A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.

The day Celtic won the league (aka The Weekend I wore double denim; aka Josh Rouse @ The Mash House, Edinburgh

Recently I have been finding myself sighing loudly at increasingly frequent intervals and often with a sprawling dramatic effect, to the point where people nearby who are witnessing this theatre have been asking if I am alright.  I have been considering whether this involuntary act is just another thing that happens as we become older – for I am aging every day, after all – or if it is a symptom of something else. There have been days of late where I have felt a lot like a petal in a rainstorm:  lost and alone and helpless and drenched in thought. It was with this wistful and weary feeling that I took my seat on the sparsely populated 18.11 Scotrail service to Glasgow on Saturday evening.

The sun was hanging low in the sky over the bay by this time, longing to be returned to the ocean, and I had eaten a truly terrible pizza before I left the flat.  I was becoming tired, and when I carefully placed my Tesco bag for life packed with four cans of Budweiser on the table it felt a tad ambitious. I glanced around the nearly empty carriage as the train departed and became aware that the only other person who was drinking alcohol was the man sitting at the table adjacent to mine.  He had the appearance of someone who was low on his luck and who had probably not long since gotten out of bed. I hesitated in pulling the ring on my first can of beer, feeling reluctant to be grouped with this down and out. Then I wondered: what does he think when he looks across the aisle at me?  He probably doesn’t care.  By the looks of his fingernails he probably doesn’t care about much at all.  I sighed and opened the can of Budweiser, and in that moment we became one.

I was only able to drink three cans of beer, but somehow that didn’t matter when I reached the reception desk at the Travelodge and was greeted by the girl who last week had remembered me from a previous stay.  This time I didn’t have the same quiet satisfaction of being remembered by an attractive female whom I don’t remember, as not only did I remember her but I had been hoping to encounter her again. She noted that I was dressed in double denim and I acknowledged that it was a bold decision which I might not have made had I been sober.  Over the course of the weekend I would see at least five other men who were wearing a combination of jeans and a denim jacket and on none of those occasions did I feel convinced that it is a style which is back in fashion. My case, in particular, was probably not helped by the fact that my jeans are now at least a size too big for me and so much of my belt is being used to hold them around my waist that there is a length of leather left flapping like a carrier bag caught on a rail.

The Travelodge girl processed my booking for two nights and as she was doing so asked me what seemed to be an unusual and unexpected question.

“Would you mind not having a bath?”

For a moment I was caught off guard and hesitated.  The possibility ran through my mind that the Travelodge girl was sexually interested in me and that the forfeit of decency and hygiene was some kind of kink of hers.  But she looks much too manicured for that and my ability to wash myself is one of my best qualities, so I immediately dismissed that notion.

“Can I at least shower?”  I queried.

She laughed in the same way women tend to when I say something which is both vaguely amusing and laden with ineptitude.  She clarified that my room would have a shower but not a bath, and I declared that would be fine with me as I had forgotten to pack my lavender bath bombs.

Having checked in to my room and applied a fresh squirt of Joop Homme and disrobed myself of my denim jacket I returned downstairs, where disappointment furrowed my brow when the diminutive and curved blonde Travelodge girl was not behind the bar.  Instead I was served Guinness and Glenfiddich – as they were out of Jameson – by a taller, balder and more masculine character. Whilst he was not at all unpleasant he very quickly indulged me in the intricate details of his latest hobby, which happens to be to collect coins, and I have no currency for small talk.  He read to me from his small notebook a list of countries and denominations, page after page of them, and would later allow me to hold a Portuguese escudo. I had never prepared myself for such a thing and didn’t know quite what a person should be saying when holding a small piece of Iberian silver.

“It’s an interesting design,” proved to be the best coin chat I could muster.

Fortunately the coin collector’s shift finished at eleven o’clock and the Travelodge girl glided across the floor to serve a couple of older women who had ordered a vodka and coke each.  She informed the ladies that the bar had run out of ice and asked them if they would welcome a wedge of lemon as a substitute. They declined, and at the first opportunity I challenged the Travelodge girl on the logic of offering lemon as an alternative to ice.  She claimed that as it dilutes the drink it serves the same purpose and I wasn’t convinced.

“Speaking of lemons,” I exclaimed with the kind of excitement I get when something funny occurs to me.  “I’ll tell you something I’m feeling bitter about – you’ve run out of Jameson.”

Without hesitation she responded.

That joke is something to be bitter about,” she welped, emphasising the first two words as though she was questioning whether it could even be classed a joke.

Although she was clearly incorrect I continued talking to her anyway, and I relayed the tale of how I had gotten so drunk at the bar the previous Saturday that I fell asleep on top of the bed and gave the housekeepers the easiest Sunday morning they could have experienced.  Her face demonstrated a lack of surprise at this revelation, and she confirmed that I left the bar “in quite a state” that night. With those words I imagined that I had walked away from my bar stool in the manner of a bag of wet, unfolded laundry.

By this stage I had been joined by and found myself in conversation with a gentleman from the west coast of Ireland.  We discussed the upcoming Old Firm fixture; his love of Liverpool FC and how if Steven Gerrard becomes the next Rangers manager he will disown him the same way he did Michael Owen when he signed for Manchester United; the difference between football fans and GAA fans and how he can attend a Mayo vs Dublin game and sit next to someone from Dublin and hate them for no longer than the period of the game; how living in Switzerland for four months has taught him that “the Swiss are cunts.”  At points I found myself acting as a translator between the deep Irish brogue and the Glaswegian accent, and I was melting inside at the sound of both. I felt a deep awkwardness drinking Guinness poured from a can in front of an actual Irishman – it is inferior to the real thing in every conceivable way – and I suspect that he eventually became so offended by the sight that it was the cause of him getting up and leaving without ceremony.

On Sunday morning the sky was a sapphire blue and it looked as though it was dressed for a party.  I was conscious earlier than anticipated and decided to walk from the city centre to Celtic Park rather than take the train to Bellgrove, as I would ordinarily do on these type of match days.  During the week I had created a playlist of predominantly sad songs for a blue-haired friend who seems to be going through a troubled time and I listened to it as I made my way along the Gallowgate, as I had been doing all weekend, though I didn’t imagine that the groups of people singing behind me were serenading the journey with The Speed of Pain by Marilyn Manson.

Although it was early in the day – pre-afternoon, in fact – it was notable how many of the men walking ahead of me were cradling bottles of Buckfast in the back pockets of their jeans like it was the most prized possession in their life at that moment, in the way some carry a wallet holding pictures of loved ones or an iPod with their favourite songs.  Later, into the afternoon, those same bottles are standing triumphantly against lampposts, lined in regiment along the tops of walls and propped proudly against pavement kerbs, statuesque, like the way we memorialise heroes.

Celtic Park was shimmering in sunlight and the next time I saw my face my forehead was pink like a medium-rare fillet steak, owed to the lack of protection a cap might have offered – or a full head of hair.  This was not my first health and safety concern of the afternoon. I almost lost my glasses in the wild exuberance of the first goal, and by the time the third goal was scored and the entire stadium – save for some of the 7,000 in blue who were already shuffling towards the exits – locked arms around one another to do the Huddle I had visions of tumbling over the seat behind me.

At times I found myself glancing at the steward presiding over my block and wondered if she was The Most Beautiful Steward in the World from a game some time last season.  I had my doubts, because she looked a little fuller than before, but then that was an evening kick-off and much like bar lights everything looks better under floodlights.  I was convinced that it might have been her, however, by the fact that she shared many of the mannerisms The Most Beautiful Steward in the World had, such as frequently looking up at the screens and refusing to make eye contact with me.

During the half-time interval I embarked on my usual effort to source a sachet of brown sauce, which at times seemed almost as unlikely as finding a Rangers goal.  The base of the steak pie was sticking to the foil case with much more resolution than the Rangers midfield had been showing and the whole thing became a messy farce.

In the ground I was continuing to struggle to understand a single word spoken by the Northern Irishman next to me, though I am certain that he was excited.  The names of Andy Halliday and Alfredo Morelos reverberated around the stands with an adoration which is unlikely to be heard in even their own homes. By the time the fifth goal was scored and Celtic had won the league on an occasion where they had beaten Rangers for the first time since 1979 the place was heaving with joy the likes of which I have rarely seen.

After the final whistle I found it difficult to celebrate the way I felt like doing when I ended up in Shilling Brewing Co. drinking a hoppy session pale ale by the name of Goonies Never Die.  Often it seems to me that an IPA is a drink which is not supposed to be enjoyed, so complex and harsh it can be on the palette. The girl with the pink hair made a late withdrawal from the Josh Rouse gig and I travelled to Edinburgh alone.  I decided that I would eat dinner on the train and bought a brie, bacon and chilli chutney sandwich that had been reduced from £2.25 to £1.49, though with hindsight it wasn’t as substantial a reduction as it had seemed at the time.

With the journey between Scotland’s two largest cities being less than an hour I reckoned that I would not need a great amount of beer and so bought three 330ml cans of Brooklyn Lager rather than a typical four-pack of 440ml.  These cans were individually priced at £2.05 and the vigilant Sainsbury’s checkout woman queried whether I was aware of this. Whilst the price was indeed ridiculous I accepted it and confirmed that I would pay for the beer. She commented that she often pays inflated prices for wines she enjoys and I wasn’t sure if she was trying to make me feel better or worse about it.

On the train I continued the title-winning celebrations by listening to my sad playlist of songs by The Smiths, The Cure, Ryan Adams and The Ramones and attempted to drink Brooklyn Lager discreetly from an orange Sainsbury’s bag which was nestled between my thighs because I couldn’t be sure whether there was a ban on alcohol following the football.  A toddler of about three years of age, dressed in fluffy pink fairy wings, kept looking at me from across the carriage and it was the most judged I have ever felt. I got off the train at Waverley Station and hoped that the experience of watching a pink-faced man quaffing lager from an orange carrier bag wasn’t one which would traumatise this young girl in later life.

Edinburgh’s grey and gothic features were basking in the haze of an early evening glow and it is something I have rarely witnessed in the city.  The sun conspired with the architecture to cast haunting shadows across the streets and it was almost as charming as when the rain slickens the cobbles in the Old Town.  I made quick visits to some of my favourite bars in the city and drank Tennent’s Lager in Banshee Labyrinth, drawing attention to the fact that I am from the west coast. The Banshee Labyrinth is one of my favourite bars anywhere and its sign holds the claim that it is Scotland’s most haunted pub, though in my times there the only spirits I have encountered sit behind the bar in bottles.

Josh Rouse was playing at The Mash House, which turned out to be but a short stumble from the pubs I had travelled to.  The venue itself was very small and intimate, surely not much bigger than my flat, wall to wall. His set was very tight and had the kind of chilled out vibe I enjoy from his music and just about everything I could have hoped he would play he did.  I was particularly pleased and probably let out a shriek every bit as triumphant as when Callum McGregor scored earlier in the day when he played Hollywood Bass Player, the video for which features an animated Madonna taking a giraffe to a drive-thru cinema on a date.  I have long since seeing the video questioned what the etiquette would be when dating a giraffe: who buys the popcorn, who initiates the first kiss, who picks the movie?

By the time the gig finished and I was on the train back to Glasgow the ten o’clock curfew for selling alcohol in Scotland had passed and I was forced to endure a dry journey.  Similarly the bar in the Travelodge had closed for the night when I arrived there, being a Sunday night, and I returned to my room. It was barely midnight when I got under the covers and turned off the lights.  I sighed loudly and another rainstorm started.

The last few days of the year

The week between Christmas and New Year is a festive hinterland where nobody ever truly knows what the date is or even which day it is.  The days blend into one another; one food coma followed by another hangover and eventually it feels like all your days are stuck together like thin, sweaty slices of prosciutto.  You go to bed at 4am and then wake up and suddenly another day is sort of just happening and you’re sitting in the cold rain at Celtic Park watching a 0-0 draw with Rangers.

When I stepped onto the Glasgow bound train at what seemed like the end of last week it was preceded by eight days of festive imbibement and yet another night which had spilled over into the early hours of the following day.  There had been a winter-like dusting of snow overnight and, after many weeks of resistance, my body had finally succumbed to the seasonal bout of man flu.  It wouldn’t be Hogmanay without my lungs making their annual attempt to perform The Great Escape through the cunning ploy of being coughed up out of my mouth.  

I stood at my reserved table and sat a carrier bag of beer on the seat as I noted the presence of a young woman in close proximity.  I pulled the black gloves from my hands, one at a time (it is impossible to do both hands at once,) the left-hand proving to be a little more resistant at giving up woolen warmth than the right.  I unwrapped the scarf from around my neck – which provided some real respiratory relief as I was so conscious of the cold and of my cold that it had been clinging to me like a python – and extracted the earphones from my backpack before lifting it onto the overhead storage.  Next I unbuttoned my long black overcoat and laid it next to the carrier bag of beer.  I paused for a moment as I tried to get a feel for whether ScotRail had taken the rare step of putting heating on their service on a cold winter day.  They had, and so I continued the elaborate performance of stripping myself of winter layers by lifting my grey acrylic wool jumper up over my head in as methodical a manner as possible so as not to ruffle my comb over.  I took my seat and glanced over at the woman sitting at the opposite table, curious as to whether she had taken notice of my show.  Her eyes were fixated on her phone.

As the train began to depart the station I reached into my carrier bag of beer and snacks.  I glanced around the carriage and observed my fellow passengers, many of them sipping from fancy looking novelty festive coffee cups.  Meanwhile I drank from a screw top bottle of Budweiser and struggled for an inordinate amount of time to tear open a Tesco meal deal sandwich.

At the Travelodge check-in desk I went through my usual routine of informing the receptionist that I had “a room for the night for one person” – because it is always for one person – and she asked me to recite the first line of my address.  I did this and it seemed to spark some kind of memory for her and she insisted that my face seemed familiar to her.  

“I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or an insult,” I said in some terrible attempt at flirtatious banter.  She grimaced in an awkward manner and I compounded matters by informing her that I would “probably take it as something in the middle.”  She asked me if I had stayed at the Travelodge before and I acknowledged that I had done so some months previous, at which point I recognised the receptionist as being the equestrian studies girl of my September Ryan Adams tour.  I accepted my room key from her and left for the lift, frustrated that I had thought it a good idea to flirt at the reception desk.

Later in the evening I decided that I would venture along the road to eat dinner at the Italian restaurant I had walked out of earlier in the year after mistaking it for the Malaysian Chinese place next door (“The weekend where many small things happened”)  I walked inside and waited to be seated by the waitress, though I could immediately see that this would not be a problem, as there wasn’t another diner in the establishment.  Whereas all of my dining experiences tend to be solo, this would be an actual literal solo dining experience.

The waitress greeted me and advised that, unsurprisingly, I could take my pick of seating.  I elected to sit at the table by the window so that I could enjoy my meal with the view of a Glasgow street after a wintry snowfall:  black clumps of slush swept to the side of the pavement, discarded cigarette butts impaled on the peak of the ice.  I looked around the empty restaurant and noted that every table was adorned with a rose-red tealight candle holder complete with a flickering flame.  Every table except mine; the one table that was being used.

Having perused the menu the waitress returned to my table and I ordered a couple of courses to be complimented with a carafe of house wine.  “You know what a carafe is?”  She asked.  “Of course I do.”  I didn’t really.  “It’s half a litre of wine; about four glasses.”  “I know.  I’ll take a carafe of red wine.”

I began to contemplate how I was going to drink four glasses of wine as I waited for my food to arrive and I noticed how much louder the pop Muzak seemed without the usual background chatter of a restaurant to drown it out.  I enjoyed my dinner and was onto my fourth and final glass of wine by the time the bill was ready to be settled.  I lounged back in my chair, quite content with the evening so far, and took a long, satisfied swig of the delicious red wine when All By Myself by Celine Dion played.  I couldn’t decide whether the restaurant staff were jesting me or if this was one of those weird and quirky coincidental moments you see all the time on television sitcoms.

Still burdened with man flu I thought it best to retire to the Travelodge and enjoy a quiet drink or two before getting my first early night in more than a week.  I sat on a barstool and waited for one of the hotel staff to return to the bar to serve me.  Eventually the equine studies girl arrived and I decided that I would let her know that I, too, recognised her face (The day the horse left the stable (aka Ryan Adams @ The Sage, Gateshead)  She complimented me on my impressive memory when I enquired how the equestrian studies were going and I furthered my attempt to impress her by channelling some recollection of discussing dressage with her.  She insisted that she isn’t studying to become involved in competition, she simply wants to help train horses and get them ready for competition.

“I see.  So not so much dressage as dressing…?”

The receptionist/barmaid glanced at her watch at this point.

“Unfortunately my shift is actually finished now.”

I ordered a Guinness and a Jameson from her substitute – never a good idea at the best of times – and found myself in conversation with another gentleman at the bar.  He was missing his front teeth, wasn’t wearing any shoes and had the general appearance of someone who might have been rejected from a role in Deliverance on account of looking too much like a ‘backwoods local’.  Remarkably he claimed to be the manager of Amazon’s Gourock branch and I sat talking to him until 4am, at which time it occurred to me that it was Saturday morning and I had a game of football to attend in nigh upon seven hours.

Final scores:
Celtic 0-0 Rangers
JJ 0-1 Celine Dion

 

 

The day I slept on the train

The 8.57 train leaving Oban on a Saturday morning isn’t only a means of travelling to Glasgow.  Often it is my best chance of getting some sleep following a Friday night at the bar, and sometimes it is my first opportunity in the day for a cup of what is generously described on the ScotRail menu as “coffee”.

Nobody ever wants to sleep on the train.  There are potentially as many as a thousand arses each year sitting on the seat you are contemplating slumber on and I struggle enough with the prospect of sleeping with one person, let alone scores of strangers.  Then you consider the decor of the carriage and the faded purple and tired green pattern on the seats and you think that surely nobody could wish to sleep on Smurf vomit.

As soon as I finished peeling the reluctant skin from my orange I could feel my eyes become weary.  Although I am a notoriously shy peeler of oranges in public situations due to my frequent inability to remove the skin in one fluent piece, I felt a certain confidence on this occasion when I observed the small boy of maybe five or six years of age opposite me use his nimble little fingers to peel a satsuma in a single complete effort.  If he can do it there’s no reason I can’t, I thought to myself in a surge of optimism, and I reached for the orange from the bottom of my satchel.  I pierced the top of the orange with my index finger and began to loosen the skin from the juicy fruit contained within.  Things were going pretty well and the skin was coming away with ease.  I felt relaxed and was pretty sure that the five-year-old boy sitting across from me would be impressed if he cared about such matters as much as he appeared to be interested in his colouring book, in which he used blues and greens to bring scribbled life to wildlife scenes.  I couldn’t help but suspect that I was taunting me, and this only added to my determination to peel the orange whole.  Then I reached an impasse and there was nowhere left for my finger to go without starting a second string – and that one proved so hopeless that there immediately followed a third attempt at peeling the orange.  I folded the discarded pieces of skin into my empty coffee cup, hopeful that the child across the table hadn’t noticed my failure.  The fruit itself was consumed in less time than it took to free from its jumpsuit, and I was left wondering if the healthy intake of vitamin C I enjoyed from the orange was worth the charade.

My eyes became as heavy as a plump robin on a thin bare branch and I could no longer keep myself awake.  My head craned to the right, resting against the cold hard window – the worst pillow imaginable.  Even worse than at the Travelodge.  It wasn’t particularly comfortable and to make matters worse I felt certain that I was dreaming about falling asleep on the train.  I could picture the scene clearly in my mind’s eye:  a loose earphone dangling errantly from my ear, my eyes flickering like a faulty fairy light as I drift in and out of a barely sober slumber and my mouth hangs open like a snowmans, frozen in dumbfoundment.  In my dream I could see a small formation of saliva gradually dribble down my chin in the manner of a drop of rain which grows bigger as it runs down the length of the window of the train.  I immediately woke up, my hand desperately reaching towards my chin in an attempt to conceal the drool — but there was nothing there.  My brow furrowed and I scanned the faces of the commuters sitting around me, hopeful that none of them had witnessed my flailing at an imaginary dribble.  I discreetly returned the earbud to my ear, settled back in my chair and vowed that I would not allow myself to doze off again.

When I next woke up the train was nearing Glasgow Queen Street and I was feeling hungry.  After enjoying a pint of Caesar Augustus upon arriving in the city I decided to venture towards the Christmas market at St Enoch Square, where a colleague had suggested that I should try the duck fat cooked chips.  I purchased a carton and found a quiet spot to savour them.  In my hungry haste to shove as many thin pieces of potato as possible into my mouth a couple of chips fell to the cold ground, where inevitably a flock of city centre dwelling pigeons quickly arrived.  The birds cooed as they surveyed their unexpected meal of a couple of duck fat cooked chips and as I watched I was filled with the horrible realisation that I was about to become responsible for inadvertent cannibalism.

I briefly considered that maybe the pigeons would know that the chips had been fried in duck fat, either from a recognition of the scent or from an unexpected (at least from my point of view) ability to read from the sign above the stall.  But my hopes were dashed when the birds wasted no time in scoffing the tasty treats, and I was left pinching myself in some doomed attempt to waken myself from this fowl nightmare.

Final scores:
Celtic 5-1 Motherwell
JJ 0-1 Sleep

The day I didn’t drink a cup of coffee until midday

It was with a great deal of effort that I was eventually able to peel open my eyes on Saturday morning in a manner similar to how determined old wallpaper is finally torn from a wall; piece by piece.  I felt worn and droopy, like a style of interior decor which has gone horribly out of fashion, and I decided that rather than get out of bed and make myself a cup of coffee I would lay amongst my sheets in a crumpled, hung over heap for an extra twenty minutes before getting up for the train.  This would prove to be an unwise decision.  I went on to find that the coffee shop near the station was closed for refurbishment, while the station shop itself had run out of milk and there was no trolley service on the train.  I wouldn’t be able to drink a cup of coffee until midday, leaving me lethargic for the first half of the day – quite the opposite of Celtic’s performance against Hibernian that afternoon.

I am not one of those people who insists that I need coffee early in the day to function as a human being, but it was clear on Saturday that I would have enjoyed the morning better with a little caffeinated stimulation.  To begin with, a paranoia normally associated with someone who has drunk far too much coffee crept into my mind as I sat clutching my train ticket between my forefinger and my thumb and I watched the conductor wind her way slowly up the train towards me.  I found myself repeatedly checking every detail on the small orange card, fearing that I had somehow picked up the wrong ticket at the collection window and would be forced to get off the train at some stop in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles away from a coffee shop.  I could sense the shame I would feel as I am ushered up the packed carriage, the eyes of every passenger on me, shaking their heads to indicate appalled disgust as the conductor urges me onto the platform.  Next time boil the kettle!  She would call out as the train pulls away.

Fortunately I was given the correct ticket for my journey and I was granted access to the replacement bus service between Crianlarich and Glasgow, where I found myself seated next to someone of indeterminate gender.  Of course, this was a situation I could easily have been in after a cup of coffee or two, but I felt that my judgment was definitely inhibited by the absence of caffeine from my system, as well as a reluctance to glance too often at the person next to me.  They wore a bright red jacket which was of a fashion only a woman could confidently wear, but the body was slender and lacking any notable feminine shape.  The hair was short and grey and appeared to be an acceptable style for any person, whereas the thin-rimmed spectacles looked much better suited to a female face.  However, the face of this particular person seemed to have the features of a grizzled veteran male and I knew immediately that I could not even contemplate beginning a conversation with this person if I couldn’t determine their sex.  I stared out the window at the passing wet countryside, sighed to myself and wondered whether the sheep grazing on the grass suffered from these social complexities.

It was a late night at the bar the previous evening and an over-indulgence in Jack Daniels which led to my traumatic Saturday morning without coffee.  Here I encountered a woman whose acquaintance I have only really made in the last seven months or so and upon seeing me she enthusiastically threw her arms around me.  I questioned whether it was perhaps a little early in our friendship for us to be greeting each other with a hug, especially when our contact to that point had only been vaguely verbal.  She suggested that we try a handshake instead, but it felt quite formal and I was anxious that it might appear to onlookers as though we were exchanging drugs for money.  I tend to favour a high-five, I said, considering the hand slapping to be friendly without being too intimate or too formal.  We raised our hands into the air and completely missed one another on the first attempt.  We tried again and made minimal contact and I agreed that she was probably right to go with the hug in the first instance, so we reverted to that and shared another friendly embrace before I made some tenuous joke when she innocently answered my question about what she’d been doing with her life recently and we didn’t talk again for the rest of the night.

I finally got my hands on a hot cup of coffee, but not before having to zig-zag a route between several charity talkers on Buchanan Street.  If there are two things I fear in the centre of the city it is charity talkers and umbrellas, and with the rain falling from the sky as incessantly as the attempts of these young volunteers to convince pedestrians to donate to their cause I was panic-stricken as I attempted to weasel through the masses to the nearest coffee shop.  I find it very difficult to ignore charity talkers.  It requires a certain confidence to politely decline whatever they are offering or an equal amount of rudeness to completely ignore them, and I possess neither skill.  This is particularly the case when the charity talker in question is female, given how rare it is that a woman shows a genuine interest in talking to me.  Once when standing outside Liverpool Street Underground Station in London waiting for a friend I became involved in a lengthy discussion with an attractive female charity talker which led to me providing her with all of my contact details and an agreement to donate £1 a month to some charity pledging to preserve the Cumbrian slug or help grow pomegranates on the Norfolk coast or something equally as tenuous.  After several months I eventually came to the realisation that my donation to this cause wasn’t going to win the affection of the female charity talker who I would never see again anyway because she lived in London and I didn’t, so I cancelled my monthly donation and I never knew what become of her gastropod mollusc.

Fortunately the charity talkers in Glasgow were dressed in a bright blue which alerted me to their presence several yards before I reached them and I was able to dodge their good intentions on my way to the coffee shop.  I ordered an Americano and sat at a table by the window, where I pondered everything I had experienced that morning.  I cradled the styrofoam cup in my hands and let the warm steam rise up to my chin between mouthfuls.  In a way it felt comforting and relaxing, and it was then that I realised that what I really needed was a beer, so I got up and left for a nearby bar.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Coffee
Celtic 2-2 Hibernian

The day I was three minutes and thirty seconds late to the game

There is something about the first day of a new football season that makes it more exciting than any other on the calendar.  There is a hope and expectancy that comes with it, a tangible belief that anything is possible when you’re working from a blank page.  There has been an entire summer to learn from the mistakes made over the previous season, an opportunity to put in place new routines and systems which will surely lead to better results over the coming year.

When I roused myself from a fairly ordinary slumber on Saturday morning I was filled with intentions of ensuring that I didn’t repeat the missteps I took during my first year as a season ticket holder at Celtic Park.  I had promised myself that I wouldn’t get so drunk on a Friday night that the train journey the following morning to Glasgow would be an unbearable trek through the various stages of a hangover:  Wishing the world would end, remorse, discomfort, a need for sleep and, finally, an unquenchable desire for another drink.  I also vowed that I would dress appropriately for the climate; make sure that I reach the queue for food at half-time before they run out of steak pies; eat some form of breakfast in the morning; watch more of the game than the stewards; become more fluent in my understanding of the Northern Irish accent.  On the opening day of the season I was convinced that I would have learned from my mistakes of the previous campaign.

As I stuffed my green and white scarf into my olive satchel I became increasingly aware of the fact that, despite my better intentions, I was feeling a lot like a person does after an evening spent at the bar.  I found myself contemplating how a football scarf must feel between the months of May and August, when it sits unused and unloved in the dusty bottom drawer that you keep all the things you no longer wear.  Because, really, there is no use for a football scarf once the season has finished.  Nobody is walking around town in July with their club’s colours wrapped around their neck in some crazy, woolen warm show of support.  A grown adult wearing a football shirt in a non-sporting environment is ridiculous enough of a sight.

I planned my day so that I woke up early enough on Saturday morning to allow me adequate time to get a bacon roll from the corner shop close to the train station.  I took care of matters of personal hygiene as best I could given my condition and arrived at the fast food outlet just as the girl behind the counter was thrusting a tray of light pink bacon slices under a grill.  She informed me that there were only hot drinks available at that moment as “we open at eight o’clock on a Saturday.”  I looked at my watch in the manner a person does when they know what time it is but they want to emphatically make a point.  It was 8:35am.  My famished frustration turned to a concern that this humble employee didn’t know how to cook bacon.  I had visions of some hungry patrons walking into this establishment at 10am expecting a bacon roll only to be told that they open at eight o’clock on a Saturday and they would have to wait until the portions of pork have been turned before they are ready for purchase.  In my confused panic I poured a medium cappuccino from the machine at the side into a large cup, when what I really wanted was a small coffee.

I departed the corner shop hungry and over caffeinated and made my way towards the train station, early for a change.  I located the carriage relevant to my reservation and found that my table seat was positioned opposite a fairly attractive young woman.  Ordinarily this would present a pleasing opportunity, but with a hangover and a large cup of coffee filled only with a medium-sized cappuccino I was in no position to pursue any kind of romantic agenda.  I pushed my earphones deeper into my ear holes, as though to indicate that I was not to be spoken to under any circumstance, and plopped into my seat by the window.  As I performed this grand spectacle I noticed the slender woman opposite me reach into her bag and proceed to parade a variety of items across the surface of the table.  A bottle of water; a black Bose headphone case; an iPod; a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine dated 12 March 2017.  It was this latter item which caught my eye the most.

As the train progressed its painfully slow journey through the West Highlands I began to question why this woman had a copy of the Sunday Times Magazine from 12 March 2017.  Surely she was aware that today was Saturday?  And, despite what the weather later in the day may have suggested, it was most definitely August.  It is possible that the 12 March issue was an especially good edition of the Sunday Times Magazine, but I have never heard that said in every day conversation and it wouldn’t explain why she didn’t thumb through a single leaf of the issue.  If it wasn’t a noteworthy edition worth keeping for future reference then it is perhaps reasonable to assume that this stranger is a slow reader.  After all, it is said that the Sunday Times can be read over an entire week; maybe this girl needs five months to read a copy?  It was probably around Ardlui when it struck me that she was probably employing the same strategy I use on the train of leaving a piece of high brow content sitting in public view next to me in order to intimidate potential train talkers from interacting with her.  My deployment of this tactic is typically to convince my fellow passengers that I’m not some kind of drunken scumbag, but I definitely recognised this is a variation of the tactic.

It turns out there was a reason that the journey was feeling more arduous than usual:  a signal failure in the Helensburgh area caused a 13 minute delay to the service, which wasn’t ideal when I was already pressed for time in making the 12:30pm kick-off.  I walked off the train at Glasgow Queen Street with some urgency and found a ticket machine to purchase a single journey to Bellgrove, which is still a significant walk from Celtic Park but I felt confident that I could make it without missing more than maybe ten minutes of the football.

The 12:18 service to Edinburgh Waverley screeched alongside platform 9 at the exact moment I was bounding down the steps to the lower level of the station and I began to feel that things were finally going my way.  I stepped in to a fairly quiet carriage and waited for the train to depart, knowing that in four minutes I would reach my destination.  The conductor announced that we were on the delayed service to Edinburgh Waverley, confirming that I had successfully managed to get on the right train.  He continued in his flawless tone to inform passengers that as the train was so far behind schedule it would be skipping several stops and would next call at Airdrie, far beyond where I needed to go.  I stormed off the train as emphatically as a fairly aloof, placid guy can and clambered up the stairs I had just come down, unsure of how I would now get to Celtic Park.  I meandered around the station concourse before deciding that I would take a taxi, which I should probably have done in the first instance.  There were a couple of taxi’s waiting outside the front of the station and so I got into the back seat of the first car, asking the driver to take me to Celtic Park.  He asked me to repeat this instruction, leading me to suspect that he might either be incompetent or a Rangers fan.  With some hesitancy I asked him again to go to Celtic Park, fearing that he was intending on driving me to some wildly distant part of the city far from the football.  Kick-off was nearing and I sat anxiously in my seat listening to the league championship flag being unfurled on the radio, an event which really doesn’t lend to an exciting radio commentary.  I stared intently out the window, soon recognising the familiar landscape of the Gallowgate and feeling my fears of being double-crossed by the taxi driver subside.  He drove me close to the stadium and I told him to keep the change from £10 as gratitude for him not taking me to Govan.

I arrived inside Celtic Park with 3:30 shown as having elapsed on the stadium scoreboard.  I walked down to my row to find that my seat had been taken by a young woman, probably around my age.  I decided that I wouldn’t challenge her over her erroneous seating, accepting that the empty seat next to my own would offer the exact same view of the game in an equally uncomfortable green plastic.  Of course, this put me right next to the Northern Irishman whose thick accent proved incomprehensible all last season.  He provided a running commentary on every aspect of the game, all the way through.  Every word spoken in an accent I couldn’t understand.  I would throw in an occasional “aye” so as not to appear rude, but really I could have been agreeing to anything.

The half-time whistle brought some respite from the barrage of opinion, which came as frequently as Celtic attacks on the Hearts goal.  I stood in the queue at the pie stall for close to fifteen minutes and observed how peaceful it felt.  Finally I made it to the front of the line and ordered a steak pie, which I noticed had increased in price by 10p since May.  The young cashier took my money and then asked me once again what I wanted, presumably because she had forgotten.  I told her and she slumped over to the hot cabinet, returning seconds later empty-handed.  “Sorry, we only have Scotch pies left,” she informed me.  A curious thing to say after she had taken my payment for a steak pie, I thought.  However, a pie is nothing if not a pie, in my opinion, and so I accepted the substitute meat offering and ate it before the start of the second-half, despite my failure to find a single sachet of brown sauce anywhere.

As it happens the pie was almost as warm as the sun which beat against my forehead for most of the afternoon.  It felt like a pleasant summer football experience, at least until the walk back to the city centre brought the most almighty downpour of rain I can remember.  It wasn’t a long shower, but for a while it rained and rained and rained.  Every article of clothing was soaked through until it felt like the water had gone beyond my skin and into my bones.  It kept raining, harder and more viciously with every step I took, my clothes clinging to every identifiable part of my body and my socks sodden in my boots, until eventually I was little more than a man wearing wet clothes walking into a bar.

Final scores:
JJ 0-1 Lessons Learned
Celtic 4-1 Hearts

 

The weekend where many small things happened

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Anyone who frequently reads these blog posts would quite reasonably be able to draw the conclusion that my life is not made up of a series of staggeringly exciting events.  It is highly unlikely that there is going to be a cinematic release of the biopic of my life, and if such a film is ever made it will surely go straight to Netflix with a single star rating under the category:  “Films only a completely mad fool who has exhausted all other forms of entertainment would consider watching.”

This post promises to make a mockery of such thoughts, however.  Whilst ordinarily I have one single event to focus on when I make these trips to the football, this weekend could have produced exactly eleven different blog titles:

  • The night I joined a choir
  • The night I talked to a woman without making her cry
  • The night I drank minty green shots
  • The afternoon I sat at a table on the train opposite an attractive young lady and was vocally impotent
  • The night I ate Malaysian food and couldn’t figure out how to use the chopsticks
  • The night they played KISS in the hipster craft beer bar
  • The night I found the best coffee and chocolate milk stout
  • The day I didn’t eat a half-time pie
  • The day the guy next to me jinxed the weather
  • The day Celtic went an entire league season unbeaten
  • The night the quiz ended prematurely

The weekend was blossoming with new experiences.  It is often said that if life gives you lemons you should use them to make lemonade, but over the last few years I have been of the view that why would you want to wait until someone hands you a fruit which is fairly boring and not immediately pleasing when you could instead go out into the wild and pick all of the juicy and delicious berries you want.

It was with this fruit salad in mind that I made the drunken decision to go along to a ‘scratch choir’ on Friday night – an event where a group of people come together and learn how to sing a song from the beginning, in this case the audio treat being Erasure’s “A Little Respect” – and on Saturday to put aside my usual reluctance to dabble with unfamiliar ethnic cuisine by making an impromptu judgment to eat Malaysian food.

It was perhaps unfortunate that in my enthusiasm to savour life’s fruits I walked through the door of a restaurant and was greeted by a friendly busboy who directed me to a table suitable for a solo diner and handed me a menu, which I immediately recognised as being one for the Italian restaurant next door to the Malaysian place I thought I was entering.  I sat fairly sheepishly at this table by the door, listening to the authentic Italian Muzak taunt me as I feigned interest in the menu and considered ways of leaving without it being too awkward.  I contemplated inventing a story whereby my ‘friends’ had decided that they were going to eat elsewhere, but then I had already told this dude that I was going to be eating alone, and I looked very much like someone who would eat alone and so feared that he would see right through my web of deceit and insist that I order.  The server returned and I panicked, my mouth operating far in advance of my brain by announcing that I had just remembered that I had already eaten this weekend and that I would have to leave.  He looked baffled as I stood up and made a sharp exit, barely able to get my arm through the sleeve of my jacket by the time I had reached the door.  My confidence was dented and I took a walk around the block before returning to the Malaysian restaurant next door, where I enjoyed what was at least my second meal of the weekend despite the adversity of trying to master the chopsticks.

Against the backdrop of a sky which was thick with grey clouds Celtic Park was a carnival of colour and noise on Sunday afternoon.  I arrived in time to take part in the full stadium display in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Lisbon Lions winning the European Cup, squeezing into my row between unfamiliar faces as every seat was taken.  The older man to my left uttered some words which were not quite as incomprehensible as those spoken by the Northern Irishman who ordinarily sits close by, but his Irish brogue did require a second listen.  He repeated:  “It looks like the sun’s going to come out.”  Three hours later I walked back into the city centre in a deluge of rain which soaked all the way into my skin.  It was probably the only thing that was gotten wrong at Celtic Park this season.

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It takes a little rain to help you grow, though, and Sunday was so strewn with historic happenings that drenched denim was never going to be cause for accepting lemons.  A win for Celtic ensured that they became the first Scottish team since the 1890’s to complete a league season without defeat, and the first to do it in the modern 38 game era.  A feat so phenomenal that it almost put into shade the fact that for the first time this season I didn’t eat a pie at half-time, so full was I from the two meals I had the previous day.

My first year as a season ticket holder at Celtic Park brought a lot of joy and some fun new experiences, even if I never did learn the name of the eccentrically dressed grey-haired man in the row in front of me, or find myself in romantic rapture with the most beautiful steward in the world.  My seat may be located right underneath a drip on rainy days, and sometimes the pies have a frustrating habit of clinging dearly onto their foil tray, but you have to go picking berries.  I can’t wait to do it all again in August.

Final scores:
Celtic 2-0 Hearts
JJ 1-0 Lemons

The day I didn’t wear a jacket


I am not a man who typically makes bold decisions.  On a day-to-day basis my greatest considerations are typically whether or not to match my socks to the colour of my tie, what kind of sandwich I should eat for lunch and how many sticks of celery I will use in my juice.  There is not much bravado required for any of those decisions, no matter how many minutes I spend each morning agonising over my socks.  I don’t lead a particularly complex life, which is what made my choice to leave for Glasgow on Saturday morning without a jacket all the more remarkable.

It was a moment of wild improvisation when I opened the curtains and my bleary, still-drunk eyes were met by a radiant spring sunshine and I first considered the possibility of not wearing my denim jean jacket.  Such a notion should surely at least be contemplated over the bathroom sink whilst brushing your teeth, so I gave myself those few minutes to account for all of the possible outcomes.

I don’t tend to wear a jacket as a statement of fashion; I view it more as storage space.  My jacket is a vessel for carrying my wallet, earphones and phone.  Those are pretty much my only three possessions of note and if I wasn’t going to wear a jacket the question would beg to be asked:  where would I keep my worldly belongings?  There is only so much space in the pockets of a pair of jeans and I argued with myself that it might be too uncomfortable to try squeezing everything into those pockets for an entire day, but I successfully argued back that it would probably be more uncomfortable to be wearing a heat sucking jean jacket all day and sweating like a hog roast.

There is a certain element of risk in leaving your house in the west of Scotland without a second layer of clothing, and there was a part of me that had visions of sudden explosions of rain and grumpy black clouds prowling over Glasgow.  I wondered whether I would be able to survive if there was an unexpectedly cool evening breeze on my walk back into the city centre.  But then part of the process of making a bold decision is to acknowledge that although there may be risks, the potential gains are so overwhelmingly spectacular that you are almost compelled to take the gamble, and it was with that in mind that I cast aside my fears of what could go wrong and enjoyed the freedom of going jacketless.


Others around me in the Jock Stein Stand had made even bolder decisions in their sartorial selections, with some wearing simply a t-shirt.  The middle-aged dude with the floppy grey hair and occasional red jeans who sits in the row in front of me wore a black t-shirt which afforded me a brief glimpse of a tattoo on his tricep.  It appeared to be a heart with the date “28-12-1929” etched beneath it and for a few minutes of that goalless first-half I wondered why that date would be relevant to him.

Celtic Park was bathed in a pleasant warm sunshine.  Beams of light cascaded from the top of the stand, casting a lustrous and illuminating glow on the forehead of an inviting figure at the front of the section next to mine, 139.  It was the most beautiful steward in the history of the world.  She was looking hot in her high visibility jacket, and I can only assume that the temperature was quite high for her as well.

There was a slight disappointment that the most beautiful steward in the history of the world wasn’t casting a watchful eye over the safety of my section this time, but I still couldn’t help but wonder, if she could see me, would she be impressed by my bold decision to come to the game without a jacket.  I had to think that she would be; although almost everyone in her section had also attended without a jacket and she didn’t appear too fussed about that.  In fact, she seemed more amused by the playful children in the front row of section 139.  I have never envied young boys so much.

The longer the game went on with the Celtic attack scorching the St. Johnstone defence with four second-half goals the more comfortable I was feeling in my minimally layered approach.  There was a certain freedom which came without the burden of a jacket on my shoulders or the need to take it off and find a safe spot to rest it in.  I was able to leap from my seat with no inhibition, chant along and celebrate.  It seemed a shame that the Huddle had whimpered out before it reached my end of the stadium, though with a string of empty seats around me it would have been a bit of a stretch for me to get involved.  Many of the familiar regulars who sit around me weren’t present, with some day tourists taking their seats.  The Northern Irishman with the inaudible accent was replaced by a trio of Spaniards who were marginally easier to understand, despite communicating exclusively in Spanish.

As I embarked on the walk back to the city centre with my wallet safely snuggled in my jean pocket and my earphones attached to my phone I was able to bask in the dying embers of the afternoon sun and with it the glow of knowing that my bold decision to not wear a jacket was correct.  Even if I subsequently ate a disappointing ham and egg salad on the train home, the shine couldn’t be taken from my day.  The risk I took earlier in the day had been rewarded with a regulated body temperature and a refreshing lack of sweat on my shirt.

Final Scores:
Celtic 4-1 St. Johnstone
JJ 1-0 The discomfort of wearing too many layers

 

The day the Aussies came to the soccer

Here is what I know about Aussie rules football:

 

What follows is what I know about Aussies who rule going to the football.

Saturday was a remarkable day at Celtic Park for a multitude of reasons.  The stadium was bathed in a warm glow reminiscent of sunshine for what was probably the first time since September and the atmosphere inside it was one of the best of the season, with a large buoyant crowd still celebrating last weekend’s title win.  There were tops off in the standing section, a catchy new song in honour of Brendan Rodgers set to the tune of ‘This is How It Feels’ by Inspiral Carpets and a pitch invader who was captured and escorted off the park and past the Kilmarnock fans just in time to goad them as Celtic scored their second goal.  It was everything you could ask for from a day at the football.

The tone of the day could have been dramatically different following a near catastrophic incident in our first bar of the day, The Avalon, at Charing Cross.  An eager labrador dog went bounding out of the door and onto a busy road in a single-minded pursuit of his favourite ball, very narrowly avoiding the onrushing traffic.  It was dramatic, and almost as troubling as the fact that all of the good beers on tap were out of stock, leaving me with little option but to have a pint of Tennents.  Fortunately it wasn’t entirely terrible and the day got off to a good start.

Going to the game with three other people – let alone two of them being Australian – was an entirely different proposition to every other Saturday this season spent trying to translate the Northern Irish dude next to me or considering the fashion choices in the row ahead of me.  Perched high up in the Lisbon Lions Stand we set ourselves the goal of having our chant enthusiastically repeated around us – partly in celebration of our hero Tom Rogic, and partly because it was really cool.  Unfortunately there was little appetite for it, ie. nobody joined in, but “let me hear you say aaaaayyoooo” did go on to become a triumphant team at the pub quiz the following night.


The walk back from Celtic Park through the Gallowgate to the city centre is one which probably doesn’t feature in any sensible travel guide, but it does offer a unique insight into a certain element of Glasgow’s culture through its clutch of colourful bars.  Amongst the first of those approached along the route is Brendan’s, which has a larger interior than appears from the street and has taken the novel approach of disregarding all elements of furniture and has instead lined wooden pallets up along each of the walls.  They employed a shameless marketing technique of sending an attractive female around the bar with a tray of sourz, offering them to gullible men at £2 a shot.  It is a tacky marketing gimmick aimed at those who are easily swayed by a dazzling smile and a bit of conversation.  Though the apple flavour did prove quite delicious.

Despite the ball traveling under the crossbar more often than over it and the questionable ability to take a physical challenge of professional footballers I reckon this was a fine introduction to the football going experience.

Aaaaayyooooo.

Final scores:
Celtic 3-1 Kilmarnock
Scotland 2-2 Australia

The night that was a damp squib


The phrase “such and such turned into a real damp squib” has always given me a lot of trouble, not least because I was never aware of what a squib actually is, which in turn lended to my natural instinct to determine that the saying must be referring to a damp squid.  That never sat kindly with my common sense, though:  why would a damp squid be a disappointing anti-climax to anyone?  The squid is a sea dwelling creature, of course it is damp!  It would surely take a real fool to expect anything else.

It turns out that a squib is a short, often cylindrical, firework.  If one of those becomes damp, and your sizzle transpires into little more than a pfffffloppp, disappointment is likely to be chief amongst your emotions.  Hence such and such turning into a real damp squib rather than a damp squid.  Thank you, Google, for finally resolving thirty-three years of literary confusion.

Hindsight, I have learned recently, is a marvellous and frustrating tool of the human mind.  When utilising it now I can acknowledge that I really couldn’t have expected anything more from last night than the wettest of damp squibs.  The real sizzle and sparkle had occurred earlier and Celtic had won the Scottish Premiership title for the sixth consecutive season on Sunday; this fixture against Partick Thistle was never going to be of any significance.  But I had booked this time off work in January and, more than anything, I needed some time out of my own head.  I was looking forward to this night.

A landslip outside Glasgow on Tuesday threw my travel plans into a mild disarray, with trains from Oban being forced to stop at Crianlarich, where buses would commute the remainder of the distance.  Dual modes of transport are rarely enjoyable, especially when the bus from Crianlarich to Glasgow was much more dry than the squib this day was becoming.  I was, though, offered a brief glimpse into how it must feel to be Clark Kent when I returned from a poorly timed toilet break as the train was approaching the station and everyone was dashing off to meet the bus.  I combed my way through the throngs of people and made it back to my table, the last man on the train, and began gathering up my belongings when I noticed that the elderly gentleman who had been sitting opposite me had left his plastic railcard wallet on the table.  I jammed it into my coat pocket, returned The Smiths to my earphones and left the train, hoping that I might encounter this man along the way.

I clambered onto the spacious coach and took a seat near the back, eyeballing every passenger along the way.  No sign of the old man; he probably got onto the other bus, I thought.  Then minutes before departure he appeared.  He used his crutch to slowly amble up the aisle and I anxiously reached into my pocket for the wallet, a small part of me paranoid that I could be accused of theft.  As he neared I stood up, but he greeted me first and said that he thought he might have left his tickets on the table.  “I picked them up!”  I exclaimed, and there was an audible ‘awwww’ from a couple of the seats around me as I returned the wallet to him.  “I’m in your debt,” he said – but little did he know that an hour previously I was cursing him for having the temerity to sit opposite me on the train.  It felt like we were even.


There were a few notable observations to be made inside Celtic Park, aside from the goal both teams scored in the second-half.  Perhaps the most striking was the man, probably aged in his late fifties and definitely dressed in the 1967 European Cup final replica strip, who decided to get up out of his seat minutes before half-time, moved to stand in the aisle and turned to face the Partick Thistle fans at the opposite end of the ground before blessing himself and flicking them the V’s.  I couldn’t understand the gesture.  I mean, I understand what making that two-fingered salute means, but I cannot fathom the need to bless himself before doing it.  Was he trying to insist that, in this period of Lent particularly, Jesus was telling the Partick Thistle support to fuck off through the vessel of this man’s body?  Or was the blessing an attempt at absolving himself of any judgment from a higher power for his silly behaviour?

While the action on the field wasn’t especially eye-catching, my eyes did happen to catch sight of the most beautiful steward I have ever seen.  I spent a good bit of time contemplating her existence and came to the conclusion that not only was she the most beautiful steward I have ever seen, but she was also the only beautiful steward I have ever seen.  I lost a great deal of focus on the football as I tried to imagine scenarios where I could approach her and convince her that spending time with me wouldn’t be a complete waste of her time.  I recited a wealth of lines in my inner monologue, but they were proving more terrible than the quality of football on the pitch behind her:

 

  • “Excuse me, I have a medical emergency.  I think someone may have stolen my heart.”
  • “I think I’m lost, I can’t find my seat.  I’m supposed to be in section UR PANTS/HEART.”  (This would have required a last moment judgment call as to which is more appropriate.)
  • “Your jacket may be high visibility, but it’s your eyes that really sparkle.”
  • “Your jacket may be high visibility, but it’s your body which caught my eye.”
  • “I’m in row L for ‘linguine’.  Fancy going for an Italian after the match?”
  • “I’m all about making those safe exits.”
  • “I can’t tell if I have an irregular heartbeat or if it’s just you/or am I just horny?”  (Again, probably better to delete as appropriate.)
  • “Your jacket may be high visibility, but do you see a future for me?”
  • “As a steward I feel I should inform you of the men smoking cigarettes in the toilets, but instead I’m going to inform you that you are smoking hot behind the goal.”
  • “Your jacket may be high visibility, which should be useful when you’re looking for it on the floor of room 423 of the Travelodge later.”

There was a change of stewards midway through the second-half and I never did get the opportunity to add the most beautiful steward ever to my growing list of failed flirtations.  Instead my thoughts were forced to turn to the floppy grey-haired guy who sometimes wears red jeans sitting in the row in front of me.  Often he can be seen rolling cigarettes during the match, but last night he spent much of the game sucking on a lollypop.  He had that lollypop in his mouth for so long that I surmised that he either really likes hard candy or he is trying to give up smoking.  Either way I was impressed with his resistance to the urge to bite, particularly during what turned out to be a bit of a frustrating evening.

Walking back into the city centre following a score draw at Celtic Park this season has been a rarity, and on a deceptively cold April night it was a bracing experience.  The ideal conditions for a damp squid, maybe, but not so much on a night which had already become a damp squib.

Final scores:
Celtic 1-1 Partick Thistle
JJ 0-1 damp squibs