In the sort of occurrence that can really make a person step back and take stock of how their life is going, I was recently on the receiving end of a diss from a garden centre Santa. It wasn’t a cruel jibe or a personal insult per se, but until that moment I had never been dissed by a man who impersonates Santa Claus for a living in the approach to Christmas, and these things only ever give pause for reflection. In the days since the incident, I have been doing little else but think back on the events immediately leading up to Santa’s slam and trying to determine for myself whether or not there was something in his words. In my quieter moments, towards the end of my morning meditation, for example, I would convince myself that the faux Father Christmas had gotten it all wrong; that an old man who operates out of a shed at the back of a garden centre couldn’t possibly know enough about me to make the kind of judgment he did. But something about it was still haunting me, and in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help from thinking that he might have had a point.
On the last Friday in November, my sister drove my brother and me up to Inverness so that we could all take my niece to the virtual reality sleigh ride at Simpsons Garden Centre on Sunday morning. At least, we were telling anybody who would listen that we were going to see Santa for our five-year-old niece, but the truth is that we were just as excited about it as she was. We used to travel up north to visit mum’s side of the family quite often when we were growing up, but I hadn’t made the trip since we went to the Belladrum Tartan Heart music festival in the summer of 2014. The drive on this occasion made me think a lot of those journeys as kids when dad would play the same mixtape on repeat every time. Without even looking you could almost map where we were on the route by which song was playing: Sit Down by James, Radio Wall of Sound by Slade, Joyride by Roxette. In an attempt to recreate the memory, we synched a phone to the car’s SatNav system and streamed a 90s playlist from Spotify. It seems to be that nostalgia and Christmas go together like mulled wine and mince pies; pine trees and fairy lights; the eighties Swedish pop duo Roxette and a family car journey to Inverness.
It was funny to think back on those trips and how I would struggle to make it as far as Fort William – or through one play of dad’s mixtape – without feeling car sick. I had a terrible stomach for travel sickness. It’s something that I appear to have grown out of, and this time the journey was a breeze – even with the conditions outside the car being far from a breeze, as 65 miles per hour winds from Storm Arwen raged across the country. If I hadn’t already given up my lunch by the time we stopped in Fort William then it was a near certainty that I would find myself on the shore of Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit with Urquhart Castle in the distance. There aren’t many more picturesque places to be sick, as the tour buses at the side of the road would attest. The old ruin wasn’t visible this time due to the thick veil of mist that was drawn across it by the winter storm, but I could picture it all the same. Back in those childhood days of weak-stomached travel there is a case that could have been made for the role played by Smarties in my car sickness, whilst as adults we were all snacking on oranges, Royal Gala apples and those mini cheese bites with the herbs on top. Time, as well as Covid, has changed us.
While my sister stayed outside the city with her friend Hannah for the weekend, my brother and I took residence in a city centre flat along the bank of the River Ness. It was an ideal location for sampling some of Inverness’s watering holes. Just a ten minute walk away was Glenalbyn Bar, whose sign advertised it as being “the oldest pub on the west of the river.” It seems that these days every pub has to claim that it’s the oldest in some category. The place wasn’t particularly busy for a Friday night, but it seemed friendly enough, and it was difficult to argue against the accuracy of the sign once you had seen the interior decor and the clientele. We were advised by the barmaid that it would be best not to take a seat in the large leather chairs by the corner of the bar since many people seemingly have a habit of falling asleep in them, but such was my brother’s and my confidence in our youth and the proximity of the seats to the bar that we felt we could risk it. As it turned out, the leather chairs were fantastically comfortable and it’s likely that the only reason we didn’t doze off in them was because someone had put a Slipknot song on the jukebox. In my list of places where I would least expect to hear heavy metal music, Glenalbyn Bar is right up there with Monster Fish & Chips, where we stopped in Fort Augustus earlier in the day and could hear the drumbeat from the car park.
The music was considerably better in MacGregor’s on Academy Street, where a man who was wearing a cream straw hat and a white tie with black musical notes played classic rock songs on the piano. It was impossible to imagine that anybody ever comes to MacGregor’s just to hear this guy play, but there was at least a table of women who were seated in the corner near the door who lapped it up and I believe even convinced him to come back for an encore. My favourite part of his performance was when he segued from Space Oddity into Rocket Man, a transition that was almost as smooth as the Cromarty beers on tap. I told a couple of locals I met the next day about the pianist and they immediately knew who I was talking about. That being said, they spoke of a chap who “looks scruffy but plays better than he dresses” which was not at all the impression I had of him. Maybe the tie was a bit gimmicky, but as someone who has been known to match his pocket square to the colour of his socks, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything.
By the time we returned back along the river at the end of the night, Storm Arwen had really taken hold. My blue corduroy jacket couldn’t be pulled tightly enough around my body to shield it from the biting winds, which according to reports had already forced the closure of much of the rail network in the north and east of the country. Small snowflakes were seemingly suspended in mid-air, caught up in a struggle between gravity and the storm force winds. It could have made for the perfect festive scene, against the backdrop of Christmas lights and the sight of the moon peeking out from behind black clouds over the shoulder of Inverness Castle, had it not been for the fact that the wind was reaching into the very core of my body and tormenting my bladder the way it was ScotRail’s timetable, which was making it dangerous to stop and admire the view.
Although the snow seemingly never did make it all the way to the ground in Inverness, the roads and towns on the outskirts of the city were full of it, adding to my niece’s excitement when we all visited Smyths toy store the next morning. The shelves in this place were stacked so high that even if you craned your neck the way you would gaze up at the stars in the sky, you still wouldn’t see the very top. Every shelf down every aisle was greeted with a breathless “oh wow!” from my niece. I could just about relate to how she was feeling: Smyths is very much to a five-year-old toy lover as Oban Beer Seller is to a grown-up craft beer drinker.
Even when we were sitting in the popular coffee chain next door recovering over a cup of extravagantly priced froth and she spied a young man walking in wearing a Smyths uniform it provoked a great deal of animation. At the time I wondered at what age we lose that wide-eyed wonder for absolutely everything, but really, I don’t think that we actually do lose it – we just have to work harder at it. Following the multiple lockdowns of 2020/21, I’ve been finding that I get a thrill from doing all the simple things that I probably took for granted before, such as standing at the bar in Aulay’s on a Friday night or going out for dinner with friends. I was ecstatic upon finding a pair of green chinos when I was browsing in Next having arrived in Inverness to the realisation that I had only brought the trousers I was wearing. It was the same twelve hours earlier in MacGregor’s when the pianist eased from Space Oddity into Rocket Man.
With a fresh head of steam gained from our mugs of milk and steam, we ventured forth to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, which was resplendent in Christmas lights and decorations of all shapes and sizes. There was an enormous sleigh suspended above the escalator, gift-wrapped presents dangling wherever you looked, stars, reindeer, and baubles the size of your head. As we approached the old part of the building, we were suddenly reminded of the Noah’s Ark clock which dominates the back wall. It is one of only six such automation clocks of its kind in the UK. Each hour a monkey climbs up to the top of a tree and chimes a bell in order to tell those shoppers who aren’t carrying smartphones what time of day it is, while a piece of organ music plays and some of the windows of the ark open out to showcase a different animal every hour. I think we got a pair of reindeer, which I don’t remember featuring in the original Biblical tale, but I suppose Christmas is a time for indulgence. At midday each day the clock embellishes us with an even more dramatic display when all of the windows are opened and the entire diorama operates. As children visiting the Eastgate Centre with our parents all those years ago we would sit patiently on the nearby benches for up to thirty minutes before the hour waiting to watch this event, as though waiting for the lights to come down at the theatre, and on a good shopping trip we might even see it a second time. In some ways, I think we were probably more excited about the clock than my niece was.
When my sister and Hannah carried on to go shopping at one of the larger outlets outside the city centre, it left my brother and me with the unplanned opportunity to go to the pub and watch the football scores on television, in a turn of events that I can only imagine as being similar to rounding a corner and finding a display full of L.O.L. Surprise dolls. With the addition of a rare treble coming in for a grand winning of £11.35, it was just about the best Saturday ever.
Those additional digits in my online betting account proved useful when my brother and I took a £30 taxi from Inverness out to the Cottage Bar & Restaurant in the village of Maryburgh, where we had reserved a table for dinner with my sister and the rest of our family. Our driver was a friendly and talkative young fellow who professed that he had once driven the 66 miles from Inverness to Fort William in under an hour and a half. Having never been behind the wheel of a car myself it was difficult to know how to react to such a claim, but I think we were supposed to be impressed. If nothing else, we at least knew that we were probably going to arrive at the pub well before six o’clock, although it is probably the uneasiest my stomach has felt in the back seat of a car without having a bellyful of Smarties.
The Cottage is a cosy little family-run bar with further tables for dining out in the conservatory. It was the perfect setting for catching up with family who we hadn’t seen for too many years. I learned that my uncle is a huge fan of the four-piece Irish band U2, which for some reason surprised me. It seems like the sort of thing you should know about a close relative, especially when we had seen them play on the same tour, albeit on different dates. At the bar, over a pint of Cromarty’s wonderful local pale ale Happy Chappy, we even met a man who had left Oban more than forty years ago and worked with our grandfather in the hydro. People from Oban have a habit of getting everywhere. My attention was caught by an A4 poster on the wall behind the bar which was advertising the drawing of the monthly “meat raffle” due to take place that night. I wondered what the letters M.E.A.T stood for, presuming that it must be an acronym for some cause benefitting the surrounding area, and thought of how funny it would be if customers were buying tickets for this lottery without realising that the prizes on offer were, in fact, entirely cuts of meat.
As I discovered when the barmaid arrived at the table during our meal with a book of raffle tickets, a meat raffle is exactly that – a drawing where the winners each receive a different piece of meat. I couldn’t believe it, though since my luck seemed to be in for the day I paid a pound for one ticket. If I had thought it through I would have realised that transporting any winnings back down the road on a three-hour car journey on Monday would have been ridiculous, but a pound stake for a steak seemed too good a deal to pass up. The draw was being held back in the main bar, and my sister took her daughter through to watch the ceremony. To my niece’s delight, she was invited to assist with the raffle – an important job that was seemingly no less exciting than an entire shop filled with toys. Within minutes she appeared back in the conservatory clutching a green ticket and the whole chicken that evidently my uncle’s wife had won. The same act was repeated moments later when Donna had the winning number for a joint of beef, at which point I began hoping that no one else from our table would win a prize. I worried how the whole scene might look to the regulars in the pub when this five-year-old was just so happening to pull out all of the tickets that were bought by the adults at her table. It was all I could do to imagine the front page of the following Monday’s edition of the Press & Journal: “Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme.” It would be impossible for us to show our faces at any fête or fundraising gala ever again. We were innocent, of course, but then everybody says that.
Sunday was the big day, the one in which we were scheduled to meet Santa, and it began with an unusual request. We were due to meet our sister in the city centre sometime after 10:30 en route to making our way to Simpsons Garden Centre, however, our niece had awoken with a desire to wear a Christmas party dress like my sister and Hannah were kitted out in, and my brother and I were given the task of venturing across the river to Primark to pick one out. Whilst I have amassed plenty of experience in shopping for chinos and corduroy trousers, I’m not as familiar with what I’m looking for in terms of dresses for a five-year-old girl. I had never knowingly been in a Primark before, but it struck me as being the retail equivalent of international waters; a place transcending boundaries and laws. There were some people who had clearly wandered in there without knowing where they were going and they couldn’t find their way back out. Who knows how long they had been there. Typically, the girls clothing section was as far away from the entrance as you could get. To our surprise, there wasn’t an abundance of Christmas party dresses, and it took a bit of effort to find the two they had left in stock. It didn’t take very long for me to become aware that we were two men in our late thirties wearing black masks, a dazed look in our eyes and doubtless the fragrance of stale Happy Chappy still clinging to my corduroy jacket, wading our way through the girls section of Primark at 10.30 on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t help but feel that we were attracting curious glances from passing mothers, and not the sort of looks we’re usually hoping for. Suddenly Monday’s Press & Journal was looking worse and worse.
Fortunately, of the two dresses Primark had one of them was in our niece’s size, and she was so delighted to receive it that she conducted an outfit change in the car park of Simpsons Garden Centre. You don’t want to meet Santa without wearing your party dress, after all. Before we could see the man in red we were taken through the virtual reality sleigh ride experience, though only after we had resolved some confusion caused by the fact that we had somehow booked tickets for two different dates. We arrived at the right time but three-and-a-half weeks early for one slot and thirty minutes late for the second. The elves were thankfully very understanding of our predicament and helped rearrange Santa’s entire schedule to accommodate us. Our group of six was led through to sit in the large mechanical sleigh, where we were each handed a sanitised set of yellow goggles that felt as heavy as an Argos catalogue. If I’d thought that I was going to be wrapping something like this around my head then I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time combing my hair before we left the flat.
The ride itself was probably more enjoyable for the adults amongst us, with the presentation taking us through the skies of cities such as London and New York City and then out into orbit, looking back down on planet Earth before guiding us to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. It was pretty cool, though it ended with one of Santa’s animated helpers informing us that we had failed the trial to join his team on Christmas Eve and that they were just going to carry on delivering presents themselves. I don’t know, I felt like I could have done without a virtual reality failure being added to all of the real ones. From there we walked through Santa’s living room, which had a human-sized taxidermied owl and an enormous bear dressed in a three-piece tweed suit sitting on a golden throne. As far as feng shui goes, Santa’s energy is all over the place.
Meeting Santa was always a magical experience, I seem to remember. It didn’t matter if one week he was big and jolly when dropping in to the primary school Christmas party and the next he had gone through a remarkable weight loss programme to greet children in the Caledonian Hotel, or if his whiskers had a distinct whiff of tobacco. Our capacity for suspending disbelief when young is incredible. The Simpsons Garden Centre Santa was on the short side, had little festive cheer to speak of around the stomach department and was clean-shaven on his cheeks, with only an explosion of fluffy white covering the front of his face like an oversized surgical mask. He was very pleasant, though, and seemed to be following the How To Be Santa Claus manual to the letter. Santa asked the usual questions about what my niece would like to receive from him on the 25th of December, what she would be leaving out for him to eat and drink when he visits on Christmas Eve and whether or not her house has a chimney. Upon hearing that there is no chimney in my sister’s home, Santa showed us the key he uses to enter any house in the world that doesn’t have a fireplace for him to flop down into. It was pretty big, probably as long as a good-sized television remote control – the sort of thing that would be a nightmare to find a replacement for in Timpsons if it was ever lost.
Santa asked my niece about everyone who had come along with her to meet him, and when she reached my brother and me at the end of the room he paused. On the desk before him were a few different sheets of paper, which Santa reached for. He repeated our names and announced that, as he suspected, both of us were on his naughty list. My niece found this greatly amusing and laughed out loud, whereas on the inside I was seething. It seemed like an unnecessary slight on my character, particularly when one of my most proficient failures is my effort to get on anybody else’s naughty list. I couldn’t understand where the garden centre Santa got off making such a statement, especially when he doesn’t have the powers to see everything as the actual Santa has. Maybe if he had witnessed my part in the suspected ruse to defraud the Cottage Bar’s meat raffle of its two main prizes I could concede my place on the naughty list, but then nothing was ever proven, and by rights our entire family should have been struck from the nice list if that was the standard Santa was holding.
Usually garden centres are a place of boundless optimism, filled with all of these beautiful plants that you look at and imagine how much colour and life they could bring to your home. It is easy to believe that I might one day get around to taking care of a plant like the ones you see there, even if in reality it never happens. My optimism was being stifled by Santa’s barbed comments, however, and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Even when Simpsons had an assortment of Christmas decorations as far as the eye could see and every fragrance you could think of, from scented candles to bath bombs to chocolate, I could think of nothing but the fake Santa’s announcement that I was on his fake naughty list. Word was beginning to spread around that my niece had confided in my sister that Santa had probably put my brother and me on the naughty list due to all the wine we drink, which was the moment I realised that we were probably going to be stuck on his list forever, despite being told by him that we had around twenty-seven days to change our ways and be transferred to the nice list.
The episode was still playing on my mind when we went out for a couple of games of bowling at the Inverness Rollerbowl later in the afternoon. Bowling, like seeing Santa, isn’t something that I had done since being much younger, and I could only hope that it would go better than that particular event. Somehow the red and blue bowling shoes complimented my navy corduroy attire quite well, which made me feel more at ease with things. I had never considered what a bowling look should be, but I think I pulled it off. The shoes were actually so comfortable that I walked out of the place at the end of the night with them still on my feet and didn’t realise until my uncle pointed out my mistake. Imagine adding the theft of a size 12 pair of bowling shoes to the shame of rigging a meat raffle and being caught wandering around the girls clothing section in Primark. The woman behind the counter didn’t seem too perturbed when I walked back inside and confessed to my crime. Apparently they see this sort of thing all the time, and often people will phone the alley when they get home and realise that they are still wearing the bowling shoes.
Away from the catwalk and onto the actual sport, my niece opened our game by knocking down nine pins with the very first bowl of her life. Despite having the advantage of the bumpers that are available to children, she didn’t even need them on her second round when she rolled the ball straight down the middle of the lane and hit a strike. Things were going so well for her that she was developing her own wee victory dance after every round she played. I threw two gutters in my first round; the pins weren’t even close to being troubled, and everyone else was fairly terrible, too. It was gutting.
I went up to the bar hoping that another beer would be the thing to help improve my hand-eye coordination. It’s my experience that alcohol at least gives the illusion of developing better physical qualities. The young woman who was tending bar had hair that was as dark as a stormy winter night, and as she poured my drinks I thought to ask if she could see the spectacle that was unfolding on lane 22. I described the way that my five-year-old niece was giving us all a bowling lesson and how I had to get myself out of there after completely missing the pins with my first two attempts. She laughed as I explained how all this had come after I was mercilessly dissed by the garden centre Santa. “It sounds like you’re having a pretty bad day,” she said with the kind of sympathy that only a barmaid can have for a drunk bowler. It is difficult to say with any certainty whether it was the beer or the sound of someone laughing at my jokes, but I returned to our game and found that I could suddenly bowl. Within minutes I actually smashed a strike. Throughout my life, I have become used to striking out, but this was different altogether.
Although it was probably only in my head, things were beginning to heat up in a competitive sense. I could tell that my niece was starting to tire of the game as it reached the later rounds, as is always likely to happen when you’re five and there’s an arcade full of games to explore. The closer the margin between our scores narrowed, the more desperate I became to win. Perhaps the best thing for an uncle to do when it became clear that a competent final round would snatch a comeback win right out of the hands of his niece would be to roll the ball into the gutter and allow her to have the glory. Maybe anybody else would have done that. But the way I saw it, my niece would have forgotten all about whether she won or lost her first game of bowling by the time she fell asleep that night. It wasn’t like meeting Santa, exploring the vast aisles of Smyths toy store, drawing the tickets for a meat raffle, or even listening to a mixtape on a long car journey.
For me, on the other hand, winning a game of bowling – even against my five-year-old niece – was everything. It would probably be the achievement I would remember years from now when everybody else I know is proudly talking about their career, their wife and their children. So I picked up the medium-sized purple ball which had become my weapon of choice in this battle, strode up to the line and bowled a strike to win the game. The garden centre Santa might have been right about me all along, but at least now I could justify it.