It was Monday night when I had finally been able to enjoy a cup of coffee in my own home after remembering to buy a jar after work. I had used the coffee machine on Sunday afternoon when my need became desperate after I had once again forgotten to replenish my supply of the instant stuff and I refused to go back out as a matter of principle. Sometimes a person has to take a stand, even if it is against their own capacity for memory. The coffee machine was like a lot of other things in my kitchen that seemed like a good idea when I bought them before becoming a single occupant, but which had rarely been used since. A wine decanter, a cheeseboard, a packet of quinoa. I still had a glass container which was three-quarters filled with ground roast coffee – French, I think – and I decided that it would be worth brewing a fresh pot since it was there, though it turned out that the machine was probably in need of cleaning, because the water tasted kind of stale in the end.
By the time the first week of February had arrived, things were starting to look a whole lot better. The days were lazily stretching out beyond five o’clock, a phenomenon which the consensus opinion suggested was quite early in the year when it was considered that we were still in the depths of the winter season, and the extended daylight helped to bring a healthier complexion to things. It was like meeting a friend who you haven’t seen in a while and they are sporting a brand new haircut. Although the fading light in the early evening closely resembled a candle which has burned all the way to the bottom of its wick and was flickering its last breath, it was still enough to turn vague shadowy figures into fully formed silhouettes. For the first time in the year it was possible to stroll along the Esplanade and see couples out walking their dogs along the shore, with just enough light for the ducks to be alert and keep a safe distance.
The two sets of traffic lights on Argyll Square were always my most used, even more than the one just along the street from me, which I never really liked. Even in early February, I reckoned that I must have used the lights on the square at least a hundred times. On one of those occasions, as I crossed the road at the first of the lights to the narrow island in the middle of the road, I witnessed as two gentlemen embraced in the middle and shook hands. They were older, the sort of age at which the hair is white rather than grey, and at least one of the men was sporting a beard. It was possible that they both had facial hair, though it was difficult to tell from the way that the man whose back was to me had his face obscured by the other’s bold red waterproof jacket.
As I walked past the pair, I could hear them exchanging a “happy new year” against the din of slowing traffic, and it seemed a small mercy that the light had turned red, as I would likely have been too preoccupied to notice any cars coming towards me. Just as there had been some surprise at how early in the year the evenings were becoming lighter, I found myself bewildered at how late in the year people were wishing others all the best for 2020. I had assumed, and even expected, that the cut off had long expired; that the latest such a greeting could be passed on was at the end of the first week of January. Any mention of it after then just seemed like attention-seeking. I was reluctant to say anything after the third of the month, since in the digital age so much could change in three days that it might as well have been a year anyway.
I think that what was really bothering me about the belated happy new year was that it seemed to be impossible to rationalise where the line would be drawn. If it was acceptable to some to offer the happy new year even after a twelfth of the year had passed, then what else were they making up for in that meeting on the square? I spent quite a bit of time considering the question and drew a scenario in my mind where the two men had happened upon one another at the traffic lights for the first time since the June of the previous year. They started off with a happy new year and worked their way back through all of the events that had taken place since they last met.
“Merry Christmas. Did you spend yours with the family?”
“Well, actually, Mary and I converted to Judaism in September, so we celebrated Hanukkah last year.”
“Wait, what does that mean for Halloween?”
“Oh, we thought it would be a laugh to go as Catholics.
It was your seventy-fifth birthday in October, wasn’t it? Happy birthday!”
“Thanks. We had a party at the golf club. I wanted seventy-five helium balloons around the place, but by the time we had paid the hire fee, my state pension was only going to pay for forty balloons. Nobody understood why I still bought them.”
“You always did like balloons.”
“How was your summer holiday? I remember last time I saw you that you said you were taking a cruise for your anniversary?”
“We went to Islay for a week. It rained every day. We decided that we would stay on the mainland in future.”
Although in the first month of the year I had solidly stuck to my resolution to not make a New Year’s resolution, I was still at least harbouring one ambition for the year, which was that our breakaway pub quiz team The Unlikely Lads would finally win. Most of the time there were three of us in the team, and while we had pretty successfully cemented ourselves as a regular feature amongst the top three on the leaderboard, we had really only ever come close to winning once or twice. There was a revolving door of occasional support characters who would come along now and again to support our cause; people of various nationalities, heights, genders, and depth of facial hair. We were happy to accept anyone who could help us to clean up the points we were spilling, though privately we agreed that we shared the hope that our very first win would come on a night when it was just the three original Unlikely Lads.
On this occasion, the first quiz in February, two of us had each invited a friend along to join us, and one of them had encouraged another couple of medical students to participate, the sum of which left us with one person more than the traditional pub quiz team limit of six. Negotiations ensued as to the separation of our inflated team into two outfits, and a couple of voices raised the possibility that although we were different teams, there was no reason why we couldn’t assist one another by exchanging answers to difficult questions across the tables. I had been reading Misha Glenny’s book on the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early nineties and found myself with a taste for conflict, so I argued that if our team was being forced apart, then it would be with the blood and brutality of the wars in Serbia and Croatia. We had to treat the quiz competitively. It struck me that no-one else was taking things quite that seriously, but the three of us who were sitting closest to the next available table moved, and I found myself in competition with the other two Unlikely Lads.
As the quiz was beginning with the picture round, which featured daytime television personalities, our infant trio was joined by yet another medical student who had been sitting on his own at a table waiting for the rest of his team to arrive, only they never showed. He was familiar with the other student in our team, who was a stranger to the bird enthusiast and me, so it didn’t feel awkward. Rather than christen ourselves with a moniker which made it clear that we were a second-string Unlikely Lads, we named our team The Transition Zone, which was supposed to be some sort of Brexit joke based around the fact that the United Kingdom had left the European Union the previous Friday and was now in a year-long ‘transition phase’, but nobody else in the pub seemed to care about our humour, or know that we were in a transition phase of our own.
Our team immediately felt like two pieces of Lego that just clicked and fitted together. From the first two rounds, which were scored together as always, we had established a fairly healthy lead, and from there we suspected that something special was about to happen, at least as far as pub quizzes went. When most of our original group had reunited and were sitting together in Aulay’s later in the night, the girls admitted that they had felt sorry for the male medical student who was eventually stood up by his team and gone on to join my splinter group. They sounded sad and genuinely sympathetic, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever studied me at a bar and felt such sensations. Albeit there was a difference in the scenarios when this solo guy had gone on to experience success when he found himself part of a winning pub quiz team.
I initially felt great joy and satisfaction when it was confirmed that The Transition Zone had progressed into the unfamiliar role of quiz winners. There was a sweetness in beating the team we had been separated from, as though we had given them a glimpse of what they could have had, but after the wave of euphoria had washed over me I felt sadness that I hadn’t won the quiz with The Unlikely Lads and the two people I had suffered defeat with every other week. Much like when I had finally gotten the cup of coffee I was craving, the water was sour, and I was going to have to wait for another time to fulfill my unspoken New Year’s resolution.
This week I have been mostly listening to: