As I have grown older, I seem to have gotten better at Christmas shopping. My ability in the department of gift buying is seemingly akin to a fine wine; not that my budget would ever allow me to be that generous with my presents. It isn’t that the quality of my gifts has improved over the years – just ask my sister, who to this day still regrets the 12-inch traditional crepe maker that I handed over on Christmas Day 2019 and which enjoyed substantial use throughout the subsequent months of lockdown – but more a case that I have become better at getting my shopping out of the way early in the festive period. Of course, I would still be found on my knees on the floor of my living room on Christmas Eve 2019, surrounded by a jigsaw of discarded wrapping paper, grunting and cursing as I attempted to fold the corners of the red sheet neatly into place around a Peppa Pig sticker book, with scrumpled snowmen smiling smugly up at me, but at least I could say that I had done my shopping.
The main benefit of making sure that I had bought presents for everybody else early in the month was that it meant I could spend more time buying things for myself. In the weeks before Christmas, I looked to get myself into the spirit of the season by making a couple of visits to the Oban Beer Seller to stock up on some suitably festive drinks for the period ahead. The shop was a veritable Santa’s grotto of goodies tucked away in the shadow of McCaig’s Tower and opposite the Distillery on Stafford Street, which, when all lit up, could so easily have been a scene fashioned from gingerbread on a decorative carousel. Christmas-inspired beers had long been one of my favourite things about the month of December. Nothing quite said Christmas to me like drinking those themed beers whilst watching the Bill Murray film Scrooged by an open fire, or underneath around half a dozen layers as the case was in the years after I moved into my own flat. The best ones were usually chocolate porters or dark ales, sometimes sweetened with flavours of berries or honey, and often finished with the spice of the season, cinnamon. It was a different taste to the alcohol we were allowed to drink at the table during the Christmas dinners of our youth, usually a Babycham or a glass of Bucks Fizz, when I would like to try and convince everybody that I was drunk, unlike when I was older and I would insist that I wasn’t drunk and could handle one more drink. Nobody was for believing it on either occasion.
Those beers always had the most wonderful names, sobriety breaking sobriquets such as Santa Paws, Fairytale of Brew York, Hoppy Christmas, and Winter Mess, which seemed a particularly fitting purchase in 2020 of all years. I loaded a canvas bag full with beers, eleven of them in total, at which point Karen asked me if I would like to pick up one more, since she was offering a free glass worth £4.99 with every dozen beers bought. In that moment, nothing made more sense to me than buying another can of beer and obtaining the free glass that it could be enjoyed in. It always seemed foolish to look a gift horse in the mouth, let alone a gift glass in the rim, and I picked up an oat lager to complete my order. I had officially finished my Christmas shopping for the year, and in the process was treated to my first gift with it.
There’s almost nothing that brings as much hope as a bag filled with beers does. It is as though the entire world is within reach, just the cracking of a can away. With hops the possibilities seem limitless, you can go anywhere and be anyone. It was on one of those drunken journeys, I came to believe, that I finally got around to ordering The Tender Bar, a book which had been recommended to me by a woman in our album club. She had suggested to me some months earlier that I would enjoy the memoir by J.R. Moehringer since he writes in the same loving, almost romantic, way about his favourite local bar that I often speak of Aulay’s. By the middle of December, Aulay’s had become just like any other romance I had enjoyed in my life. The pub had been closed due to government restrictions since October and the good times spent there had become a distant memory; the former lover who no longer calls or texts, its presence on the street not much more than a spectre. Does she think of me as much as I think about her? I would ask myself every time I passed the empty bar, the faint smell of Tennent’s still lingering in the mind.
The book was delivered to my dad’s like all of my packages were, since the mailbox at my flat was seemingly designed for nothing much larger than a Christmas card. I could tell that something wasn’t right as soon as I tore open the World of Books package and spied the dog-eared red sticker attached near the bottom-right of the book’s cover informing whoever happened to be holding the copy in their hands that the book was a Der Spiegel bestseller. I knew from my high school language classes that Der Spiegel is a popular German news magazine, and it struck me as being odd that it was considered that the fact The Tender Bar is a bestseller in Germany was something I should know about. Who buys a book because it sold well in Germany?
When I turned the book over to read the synopsis on the back, I was given my second clue that things had gone awry. The words were unintelligible and offered me no indication as to the romantic sentimentalities of the memoir. It was printed entirely in German. The book I was holding was the Deutsche edition which, according to the price on the barcode, retailed for €9.95. I could hardly believe that such a thing could happen. First I bought a pizza that unbeknownst to me had mushrooms amidst the topping, and now this. It was apparent that I was going to have to pay more attention to product descriptions when I was shopping, though surely the fact that the book was printed in German would have been quite obvious on the website.
I tried to console myself with the knowledge that, really, it wasn’t my fault that I had bought the wrong book, it could have happened to anyone. In an effort to lighten my mood, I liked to imagine that this particular copy of The Tender Bar had been bought and sold again over and over through the World of Books store, purchased by one bookworm after another, completely unaware that it was a German edition that would be useless to anyone who didn’t understand the language, then hastily sold on again out of embarrassment. No-one would be willing to own up to the mistake they had made in buying a book that they could never read, and it would just be passed around for eternity without a word spoken about it, sort of like the way someone gifts you a bottle of vodka when you are a whisky drinker and you sneakily change the label on the gift bag and give it to someone else at their next birthday.
I wasn’t in the mood to re-gift my German copy of The Tender Bar, not even as a joke, and in fact, I wasn’t sure how I was feeling about Christmas at all, especially after it was announced that Scotland would effectively be going back into lockdown from the 26th. Despite feeling pretty pleased with myself for once again doing a good job with my shopping – for other people, at least – December just didn’t seem very Christmassy, even though many places around town looked to be decorated with much more flair than in previous years. There were some especially striking light displays on the outsides of houses and hotels, although it seemed unusual to me that they would go to such an effort when presumably most of the hotels were empty due to the pandemic. Lights of all colours would dance exuberantly around the exterior of dark hotels, giving the appearance of a disco that nobody had turned up for. From my own perspective, things were bleak enough without me adding my own dismal decorations to the mix. I just couldn’t bring myself to dust off the tiny old Christmas tree I had inherited from the 1990s or to line up along the edge of my mantel place the three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines I had bought a couple of years earlier, knowing that the little Santa, reindeer and snowman ornaments would be my only prospect of company for the foreseeable future. That had been the case in previous years, of course, but at least then I could tell myself that there was a chance it wouldn’t be. At times in December I was feeling like a cheap cracker that has just been pulled apart to no fanfare: the bang just isn’t there, and all that’s left is a stupid joke that nobody finds funny.
Christmas in the midst of a pandemic was always going to be a strange thing. Ordinarily, the last working Friday before the big day would have been set aside for our office party, but like everything else, such things weren’t possible under the restrictions of the time. Instead, I went to the Lorne’s beer garden with the plant doctor, where I met up with a work colleague and her friend. It was the first time I had shared a drink with the young island woman since the night of the Royal Rumpus music event in February, when it would be more accurate to say that she had shared a drink with my shoes. Perhaps one of the advantages of social distancing was that our groups were sat at separate tables and we could enjoy our drinks in the conventional way. At an adjacent table was sitting a man who was shaped like a Christmas pudding, and he struck up a conversation with the plant doctor and myself by asking us how many grapes or potatoes we thought a person with diabetes was allowed to eat in a single day. The plant doctor approached the question in a typically scientific manner, reasoning that it would depend on the diabetic’s diet and body mass as well as the type and size of the potato, amongst other factors. All I could think about was how terrible an existence it must be to have to log every item of food you eat in a day, even a single grape. It would probably be easier now, in the times of Covid, when people don’t have much better to do with their lives. But any other time? What a chore.
“And bananas,” the man interjected, as though suddenly remembering. “How many of those are you allowed to eat if you have diabetes?” He had initially seemed quite suspicious of me and the plant doctor when we arrived in the beer garden wearing our face coverings, his narrow-eyed glances almost questioning: what the hell do you think you’re doing wearing that shit out here? I wondered if all of these questions about grapes and potatoes were what he did when he sensed a weakness about another person, a test of sorts. We tried our best to answer sensibly, but how could we know what it would be like to be diabetic? It wouldn’t be much different to trying to read the German edition of a book you’d mistakenly bought online without knowing a word of the language. “How many of those can you have?” I finally asked, nodding my head in the direction of his half-empty glass of Tennent’s Lager. “Ah, I drink pints of the stuff every day and it’s never done me any harm,” he said with a smile, and I presumed that we had passed his test.
The plant doctor and I turned our attention to reminiscing about the night a year or so earlier when I returned to his flat after the pub and he tricked me into eating mushrooms, which were deep within the biggest omelette I had ever seen. Hearing the phrase “tricked me into eating mushrooms” seemed to draw the attention of the young women who were in our company at the next table. Maybe they hadn’t been landed with the pair of dweeby dorks they first thought they were with. “Were they magic?” One of them asked, almost giddy. We were quickly forced into confessing that we weren’t the fun guys the girls were suddenly picturing and we had in fact only eaten a mushroom omelette with regular store-bought mushrooms – or half-eaten, in my case, once I’d discovered the grizzly secret ingredient.
From across the garden another man was keen to have his voice heard. The figure resembled a scarecrow who wasn’t having very much success in its role; a dirty red baseball cap sat atop a mop of hair the same shade as the fur of an invasive species of squirrel. He was a fascinating fella who had clearly been rehomed in The Lorne from one of the town’s less salubrious establishments, though for all his quirks he seemed harmless enough, even if he did briefly threaten to ignite a Hebridean war with my colleague when he announced that he hails from Coll and anyone who is from Mull is a “fake islander.” I never really understood his claim, though it did at least result in what at one stage seemed like it could have been an endless supply of “Coll girl” puns.
What struck me most about the man – who called himself George, though I wasn’t sure how much I believed it – was a particular turn of phrase he used at the height of his bombastic blethering. I wasn’t paying attention closely enough to pick up on the context, but he was talking about a conversation he had apparently had with his mother, who it was to be presumed is dead. In this discussion, she had told her son that she hoped to see him in heaven soon because, in his words, “I’m due a good few clatterings.”
It was a phrase that was stuck in my thoughts for days, the sort that you only ever hear when you’re drunk in the pub. One night in the pub with friends and colleagues, listening to strange characters and their unusual ways with words, had given my bleak festive blues a good clattering. I woke up on my couch early on Saturday morning, still fully clothed in my zebra-coloured tie and my black sweater vest, my trousers and my shoes, and I couldn’t tell if what I was feeling was schadenfreude or a winter mess.