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