After midnight

While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years.  It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought.  These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep.  Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different.  For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.  

There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on HogmanayDid they change the rules after Christmas?  Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember.  Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party?  I could have sworn that was the year before.  2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022.  Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year?  I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then.  Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe.  Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books.  What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?    

Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now.  It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident.  You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know.  People have more important issues to be thinking about these days:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.

Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.

The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off.  We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour.  A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves.  A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find.  Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess.  That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.

Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos.  We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place.  Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade.  On this night, however, it belonged to us.  Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation.  We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground.  It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.

Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me.  She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line.  It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance.  I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.

The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around.  She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear.  People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them.  This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing.  I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.

I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket:  my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook.  Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it.  She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself.  “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.

Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.

Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual.  It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all.  Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground.  People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements.  Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.  

We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine.  Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display.  Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets.  The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.

The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019.  I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year.  When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid.  Everyone is doing their best to recover that time.  Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered.  In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila.  Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either.  I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night.  My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room.  Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner.  There are some things that are best forgotten.

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Bumbled lines

Bingo is one of those pastimes that I could never imagine enjoying.  Some things you just develop a notion that they aren’t for you and so you don’t bother wasting your time trying them.  I know that there’s nothing I’m ever going to need from one of the local tourist shops such as Highland Experience or Thistle Do Nicely and I’ve never stepped inside them, for example.  In my mind, based on nothing other than reputation, M&S is much more expensive than the budget meals I can put together from Lidl, so I don’t go shopping there, not even to browse.  Nobody needs to be exposed to the sight of my downward-facing dog, which is why I stick to doing yoga in my living room rather than attending a class.  People have a pretty good knack for knowing these things, or at least thinking they do, and so it is with bingo.

Previously when I thought of bingo I imagined dank, dusty halls reeking of Bacardi and L’Oréal; tables of competitive elderly women with screeds of bingo books spread out before them like a road map, the furious sound of dabbers and tutting heavy in the atmosphere.  Nothing about it appealed to me.  It, therefore, came as a surprise when my sister held a bingo night to help raise funds for her Happy Wee Health Club and I found that it is quite a lot of fun.

The bingo came at the end of the first week following the end of British Summer Time, when the night was continuing its relentless march as the daylight shrivelled and curled up at either end. Temperatures were moving in the opposite direction of energy prices, while hardly a night passed without me arriving home from my regular walk soaked through to my underwear. There is good reason why this is the only time of year I listen to the Guns N Roses song November Rain. Residents in some parts of town have complained that the streetlights in their neighbourhood haven’t been working since the clocks changed, whereas Argyll Square has been brightly lit by the Christmas lights which aren’t due to be switched on for another few weeks. In years to come, when social scientists are studying the complete collapse of society, it is easy to see this being exhibit A.

It was on the Sunday after our most recent Let’s Make A Scene open mic event that things really began to take shape.  These weekends always follow the same pattern.  There was the triumph of Let’s Make A Scene, where I felt pleased with how the material I read from my notebook was received.  It’s always nice being told by people that they have enjoyed my set, even if at the time part of me is consumed with wondering why the audience laughed at some of the lines that I have never thought of as being funny but were almost entirety silent come the punchline to the story.  A more considered person than me might dissect their performance for the parts that got the most positive response so that the act is even better next time, but I’m usually so weighted with relief that I spend the rest of the night guzzling Tennent’s and don’t stop to think about how it went.  Retiring to the Oban Inn afterwards is usually my favourite part of Let’s Make A Scene.   I found myself chatting with a couple of ramshackle scallywags whom I had met for the first time, and I even left with a phone number scrawled in my notebook.  Though just like every other number I’m picking up these days, it was from a guy who is looking to play indoor football.

After the high invariably comes the low. Days do not come more diametrically opposed than Saturday and Sunday, especially on a Let’s Make A Scene weekend. I went from being surrounded by friends and an admiring audience to spending an entire day with only my fern for company, waiting for the washing machine to complete its cycle and at the same time preparing a goulash in the slow cooker. I hated the humdrum routine of it all. It used to be that I would revel in it, bundling myself up in a big blanket of misery. I would write page after page in my journal about the frailty of trying to position wet socks on the airer so that there’s enough space for everything; the annoyance of slicing a carrot and having pieces fly like shrapnel from the chopping board to the floor; the elderly man who stands at the bus stop across the road from my window at the same time every Sunday, seemingly waiting for a bus that never comes, and how that’s exactly like the punchlines to my jokes. But that isn’t me anymore. These days I live for the nauseous feeling I get before reading; the sound of an audience laughing, or even not laughing; the celebration of talking to new people and hearing words used in conversation that you hardly ever hear.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re hungover and you know that you’re not going to the bar again for another three days, even more so when it’s the Sunday that British Summer Time has ended and there’s an extra hour of monotony to deal with.  The comedown from the previous night was particularly harsh.  I couldn’t shake it, and I spent the afternoon swiping through Tinder, hoping for something to come along and drag me out of my funk.  However, it turns out that I’ve pretty much exhausted Tinder.  Nobody new in the Oban area ever appears, and even when they do, they inevitably don’t match with me.  Sometimes I hit the “expand your distance” button so many times that I am seeing users close to the border ‐ the border between England and Wales.  I grew so tired of it all that I downloaded a couple of alternative dating apps ‐ Bumble and Hinge ‐ and worked on creating a profile that would be less Bangor and more banging.

Bumble was the most appealing of the two.  Their premise is that female users hold all the cards, so when two people like one another’s profile, it is down to the woman to make the first move.  She has 24 hours to send her potential partner a message, after which time the match disappears.  I liked the idea of having the pressure of the opening line taken out of my hands, since on the rare occasion that I have ever been paired with someone on Tinder my introduction has almost exclusively been met with either no response or being unmatched.  This way seemed better for everyone.

I took some time to scroll through some of the many prompts the app offers you to complete to give other users a better idea of your personality.  Things like:  “I get way too excited about…”, “If I could eat only one meal for the rest of my life it would be…”, My personal hell is…”, “I’m a real nerd about…”, “I quote too much from…”,  “If I could have a superpower it’d be…”, or “I’m a great +1 because…”  I wanted something that would really stand out and show me for who I am, so I settled on the following three:

The quickest way to my heart is…

with a scalpel and a degree in cardiac surgery.

I promise I won’t judge you if…

you wear a black robe and a wig.  Hey, that makes you the judge, not me!

The world would be a better place with more…

action and a little less conversation.

Within ten minutes I reached the limit of maximum ‘likes’ allowed without a paid-for subscription in 24 hours and I never made a single match.  As far as I could tell, Bumble was exactly like Tinder, only with better jokes.  By the time the working week began and I was amongst people again, playing football and thinking about the pub, I forgot all about Bumble.  Some things you have a notion for, and I’d long known that dating apps just aren’t for me.  Which is why it came as a surprise when I awoke on Friday morning to find that not only had I made a match on Bumble, but she had sent me a message well within the 24 hour curfew.  According to her profile, Emma* is 28, based in Oban, and a fish biologist.  She appeared to be smart, funny, and attractive as all hell.  It seemed ridiculous that such a person could even be paired with me, let alone that she would get in touch.  I could hardly wait to read her missive.

“Hey,” it read.

That was it.  She hadn’t given me much to work with, though to be honest, I was too giddy to care.  In a way, I admired that she had found the perfect loophole in Bumble’s system.  The app only requires the woman to send the first message, there is nothing in the terms and conditions about it being a good message.  Emma* had managed to put the opening line pressure back onto me.  I read her profile once more, seeking the key piece of information that would help me formulate the perfect response.  I liked that there was nothing vague about her.  Some profiles on these apps are like a badly‐buttered slice of toast, where what little butter there is is concentrated in the middle of the bread and doesn’t come close to reaching the crust.  

In her bio, Emma* noted that she is a certified forklift driver, so I decided that I would ask her what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate. It seemed light enough to grab her attention ‐ after all, she must have seen the responses to my prompts ‐ whilst also enquiring a little about her. I thought it was a good opening message, but I decided to canvas opinion around the office before hitting send. After all, these are people who are either married, engaged, or in relationships. Almost universally, I was told: “why don’t you just ask how she is?” I wouldn’t hear of it. How are you? is the worst question. It is the “hey” of questions. You seldom receive a truthful response to it, unless everybody on the planet is “fine”. I refused to go down that route and instead stuck with my original gut instinct.

By the time our pub quiz team met in The Lorne to spend some of our hard‐earned £25 bar vouchers on a meal before heading round to The View for the bingo, I had not received a response from Emma*.  She doesn’t owe me anything, I attempted to soothe myself, and besides, she’d likely had a busy day.  With a bellyful of burgers and beer at a discounted bargain, we ventured forth in search of witty numerical calls and raffle prizes.  The scene in The View was nothing like what I’d been imagining all week.  It was bright, vibrant, and had the fragrance of just about any other bar.  The room was full of people, hardly any of them of pension age.  Overwhelmingly they were female, which immediately had me rethinking my attitude towards the noble pastime of bingo.  We each bought a book and a dabber, as well as enough raffle tickets to have our table resembling the ground outside a church after a wedding.  

Nobody has ever considered a bingo dabber to be the height of man’s engineering achievement, yet it defeated one member of our group.  Nobody saw it happen, but seemingly my brother struggled with the screw-off lid to such an extent that he ended up pulling it off with so much force that the green ink erupted all over the table.  Everything was green:  the table, his bingo book, his jeans, and his hands.  It was like watching Bruce Banner transform, and nobody knew what would happen if my brother got angry about this.  Our niece was incredulous with her amusement.

Despite having a book that was almost entirely ruined by the ink spillage, my brother managed to win a cash prize on a line in the only game that wasn’t covered by green.  I could scarcely believe that anyone could have that kind of luck.  As it turned out, most of the people at our table won a prize of some sort, either during the five rounds of bingo or in the raffle.  My niece drew the winning tickets out of the hat for the raffle, the proceeds of which were going to my sister’s Happy Wee Health Club.  She revelled in the role of pulling numbers out at random and delivering the prizes to the winning table.  Most of the time, she was coming to us.  By the end of the night it was getting embarrassing, and people from our group were returning goods to be redrawn, though I couldn’t be sure if the Nut Tax Man was just being overly sure of his own scent when he handed back the Jimmy Choo perfume set.  Other tables were jeering when yet another prize landed our way.  The whole episode was reminiscent of the Maryburgh meat raffle a year earlier where my niece once again had a skill for picking the raffle tickets that had been bought by her own family.  Just like then, I was one of the few amongst us who didn’t win a single thing all night.

Even though I wasn’t having any success, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bingo.  It was tremendous fun.  What was noticeable was how deeply involved everyone became in the game.  There was tension as folk edged closer to winning a line or a house, drama, and no shortage of competitive action.  You immediately become engrossed in finding the numbers in your book as they are called as rapidly as a chopped root vegetable hits the floor in my kitchen.  I hadn’t afforded as much concentration to something since putting together my profile on Bumble.  Ultimately, when we convened in Aulay’s to analyse the night we’d just had, it transpired that I’d had as much luck on Bumble as at the bingo.  Emma* had unmatched me without ever telling me what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate.  On Bumble, just as at the bingo, I couldn’t get a single line.

Usually these things don’t bother me.  I’m well used to not receiving a response on dating apps, or not making a match at all.  But these are always women from other parts of the country.  This was different.  Emma* lives locally; it somehow seemed more real.  In my head, I had already been dating her for most of the day, imagining all of the things we could be doing together.  I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that it hadn’t worked out.  People will always say that there are plenty more fish in the sea, but then, who would know about that better than a fish biologist?

*Emma’s name has been changed.