Monday 12 September 2022:
Tonight we played our tenth week of indoor football in Atlantis. Our game has grown quite significantly during that time. In the beginning, we were eight men with a severe lack of fitness and no footballing ability who knew each other primarily from the pub; now we are fifteen men who met mainly through the pub, are a little fitter than we were but still have no footballing ability.
In those ten weeks, we have played with a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Polish schoolboy, and adopted a Turkish barber originally from Iraq who is so much better than the rest of us that he has taken to finishing games playing in his socks. Our squad currently consists of, I think, four scientists, two accountants and six spectacle wearers. It is the most placid collection of individuals you could care to meet in a leisure centre, yet people have suffered strained quadriceps, bruised ligaments, damage to their fingers, and on one occasion, a dislocated shoulder. We aren’t a competitive bunch, but I guess if you throw a ball into a hall for a dozen or so men to chase after, these things are bound to happen.
Despite the rash of injuries, people seem to be enjoying the weekly game, so much so that there has been some discussion of potentially playing twice a week. Apart from anything else, it seems that before long, hiring the hall for an hour is going to be cheaper than paying for heating at home. Tonight I scored for the second time in ten weeks, which although a paltry tally when compared to most of the other players in our group, is a much more prolific return than in other areas of my life.
Tuesday 13 September 2022:
Other than the indoor game in Atlantis, there hasn’t been a great deal happening over the last few days. It has been an unusual time. There has been nothing on the television, sporting events across the UK have been postponed, the cinema was closed on Friday night, and even the Oban Pride Festival was cancelled over the weekend. To fill the void, I have found myself spending a lot of time listening to the 1986 album released by The Smiths. The title track is a classic, and surely one of the best-ever opening songs on an album.
Wednesday 14 September 2022:
After a fairly successful streak sometime around July, The Unlikely Bawbags are on a barren run at the Lorne pub quiz. If we don’t win we are usually close, though there was one week where we fell down the rankings as far as fourth or fifth. Tonight we were second, a point off the eventual winners. It’s frustrating when that happens, and we’ll spend some time afterwards dwelling over it, trying to count the points we could have won if only we’d made different decisions and gone with the right answers; but this time there really wasn’t any more we could have done.
Despite telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a refrained night on account of my plans to travel the following day, I once again ended up in Aulay’s after the quiz. The winning team, Quiznae Me, were there celebrating their success. It was all I could do to sit at the end of the bar and furiously contemplate what might have been. Over the froth of a Tennent’s Lager, I watched as an elegantly dressed woman approached and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio. She remarked to her friend that she had recently made the switch from red wine to white, and the reason why became the question I most wanted answering for the night. There’s little more fascinating to me than the thinking behind the seemingly mundane decisions people make, usually because it leads to an exchange of other similarly beige nuggets of information. For example, the wine-quaffing quiz winner told me that she had been finding that red wine was going straight to her head, but that the green grape isn’t nearly as potent. I noted that the glass of white wine she was clutching in her hand complimented the colour of her nails, which she told me had been manicured for the very first time the previous week. I learned that the process behind picking a colour for your nails is broadly similar to when you enter a hardware store and you’re seeking the perfect tin of paint for your new kitchen. The buyer goes in and thumbs through a colour chart which gives them the opportunity of seeing how a certain shade looks against their finger before having the material applied for real. On this occasion, the woman had gone for a colour which resembled sand on a beach before it becomes wet, since she considered it a safe option for her maiden manicure.
“Would it impress you if a guy could tell you that your nails are shellac?” I enquired, immediately dispensing my only piece of nail knowledge, kindly offered to me years ago by a young woman who was standing in almost exactly the same spot when she insisted that a female would enjoy it if I could point out that “they’re shellac, bitch.”
“I don’t think it would. I don’t even know what shellac is, and I’d probably be busy wondering why the guy knows.” My demeanour darkened, though in truth, I don’t especially know how to identify a shellac nail either.
The wine drinker has a pleasing, peaceful aura, and she smiles as often as the traffic light on Argyll Square turns red. She told me that she has recently embarked on a new initiative to do one thing each week as a treat to herself. Last week she had her nails done, while this week she visited a hairdresser for the first time since the pandemic began. She picked up her drink and made to return to her group. “Thank you for the great conversation,” she said in parting. I didn’t know how to respond. Nobody had ever thanked me for talking to them before. I took it as a treat for myself.
Thursday 15 September 2022:
France’s largest air traffic control union, the SNCTA, has called a strike for tomorrow. Ordinarily, these things wouldn’t bother me and I would find myself on the side of the underpaid worker, but I was due to travel for a weekend break in Sarajevo, and the elaborate route I had sourced was to take me from Glasgow to Dublin, onwards to Paris and finally to Sarajevo. The final flight has been cancelled due to the strike action. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey itself, since it was going to require a seven-hour overnight stop in Dublin Airport followed by a further six-hour wait in Paris Beauvais, but I was excited for my brief return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than anything, I was keen to see some of the friends I had made there during the summer: Aid, Kenan, Medina, and the bar staff at Gastro Pub Vucko. To have the trip cancelled so close to departure was disappointing, but I suppose it was better than learning about it upon arrival at the airport. The task now is to find a way to enjoy the weekend that will keep me from mourning that I am not in Sarajevo.
Friday 16 September 2022:
On days like this, Oban scarcely looks real; more like a series of postcards have been pinned to the horizon in some dramatic exhibition. McCaig’s Tower pierces the sky, leaving barely a scratch in the pinball blue. From up there you can see for miles, islands in the distance are exposing themselves to the sun. The sun itself dances provocatively on the surface of the still sea. Beer gardens and al fresco dining areas are doing a roaring trade, pavements packed with the sudden jolt of tourists who spy a photo opportunity, while on the Esplanade, a couple with an A3 pad sprawled across their knees are sketching the scene on the bay. I guess that’s easier than writing a thousand words.
In the evening, I joined a few friends in attending the Pictish Trail gig in The View. I had listened to only a small amount of the Island of Eigg native’s material before the night, but there was enough of it to span two sets: the first a solo acoustic warm-up for the full-band, lo-fi psychedelic folk experience that followed. It was pretty great; energetic, interactive, and a lot more fun than I could ever have expected the performance to be.
Saturday 17 September 2022:
I like to buy whichever vegetable Lidl has on offer and then Google what I can do with it. This week they are selling courgettes for £1.29 per kilo, which weighed out at 37p for the courgette I picked out. The extent of my typical recipe search is usually to ask the internet for suggestions of pasta dishes I can cook using that week’s vegetable. Easily the most awkward part of my shopping experience today was when I was approaching the sale items in the fresh produce aisle and the song Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin began playing in my earphones. The track is the audio equivalent of reading the articles in Playboy Magazine. To my memory, it is the first time that I have been checking a courgette for firmness while hearing the sound of a female breathing heavily in my ear.
I added the song to my monthly Spotify playlist due to an incident that occurred in Aulay’s last Friday. Amongst our group, we had become aware of three French women who were seated at a table in the corner of the bar. Given that most of us have no idea how to approach a table of French women, we were feeling pretty hopeless. Eventually, it came to me that the best way of communicating them might be through the true language of love – music – and so I dropped a pound in the jukebox and played the LaBelle classic Lady Marmalade. The song appeared to delight the damsels since they were seen dancing at their table, though they presumably never acknowledged our existence on account of there being no way of knowing who has requested which song. Besides, I had become distracted by our usual game of themed playlists and followed Lady Marmalade with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and some track by The Jam. It was during his round of picks that the Plant Doctor played Je t’aime, but the ladies had long since departed by the time it came on. We were left only with speculating as to how they would have reacted to hearing it.
Sunday 18 September 2022:
Many people throughout the UK have the day off work tomorrow, and since there doesn’t appear to be anything better to do with the time, I decided that I would embark on the nearly mythical ‘Sunday sesh’ – an entire Sunday spent in the pub. To start the day, Gary and I went to the Tartan Tavern to watch Celtic lose 2-0 to St. Mirren, which was the first time either of us had reason to grieve in well over ten days. A pint of beer in there retails at £4.50, surely putting it around the mid-point of the prince range in Oban these days. Gary arrived later than I did, joining my table with a pint of Guinness and a packet of KP salted peanuts.
“Help yourself to some nuts if you like,” he said. “I only bought them to get the total up to five pounds.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a five pound minimum charge for card payments, so she asked me to get something else to make the bill up.”
It’s true that above the bar there is a sign clearly stating that the minimum card payment the place will accept is for £5, yet I was able to pay for my £4.50 Budweiser without having to buy a bag of nuts. We found the discrepancy curious, and I was alert to it when I was next at the bar. I studied the scene closely as the transaction unfolded. Drink ordered. Pint poured. Bill rung up. £4.50 paid by card. As far as the things that happen in a hospitality setting go, this seemed fairly unremarkable, but we were perplexed. Some time passed before Gary needed to have his Guinness refreshed. This was the moment of truth. The barmaid repeated the same process she had gone through with me, right up until the final step, where she invited Gary to buy something else to bring the bill up to the £5 minimum charge.
“Why are you having to pay the nut tax and I’m not?” I wondered. It was a question neither of us could answer, and as much as we were curious to know, I wasn’t going to be the idiot who asks a barmaid why he isn’t paying more for his drink.
We left for Aulay’s with Gary a pound lighter in the wallet and 100 grams heavier in peanuts. There we were joined by a rolling cast of characters through the afternoon as we discussed our favourite cheesy eighties movies and quizzed the barmaid on her habit of adding items to her online shopping basket without ever checking out. In a way, I guess it’s the modern equivalent of window shopping. She had more than £400 worth of goods in her basket just from that day’s shift behind the bar. In her view, she isn’t the type who cares for branded clothing or spends a lot of money on herself, she just likes imagining that she could own them with one click. I tried telling her how I like to do the same on the World of Books website, with the difference being that I had recently gone through with spending more than £30 on second-hand titles, but she didn’t have much interest in that.
The most fascinating thing about spending an entire afternoon in the pub is observing the different people who come and go. One minute it is quiet and the next there is a cacophony of flamboyantly drunk young women singing along to 4 Non Blondes in celebration of a 30th birthday. From where we were standing, it seemed impossible that they could last the day, but by the end of it all, we would discover to our cost that we were underestimating the group.
Unperturbed by the earlier nut tax, Gary found himself in conversation with an older Irish woman. She was dressed as though she had been attending a funeral, though we knew that couldn’t have been the case since we had heard of nobody else who had died recently. The woman integrated herself into our company, and we learned that she had in fact spent the afternoon at the classic car rally that was held at the station square. Some of the antique automobiles on display were so beautiful that “they would take the knickers off a nun,” or so we were told. People had always tried telling me that my life would be simpler if I had learned how to drive, and I might have been more willing to listen if they could have put car ownership in such convincing terms.
The Plant Doctor and Gary had spent much of the afternoon in competition over ‘the Guinness challenge’, which requires the drinker to take a continuous mouthful of the black stuff with the aim of leaving the base of the creamy head resting in the tiny space between the bottom of the harp and the top of the branded lettering. On observing this, I have calculated that a successful Guinness challenge should have six gulps; a skill that The Plant Doctor seemed to have mastered on approximately 50% of his attempts. Our Irish guest had never heard of this highly-accomplished art and was eager to try it for herself, so she ordered a pint. We stood back in expectation of witnessing a masterclass from someone to whom Guinness comes as natural as oxygen, water, or whiskey. None of us had ever seen a Guinness challenge like it: the mouthful went far beyond the white letters, all the way to the middle of the glass. It was difficult to know whether to be impressed or disappointed.
I believe it was sometime after the nationwide minute’s silence at eight o’clock was observed by turning on the subtitles during Frozen Planet 2 that we left the pub to get something to eat before heading for Markies to take part in Oban’s second-best quiz. We believed that the team we had assembled was capable of achieving great things, even after a long and emotional day. Things were going well for a time, though we found ourselves trailing by several points going into the final music round. A strong score of 16 out of 20 salvaged a tiebreak situation for us, but our miserable knowledge of the number of windows on The Shard skyscraper scuppered the whole thing. It turned out that the young women from the 30th birthday party know their pub trivia as well as their alcohol better than we could ever have considered.
Monday’s bank holiday was already beginning to look bleak when we decided to partake in some consolation shots of tequila laced with Tobasco sauce. Nothing was happening on Monday that I was aware of, so as far as I was concerned, I might as well confront it with the mother of all hangovers. All that was left was to play that 1986 album by The Smiths one more time.