegetable stir fry, chopping chillis with the nonchalance that comes when you know that you have mastered something, when I developed an utterly compelling urge to scratch my nose.  It was sudden and virtually impossible to resist, like when you are ready to leave the bar and someone offers to buy a round of Jameson.  It was a beacon, trying desperately to attract the attention of my finger, but I knew that it would be a terrible mistake to give in.  There had been many previous instances where I had touched my nose with an unwashed digit whilst cutting chilli only to recoil in horror from the insufferable sensation it created.  There was one particularly awful time in 2017 when I was convinced that I was going to need to undergo rhinoplasty.  Fortunately I prevailed on this occasion, but I was beginning to think that my obsession with chilli wasn’t worth the risk.

Tuesday morning in Oban was misty

Oban had been enveloped by a thick blanket of fog for much of the first half of the week, the sort which clung to the nearby islands and the trees on the hills and made the place feel much smaller.  It was quite atmospheric and I liked it, although the fog did make it difficult to take photographs, and especially at night.  Even though the days were beginning to stretch for another hour or so, it was still dark by the time I left work, and when I was walking along the Esplanade the headlights from passing cars would make the rain on the lenses of my glasses resemble a broken Kaleidoscope.  It was the kind of rain that barely touched the skin, like the memory you can’t shake of a lover from long ago, yet before you knew it you were drenched.  Despite the condition of my spectacles making it difficult to tell exactly where I was, with figures and the outlines of shapes such as bins, traffic cones, lamposts, dogs, and bus shelters appearing indistinguishable, I was feeling quite chuffed with myself when I realised that for the first time this year I could smell the pungent aroma of the sea.  The gentle lapping of the waves against the shore sounded like a standing ovation over my earphones, and when the scent crept up into my nostrils with each inhalation it felt as though I was finally getting over the flu/cold I had been suffering from since the beginning of the year, even if sometimes I was still coughing like someone with a dust mite allergy in a thrift store.

By the time I reached Argyll Square I had dried the drops of rain from my glasses, when in the distance, through the dusky drizzle, I could see a young woman walking across the road whilst brushing her hair.  The apparition was striding to the other side of the street with a carefree confidence, reminiscent of the way I had recently been slicing chillis, all the while running a brush through her long locks.  I had never seen anything like it.  To me it seemed like a terrible and needless risk for a person to be taking.  Why, I was thinking, would she not wait until she could find a bathroom with a mirror, where she could make sure that she could fashion her hair into perfectly straight strands without needing to worry about the weather disrupting her?

My own hair, for all that it was, had been neatly combed in front of my own bathroom mirror before I left to take part in my first pub quiz of the year in Coasters.  Once upon a time, the quiz in Coasters had been considered to be amongst the best in town, and I was looking forward to it returning for the first time in a few years.  The night was due to begin at 8:30, though due to a miscalculation in the time it would take me to walk to the bar, I arrived around twenty-seven minutes beforehand.  I sourced a table which had a view of one of the television screens showing the football, although it wasn’t that much of a challenge when only one other table was occupied.  Fairy lights lined the perimeter of the room, and I couldn’t be sure if they were adding a touch of glamour to the place or making it unnecessarily intimate for me and the other couple in the bar.

I was waiting for the rest of The Unlikely Lads to arrive, which on this occasion would only be the raven-haired quiztress, when another contestant for the quiz appeared and sat at the table by the window.  She was wearing a leopard print blouse, with the amber coloured spots nearly matching the shade of her hair.  Looking around the desolate bar, the young woman asked the older couple who were sitting at the table behind me if they were taking part in the quiz.  When they responded that they weren’t she shrieked, “boring!”  I brought my glass of Tennent’s Lager to my mouth with weighty anticipation, in the expectation that since I was the only other person in the bar she would ask me next, and I could only imagine her thrilled response when I told her that I was there for the pub quiz.

Her neck tilted towards me and her gleaming red locks followed.  I swallowed my drink and replied to her inquiry, informing her that the rest of my team was on its way.  Her reaction didn’t carry the delight I had been picturing in my mind, though she remained curious about matters and asked me if the others in my team, who had not yet arrived, were “a liability”.  My fingers were wrapped tightly around the base of my pint glass, as though it was a crutch, as I told the young woman that if anything I was the liability in our team, though it really depended on what came up in the quiz.  She offered the kind of lukewarm smile that was like a bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning which hasn’t been in the microwave for quite long enough:  it was welcome, but not really what anyone was looking for.  As she picked up her mobile phone from the table it dawned on me that we were talking about liabilities of a different sense and I had needlessly outed myself as being a fool.  When she received a FaceTime call from a man I presumed to be her boyfriend, I immediately decided that if I achieved nothing else that night, I wanted to finish ahead of her team in the quiz.

The bar filled modestly as 8:30 approached, with there finally being four teams participating.  Since there wasn’t anyone in attendance that we recognised from the other pub quizzes in town, the raven-haired quiztress and I could only judge their trivia abilities on their appearances, or in the case of the table of four young women by the window, how vocal they were.  We thought we had a fairly good chance of winning.  As the rounds progressed, our team of two found ourselves embroiled in a battle with a trio of men who were sitting at the bar and who we assumed were from out of town.  The other two teams, including the women at the window, were never really in it, and we were neck and neck all night with the boys at the bar.  From early on we were ruing the fact that we had dismissed three correct answers in the picture round, and probably more so that we couldn’t remember the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet.  

A bottle of raspberry-flavoured Sourz appeared on the street on Saturday night

After the final music round, we were locked on forty-four points with the trio by the bar, and the Coasters quiz was decided by a tie-break question.  It was the closest our small breakaway team had ever been to winning.  The question was posed and the host played the theme from the television game show Countdown.  It was the greatest pressure I had felt since the woman wearing the leopard print blouse had talked to me a couple of hours earlier.

“How many miles long is the M1 motorway?”

It had been many years since I last heard the traffic report on Radio 2 and I had no concept of which part of the United Kingdom the M1 was even in, let alone the distance it covered.  The raven-haired quiztress wondered if it might travel the entire length of England and all the way up into Scotland, in which case it would be at least five hundred miles.  I wasn’t convinced.  Five hundred miles sounded more like a distance a lovelorn man might walk twice to fall down at the door of a woman he desires rather than the length of a motorway.  It seemed too long to me, and I managed to argue my team-mate down to 397 miles, though even that still looked high.  The raven-haired quiztress pointed out that as I didn’t know how to drive I wouldn’t have any concept of the length of a motorway, and she was right.  It would be like me offering a jockey my thoughts on riding a horse, or talking to anyone about dating.

We handed over our answer, and it turned out to be quite a distance away from the correct one.  Almost the entire length of a motorway, in fact.  At 193 miles, the boys at the bar were much closer with their answer, which was somewhere in the low hundreds.  We were consoled with the runners-up prize of a bottle of Prosecco, but it struggled to make up for the fizzle of excitement we were feeling when we were thinking we might win the quiz and we had the images in mind of how we could use our triumph to lord over our usual pub quiz rivals.  We had achieved my private agenda of beating the young lady with the leopard print blouse and the hair which had a hue of gold, but things could have been so much better if only we had remembered the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet. 

Links & things:
The website which logs ‘national days’ can be found by clicking here.
0120 – my Spotify playlist for the month of January 2020

The following YouTube video is the song I have been listening to most this week:

I love the lyric “And you might as well be dead, he said, if you’re afraid to fall.”  Plus, the drummer might well be Brexit Guy, if he was the drummer of a nineties American college band.

An ordinary week

Monday 13 January 2020
I made what turned out to be one of my favourite dinners tonight, completely by accident.  It was a prawn and chilli linguine dish and the ingredients were relatively unspectacular and uncomplicated – otherwise I wouldn’t have been attempting it in the first place.  The pasta was cooked “according to packet instructions”, which I always took to be ten minutes, while the rest of the meal was prepared.  I successfully deseeded two red chillis for the first time, having previously just chopped the things up and hoped for the best when it came to eating them, and fried them off with a couple of cloves of garlic for around a minute.  Next I added a packet of king prawns and cooked them until they were turning pink while I took half a punnet of cherry tomatoes and halved them.  It was tempting to think of the outcome as being a quarter of a punnet of tomatoes, but even I knew that I couldn’t get away with saying that out loud in front of other people.  They were added to the pan and cooked for three minutes, at which point things started to go pear-shaped, if not literally then at least figuratively.

By the time I squeezed the juice of a lime and sprinkled some basil into the bubbling mixture, there was still around four minutes before the linguine would be cooked, according to my interpretation of packet instructions.  That was four additional minutes for the cherry tomatoes to soften and weep far beyond the healthy blush portrayed in the photographs which accompanied the online recipe.  The tomatoes became a mushy mess, more of a sauce than a juicy plate fellow, but once the whole thing was combined with the linguine and some starchy pasta water, it worked.  As I sat down to enjoy the meal, I was struggling to think of another time that one of my mistakes had turned out so pleasingly.

Tuesday 14 January 2020
The basement of Bar Rio was flooded with six inches of water from the storm last night.  There were videos on Facebook of the tide crashing into the bay and up over the railings onto the road, as well as photographs of the fire service pumping water out of the restaurant.  I was exchanging messages with a friend at the time it was all happening. She asked if I could see any lightning, but from the time I arrived home from work I had closed the living room curtains and been playing a playlist from Spotify, so I hadn’t seen nor heard anything.  A live-action recreation of the final fight scene from the Avengers movie could have been taking place on Combie Street and I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it.  Someone asked me today where I would be going for my cocktails now, but I have never been for a cocktail in Bar Rio.

A lone balloon struggled with the blustery conditions on High Street

 

Wednesday 15 January 2020
There was a funeral happening in the Parish Church at lunchtime, which wasn’t so remarkable an occurrence as a funeral seemed to be taking place most afternoons.  However, outside the church, as the service was underway, two black horses were waiting alongside a carriage, which was black and had gold trimming around the windows.  The horses were elegantly dressed in these long black feather plumes and they appeared much more patient than I imagined any human would be standing in the bitterly cold wind.  Almost like they knew that this wasn’t a place for fooling around and they had to be respectful.  It wasn’t something I had ever seen at a funeral, but it immediately struck me as being a much nicer idea than the large black hearse typically seen outside a church on these occasions, though I was reluctant to stare too much, especially when I was returning from Lidl with a litre of semi-skimmed milk and a packet of four pork loin chops in my hands.  People said it was traditional at a traveller’s funeral, but I had never heard of it before.

Thursday 16 January 2020
It never seemed to matter how often I brushed the flooring in my flat, a leaf would always turn up somewhere.  I don’t know how leaves constantly ended up in my flat, but they did.  I mean, I knew how they probably found their way inside – on the bottom of my shoe, but I couldn’t fathom how so many of them were attaching themselves onto my shoes when I wasn’t in the habit of walking through Oban’s leafy areas.  It was difficult to think whether there was even a tree to be seen on my daily walks between my flat and the office, travelling via the Esplanade.  Apart from the lack of trees, I hadn’t even taken the route that often over the last week or so with the stormy conditions making it difficult to walk any great distance without my trousers being soaked.  As well as wondering how these leaves kept appearing on my floors, I was made to question why I was still persisting with wearing grey trousers in winter.

A leaf troubled the floor in my hallway

 

Friday 17 January 2020
I’m not sure if it was the incident with the leaves which led me to take my periodic swipe through Tinder, but I ended up with a rare ‘match’ last night.  I only ever used the dating app when I was feeling truly miserable and at my most hopeless, and it hardly ever did anything to change that.  In a way it was no different to thumbing through the Argos catalogue; it passed a minute or two of boredom.  When you are matched with someone on Tinder you are taken to a private text-based conversation, which I always imagined would suit me better since I wouldn’t have to worry about things such as eye contact or whether she had smiled when I made a stupid pun.  Sophie* had seventy-seven words in her biography, which read like a shopping list and was punctuated at the end with a text smiley – the sort I remember using on MSN Messenger when I was eighteen-years-old : )

The seventy-seven words ranged from ‘anime’ and ‘vegan’ to ‘glitter’ and ‘faeries’ and I immediately endeavoured to find out more about them.

“Hi Sophie.  There are quite a few words in your bio.  Which would you say is the most important one?”

“DJ”
“[Emoji of a tongue sticking out of a mouth]”

“Very efficient; two words for the price of one!  Do you jockey discs for a living?”

When I next checked my Tinder account on Friday night, Sophie had unmatched me, which I supposed would be the equivalent of trying to talk to a woman at the bar who smiles awkwardly at your joke before turning her back to eye the table of rugby players.

Saturday 18 January 2020
Last night in Aulay’s, the barmaid with the bandana placed a £5 in-play bet on the Rangers vs Stranraer Scottish Cup fourth round game finishing 1-1 at odds of 70/1, even though she was a Rangers supporter.  The score was 1-0 at the time, and I told her that there would be more chance of me pulling a woman that night than there was of Stranraer scoring.  “In fact,” I insisted, “there is more chance of me pulling twice.”  Rangers won the game 2-0.

Sunday 19 January 2020
This afternoon I witnessed a woman running past my window, on the other side of the street, with a dog running alongside her on a lead.  She was wearing running clothes, black and fluorescent green, I think, so the jog was obviously a sporting endeavour and not because they were late for an appointment.  As a contest, the race seemed unfair and rigged.  The dog was always going to be limited in how far it could go, and if it ever threatened to build up a real head of steam, the woman could just pull the canine back and level things up.  All things considered, it was hardly on the same scale as the Russian doping scandal, but it was unsporting all the same, and the scene bothered me.  Like the leaf on the floor in my hallway, I couldn’t understand why I was seeing it, where it had come from or where it was going.  But the dog didn’t seem to be concerned by it as far as I could tell from my brief insight into their dynamic.  It was respectful and accepting; all that was missing was a black plume.

*Sophie’s name has been changed.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

Places not to wear an orange tie

It wasn’t until around nine or ten days into the new year before I was fully over my dose of the flu, and the main takeaway that I had from my period of sickness was how difficult it was to find a way of coughing with elegance.  Some people I know could easily stifle a sneeze and make it seem effortless, but a cough always seemed to appear more suddenly and as though it had come as a surprise to the victim.  A sneeze could be disguised and few people would be any the wiser, while anyone with a cough was destined to be detected.  In early January, the sound of my own coughing was closely resembling that of a 72-year-old smoker pushing an elephant up a flight of stairs.  At times I even felt like I was the elephant.  “Are you sure you’re alright?”  Concerned observers would ask, covering their sandwiches and other belongings as though I was exhaling nuclear waste.

I couldn’t be sure how long it was that the cough lingered around in my system, but I was able to clear the mantel place of its Christmas decorations a lot more easily than I cleared my chest of its congestion.  The way my flat had been dressed for the festive season could generously have been described as modest, sort of like someone who has been invited to a party they don’t really want to attend and so they don’t put much care or thought into what they wear.  That there were four women in my flat two days after Christmas and none of them made mention of the decorations on the mantel place said it all.

I had coughing fits that lasted longer than the time it took for me to climb the stepladder, fetch a small brown wicker basket from the first shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bedroom wardrobe, fill it with three novelty plush figurines and then return it to storage; Christmas decluttered in a few steps.

On the night before the general waste bins were scheduled to be emptied for the first time in the year, I was lying in bed listening to the wind as it wheezed between the three vessels outside my bedroom window.  It was late, and I couldn’t help questioning the wisdom of putting the bins out in such stormy conditions.  From where I was in the relative warmth of my bed, it was difficult to tell just how wet or windy it was outside, but that didn’t stop me from imagining bins toppling over up and down the street, bags of rubbish strewn all over the place, the pavements reduced to a windswept carpet of crap.  There was nothing that I could do about it, though; or at least there wasn’t anything I was willing to do.  I wasn’t going to get myself out of bed just to wheel the bins out onto the pavement at seven in the morning, which was when the lorry would usually empty them, and that was probably the first time I accepted that sometimes a storm, like the flu, is something you just have to let pass.

From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble

The first full week of 2020 ended with a full moon in the sky.  On one particular night between the storms, which was so calm and still that the woman in Poppies Garden Centre remarked that she believed it was the beginning of spring, the scene was spectacular.  The great big moon was sitting high on the canopy of a black sky, so crisp and flawless that it was as though it had been painted on.  From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble, like the ones I could remember playing with as a child, or those I had lost as a grown-up.  It was a great opportunity for taking photographs, and one of those moments when you could be thankful that if you had a mobile phone in your pocket, you had pretty much every piece of technology you could possibly need.  I always enjoyed snapping pictures, especially on the west coast of Scotland where there was a postcard waiting to be created on every turn, though photography always frustrated me.  My imagination was always better than my actions, sort of like any time I ever went to attempt conversation with a woman.  I never knew which was the right angle to come from, or how to frame the subject I was focussing on in such a way that it would seem appealing.  The end result never looked the way it did in my mind.

A vicious rain had returned to the sky by the following day, making the town no place for a camera lens.  I had been looking forward to my first drink of the decade ever since my flu had been downgraded to an irritating cough, and in an effort to show that I had learned from the last night of 2019, I went out wearing a thick black coat over my grey suit, and a pair of shoes which were bound to resist the torrent of rain.  Even by the time I had made the short walk from my flat to my spiritual home of Aulay’s, my coat was soaked and felt like it had gained a couple of pounds in weight from the rainwater, while I opened my wallet and prepared to lose a few.  It would have been tempting to remark that the pub was the busiest it had been all year, but the truth was that there was a funeral party in which had been drinking since the afternoon, and the place was more full than I had seen it on a Friday night in a while.

All around me were mourners who were dressed in black gowns, black ties and white shirts that were becoming as crumpled as the drunken bodies they were on.  As I glanced around the room, pockets of people huddled around tables in conversation, memorialising a loved one, I was growing increasingly reluctant to remove my large wet coat and hang it on the rack as I had been intending.  Underneath it, I was wearing a navy blue shirt and a bright, bold orange tie, the sort that would put the moon in the shade.  I was uncomfortable and began worrying about how I would explain my outfit if anyone from the funeral party queried it.  “But did you see the matching pocket square? It can’t be disrespectful if it’s stylish…”

I clutched the wet lapels of the black coat around my body like a comforter, trying to cover all evidence of the orange accessories, though there was nothing stopping anyone from spying the socks.  The pub was so busy that it was difficult to find any room to breathe around the bar, and I was getting hot in my three layers of clothing.  My appetite for lager was diminishing, while my body seemed to be rejecting the suggestion that I had fully recovered from the flu.  It was taking me the better part of two hours to work my way through a pint, even the new pint on tap in Aulay’s – Drygate Bearface Lager – was something that I could hardly contemplate drinking.

The end result never looked the way it did in my mind

Amongst the mourners were around four or five young women who were Irish and the only bright spot in the night, aside from my tie, which nobody could see anyway.  They were all wearing identical black dresses, which looked decidedly like they were fashioned from crepe paper, and their hair was as dark as the night sky.  Their accents were indecipherable, though one Irish lass had these eyes that betrayed the sorrow she must have been feeling.  They stole my attention the way the full moon had the previous evening, and I was soon considering the etiquette of talking to a woman at a funeral party you aren’t even part of.

It seemed a preposterous thing to even consider, and even the more assured guys in my company agreed that it was, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was really any more outrageous than the idea of me talking to a member of the opposite sex at any time.  Was there really anything that I could say in this woman’s moment of grief that would make things worse?  The plant doctor and I discussed it for a moment and concluded that my attempt at talking to the Irish woman could actually work, and there might come a time, perhaps the following morning, where she would come to regret the terrible mistake she had made, and that was how things could get worse.

In the end, in a scene which was laced with more irony than opening your kitchen drawer and finding ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, the woman who had been the subject of my attention turned out to be the only one in the funeral party who was there with a partner.  For once I felt relieved that things turned out almost exactly as they were in my mind.

“She said the theme of this party is the industrial age,
And you came in dressed like a train wreck.”

The other side

An unusual event took place on New Year’s Eve when I found myself drinking in the public bar in Aulay’s.  I didn’t often venture through from the lounge side, other than maybe for the occasional televised boxing fight, on account of the awkward glances whichever shirt and tie combination I was wearing would usually attract from the fishermen, farmers and others who typically didn’t feel the need to wear a pocket square to the pub on a Friday night.  Aside from the benefit of the lounge bar having the jukebox, I just never felt truly comfortable in the public bar, where people instantly assumed that I was above my actual station; usually a lawyer.  I was viewed with suspicion and folk were often reluctant to talk to me, and particularly share sensitive parts of a story.  Most of the time this seemed like a blessing.

I was the last of the gang to arrive at the bar on the final night of the year.  The diminutive barmaid poured me a pint and pointed me through to the public bar, where my brother, the plant doctor, Brexit Guy and others had taken residence on the stools.  I had turned up wearing a three-piece brown tweed suit, seeking to see the new year in with some sartorial style, and given the occasion, I wasn’t feeling quite so awkward about being the only person in the pub dressed as such.  On the television in the far left corner, a concert from the well-known pop band Coldplay was playing, though it was to everyone’s relief that the volume had been muted.  It was left to us to imagine what Chris Martin & co. were singing. 

It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.

For all intents and purposes, we were bringing in the new year in the wrong side of Aulay’s, but it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just like any other night.  We admired the blossoming kinship between my brother and the Brexit Guy, a sight which would have seemed impossible before the miracle of Easter 2019 [“The night of the handshake”].  Drink after drink appeared on the bar before us, in the manner of some late Christmas offering:  pints of Tennent’s, rounds of Jameson, Jack Daniels, our very own Tough Paper Round, and Cointreau.  The latter encouraged the plant doctor to make a pun centred on how the round of drinks had been “Cointreau-versial”, which was the sort of joke that no-one found funny, though everyone had wished that they’d thought of it.

We discussed the George Harrison song Wah-Wah, Netflix murder documentaries, and our resolutions for the forthcoming year.  I made the declaration that I had vowed many years earlier that I would not be making any New Year’s resolutions going forward, a dedication that I had kept every year since.  Often it occurred to me that I should at least make the promise that I would reach next 31st December no longer being a single man, but it seemed that these things should at least be realistic and achievable.

The hours were passing by, and so was the year we were about to leave behind as the pub rapidly filled with revellers at around ten o’clock, though was suddenly emptying by eleven-thirty when people started making their way to their preferred party destination.  With the all-important midnight hour ticking ever closer, we were considering amongst ourselves what the kiss protocol would be on the bells.  Once it was taken into account that some of us were related, and that the bar staff probably didn’t have it in their terms of employment that they should kiss the slobbering drunken customers on Hogmanay, we all agreed that hugs and handshakes would be appropriate.

As Big Ben chimed from the television in the background, fireworks could be heard crackling overhead in the distant January sky.   The few folks who were left in the pub began to filter out to watch them, and I would shortly follow.  I had worn my favourite tan shoes to compliment my tweed outfit, though much like any time I had made an attempt to talk to a woman in the previous twelve months, it turned out to be a mistake.  Standing outside the doorway of the pub, I watched the fireworks explode out of McCaig’s Tower on the hill, through a haze of cigarette smoke and rain.  It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.  I could feel water seeping in through the bottom of my shoes, and I soon realised that each of the soles were cracked.  Happy New Year!

When Aulay’s closed for the night, it was left to the four of us to first-foot Markies.  I had arranged to meet up with the Subway Girl somewhere along the way, but first our attention was drawn to an anonymous-looking woman who was huddled in the doorway of the butcher’s shop, presumably seeking shelter from the rain.  She was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be taking the time to send a text message, although it struck me from experience that she may only have been pretending.  The plant doctor began to dance back and forth in front of the doorway, almost in the manner of one of those hairy mascots with the over-sized heads that you find at sporting events or in shopping centres.  The texter seemed unperturbed.

“Don’t worry about him,” I called out through the mist of the rain.  “He’s just an idiot.”

“Oh, I noticed,” the woman in black responded, lifting her attention from her mobile phone.  We got to talking, and it transpired that she had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend and wasn’t sure what to do with herself for the rest of the night.  She said that she was in her early fifties, though I wouldn’t have placed her as being older than late forties. She asked where we were going and if she could join us.  After the plant doctor’s dancing, it seemed the least we could do was to take her to Markies.

Our inherited stranger hit it off with the Subway Girl, and our expanded group of six made its way down the seafront.  The streets were slick with rainwater, and the further we walked the more my socks were soaking it up like a sponge.  When we reached our destination we were stuffed into the pub like sardines, with barely enough space to fish dance, only the stench of tinned seafood had been replaced by the overwhelming fragrance of Christmas morning deodorant sets.  We were able to socialise all the same, and it was a fun night.

The early days of 2020 weren’t quite what I had hoped they would be.  By the second date, I had developed such a cough in my chest that subsequently anything I ate would come back up quicker than a Hogmanay firework.  By Friday I was struggling to get myself out of bed, and things were so bad that I couldn’t even make the usual trip to Aulay’s in the evening.  As the week progressed, it was becoming more like the New Year’s Resolution I hadn’t made:  I had spent four days in bed, my body had been ravaged from head to toe, my joints were throbbing, and I was a hot mess.  At around 3 am in the dark of one of the nights, Spotify began playing a playlist of power-pop ballads from the eighties and nineties featuring the likes of Annie Lennox, Cheap Trick and Garbage, and at one point I was feeling so sick that I began to question my own mortality.  I imagined how ridiculous it would be if I was a thirty-six-year-old man who perished to the flu.  I thought about the requiem mass that would follow and wondered if it would be better attended than the Christmas Eve service I had been at a week earlier.  In my mind’s eye, I could see a handful of people sitting around, looking at each other solemnly and asking, “why couldn’t he just wear jeans and boots like everybody else?”  

New Year’s Eve had been a good night spent amongst some of my best friends and the nicest people, and Brexit Guy, in our favourite places – or the wrong side of our favourite place.  For a few hours, it even felt good. It was just a shame about the shoes.

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The song I’ve mostly been listening to this decade…