Indian summer

The early onset of autumn had fallen back into summer in mid-September – for a few days, anyway – reigniting the most perplexing question of the time of year:  which jacket should I leave home wearing?  Nothing could make a fool out of a person quite like being seen in a heavy coat on a sunny day. Temperatures had soared into the high-teens, a good day for August, let alone anything after.  The sun was hanging low on the bright blue sky, looking exactly like it would in a child’s drawing:  enormous, shiny and orange.  Along the Esplanade, for three or four evenings straight, it was a scene of an Indian summer.

Across the road from the Regent Hotel, which was once an art deco gem in the display case of Oban Bay but had recently become a ghost and fallen into a sad state of disrepair, a casualty of the economic cost of Covid, a man was reclining in a garden chair, opposite what I presumed was his brown campervan.  He was a picture of comfort, his bare legs outstretched, baseball capped-head thrust skywards, though his position on the pavement, between his van and the railing by the sea, made it awkward to pass.  Other people were using the designated benches to soak up the rays and read, while out on the sea powerboats were cutting through the white waves like scissors.  All of the slipways leading from the street down into the water were lined with people who were enjoying takeaways from the town’s plentiful chip shops, or just one another’s company.  On one concrete strip, just beyond the cathedral, a labrador emerged from the sea with a stick clenched between its teeth which looked to be at least as long as its body.  As it bounded triumphantly up the slipway, water cascaded from the dog’s coat like a burst hosepipe, splashing all the way up the dry surface.  A young woman was sitting on a step with her legs crossed, staring out at the horizon in thoughtful meditation whilst smoking an e-cigarette.  Cherry, I think.  On the next set of steps, a young woman wearing a backpack was being directed by a man on where to stand.  Her companion, whom I presumed to be her partner, was holding a camera in his hands, looking for the perfect shot that would mark their romantic seaside adventure, the coastal scene with the buoys in the background over her shoulder.

 Further along the shoreline, a bespectacled man was crouching amongst the weeds, washing a pair of shoes in the water.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell if the scene was as it appeared, but the closer I got, the clearer it was.  In the man’s right hand he was holding a peach scouring brush, which he was using to scrub the soles of the shoes with all of the studied intensity of a cardiologist performing complex surgery.  Who could know how this man’s life had taken him to the point where his only option was to clean his shoes – although not the shoes that he was wearing – in the sea.  If I was ever feeling down on my luck, I would always remember that at least I wasn’t washing my footwear in the bay.  

On the North Pier, outside the restaurants EE-Usk and Piazza, which both have floor-to-ceiling windows offering a prime view overlooking the harbour, two large Ferguson Transport lorries were unloading goods onto a vessel which was moored nearby.  I always found the scene quite fascinating whenever I encountered it, wondering what was in the enormous plastic cases and where they were being shipped to, but it must have been an irritation for the diners who had booked their tables by the window anticipating enjoying an early evening meal whilst looking out on the sun-kissed west coast.  By the time I had walked back around to the bus station, the heavy beating of the sun on the back of my brown tweed suit jacket was so constant and so warm that I could feel the beads of sweat gathering on my spine in groups larger than those I had witnessed through town.  I was regretting my decision to wear the jacket at all.

Considering that I held a regard of warm summer days similar to that of the misery crooner Morrissey, as a single occupant there were few things which truly brought joy to life in the strange times of 2020.  The pinnacle of my excitement was probably any time I received an email from Netflix telling me about a new docuseries they were streaming.  There was the night that The Unlikely Lads won the pub quiz in The Lorne for the second week running, after fifteen months of not winning it at all, although that was more of a group achievement than anything I had done.  But when the supermarket chain Lidl released their new rewards app in September it appealed to all of the thrifty senses of a guy like me.  Every week they would make available four digital coupons for products that I either didn’t particularly need at the time or wouldn’t usually buy; things like a certain type of cheese, hot chocolate, bacon, laundry detergent or tissues, and I would eat them up because I was saving 15% off the price.  Each time I would scan the coupon at the checkout it felt like a small victory.  These smartphone apps were always shiny and exciting to swipe through, offering the user the promise of something they might not otherwise get:  coconut-flavoured Greek yogurt from Lidl, or a date with a woman on Tinder.

The big attraction was the offer of receiving £5 off a £25 spend during the first month of signing up.  Ordinarily it would be a big week if I spent as much as £25 on my food shopping over the course of seven days, let alone in one visit, but I figured that if I planned ahead and bought things that I might need in the future then I could probably reach the target.  It was a bit like the hoarding everyone was doing back in March, a skill I had already shown to be quite bad at.  My first attempt didn’t get me anywhere near the number needed to make my saving, and over the following week I spent a lot of time plotting how I was going to do better next time, as though I was trying to beat the high score in an arcade game.  I measured how many tins of tuna I would realistically be able to store in the cupboard and considered how much toothpaste a person could buy before it became obsessive, helping me put together a list that would surely earn me the five pounds discount I deserved.  Excluding alcohol, which cannot feature in promotional offers in Scotland, my shopping came to a total of £22.22, which sounded more like a bingo call than the sum of the food I would be eating for the next week.  It was frustrating, especially when I arrived home and realised that I had forgotten to pick up a couple of items, including the toothpaste.  The episode seemed to me to be the equivalent of matching with a girl on Tinder who immediately stops talking to you when you make a stupid pasta pun.

I did finally manage to spend twenty-five pounds and seven pence in a single transaction a week later, but only after I had bought a houseplant to bulk out my basket.  The purchase went against a vow I had made to myself more than a year earlier to never buy another houseplant again, which was sworn mainly as a result of my ineptitude in caring for the things.  I think that the longest a plant had survived under my guardianship was a couple of months, and my inability to keep them alive had given me a complex. The way I saw it, if I couldn’t look after a simple houseplant, how could I possibly trust myself to cultivate my human relationships?  It seemed that the best way of forgetting about all of that and preserving my confidence was to stop replacing my plants when they died.  But with yet more lockdown restrictions arriving towards the end of September, it felt like a good time to give my green fingers another go, if for no other reason than to have some company for a little while, so I bought a potted plant alongside my regular groceries.  When I got it home the first thing I did was to remove the small plastic stick from the soil which carried the name of the plant I was now caring for.  I thought it would be a good idea to search the internet for the best ways of looking after a ‘Crassula ovata’, since although succulents were almost indestructible I had a pretty mean history of killing them.  I learned that the houseplant I had purchased purely to bring my shopping up to a total of £25 just so that I could finally make use of my £5 off coupon is more commonly known as a lucky plant, money plant or money tree.  It was rare that these moments of irony occurred to me so quickly.

As the cases of Covid began to rise across the country again, new measures were introduced during the last week of the month to combat the virus.  Pubs and restaurants were told to implement a 10pm curfew, while households in Scotland were no longer allowed to mix, other than in exceptional circumstances.  In many respects it was a return to the way things had been pre-July, and when we went to the pub on Friday the 18th of September, it was to mark the end of our Indian summer in more ways than we knew at the time.  The plant doctor, my brother and me had met in the beer garden of the Whisky Vaults, though by the time we did the sun had set and we were as much in the dark as we always were.  The air wasn’t exactly cold, but I was feeling nostalgic for the sweat I had felt under my shirt on the walk home earlier in the day.   Once inside, we were one of only four or five groups, and the only time I can remember feeling uncomfortable was when we had forgotten to wear our masks as we walked from the beer garden into the pub.  It was a mild discomfort, mostly brought on from the embarrassment of having to be reminded during times of a pandemic that we should be wearing a mask when walking around a pub, though the feeling was soon offset by the unbridled bliss that was to be found from wearing a mask at an empty urinal.

We were in conversation with the ladies at the table next to us, a pair who we knew from the bars and who were serious about their drinking, ordering bottles of red wine and glasses of Jameson; unlike us amateurs who were only drinking pints of beer.  During our discussion I made a joke in relation to the cravat that the man at the farthest away table had brandished.  The comment drew no response amongst the rest of the group, which wasn’t unusual; but what was out of the ordinary was the fact that the girl on the opposite side of the room erupted into howls of laughter, even nudging her friend to ask if she had heard the remark.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Even accounting for the way the sparseness of the room made every sound echo like a gunshot in a canyon, this laugh was loud.  It was exciting to know that this young woman had apparently been listening in on our conversation, though I had little experience with the sound of laughter and wasn’t sure how to act on it, especially in the midst of a global health emergency.  I couldn’t very well saunter over and join her table when groups were limited to two households at that point, and sauntering wasn’t something I had been able to do in the best of times, anyway.  Finally somebody had laughed at something I had said, and I didn’t even have to say it directly to them.  I just had to sit there and let the words blunder out, but I couldn’t follow up on it.    Not long after, the girls finished their drinks and left the bar.  So much for the fucking lucky plant.

In Aulay’s, we were reunited with our cross-table companions from earlier in the night, though my ability to focus on anything that was being said was compromised by the man who was sitting by himself at the table to my right.  He was making an effort to integrate himself into our conversation, though I was the only one in the group who was paying him any heed.  There was something mesmerising about the character; his wispy white hair resembling fluffy mashed potatoes sitting on a dinner plate alongside a medium-rare steak; the way he was dressed entirely in blue; his choice of drinking a “half and half”, a combination of a half-pint of Export and a glass of whisky (a half) which was traditional amongst men of a certain generation; the fact that every so often he would briefly burst into song.  When he spoke, the man’s voice had a lyrical lilt that was common with the north of Scotland, so pronounced that it was almost like a vocal caricature.

It was impossible to resist the stranger’s attempts to involve himself in our discussion for too long, and when I finally indulged him I learned that he had travelled down from Thurso that day, a journey of around 215 miles.  He had to take three buses to reach Oban:  the first left his hometown at nine o’clock that morning and took him to Inverness, where he then caught the bus down to Fort William, and after around an hour’s wait he made the final leg of his journey to Oban, arriving here at twenty minutes past seven.  Just hearing about it had me feeling exhausted.  His reasons for wanting to visit Oban, seemingly on a whim, were twofold.  As he told me, he had recently taken trips to Skye and Fort William, but he had never been to Oban – and he thought “why not?”  The other cause for travelling 215 miles from Thurso to Oban was a desire to learn the full lyrics of the old folk song Bonnie Oban Bay, as it turned out that the tune he had been serenading us with for much of the night wasn’t the full version.  “I was struggling to find it on YouTube.”

I was feeling pretty guilty that I had lived in the town for my entire life and had never even heard of the song Bonnie Oban Bay, while here was a man who ventured half the length of the country in three buses during a pandemic in which his age group was probably the most vulnerable just because he had a romantic vision that everyone here would be so familiar with the song that they could easily fill in the verses that he was missing.  It was hard not to be impressed with the man, who had also been unsuccessful in asking the woman in the hostel where he was staying about the words of the song, as he just shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his diminishing half-pint of Export.  “Ocht, somebody will know,” he said confidently, before his fairytale voice lifted into the single verse of the song he had been singing all night.

Less than a week had passed when there was frost seen on the windscreens of cars.  The mornings had taken on an icy demeanour, while the temperature on some days had nearly halved.  It used to be that I felt excited by being able to see my breath in the air on crisp, cold mornings, when I would exhale as much as I possibly could because it made me feel like I was a mighty dragon.  But like everything else, that had changed in these times of Covid, when now it was only possible to see how easily an entire village could be scorched.  In the end, our Indian summer lasted only a few days, and our break from the tightest of the lockdown restrictions seemed like it was going to be the Indian summer of our 2020.  As it was, we were all going to to be spending some time on our knees on the shoreline, scrubbing our shoes in the salty water.

The combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé

During the first couple of weeks in September, before new restrictions were introduced on the tenth which limited the number of people who could gather anywhere to six from two different households, I found myself sitting at a table in Aulay’s with a couple who were keen to know if I had started primary school at the same time as their identical twin boys.  I had no recollection of going to school with identical twins, but as the wife of the couple went through a mental checklist of the sort of questions one might be asked when you have forgotten your password for the website of an online retailer, the evidence became indisputable.  It was a certainty that I was in the same class at St. Columba’s primary school as her two sons, at least until the family left for Africa partway through primary two. 

I felt quite a deep sense of guilt that I couldn’t remember the children.  After all, how many times through life does a person encounter identical twins?  And yet right there, sitting at the opposite side of the table from me in the pub, was the mother of two such people who not only did I begin my journey into education at the same time as, but who it emerged grew up in Burnbank, around the corner from our home on Dunollie Road.  We all played amongst the same group of children in the neighbourhood, attended the same birthday parties and quite possibly even went to the same nursery.  I remembered nothing of the Bowen boys.  The mother vowed to return home that night and seek out the traditional first day of school photographs she would have taken to mark the event, and I agreed that I would do the same and we would bring our findings back to the pub the following week.  Since mum was no longer around, dad was the only person I could ask about the whereabouts of any school photographs in the family home.  While you could ask him where any Bob Dylan LP from the sixties was in the house and he would know exactly where to find it, there would have been no hope with a photograph.

Not only could I not remember the twins, but as I thought about it over the subsequent days, the only part of the story which seemed familiar was the woman’s husband, who I felt as though I recognised due to his distinct facial tick, which resembled the actions of a man who every so often remembers that there is a chunk of liquorice stuck to the roof of his mouth.  But the more I contemplated it, the more difficult it was to be sure if I was recalling the man from my childhood or from Friday night in Aulay’s.

The couple had an impressive recall for bygone events.  They had grown up locally and raised their children here for a short time before moving to Africa and then on to Edinburgh, and the woman in particular seemed to enjoy regaling us with tales of the school trips the Catholic church would organise to take them to the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.  She described how the priests would spend the entire trip getting blind drunk, vividly remembering one specific morning where the bus was ready to depart for the next stop but the driver had to wait for the priests, who were lined up on the pavement alongside the vehicle in their sleeping bags, to waken up.  The woman’s husband bristled at the mention of Bishop Wright, whom he had a particularly strong dislike for since he had banished the man from mass because he had previously been divorced and so “there isn’t any point in you being here” but who himself was exiled from the Catholic church after his liaisons with a parishioner were exposed by the gutter Sunday tabloid the News of the World.  The scandal didn’t trouble me at the time when it broke, but as I grew older it was frequently a source of frustration that the Bishop of the diocese who conducted my Confirmation into the church had boasted a better record with women than I did.

I wondered what it was about certain types of people that enabled them to remember events from forty, fifty years ago with such clarity while others struggled to think about daily occurrences.  I got to thinking about the way that my own mind worked, and the meaningless things I would observe and note on a daily basis, yet I couldn’t remember something as significant as going to school with a set of identical twins, albeit briefly.  For example, on Wednesday morning, as I was returning the rain-soaked recycling receptacles from the pavement to the garden, I was struck by the contrast between the two bicycles which were stacked against the bottom of the stairway.  The black bike at the back was bigger and its tyres were thick with dried mud, while flashes of dirt were streaked across the well-worn bodywork.  Clearly the bike had seen a lot of off-road riding.  Slightly in front of it, nearest the door, was a white bicycle which was smaller and practically spotless in comparison and could easily have been a display model in a shop window.  Every time I left my flat my attention would go straight to the two bikes, and for days I was thinking about the variation in their use.

It was a similar situation when I opened the bathroom door at around ten o’clock the previous night, when the breeze that greeted me reminded me that I had left the window open all day.  Summer had stormed straight into autumn, bypassing the usual few weeks of indecision in September.  A daddy longlegs was flailing around the ceiling above the shower in that hapless way that that the spider does, its agitated gait forcing me to think about how it must have been to watch me on the dancefloor in Markie Dans back when people could dance in pubs.  Meanwhile, a moth took the opportunity to flea the scene.  I couldn’t imagine what had been going on in there before my interruption.  When I got out of bed the next morning the moth was sitting patiently on the small glass panel that was carved into the wall above the door to my bedroom.  I never really understood the purpose of that window, and neither did the moth, I suppose.

When I returned home from work in the evening, I was expecting to find that the moth would have moved from its position on the glass to go and do the things that moths do, but to my surprise, it was still assuming its lofty perch, despite my bedroom door being ajar all day.  Presumably something had attracted the insect to the window, to peer into the room, but there was a reluctance from it to venture inside my bedroom.  I concluded that the moth was most likely a female of the species on account of this behaviour, and it became quite comforting to know that it wasn’t going to be disturbing my sleeping chambers.  By the time it came to the business of cleaning the flat on Friday, I had forgotten all about the moth.  Things were dusted and polished and wiped in the usual manner, before I came to realise that on the windowsills throughout the place was a total of around seven dead moths.  I couldn’t fathom when my home had become a necropolis for departed winged creatures.  It felt as though there should have been a plaque somewhere.  I fetched the dustpan and brush, but not before briefly considering the merits of leaving the moths where they were as some kind of deterrent, a way of letting other beasties know that nothing ever thrives here and they would be better off leaving on their own accord.  In the end I thought better of it, worrying about the untidiness as well as the reputation I might gain.

Distractions such as memorials to moths, pristine bicycles and photographs of twins who I never knew existed were put to the back of my mind when The Unlikely Lads returned to the Lorne pub quiz for the first time since early March, finally making use of the weekly reminder I had optimistically set into my phone at the beginning of the year.  Our ensemble cast of quizzers had been trying to triumph in The Lorne for nigh upon fifteen months, coming desperately close on a couple of occasions, but ultimately always falling short.  With one of our founding members due to leave for university at the end of September, we knew that we only had two more opportunities to earn the win we had put so much blood, sweat and Tennent’s into, lest the original trio of Unlikely Lads ends their tenure winless.

The Lorne Bar had an impressive protocol for social distancing

When our team of five arrived in the pub for dinner before the quiz, we soon realised that we were the only regulars who were taking part, and one of the few teams of locals.  Most of the other tables appeared to be made up of visitors.  I couldn’t be entirely sure why, but this filled us with a sense of confidence.  The fact that we didn’t recognise anybody else in the pub had us believing that we had a better chance of winning.  I suppose that we already knew that we couldn’t beat the other regulars – the Bawbags, I-95, ‘Mon The Fish – but with a bunch of jokers that we had never seen in our lives and didn’t know anything about in terms of their ability to handle general knowledge trivia, anything could be possible.

We made a strong start, scoring 9 in the opening picture round on well-known ‘baldies’, despite some of our group misinterpreting the heading on the paper as asking us to identify famous baddies, which only made the inclusion of Sinead O’Connor all the more baffling.  Our general knowledge round was also decent, leaving us a point short of the early leaders The Pink Flamingos, who were destined to become our rivals due to them not being as inept as we had been hoping, and because they clashed with my own colour scheme.

There were some rocky moments for our quintet:  a disagreement over the colour which represents the District Line on the map of the London Underground, and basically the entire third round which consisted of questions where the answers would all feature the letter B in some form, during which we lost our way and answered at least four of them with Blantyre, which earned a rebuke from the silver-haired host.  During the round on Germany, we missed the date of reunification by a year, which in retrospect we were really frustrated with ourselves over.  Most people, I think, know that the timeline went:  1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall began; 1990 – the year of reunification; 1991 – U2 released their album Achtung Baby.

An uncanny knowledge of whisky, due in part to one of our team having spent some time working in the local distillery, and an otherwise stellar performance answering questions about the nation of Germany put us in contention for the trophy of a £25 bar voucher, though there was a tightly-packed field of teams around the top of the board.  At the end of the final picture round, we were feeling pretty good about our efforts through the night.  We were confident that we had done enough to win the quiz, and there was a heightened sense of excitement around the table.  As the silver-haired host announced the scores in ascending order, it became clear that it was going to come down to us and The Pink Flamingos.  In the end it did, and the quiz was going to be decided by a tie-break question.  It was the worst possible outcome for us, since historically as a team our attempts at answering questions which required us to guess “to the closest number” the population of a country, the number of peanuts in a jar of peanut butter, or the distance between two points had been risible.  Often our responses to such bonus questions had drawn ridicule and we featured at either end of the “answers ranging from” scale, usually miles away from the actual answer – both literally and figuratively.  It was even the case earlier in the evening, when the bonus question asked us to determine the distance of the borders around Belgium and we were wildly inaccurate.  We felt defeated.  They would have been as well just giving the bar voucher to the flamingos.

Nevertheless, we had to be grown ups about the thing, and we dusted down our disappointment and readied ourselves for the tie-break question.  The silver-haired host read aloud a list of celebrity names whose birthday it was – or would have been if they were still alive – on that day, the ninth of September, and asked us to tell him, to the closest number, the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.  We took a studious approach to the task, forensically analysing each individual figure in our collective mind and trying to accurately guesstimate their ages, adding them together to reach a total which was probably going to be several decades out anyway.  It was revealed that the winning team had come up with a number that was only two years away from the correct combined total.  The Pink Flamingos, their name now taunting me in my pink tie and socks, had given an answer of 276, whereas we had calculated 288.  We were on the edges of our seats, which as far as we knew wasn’t breaching any government health guidelines.  It transpired that even though we had reached an incorrect age for every one of the five famous names, the combined total of incorrect guesses was within two of the number the silver-haired host was looking for, which was 286.  The Pink Flamingos were left red-faced; we had finally won the quiz.

It was a real moment to savour.  We rightfully basked in the glory of the unlikeliest of pub quiz victories.  The barmaid approached our table with a £94 bill for our food and drinks, setting in motion a cavalcade of chaos as we each tried to make individual card payments which were being hampered by a weak wifi signal and a reluctant chip and pin reader. In many ways, waiting to pay for my portion of the bill was like being a bus driver in France who is waiting for a bunch of drunk Scottish priests to wake up on the side of the road.  Nothing was going to detract from our triumph, though.  In years to come I might not remember the identical Bowen twins from my primary one class, but I wasn’t likely to forget the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.

Bookmarked

When I last wore a burgundy suit it was the day of the office Christmas party and trying it on for the first time in the morning was an experience which had me thinking of the desperate efforts to close a stuffed suitcase the day before leaving on holiday.  I hadn’t worn the outfit since December; there just aren’t that many colour combinations that can be worn with a suit the shade of which wouldn’t look out of place on a wounded animal, though that wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t worn it in eight months.    What had really stopped me from wearing the suit for a second time was that I had fallen into a ditch on my way home after walking a friend up the road at the end of the night.  There was no way of knowing how long I was lying in the muddy grass that night, but the scars of the episode were still smeared across the polyester some months later, until I finally figured out which setting on the washing machine would be best for cleaning it up.  All things considered, the burgundy suit hadn’t been any more or less lucky than anything else I had worn, but it had taken me a while to reach a place where I felt comfortable wearing it again.

I was dressed in black when a group of us went to Aulay’s on a Wednesday night in August to watch Celtic play in a UEFA Champions League qualifying match against the Hungarian team Ferencvaros, where the eventual outcome of the game meant that my outfit was quite appropriate – for a change.  The new guidelines for pubs stipulated that there could be no music played and that the volume on any television sets had to be muted, which made watching the football an unusual experience.  Normally you could tell from the excitement of the crowd noise or the pitch of the commentator’s voice when it was time to look up from your pint to pay attention to the game on TV, but this was going to require us to pay attention.  To make things easier for the rest of us, our group discussed nominating one person at the table who would provide commentary on the match, though predictably the idea descended into chaos when the former Celtic and Wales international John Hartson appeared on screen and the plant doctor and one of the pub’s golfing barmen traded some fairly lamentable impressions of the Welsh accent.  They sounded more like someone from Northern Ireland who had boarded a train in Newcastle bound for Cardiff, mistakenly gotten off in Chester and stayed there for fifteen years.  It seemed better for everyone that we just watched the game in silence.

As the football kicked off, the talk around our table turned to the sign that had appeared in the window of the craft burger restaurant Gelatoburger that day to explain that their temporary closure was due to a local shortage of eggs.  I regretted having not taken that route on my way to the pub to see the sign for myself, but then you can never plan your walks around the odd things you might experience around town.  There must surely be plenty of good reasons why eggs would be such a key ingredient in a burger restaurant that the lack of them would cause the entire place to be closed for a day, but for us, the situation was as difficult to comprehend as some of the Welsh accents which had been flying around our table.

While Celtic were suffering a humiliating defeat on the silence of the big screen, we were having a time of it watching them.  For such a dispiriting night, it was a delight to be amongst people who I hadn’t seen since March.  During one break in play, or at least when nobody had alerted us to any significant goings-on, Brexit Guy leaned across the table and confided in me that he had read some of my written musings and that they had reminded him of Evelyn Waugh, whose work I admitted that I was not familiar with, though like anybody else I had heard about his book Brideshead Revisited.  I found it flattering to be compared with someone else; the idea that I could be anyone but me.  Part of me was wondering if this was an insight into Brexit Guy’s flirting technique, if he was just practising his lines on me since there wasn’t any prospect of any of us at the table interacting with a woman in the foreseeable future, the way that every so often a good chef sharpens his knives to ensure they’re working to their fullest potential.

Out of curiosity, I later researched Evelyn Waugh and found that one biography described him as being right-wing, reactionary and snobbish, which were qualities I wasn’t expecting to find in a man whom I was supposed to have reminded someone of.  When I read this, I immediately took to my journal and penned two entire pages furiously questioning whether Brexit Guy’s remarks had even been intended as a compliment at all, or if it was always a long-form insult, a treasure hunt where the map and all of the clues led to me digging up a note telling me to go and fuck myself.  Nevertheless, I went online and found a rare copy of the author’s 1938 novel Scoop, which was eventually delivered in a small sealed plastic pouch within the usual packaging.  It was unclear if this was for the book’s protection or mine, but holding it felt like clutching an actual piece of treasure.  The copy was so old that the price on the back cover was marked as “20p 4/-”, though I had always been taught to not let things like that impact me in forming a judgment.

Our Wednesday night in Aulay’s ended long after Celtic’s campaign in the Champions League did, though not nearly as unceremoniously.  It was after last orders when a young woman walked through from the public bar into the lounge.  I had seen her earlier in the evening when she arrived with a man who I presumed to be her partner.  When she reappeared, her aura brought light to the dim bar, a welcome distraction from the misery we had been watching unfold on screen.  The woman was walking around the bar, seemingly introducing herself to the few folks who were left, when she finally arrived at our table.  She extended her hand to offer a handshake while providing the information that she was from Wales.  It was just my luck that the only time a woman was suggesting making physical contact with me was in the midst of a global pandemic.  I couldn’t be sure if it was because I had drunk seven or eight pints of Tennent’s or if it was maybe all the different Welsh accents which had been going around the table through the night, but it was difficult to tell by that point if the young woman was actually Welsh or if she too was producing a dire replica of the accent.  There was no reason not to believe her story, and I was just sorry that she hadn’t arrived earlier to provide commentary on the game for us.

Less than forty-eight hours later we were back in the pub, not quite at the same table, but in a similar state.  I was wearing my burgundy suit for the first time since I had fallen into a ditch in December, and this time I was feeling comfortable in it owing to a twice-daily yoga routine.  We were largely the same group as had watched the football a couple of nights earlier, and I told Brexit Guy about the things I had learned about Evelyn Waugh.  He said that he had no idea of any of that and reiterated that my written notes had made him think of the author, and that was enough to have me swooning again.  Meanwhile, Geordie Pete had just sneezed for a sixth time, which he believed was a new record for him.  He seemed chuffed about the fact, and I wondered how many times before he had sneezed five times in the pub, only to be disappointed that it hadn’t happened again so that he could break his record.  The plant doctor and I questioned Pete about the significance of the six sneezes, and specifically if it was like a Beetlejuice scenario whereby doing something a certain number of times would summon an otherworldly being.  We were just amusing ourselves with silly jokes as we always did, and nobody was expecting that Michael Keaton was really going to appear in the pub, though a few minutes later a living spectre actually did arrive in our midst.  I don’t remember why he approached us, but he carried an uncanny resemblance to Geordie Pete.  He was tall and broad, middle-aged, with the only discernible difference really being that he had short grains of stubble on the top of his head while Geordie Pete’s temple was always as smooth as the foam on a pint of Tennent’s.  Pete’s record-breaking six sneezes had somehow, almost unbelievably, invited his doppelganger into Aulay’s, right down to the fact that the man had been visiting Oban from Stanley, which is around ten miles south of Newcastle.  We were all anxious to see what might happen if Geordie Pete sneezed again, but he never did.

At the table next to us was a group of four or five guys who were from Glasgow and seemed to be enjoying their night.  They were older than most of us, maybe in their forties, and they soon took an interest in us and our backgrounds.  One found it incredulous that we had all met in the pub and become friends over time, asking numerous times if we were sure that we weren’t actors.  It struck me as an unusual thing for a person to ask when none of the five of us could particularly be described as having movie-star looks, but having asked us all about what we do for work, the man was convinced that we were actors.  He insisted that our table resembled something from a television sketch show, and when he said it out loud I could see that he had a point.  We did sound like the set-up to a joke.  “A marine biologist, a hypnosis downloads marketer, a haematologist, a Geordie labourer and a man in a burgundy suit walk into a bar…”

It was nigh upon a week later, at around quarter to one on a Friday morning, when I had a rare match on the dating app Tinder.  For all intents and purposes, it would be the first time I would attempt to talk to a woman in that way since February, and I was excited.  Her bio stated simply that her life ambition is to have a lifetime supply of pasta, 6 cats and several dogs, and that seemed a decent place to start a conversation, so I asked how close she was to achieving her ambition.  My match responded within minutes, telling me that she had amassed a month’s worth of pasta, which I learned was casareccia.  I had never heard of casareccia pasta and had to search for it on Google to get an idea of what it looked like.  My observation of the pasta was that it looked like it would be good for containing sauce, which my match confirmed, calling it the “supreme pasta for containing sauce.”  Even though it was early, both in our conversation and the day, I was feeling hopeful that we had already made a connection.

My admission that I’d had to Google casareccia since my knowledge of the different types of pasta extended only to those stocked by my local Lidl prompted my chat companion to suggest that she would like to start some marketing campaign to bring casareccia into local supermarkets so that more people could find it.  My response was to remark that “Casareccia should be easiereccia, right?”  The discussion fell silent.  There was nothing for days.  Presumably there never would be again.  When I thought about it with the benefit of hindsight over the weekend, I came to the realisation that things might have turned out better if I had told my Tinder match that her prose reminded me of Evelyn Waugh.