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.