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.
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.
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.
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.