When the chips are down

A thick mist hung over Oban for several days in the week before Christmas, which if nothing else had the benefit of hiding the town’s thin display of festive lights from view.  It made for quite an eerie spectacle around the area when all you could see was the distant islands wrapped up in a veil of fog, their vaguely visible lumps resembling the appearance of my own crudely papered gifts, or the way the tree in Argyll Square would suddenly emerge from the haze the way a cocktail stick does from a cloudy alcoholic concoction.  The entire weekend was as though we were existing within the pages of a Stephen King novella, though it was impossible to say which one.

Nowhere was this more true than out in Pennyfuir Cemetery, where we took a family trip shortly after Santa had visited The Happy Wee Health Club. Graveyards are spooky places by their very nature, often found in remote locations surrounded by dark, bare trees, usually with an old church nearby; and the cold, low-lying mist on this occasion only added to that atmosphere. Just inside the gates at Pennyfuir sits a set of public toilets alongside an enclosed seating area which is described by a sign above its entrance as a “waiting room.” It’s hard not to be struck by the rich black comedy of there being a waiting room by the cemetery gates. Those benches are surely the least worn anywhere in Argyll. They could have labelled it anything else and it would have been better: seated area, benches, shelter, living room. Once I saw it I couldn’t stop from wondering if it was deliberate; a disgruntled council employee’s idea of fun on their last day in the job, or did they really name this little hut at the entrance of the cemetery the “waiting room” without realising the connotation?

After we accompanied dad to lay some flowers at mum’s grave, we all took a wander around the rest of the site on our way out.  Some of the headstones around the place are majestic, particularly the much older ones from the turn of the last century that are as big as a fully-grown adult.  It was fascinating to read many of the tributes engraved on these stones.  You felt as though you were getting a small insight into the life the person lived.  Not quite the full story, but something akin to reading the back cover of a book.  A handful of the inscriptions were a little more on the disturbing side, though.  I read one on the stone of an infant child that mentioned the cause of death being a hospital procedure, which is the first time I can remember seeing such a thing.  Closeby, a headstone stated how the poor soul below had died in the Royal Hotel in 1927, whilst another made it known that the deceased had passed in number 33 Combie Street.  I have always known that it’s only natural that over the years people will have died on the street where I live, and even in the very same flat I’m currently residing in, but it isn’t something I have ever given any thought to.  Something about seeing the name of my street on a gravestone sent a chill down my spine, and I suppose it would have in mid-July, let alone a misty afternoon the week before Christmas.  It seemed so final.  I couldn’t help from thinking that a hundred years from now someone else would be wandering around Pennyfuir, their hair badly combed and troubled by the breeze, and from looking at my own headstone they might know me only by the fact that I once lived across the street from the Oban Grill House.

As well as visiting mum’s grave around the anniversary of her death on 17 December and what would have been her birthday on the 19th, another tradition our family has that is perhaps more in keeping with the festive spirit is when we get together for an evening of mulled wine consumption.  Most other years we have done this on the night when the town’s Christmas lights have been switched on, but because we were in Inverness this year, we saved it for the last Saturday before Christmas.  Since it had been agreed that we would all spend the big day at my brother’s flat, he and I ventured out to Benderloch for mulled wine at my sister’s place.  I’m always impressed by the spread of food she lays out for guests.  We enjoyed mince pies, cheese of all varieties, grapes of every shade, crackers, and venison burgers.  I hosted the mulled wine night once, in 2018, and was questioned as to why I had prepared the bottle of wine in a pot with a whole, unpeeled orange sitting in the drink.  The only downside this time was my inability to savour as much of the cheese as I ordinarily would have on account of being challenged to eat an entire cheese plate by a waitress at Soroba House the previous evening.  I believe that I won the dare, although nothing about how I was feeling afterwards suggested that I was a successful man.

While the usual songs of the season streamed from a nearby Alexa device, a pack of playing cards was produced and it was suggested that we should entertain ourselves with a round of poker.  I had never played a hand of any card game more complicated than snap, whilst at five years of age my niece had yet to be introduced to casino contests, so it was going to be up to my siblings to coach the youngest and oldest participants at the table.  The first problem we faced was that we didn’t have any chips to place our bets with.  We thought about dividing the stems of grapes amongst us, but they were much too juicy to last through more than a couple of hands.  Our next best alternative was to use my niece’s collection of small, glossy, paperback books.  There had to have been around sixty of these things, each one brightly coloured and depicting popular children’s stories.  We shared the substitute chips out evenly between the four of us and embarked on a quick run through the basics of the game before playing it for real.

The first few hands were quite cagey, with more folding than is seen in the Mandarin Laundry.  We each won a hand to add to our pile of books, but the truth is that as novices neither my niece nor I had any idea what we were doing.  It quickly occurred to me that the skills needed to be successful at poker – a good poker face, the ability to refrain from going “all in” at the first time of asking, as well as having a great deal of luck – are exactly the ones I am lacking when it comes to interacting with women.  Somehow, though, it didn’t matter that most of them were missing from my poker game since a lot of the time I was able to bluff and wing my way through.  

Despite not having any idea of the value of the cards we were holding in relation to the ones being turned over on the table, my niece and I embarked on a strategy of recklessly raising the stakes on every move.  Sometimes by as many as three or four books at a time.  It was a real test of nerves, but it’s easy to hold your nerve when you have no clue what you’re doing.  When the final card was turned and fortune decreed that whatever cards I was holding were better than my niece’s, I won a tremendous bundle of books.  My five-year-old competitor became upset.  Not only did she hate losing, but she also realised that she had lost her favourite book.  From the next round forward we had to wait an eternity as she leafed through her collection to determine which tale it was safe to gamble.  There was a valuable life lesson in there somewhere, but I was too busy trying to figure out why I had won to realise what it was.

Either side of the high-stakes poker game, the days were clouded with the fog of alcohol as well as the meteorological phenomenon of condensed water vapour. Hours after my mulled wine win, across the bar in Aulay’s, I was asked by the podcasting phycologist how I was doing. When I told her that I was feeling kinda rough, she took a couple of steps back, despite already being a decent social distance away from me. It was then that I remembered that in 2021 we have to be more expansive when telling others about our physical wellbeing lest the situation is misinterpreted and a round of lateral flow tests need to be ordered. I immediately sought to soothe the situation. “Don’t worry, it’s only the Tennent’s variant,” I insisted to a look questioning what on earth I was talking about. “I’m hungover, basically.”

A group of us went out to watch the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Hibernian the following afternoon when I was still in recovery from the aforementioned ailment.  It was an entertaining game which Celtic won 2-1, ensuring that they went home with a more palpable prize than the books I was forced to hand back to my niece earlier in the weekend.  Most of the guys in our company were on a self-imposed curfew for the night.  The Plant Doctor left at seven for an evening of port and cheese with his girlfriend, whilst Brexit Guy had a date with a Chinese – which on this occasion was a takeaway dinner rather than the Colombian women he was due to be socialising with after Christmas.  I insisted to my brother that I would be staying out no later than eight o’clock since we both had a few more days of work to get through before the festive break.  This noble intention quickly crumbled as soon as I realised that the new barmaid was working on the other side in the public bar.  I had talked to her a week earlier and discovered that she has the most remarkable knack for naming business ventures.  She has started three or four different businesses of various natures, and although the ideas hadn’t worked out, it was difficult not to admire the creativity that went into the names as well as the determination to try again.

Aulay’s was much quieter than you might expect for the last Sunday before Christmas.  With cases of the new Omicron variant on the rise, the Scottish Government had gone to great lengths to deter people from gathering in places like pubs and restaurants without introducing any real measures to compensate the hospitality industry for the loss in trade.  At times we virtually had the entire bar to ourselves.  There was one large group who briefly appeared alongside us.  They had come over to Oban for the weekend from one of the nearby islands, either Islay or Jura, and they had the dialect to prove it.  The men were at a level of drunkenness that suggested there was going to be no curfew on their good time.  Of the group of four, the senior figure was the most talkative.  He frequently leaned across the bar and blurted out a series of words, some of them in the right order, though the only one I could make any sense of was when he kept referring to me as Rupert.  It was presumably an attempt at likening me to the long-running cartoon character Rupert Bear, on account of the yellow and black checked shirt I was wearing.  

The nickname bothered me. Not because I found it insulting, or even when the pedant within me reasoned that it is Rupert’s trousers that are yellow and black, and not his shirt. It troubled me that so many other people seem to possess the uncanny ability to summon catchy names for folk they barely know when it takes me all my time to come up with a retort, if I can at all. I am struck by how much more useful a skill it is to have than my own quality of asking the most inept questions imaginable, such as when the young man next to the islanders introduced himself as being the captain of the Bulgarian rugby team and I sought to ask him about the worst injury he has suffered on the field. In the last six months alone I have been christened Penfold, Joe 90 and now Rupert. I have little idea of who I am meant to be these days, and evidently, neither does the barmaid who herself has a talent for naming things since she only came to realise on Christmas Eve that my name isn’t actually Rupert.

With hindsight, I suppose the weekend was always likely to be lost in the fog.  It all started on Wednesday when we lost the quiz to a tie-break question.  It was going well until we reached the food and drink round, which is up there amongst our worst pub quiz subjects.  You can hear the groan from our table when that particular round is announced.  We completely flopped in the ten questions, allowing Quadrophenia Alley to surge ahead of us, and although we ultimately clawed them back to take the quiz to a tie-break, our chances had been done for by the food and drink round.  It’s ironic, really, that the same thing that keeps us alive in day-to-day life is what kills us in the quiz.

The Friday before our family mulled wine poker game was the office Christmas lunch, which in line with the decree from the Scottish Government was most definitely not a party, although it was the source of me picking up the Tennent’s variant.  A small handful of us started the day in the Oban Inn before moving on for lunch.  In the corner of the bar, someone began streaming the broadcast of the day’s Coronavirus update from the First Minister to parliament.  There was an element of the surreal about sitting in a pub listening out to hear whether there would be an announcement of any further restrictions on hospitality venues.  In a way, it was no different to sitting on a bench in a cemetery waiting room.  Although the restrictions didn’t come that day, it was only a matter of time.  You could have bet all your books on it.

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