To Sweden with love

I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Day with my laptop open on a PDF of the Argyll & Bute Council refuse schedule for 2023, setting a reminder on my phone for each date in the year that the bins would need to be put out for emptying.  It isn’t that I don’t have anything better planned for the twelve months ahead.  On the contrary, the Google Calendar app on my device is filled with a smorgasbord of activities.  For example, on 28 January I will be performing at the first of our quarterly Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights; the Oban Beer Seller is hosting her second ‘The Love of Beer’ tasting event at The View on 18 March; by mid-April, I will have attended four gigs, which is as many as I made it to in the whole of last year; the fourth of those gigs will take me back to Dublin for the first time since 2018; I will be attending two wedding dances during the summer; and in June I’m planning on returning to Sarajevo.

My sudden enthusiasm for the bin schedule wasn’t born of a renewed concern for the environment or part of a New Year’s resolution.  It wasn’t even the hungover equivalent of making a drunk purchase on eBay.  By the first of January, I had arrived at the realisation that without a proper structure during the Christmas break from work, I collapse into anarchy.  More accurately, when my daily routine revolves around going to the pub on as many nights as possible, things very quickly become shambolic.  One night I might come home from the bar and stay up until the small hours watching music videos on YouTube and then lay in bed until after midday.  On another, I’d start watching the Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn and decide that midnight is a perfectly good time to open a tube of Pringles, reasoning that they are already in the cupboard anyway and what else are you going to do with them?  Everything was a negotiation that concluded with the promise, “I’ll do better in January.”  Chances are that I would have eaten pizza for dinner every day for two weeks if not for the fact that would have required the effort of leaving the flat to buy another one.  The way I was living my life was as if my 16-year-old self had been put in charge.  It was disgusting.

Filling my phone with serious adult tasks seemed like an easy win over the teenager who had assumed control of my life during the festive period; an acknowledgement that I was going to get back to leading a responsible lifestyle while knowing that I wouldn’t need to act on it for another couple of days yet.

The final Saturday of 2022 brought many of the same things that feature on any other Saturday night where nobody is spending their time watching the clock:  food, drink, and music.  A group of us went to The Lorne to eat our last meal of the year, where we amused the soulful barmaid who smiles as frequently as the traffic lights at Argyll Square used to turn red before they were fixed.  We complained first that the starter of mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic sauce will have dashed The Algae Man’s hopes of receiving a kiss at the bells, and followed that up with the proclamation that we didn’t have any reason to laugh about it since one of us would be forced to take it on the chin, so to speak.  The barmaid’s smile turned to a laugh, which left some of us wondering why we had waited until the last night of the year to be funny.

When we arrived in Aulay’s, the Plant Doctor and his better half had already taken residence at the table in the corner of the bar; a location they had purposefully chosen so that we could mark the one-year anniversary of New Year 2021, when three of us tested positive for Covid a few days after celebrating in that same spot.  In truth, I hadn’t thought about the Covid corner in all the times I had been in the pub since, but then most sites of significance are usually marked with a plaque, whereas the most remarkable thing about this table is that it is the closest seat to the jukebox.  It was intended as a funny moment of reminiscence, which it undoubtedly was, at least until nigh upon six days later when I registered a positive LFT almost a year to the day after my first bout with the virus.  My illness this time felt far worse than in January 2022.  The symptoms were much the same as before only stronger, and even now I can hardly walk the length of the street without being left feeling like a 1997 song by the popular Scottish band Texas.  Of all the traditions that people in Scotland have to mark the turn of the year, being infected with an airborne contagion ranks right up there with never receiving a kiss on the bells as my least favourite.

It has always seemed to me that the pub on New Year’s Eve is exactly the way a theatrical production set in a pub on New Year’s Eve would look. Nobody is anyone you would recognise from any other night in the bar. They are all dressed in their finest outfit, some even wearing a kilt, ordering drinks like bottles of Peroni, port, or gin and tonic. The enthusiasm for the countdown to midnight – something that by my watch happens every day – is portrayed in the manner of the pinkest of ham actors. Sitting in the Covid corner dressed in corduroy and denim, we resembled the understudies; the people who turn up every night hoping that this one might be their turn. It’s a role we are well familiar with and we played it with all of our hearts, choking the jukebox with coins whilst drinking our fill of beer.

Last orders at the bar were called at 11.30, which meant that we left Aulay’s with around ten minutes left in the year.  That gave us enough time to saunter along George Street towards the Oban Inn as crowds of people were gathering on the pavement to seek out the best vantage point for the imminent fireworks display.  In the dark of the distance, a lone piper could be heard serenading the cold as a countdown from ten began to filter through the masses.  I found myself stuck contemplating how it is that these things get started.  After all, how could anyone be confident enough to kick off an accurate countdown to midnight when the clock in the town centre has been showing two o’clock for as long as anyone can remember?  Get this one wrong and everybody’s year is out from the very beginning.

As the clock struck midnight, or close to it, fireworks erupted from the mouth of McCaig’s Tower and the sound of the horns from the CalMac ferries berthed in the bay pierced the night sky.  People were exchanging wishes for the year ahead while tiny flakes of snow started to fall.  It was a jarring juxtaposition to see snow as the sky was being lit up with rockets, one that surely would be easy to interpret as some kind of meaningful symbolism for the coming year if only we weren’t too drunk for that.  I moved closer to the Rogerson Shoes store to get a better look at the scene as fireworks were sent up into the snowy sky above McCaig’s Tower, crackling and sizzling to the delight of whooping crowds.  Even as someone who is never especially moved by a fireworks display, I could happily concede that this was the most spectacular one I’d seen all year.

Once safely entrenched in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn, we once again found ourselves surrounded by people we didn’t recognise; actors in a play. Where do people from Oban go on Hogmanay? In the end, we were ingratiated into a table of complete strangers. Amongst them were two Irish women who visit the town nearly every New Year; they could hardly have spoken more highly of their travels to the area. A couple of gentlemen from our group entered into conversation with the women at opposite ends of the table, and from afar it appeared as though their interactions were going well. For a time I was standing at the bar nursing a Jack Daniel’s, wondering if I might be the only one of us who was going home alone. Just as it was looking like 2023 might finally herald a change in fortunes for our group, the guys almost simultaneously learned that the Irish women are married to one another.

They were a charming couple who enjoyed regaling us with the story of their engagement.  We were told about how the pair were walking along Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, which with a sheer drop of 658ft is the highest waterfall in Scotland, and indeed the entire United Kingdom.  It was a breathtaking setting, one which inspired a marriage proposal.  What really made the story sweet was the added caveat that to make the prospective wedding official, the recipient of the popped question had to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage in return.  While it perhaps seemed like unnecessary additional bureaucracy, I thought it was a nice touch and told the couple as much.  

“That sounds like the opposite of what Demi Moore received,” I commented as we were all walking towards Markie Dans, which turned out to be full.  I was met with blank looks.

“What I’m saying is it was a decent proposal.”  Much like our group’s luck with the opposite sex hadn’t changed with the beginning of a brand new year, it seemed that my streak of being able to make a woman laugh was going to be restricted to one night at the end of 2022.

After the blue recycling bins had been emptied and I was about over my brush with Covid, the first big event entered into my Google calendar was our planned leaving dinner for The Algaeman, who was departing Oban to take up a new career opportunity in Sweden.  He had come into our lives barely a year earlier, just a fresh-faced boy from India.  For a while it was hard to know what to make of him, the fact that our accents were barely decipherable to one another probably didn’t help.  But over time he became an integral part of our group; always smiling, always up for a beer.  If a social group can have a heart, then The Algaeman was ours.  He put himself forward for everything we had an interest in, even our weekly game of indoor football despite, I suspect, having never previously seen a football.  Aulay’s became a second home for him, where his early claims of never experiencing a hangover were soon in tatters once he was introduced to malt whisky.  Before long he was like a puppy chasing a toy when the jukebox was turned on; always the first person with loose change in his hand, usually with a view to playing Eternal Flame by The Bangles or Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler.  You could set your watch by it.

Organising a secret leaving dinner for someone who is always around and such a central part of the group became akin to a top-level military operation.  At one stage I think we had at least four group chats on the go across Facebook and WhatsApp.  We had to employ powers of subterfuge that I don’t think any of us knew we were capable of.  The Algaeman’s last day in Oban coincided with The Plant Doctor’s birthday, and knowing how much the Sweden-bound scientist enjoyed celebrating other people’s birthdays, it was the perfect foil.  As predicted, the closer we got to Friday the 13th, the more excitable The Algaeman was growing over the forthcoming birthday, as though he had just spied the jukebox loading up.  He was eager to arrange a meal and put together a list of people who we could invite, oblivious to the fact that we had already booked The Waterfront Fishouse for fifteen.  Eventually, we had to admit that there was a dinner planned, convincing The Algaeman that we were having a small gathering for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  A web of lies was spun in an attempt to stop him from going overboard.  We told him that The Plant Doctor is bashful and wouldn’t appreciate a fuss being made over him, even that he doesn’t like cake, as if he’s some kind of sociopath.  

The harshest untruth was the story we concocted to keep him out of Aulay’s before dinner to allow us to hang the flag of Sweden and put up our “we never liked you anyway” banner over the bar.  None of us enjoyed having to be so dishonest to the sweetest and most innocent person we had ever met.  In a lot of ways for me, it was no different to the deceit we pull off every winter when we’re convincing our six-year-old niece to eat all her breakfast otherwise Santa might not visit.  It doesn’t seem right, but it’s necessary.

On the day of the dinner, we were updating our multiple group chats with The Algeman’s location, like a really underwhelming episode of the TV show 24.  When the rest of us met in Aulay’s an hour before dinner to turn the place into a territory of Sweden and gather signatures inside his copy of the book Morvern Callar, The Algaeman was off the grid.  Nobody had seen him in hours, and he had turned down an offer to meet The Nut Tax Man in Wetherspoons to keep him off our scent.  We feared that the lure of the jukebox would prove too strong and he would walk into Aulay’s and catch us all in the act of planning his surprise leaving night.  As it turned out, The Algaeman arrived late to his own leaving dinner because he was saying goodbye to a friend and shopping for a gift for The Plant Doctor’s birthday.  Nothing could have summed him up more. 

People come and go in life, like New Year’s Eve, fireworks displays, and snow flurries.  Some disappear, never to be seen or thought of again, like bad actors in a terrible play.  Others leave an indelible imprint, a touching decent proposal and a total eclipse of the heart.  That was The Algaeman.  For all the dates filling up my Google calendar at the beginning of 2023 and as much as there is to look forward to, it will be a very different year without The Algaeman.

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