The Queen’s Gambit

Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end.  For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year?  It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess.  The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it.  As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy.  The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess.  I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.

Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for.  There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess.  Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start.  For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger.  After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.  

Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course.  Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound.  If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!”  It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar.  Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on:  I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how.  Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face.  Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.

I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities.  Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense.  Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times?  I asked myself.  My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks.  Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus.  Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside.  Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him.  Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?

We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect.  The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background.  Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party.  I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.

It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree.  Santa had been.  I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic.  It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning.  I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve.  I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead.  Blunder!

Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year.  I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing.  Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.

I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day.  I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth.  It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it.  It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement:  my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge.  My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it.  They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years.  It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it.  Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles.  Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.

It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley.  I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted.  They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn.  Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within.  It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”

Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits.  Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy.  My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks.  It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask.  I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.  

One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows.  He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set.  We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows.  My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch.  My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.

Tagebücher eines einzelnen Mannes

As I have grown older, I seem to have gotten better at Christmas shopping.  My ability in the department of gift buying is seemingly akin to a fine wine; not that my budget would ever allow me to be that generous with my presents.  It isn’t that the quality of my gifts has improved over the years – just ask my sister, who to this day still regrets the 12-inch traditional crepe maker that I handed over on Christmas Day 2019 and which enjoyed substantial use throughout the subsequent months of lockdown – but more a case that I have become better at getting my shopping out of the way early in the festive period.  Of course, I would still be found on my knees on the floor of my living room on Christmas Eve 2019, surrounded by a jigsaw of discarded wrapping paper, grunting and cursing as I attempted to fold the corners of the red sheet neatly into place around a Peppa Pig sticker book, with scrumpled snowmen smiling smugly up at me, but at least I could say that I had done my shopping.

The main benefit of making sure that I had bought presents for everybody else early in the month was that it meant I could spend more time buying things for myself.  In the weeks before Christmas, I looked to get myself into the spirit of the season by making a couple of visits to the Oban Beer Seller to stock up on some suitably festive drinks for the period ahead.  The shop was a veritable Santa’s grotto of goodies tucked away in the shadow of McCaig’s Tower and opposite the Distillery on Stafford Street, which, when all lit up, could so easily have been a scene fashioned from gingerbread on a decorative carousel.  Christmas-inspired beers had long been one of my favourite things about the month of December.  Nothing quite said Christmas to me like drinking those themed beers whilst watching the Bill Murray film Scrooged by an open fire, or underneath around half a dozen layers as the case was in the years after I moved into my own flat.  The best ones were usually chocolate porters or dark ales, sometimes sweetened with flavours of berries or honey, and often finished with the spice of the season, cinnamon.  It was a different taste to the alcohol we were allowed to drink at the table during the Christmas dinners of our youth, usually a Babycham or a glass of Bucks Fizz, when I would like to try and convince everybody that I was drunk, unlike when I was older and I would insist that I wasn’t drunk and could handle one more drink.  Nobody was for believing it on either occasion.

Those beers always had the most wonderful names, sobriety breaking sobriquets such as Santa Paws, Fairytale of Brew York, Hoppy Christmas, and Winter Mess, which seemed a particularly fitting purchase in 2020 of all years.  I loaded a canvas bag full with beers, eleven of them in total, at which point Karen asked me if I would like to pick up one more, since she was offering a free glass worth £4.99 with every dozen beers bought.  In that moment, nothing made more sense to me than buying another can of beer and obtaining the free glass that it could be enjoyed in.  It always seemed foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth, let alone a gift glass in the rim, and I picked up an oat lager to complete my order.  I had officially finished my Christmas shopping for the year, and in the process was treated to my first gift with it.

There’s almost nothing that brings as much hope as a bag filled with beers does.  It is as though the entire world is within reach, just the cracking of a can away.  With hops the possibilities seem limitless, you can go anywhere and be anyone.  It was on one of those drunken journeys, I came to believe, that I finally got around to ordering The Tender Bar, a book which had been recommended to me by a woman in our album club.  She had suggested to me some months earlier that I would enjoy the memoir by J.R. Moehringer since he writes in the same loving, almost romantic, way about his favourite local bar that I often speak of Aulay’s.  By the middle of December, Aulay’s had become just like any other romance I had enjoyed in my life.  The pub had been closed due to government restrictions since October and the good times spent there had become a distant memory; the former lover who no longer calls or texts, its presence on the street not much more than a spectre.  Does she think of me as much as I think about her?  I would ask myself every time I passed the empty bar, the faint smell of Tennent’s still lingering in the mind.

The book was delivered to my dad’s like all of my packages were, since the mailbox at my flat was seemingly designed for nothing much larger than a Christmas card.  I could tell that something wasn’t right as soon as I tore open the World of Books package and spied the dog-eared red sticker attached near the bottom-right of the book’s cover informing whoever happened to be holding the copy in their hands that the book was a Der Spiegel bestseller.  I knew from my high school language classes that Der Spiegel is a popular German news magazine, and it struck me as being odd that it was considered that the fact The Tender Bar is a bestseller in Germany was something I should know about.  Who buys a book because it sold well in Germany?

When I turned the book over to read the synopsis on the back, I was given my second clue that things had gone awry.  The words were unintelligible and offered me no indication as to the romantic sentimentalities of the memoir.  It was printed entirely in German.  The book I was holding was the Deutsche edition which, according to the price on the barcode, retailed for €9.95.  I could hardly believe that such a thing could happen.  First I bought a pizza that unbeknownst to me had mushrooms amidst the topping, and now this.  It was apparent that I was going to have to pay more attention to product descriptions when I was shopping, though surely the fact that the book was printed in German would have been quite obvious on the website.  

I tried to console myself with the knowledge that, really, it wasn’t my fault that I had bought the wrong book, it could have happened to anyone. In an effort to lighten my mood, I liked to imagine that this particular copy of The Tender Bar had been bought and sold again over and over through the World of Books store, purchased by one bookworm after another, completely unaware that it was a German edition that would be useless to anyone who didn’t understand the language, then hastily sold on again out of embarrassment.  No-one would be willing to own up to the mistake they had made in buying a book that they could never read, and it would just be passed around for eternity without a word spoken about it, sort of like the way someone gifts you a bottle of vodka when you are a whisky drinker and you sneakily change the label on the gift bag and give it to someone else at their next birthday.

I wasn’t in the mood to re-gift my German copy of The Tender Bar, not even as a joke, and in fact, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about Christmas at all, especially after it was announced that Scotland would effectively be going back into lockdown from the 26th.  Despite feeling pretty pleased with myself for once again doing a good job with my shopping – for other people, at least – December just didn’t seem very Christmassy, even though many places around town looked to be decorated with much more flair than in previous years.  There were some especially striking light displays on the outsides of houses and hotels, although it seemed unusual to me that they would go to such an effort when presumably most of the hotels were empty due to the pandemic.  Lights of all colours would dance exuberantly around the exterior of dark hotels, giving the appearance of a disco that nobody had turned up for.  From my own perspective, things were bleak enough without me adding my own dismal decorations to the mix.  I just couldn’t bring myself to dust off the tiny old Christmas tree I had inherited from the 1990s or to line up along the edge of my mantel place the three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines I had bought a couple of years earlier, knowing that the little Santa, reindeer and snowman ornaments would be my only prospect of company for the foreseeable future.  That had been the case in previous years, of course, but at least then I could tell myself that there was a chance it wouldn’t be.  At times in December I was feeling like a cheap cracker that has just been pulled apart to no fanfare:  the bang just isn’t there, and all that’s left is a stupid joke that nobody finds funny. 

Christmas in the midst of a pandemic was always going to be a strange thing.  Ordinarily, the last working Friday before the big day would have been set aside for our office party, but like everything else, such things weren’t possible under the restrictions of the time.  Instead, I went to the Lorne’s beer garden with the plant doctor, where I met up with a work colleague and her friend.  It was the first time I had shared a drink with the young island woman since the night of the Royal Rumpus music event in February, when it would be more accurate to say that she had shared a drink with my shoes.  Perhaps one of the advantages of social distancing was that our groups were sat at separate tables and we could enjoy our drinks in the conventional way.  At an adjacent table was sitting a man who was shaped like a Christmas pudding, and he struck up a conversation with the plant doctor and myself by asking us how many grapes or potatoes we thought a person with diabetes was allowed to eat in a single day.  The plant doctor approached the question in a typically scientific manner, reasoning that it would depend on the diabetic’s diet and body mass as well as the type and size of the potato, amongst other factors.  All I could think about was how terrible an existence it must be to have to log every item of food you eat in a day, even a single grape.  It would probably be easier now, in the times of Covid, when people don’t have much better to do with their lives.  But any other time?  What a chore.

“And bananas,” the man interjected, as though suddenly remembering.  “How many of those are you allowed to eat if you have diabetes?”  He had initially seemed quite suspicious of me and the plant doctor when we arrived in the beer garden wearing our face coverings, his narrow-eyed glances almost questioning:  what the hell do you think you’re doing wearing that shit out here?  I wondered if all of these questions about grapes and potatoes were what he did when he sensed a weakness about another person, a test of sorts.  We tried our best to answer sensibly, but how could we know what it would be like to be diabetic?  It wouldn’t be much different to trying to read the German edition of a book you’d mistakenly bought online without knowing a word of the language.  “How many of those can you have?”  I finally asked, nodding my head in the direction of his half-empty glass of Tennent’s Lager.  “Ah, I drink pints of the stuff every day and it’s never done me any harm,” he said with a smile, and I presumed that we had passed his test.

The plant doctor and I turned our attention to reminiscing about the night a year or so earlier when I returned to his flat after the pub and he tricked me into eating mushrooms, which were deep within the biggest omelette I had ever seen.  Hearing the phrase “tricked me into eating mushrooms” seemed to draw the attention of the young women who were in our company at the next table.  Maybe they hadn’t been landed with the pair of dweeby dorks they first thought they were with.  “Were they magic?”  One of them asked, almost giddy.  We were quickly forced into confessing that we weren’t the fun guys the girls were suddenly picturing and we had in fact only eaten a mushroom omelette with regular store-bought mushrooms – or half-eaten, in my case, once I’d discovered the grizzly secret ingredient.

From across the garden another man was keen to have his voice heard.  The figure resembled a scarecrow who wasn’t having very much success in its role; a dirty red baseball cap sat atop a mop of hair the same shade as the fur of an invasive species of squirrel.  He was a fascinating fella who had clearly been rehomed in The Lorne from one of the town’s less salubrious establishments, though for all his quirks he seemed harmless enough, even if he did briefly threaten to ignite a Hebridean war with my colleague when he announced that he hails from Coll and anyone who is from Mull is a “fake islander.”  I never really understood his claim, though it did at least result in what at one stage seemed like it could have been an endless supply of “Coll girl” puns.

What struck me most about the man – who called himself George, though I wasn’t sure how much I believed it – was a particular turn of phrase he used at the height of his bombastic blethering.  I wasn’t paying attention closely enough to pick up on the context, but he was talking about a conversation he had apparently had with his mother, who it was to be presumed is dead.  In this discussion, she had told her son that she hoped to see him in heaven soon because, in his words, “I’m due a good few clatterings.”

It was a phrase that was stuck in my thoughts for days, the sort that you only ever hear when you’re drunk in the pub.  One night in the pub with friends and colleagues, listening to strange characters and their unusual ways with words, had given my bleak festive blues a good clattering.  I woke up on my couch early on Saturday morning, still fully clothed in my zebra-coloured tie and my black sweater vest, my trousers and my shoes, and I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was schadenfreude or a winter mess. 

A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.