Our final game of indoor football before the festive break was played on the Monday night following a three-day weekend that resembled a line from the hit 1997 song Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. There had been the office Christmas party on Friday, a Saturday night spent in Aulay’s, and the rare occasion of a World Cup final taking place on a Sunday in December, all of which combined to produce the most torturous hour of my life in Atlantis Leisure. It’s challenging enough trying to compete against your ageing body without adding extreme amounts of whisky drinks and lager drinks to the equation. The five-a-side game, from my perspective anyway, was less decking the halls with boughs of holly and more decking the halls with balls of folly. By the time it had mercifully been brought to an end, my shirt must have been drenched with enough Jameson to refill an empty bottle.
When I awoke on Tuesday, my nostrils weren’t filled with the usual scents of the season, such as a coal fire, pine trees, mulled wine, or mince pies, but rather the air was pungent with the deep heat gel I had applied generously to my aching leg muscles. In some ways, it came as a surprise that this was the first time I was using the heat rub in several weeks. First of all, the warming sensation of the gel was most welcome amidst the freezing temperatures of the last week and it turns out is probably at least as cost-efficient as turning on the heating. Apart from that, the weekend just passed brought the first snowfall of winter in the area, which in turn had left much of the town’s pavements unwalkable due to the ice. It seemed miraculous that a painful injury never occurred, particularly with my history.
Heavy snow, like a really hot summer or a woman accepting an invitation to go out with me, is always something that happened “around ten or eleven years ago” whenever it is talked about. It’s memorable in so much as you know that it occurred but is rare enough for it to be uncertain when. It was maybe around 2009 or 2010 when Oban experienced the most dramatic snowstorm that I can remember. The stuff was several inches deep when it first fell on a Saturday evening, and another coating was added to it on Sunday afternoon. In my memory, it lay around the street for days afterwards, and the ice was especially troublesome. That was the year frozen water joined the top tier in my list of nemeses, alongside mushrooms and people who stand at the traffic lights by a busy road and don’t think to press the button.
I was working as a supervisor in the Co-op supermarket at the time, which involved starting at six o’clock in the morning to take in deliveries and prepare the store for opening at seven. The walk down from Lower Soroba was like something out of a comic book sketch. I left home with all the confidence of a man who had never fallen on ice, and by the time I’d reached the bottom of our street I had hit the tarmac. I fell again just outside the hospital, then for a third time at the traffic lights opposite the high school. My tailbone was the shade of a ripened plum, but even it wasn’t as bruised as my pride. The only comfort I could take from the ordeal was that it had taken place under the cover of darkness and so there were no witnesses to my calamity. With that in mind, I could probably have gotten away without anybody ever knowing about the failure of my feet, but I was soon betrayed by the wince on my face whenever I moved an inch.
Ice has been my mortal enemy ever since that December morning. There is nothing I dread more than the prospect of having to go somewhere on a frozen pavement. A 39-year-old man, afraid to walk. Much of the snow in the town centre had turned to a slush the colour of dishwater when I was going home from the office party in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was deceptive, however, and the conditions underfoot were treacherous. On George Street, I walked past an abandoned shoe shortly before I almost lost my own footing, while on Combie Street a wheelie bin was on its side. How anybody loses a shoe on a night out has always baffled me. A scarf or a wallet I can understand, but how do you not notice that one of your feet is wetter than the other? By Saturday when I went to my dad’s in Lower Soroba, I was filled with fear. The Facebook page Information Oban was teeming with posts from people who were warning of the dangerous state of the pavements and car parks and bemoaning the shortage of available grit.
I knew it was bad when I walked around the corner to Lidl to pick up my morning rolls and found myself gripping the rail at the back of the loading bay the way a nervous child clutches a comforting favourite toy. It was impossible to travel anywhere with any kind of grace or poise, or at least it was for me. Others seemed to be managing it just fine, striding along without a worry in the world. I used to be like them, I thought. Now I find myself hating anybody who shows just an ounce of composure on a frosty street. I heard a lot about the 1984 Winter Olympic Games when I visited Sarajevo earlier in the year, and now I was being forced to channel Torvill & Dean just to be able to eat a bacon roll.
Walking back into town from Soroba, several beers deep on Saturday night, was one of the most challenging expeditions I have embarked upon. A rain shower on the frozen pavements earlier in the evening had left the surface glistening under the streetlights like a jewellery store window. Nothing has looked as menacing. If I had put as much focus, concentration, and determination into other aspects of my life as I did into staying upright on that walk home then there’s no telling what I could have achieved. There were points where the pavement looked so terrifying that there was no option but to walk on the road. Having weighed up the potential outcomes, I guess that being struck by an oncoming car was preferable to the embarrassment of falling on my arse again.
Making it all the way to Aulay’s without incident felt like the greatest triumph I have experienced all year, maybe beyond. It was certainly worthy of a celebratory pint. The bar was thriving with festive revelry; groups of work parties filled the booths while stragglers boogied in the space between the jukebox and the ladies’ bathroom. In a moment of surrealism from a virtual stockingful of them, someone selected the Marilyn Manson song mOBSCENE to act as the soundtrack to the Christmas scene. One woman approached the bar and reached into her shirt to find the drinks order for her table. Then she pulled her phone out from in there, and finally, after a prolonged period of fumbling around, she produced the kitty the group had collected to pay for their drinks. I was mesmerised by the act, struggling to come to terms with the idea that this approach was any easier than carrying a bag. The longer she spent searching for the next item, her torso resembling a bedsheet when a puppy has become trapped underneath and it’s trying to wrestle its way free, the more curious I became to see what would come out. When a magician performs the trick where they pull tissue from their sleeve, you know that the paper is eventually going to run out, but with this, it genuinely felt as though it could go on all night.
Later, a group of young women came in to toast a birthday. One of them was wearing a large badge which was emblazoned with the number 22, presumably to indicate that she was just turning twenty-two. She ordered a glass of pink gin and asked the barmaid if she could “down this in the toilet.” Just when you think that you have heard everything in Aulay’s, someone will always come along and prove you wrong. Sure enough, she waded through the mass of bodies and took her drink into the bathroom, emerging moments later with an empty glass and a look on her face that would have matched mine after I made it down Soroba Road unscathed. The unusual request was all I could think about for the rest of the night. I can only imagine that it was part of some social media challenge that an older person like me wouldn’t understand.
Some form of normality was restored a few days later when, in Aulay’s after the final Lorne pub quiz of the year, Geordie Pete was seen for the first time in many months. It would be a stretch to classify it a Christmas miracle, but I don’t think any of us expected to see Pete in the bar again, and there can’t be many things that are more warming than his big, toothy grin. His smile belied the fact that he was using a crutch due to an injury he had recently sustained. Pariss reached over from behind the bar and asked him if she could borrow the instrument. She disappeared into the public bar with it, and we were left to assume that she had a troublesome customer who she was needing to resort to extreme measures to convince to leave. However, she returned moments later with the crutch wrapped in a sparkling string of red tinsel.
Initially, Pete didn’t like the Christmas crutch, since red is the colour of Newcastle’s fiercest football rivals Sunderland, but he quickly warmed to it and was seen showing it off around the bar like an excited kid with a new toy. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. The crutch was colourful and striking; a charming piece of festive fun that would make for a real talking point as an accoutrement to my tweed jacket. People have recently been telling me that I dress like a disgraced geography teacher, and the Christmas crutch would surely change all that. Maybe I was too fast in trumpeting my recent transformation into Torvill & Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics. Deep heat soothed me on Monday, but ice might have been my friend after all. There’s a Christmas message in there about embracing your fears and you never know what might happen, which is probably easier to get behind than the one about an Instagram Reel featuring you downing a glass of gin in a public toilet.