Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end. For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year? It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess. The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it. As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy. The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess. I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.
Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for. There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess. Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start. For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger. After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.
Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course. Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound. If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!” It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar. Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on: I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how. Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face. Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.
I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities. Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense. Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times? I asked myself. My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks. Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus. Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside. Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him. Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?
We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect. The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background. Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party. I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.
It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree. Santa had been. I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic. It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning. I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve. I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead. Blunder!
Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year. I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing. Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.
I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day. I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth. It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it. It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement: my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge. My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it. They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years. It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it. Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles. Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.
It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley. I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted. They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn. Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within. It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”
Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits. Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy. My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks. It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask. I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.
One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows. He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set. We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows. My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch. My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.
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.
It was around four days before the shortest day when it occurred to me that I had forgotten to decorate my flat for Christmas. The cobweb that was tangled around the five red candles which stood at the foot of the fireplace was white, but it didn’t bring the same festive feel that a string of tinsel would have. While the temperature in my home was chilly and in keeping with the season, no-one ever wanted to come indoors to an actual snowman.
The realisation of my festal faux pas was sparked by a little pink headband which had been sighted lying on the pavement outside my living room window some days before. When I first saw the small piece of pink material I wondered, unwilling to stop in my tracks to study it completely, if it might have been a garment of underwear, and if people may have been impressed by the idea that it had perhaps been tossed from my flat. As the winter days wore on, the wee pink headband became increasingly dirty and beaten by the inclement weather, trodden upon by people who didn’t care that it might have been the trophy of some sexual conquest I had enjoyed the previous weekend. Eventually, it had curled upon itself and become dramatically misshapen, and it reminded me of the nine-foot artificial pine garland I had bought from eBay a year earlier.
Removing the nine-foot artificial pine garland from the utility cupboard in the kitchen, where it had been stored since the early days in January when everybody was trying to eradicate all memories of Christmas from their homes, proved to be a much more challenging exercise than when I had squashed the awkward green thing in all those months ago. When I pulled the beast out, it brought with it many other suppressed items: a 250 piece stationery set which hadn’t been used nearly as much as I had anticipated when I bought it, a 2018 Aldi Christmas magazine that wouldn’t have been of any use even if I wanted it to be, a roll of sellotape, and the charging cable for my stubble trimmer. I carried the garland through to the living room and struggled to mount it onto the mantel place, its twisted green ends dangling dangerously over the sides of the shelf. I was trying to fashion a way of attaching the garland to the mirror, as I had done the previous year, but like a romantic interlude the whole thing unravelled before me, and the loose hanging end of one side of the decoration sent the candle holder sprawling across the oak flooring, the explosion of red wax resembling a crime scene. I decided that the mantel place could do without the nine-foot pine garland, and I returned it to the kitchen cupboard where it wouldn’t be able to wreak any more havoc.
In contrast to my flat, the scene in The Lorne was much more festive when twelve teams gathered for the final pub quiz of 2019. To mark the occasion, everyone from The Unlikely Lads turned up wearing their Christmas jumpers as we were seeking our first win as a breakaway outfit. We had confidence in numbers, with six being the greatest number of people we had encouraged to join our crusade. In addition to me, with my specialist knowledge in the fields of world beers, that one good round on Budapest and, occasionally, the nationality of Celtic players, there were five young women with varying degrees of expertise in medicine. Amongst them were three ladies who I had never met before. Given the anxiety I would feel when I encountered one woman for the first time, the nervous awkwardness was multiplied by three as we tackled the picture round, where we had to identify the famous Santas. Even though I was never that great with maths, I knew that the numbers spelt trouble.
My ability to focus on the numerous rounds of Christmas-themed questions quickly evaporated like the bubbles in a Christmas morning glass of Prosecco. Far from being able to formulate a guess for the number of hours the Guinness world record was set for time spent inside an inflatable snow globe, my mind had been turned upside down by the dilemma of trying to think of interesting conversation for an audience of five women.
In particular, my attention was drawn to the woman whose hair was the same colour as the piece of coal which an unruly child might have found in his stocking on the twenty-fifth. Her accent was musical, the sort of piece that when you first hear it you can’t identify the instruments or even understand what it is about it that you like, but you know that you do and you want to hear it again. Every time she spoke it was all I could do to keep myself from singing along. It took me at least three rounds of Christmas-themed pub quiz questions before I could summon the courage to find out more about the voice that for days afterwards would float around the recesses of my mind like snowflakes in a shaken globe. I leaned across the table to deliver the question which I felt sure would endear me.
“I’m fascinated by your voice,” I began. “Where does your accent come from?” I paused for a moment, my eyes locked on hers. “Other than your throat, I mean.”
Although she smiled, it was the sort of smile you see when someone pulls away the wrapping paper on a Christmas present and finds a Lynx deodorant set inside. A smile of resignation. As if to say, I knew that was coming. I knew there and then that the only place I would be hearing that piece of music again would be in the back of my head.
Meanwhile at the table, an elaborate tale was being told by the tallest girl I had ever seen, a story which at Christmas time emphasised the true value of friendship. The episode centred on a group of girls, of which the fabulously tall lass was one, who were enjoying a night out in Glasgow some years earlier. It was late on in the night, and the group were taking a taxi to a popular club in the city. The effects of the evening’s festivities were beginning to be felt in the back seat of the car as it motored along the M8, and it became clear to some of the girls that their friend was suffering and on the verge of expelling some of the cocktails she had been enjoying. The girl with the generous height extended her hands to act as a basin beneath the chin of her inebriated friend, while another of the group asked the driver if he had a carrier bag, each of them aware of the consequence of throwing up in a taxi.
“Someone isn’t being sick back there, are they?” The driver responded to the request for a bag. “You know it’s an eighty-pounds fine if you are.”
The girls resigned themselves to their fate, worried that as students they could ill-afford to cough up £80 for a fine, or at least to have £80 coughed up over the back seat of a taxi. They worked in unison, opening the windows of the car and cupping their hands under the mouth of their stricken pal to catch the next heave, funnelling it out of the window and onto the passing motorway with the care of a water carrier on their way back from the well in some sun-beaten desert village. Eventually, they made it into Glasgow city centre with the interior of the taxi unscathed. The heavy rainfall of the night helped to wash away much of their endeavour, and by the time they reached the club, the ladies were waved in without question.
It was the sort of story that once you’d heard you couldn’t stop thinking about. The moral was so pure and lifting, maybe not the makings of a Hallmark movie, but it had a charm all the same. I found myself questioning the lengths I would go to help another person, and whether I could cup a friend’s vomit in my hands in order to avoid paying a fine: there were many times when I had nervously clutched my tie against my chest as I was throwing up into a toilet bowl, and so I considered that it would be unlikely. At the end of it all, The Unlikely Lads finished fourth in the final quiz of the year.
Things seemed a lot more sedate on Christmas Eve when I stepped out to collect my final piece of Christmas shopping, which had been sitting in the Royal Mail depot for a couple of days. On George Street, some pedestrians were seen wearing red Santa hats. Most of the women I saw around town were walking with carefree confidence, evidence that they knew they had everything under control. Straggling amongst them were a succession of harassed, red-faced men, their cheeks puffed and their eyes filled with terror. It was reminiscent of a scene from a Stephen King novel. Each of them had hands which were laden with bags bulging with goods, the integrity of the plastic surely giving cause for concern. Somewhere in between, I strolled through the crowds with a roll of wrapping paper purchased from WH Smith for £2.49.
On the night before Christmas, I decided to reward my efforts in having all of my gifts wrapped several hours before the big day itself, unlike in previous years, by indulging in a celebratory bottle of Rioja after I had come home from a few hours spent in Aulay’s. All through the flat, everything was quiet, and the more I sank into the wine, the heavier the feeling was that something was missing. I was thinking a lot about people who weren’t there, people who couldn’t be there, friends I hadn’t seen and friends who were far away. I felt low and in need of something different. It was 11.30 and I finished the last of the red wine and left for midnight mass.
Although the rain from earlier in the evening had cleared, the streets around Oban were virtually deserted as I made my way to St Columba’s Cathedral at the other end of town. There were no cars on the road, and the only person I encountered on the fifteen-minute walk was a drunk who I could see from afar staggering away from the Oban Inn. Even as I was approaching the church it was clear that there wasn’t a soul around, to the extent that I was questioning whether midnight mass was still a thing, or if it was even Christmas Eve at all. It was an altogether more silent night than I was expecting.
Nevertheless, I walked up the slick steps towards the entrance of the granite church, where I found that the door was closed over with a laminated white notice attached to its front. It requested that worshippers “please use the side door” and was accompanied by an arrow which helpfully pointed in the direction of the entryway on the right of the building. I breathed a sigh which was swallowed by the wind as it howled in from the bay. I put my pink hand into my pocket and pulled out my phone, staring at the screen as though I had received a vital message, when the reality was that no-one was going to contact me at 11.50 on Christmas Eve and I simply wasn’t wanting to be seen to go in the wrong door. I stood on the step, analysing my phone with a concentration I could have done with summoning at the pub quiz days earlier for what felt like an eternity, until finally the headlights of an approaching car appeared like a bright blazing star in the Bethlehem sky. A group of three or four people emerged, clearly regulars at the church, and they walked up the path towards the side entrance. I finished composing my fictitious text message and promptly followed them inside.
When I was much younger and my mother took me to midnight mass at the Cathedral she would be sure to have us there by half-past eleven in order to secure us a good seat, usually away from the drunks. The church always filled up quickly, and often folk would be forced to stand at the back. On this occasion I was the drunk, but it didn’t matter, because the place was surely not even a quarter filled and it was possible to sit just about anywhere. There was an eerie silence in the building, barely even a cough, and none of the carol singing that I remembered taking place before the mass when I was a boy. I was sitting in a row of seats all to myself, the fingers of each hand pressed against its respective twin on the other, wondering why it was that I thought that going to mass for the first time in six years would be the cure for the shape I was in.
Minutes after the service had started, the side door of the church creaked open and one last attendee groaned in. The man, who was short and visibly older than I was, appeared a little disoriented as he slumped into the small wooden seat at the end of the row a few in front of me. For whatever reason he was dissatisfied with his selection, perhaps his view was obstructed by a pillar he hadn’t been aware of until he sat down, and he got up and shambled into the row directly behind mine, sitting over my right shoulder. He immediately took to kneeling and, amidst a cacophony of sniffling, he began gibbering away to himself, presumably in prayer although it was difficult to tell, so long had it been since I had said one. In my head, I too was talking to God, cursing the arrival of the sniffling man and questioning if this was His way of punishing me for being absent from the church for all those years, by forcing upon me a man who would pass on a winter virus the night before Christmas. So much for peace and goodwill to all men, I was thinking to myself.
Another moment of panic came later when I noticed the usher emerge with the long black collection purse in his hand. I had forgotten that the offering of money was such an integral part of mass, and noticeably they were no longer trusting the collection to make it all the way around the church on its own accord, like when I was younger and we would pass the basket amongst ourselves, from front to rear, and it would always find its way back to the altar. Now, as the usher walked from person to person, there was no getting away from it. I worriedly rummaged through my pocket for my wallet and fortunately discovered that there were a few coins which I hadn’t spent in the pub earlier. Though perhaps the fact that the usher had to walk the bag around the church shouldn’t have been so surprising when so sparse was the population of the congregation that some folk chose to walk across the aisle when it came time to offer a handshake as a sign of peace. On the other hand, I, as with in most situations, largely kept myself to myself, though it was always going to prove difficult to make peace with myself.
When it came time to take Communion, I was finally faced with the sniffling man from the row behind me. We had both reached the aisle at the same time, and it became obvious when I saw his eyes that his sniffling was not the result of a cold, but rather he appeared genuinely distraught. Without thinking, I threw my arm around his shoulder and asked if he was alright. He sniffled and said that he was, but I didn’t believe a word of it. “Are you sure? You don’t seem okay.”
“Well,” he confessed with a sniffle. “My gran passed away yesterday.” I immediately felt a pang of guilt for all the terrible things I had been thinking about him since he had sat behind me, all the silent complaints I had made about his sniffling and his garbled, nonsensical prayers. There was nothing I could say, and all I could do to show my sympathy for his loss was to let him go ahead of me in the line to receive Holy Communion.
In all my time of going to mass, I had never taken the Communion wine. It wasn’t so much a concern about the hygiene of sharing a cup with dozens of strangers, but more because the wine – the ‘blood of Christ’ – was so far down in the chalice that I could never reach it. To bring it from the bottom of the gold chalice to my mouth always required such an elaborate motion that it felt to me that the others waiting behind me would think that I was taking more than my fair share, so after a couple of awkward attempts where I never even had the drink touch my lips, I gave up. Whether I was drunk with confidence on Christmas Eve or eager to have the taste of guilt washed from my mouth, I decided that I would try once more to take the Communion wine. I said my amens and accepted the cup from the woman at the side of the altar, peering briefly inside it to measure the kind of swig I was going to have to take to bring the wine to my mouth. The liquid peeled from the sides of the cup as I tilted it towards me, its colour having all the appearance of gooseberry jam, and when I finally tasted the Communion wine for the first time as an adult, I realised that it was nothing like the Rioja I had enjoyed at home.
When I returned to my row of empty seats, I kneeled on the little stool in front of me, bowing my head because that’s what everybody else seemed to be doing. I was contemplating how much the midnight mass experience had changed since I was going as a child, how lonely the whole thing felt, and how terrible the wine was. As I knelt in silence, the sniffling and gibbering began over my shoulder again. “Thanks for that, Big Man,” I was able to make out amongst it all. I couldn’t be sure if he was talking to me or to God, who was often referred to as ‘the big man upstairs’, and I didn’t want to make any assumptions by acknowledging it, even though I really enjoyed the idea of someone thinking of me as being a big man. I continued staring ahead towards the altar, in perfect silence and reverence.
Some minutes later, when the service finally came to an end, having felt almost as interminably long as the subsequent walk home did, the identity of the Big Man was confirmed. I turned to wish the sniffler all the best for the festive period, where he was still visibly upset. “I appreciated what you said up there, Big Man.” To me, it didn’t seem like that much of a deal, no more than anyone would have said when they’ve drunkenly wrapped their arm around a stranger in the aisle of the Cathedral. But I accepted his words and shook his trembling hand. I couldn’t be sure how I had become a Big Man, but I was determined to stay that way.
It was three days after the midnight mass when something truly remarkable happened. Kyle Falconer, the lead singer of the sometimes popular Scottish indie band The View, played a solo concert in the sometimes popular Oban nightspot The View. I liked to imagine that the musician’s management and everyone involved were completely oblivious to the connection when they were booking the tour to promote his debut album.
“We could play this small seaside town on the west coast, they have a couple of venues worth looking at. The Corran Halls might be a bit too big for us to sell, and Markie Dans is on the small side, but this place called The View looks perfect.”
“That sounds familiar. Has Kyle ever played in The View?”
“No. We’ve never toured in Oban. He’s never been in The View.”
The joke was an obvious play on words that everyone was bound to have thought of, but I enjoyed thinking that it was my own. It was much the same when for several weeks before the gig I had been pointing it out to anyone who would listen that by the time the gig came around on Friday, my workplace would have been closed for the Christmas break since the previous Monday and so I likely would have had the same jeans on for four days. I had been proudly telling so many people about my excellent pun that when the day of the show arrived I was forced to wear a pair of tan chinos, lest anyone believe that I actually had been wearing the same pair of jeans all week.
Although the venue was modestly filled on the night, those who were there managed to enjoy the performance. I spent much of my time studying the room as people funnelled in, desperately seeking the faces of people who could be older than I was in an effort to pacify my growing worry that I was the most aged person at the gig. The previous occasion I had been in The View was on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday when I had foolishly accepted a shot of Sambuca and quickly had to dart to the toilet and desperately try to avoid being sick on my purple tie. The prospect of being the oldest attendee watching Kyle Falconer somehow seemed worse, and the relief I felt when I spotted a clutch of people who were surely my senior was matched only by the man himself finishing his set with Same Jeans, which it seemed was the one song everybody was waiting to hear.
Any sense of being the Big Man had dissipated by the late hours of Friday night. I had left a group of friends in The Oban Inn to go and celebrate a friend’s birthday in Markies, but my timing was off and by the time I arrived there, she had left. I was feeling so miserable for having missed her that even the presence of some people who were older than me wasn’t much consolation. By closing time, I had been convinced by a quartet of friends that it would be a good idea to invite them back to my place for a post-pub drink. Even though I wasn’t in the most sociable of moods, it would have taken a fool to reject an offer of having four female friends in his flat.
We sat drinking beer until five in the morning, listening to Frank Zappa songs and discussing the merits of an Oxford comma and whether anyone really cares about them anyway. With hindsight, it was the best thing I could have done at the time, even as I was crouching by the toilet bowl the following afternoon. I considered all of the things I had learned over the Christmas period: how difficult it was to keep an artificial garland still, the price of friendship being £80, the wrong method of asking where a woman is from, how to become known as a Big Man, the true taste of Communion wine, that very few people were going to church anymore, that the only song I knew by The View was Same Jeans, and how to correctly use an Oxford comma. Sometimes you just need to know the right place for something to go.
“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things” is a quote from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.
For those who do not have a Spotify account but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three most played songs from December.
It’s difficult to imagine that the frontman from indie rock bores Snow Patrol, Gary Lightbody, could be responsible for this beautiful piece of folk music, and yet I Am A Landside is breathtaking, and one of my favourite songs:
Over time, I have probably tried to use just about every line from Kathleen by Josh Ritter when talking to a woman:
What could be more romantic than getting together with someone for a drink and pretending that the world isn’t fucked up?
Although I didn’t have an Advent calendar, the third night of December still carried a surprise behind the window of my bedroom. The festive discovery maybe shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me, or at least it wouldn’t have done if I had read the letter I received in the post a week or so earlier from the energy company SGN instead of tearing it up into snowflake-sized pieces of paper and tossing it into the recycling bin. I was reminded of the contents of the communication at around ten o’clock when, in the way that a smiling snowman or a steaming pudding in the form of something resembling a piece of chocolate prompts you that Christmas is another day nearer, the dim and distant sound of a drill cutting through tarmac reminded me that there were roadworks scheduled at the end of my street.
My bedroom was lit up like a fairground park, only as usual without the amusement. The curtains, which stood from the floor and were much taller than I was, danced along to the beat of a dazzling orange light, which was flickering wildly through the material, on and off and on again, in rhythm to the sound of a pneumatic drill. I approached the beaming drapes with all of the excitement that a younger me had when holding a cardboard Thomas The Tank Engine Advent calendar, curious to see what was going on on the other side of the window. I peeled back the curtain with the care of piercing a perforated, numbered square and craned my neck to look out towards the top of the street, where the works vehicles were stationed. It soon became clear that for me it wouldn’t be a silent night, but for the men who were working on the road, it would be a holey night.
For nigh upon two years of living in my town centre flat, my bedroom had witnessed an underwhelmingly little amount of activity. Suddenly, on the third night of Advent, there was too much of it. As I was getting changed for bed under the glowing spotlight of an SGN van, minding my own business in much the same way that any single occupant does, I noticed a spider sitting around fourteen inches from the top of the ivory coloured curtain which hung across the front of my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe. Having disrobed myself of my yellow shirt, I was feeling fairly certain that the spider, with its eight little eyes, was much more terrified of the situation we had found ourselves in than I was. We hadn’t quite locked eyes, its being much too small to pick out from a distance, but we were bitterly entrenched in a stand-off across the room, neither party willing to cede ground. Eventually, like whenever I thought about talking to a woman I liked, my feet grew cold – the disadvantage of having to stick to walking on the floor – and I gave up and got into bed.
From under the comfort of my two thousand thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, all I could think about was the spider. Was it thinking about me? Who knew. But all I knew was that it looked ridiculous standing there on the curtain which my suits and shirts were neatly stored behind. I stared at it and thought how it would be like me, as someone who gave up learning how to drive after four lessons, standing on the forecourt of a used car dealership. Like every other spider, the one on my wardrobe curtain had eight legs, and just like every other shirt, the ones I wore had two sleeves. Even if it was presumed that the arachnid could stretch two of its legs out into the sleeves, I had no idea what it would expect to do with the remaining limbs. What colour of shirt would a spider even wear? It would be an absurd appearance. And that would be without considering its ability to match the socks.
I settled back into my pillow and turned off the lamp on my bedside table, not that it really made much difference with the roadworks ongoing up the street. With my glasses folded away and the light from the trucks illuminating the room every other second, the spider was resembling little more than a conspicuous smudge on the curtain, like an inkblot on an old-fashioned scroll. As I was laying there, instead of laughing in the arms of a loved one, I was questioning the motives of a spider. If it wasn’t trying to get into my shirts or to spin a web around the fly of my trousers, then what did it think it was up to? Nobody ever spoke of finding a spider on their curtain. A moth, usually, but never a spider. I began to wonder if it might have been identifying as a moth. It wouldn’t matter because, in time, like anything connected with my bedroom, the spider eventually scurried over the horizon of the curtain and was never seen again.
A calendar, either traditional or Advent, wasn’t required to tell me that it was the first week of December and that the countdown to the twenty-fifth day was underway. Across my social media accounts, Christmas trees had been popping up everywhere, as though most people had received the same notification alert. The Instagram photographs and Facebook status updates were only a reminder to me of the pitifully sad tree I had erected in my living room a year earlier, where all of the 1980s novelty glass baubles had been hung on the lower branches, at arms reach of my two-year-old niece, and I wasn’t ready to think about festive decorations again. It was similar to the way I felt when friends would post pictures of their latest romantic adventure with their partners when all I had recently done was to make a joke to a girl about dressing my mantelpiece with a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz.
Although I looked forward to Christmas every year; the festivities, spending time with family, seeing people who maybe hadn’t been seen for some time, I wasn’t quite able to get into the spirit yet, though it was hard to say if it was through a Scrooge complex or laziness. I was treating the early December days like any other in the year, more concerned with matching the colour of my socks to my tie than mistletoe and yuletide. In an effort to brighten my mood and embolden my dress, I took a rare midweek foray into wearing a red shirt. I hardly ever wore my red shirt, a decision which wasn’t so much due to sartorial consideration, but rather was born more from a fear of putting the garment in the washing machine. Nevertheless, sometimes a man has to throw on a black sweater vest and a tie, face his anxieties and, at the end of the day, hide the red shirt at the bottom of the clothes hamper if necessary.
Throughout the day, no fewer than four people, though no more than five, passed comment on my red shirt “looking festive.” I tried to defend myself with my insistence that it was just a shirt with no cheery motive behind it, or inside it, but the charges of a festive appearance continued. I was forced to accept that by innocently wearing a red shirt I had become accidentally festive, even if my mood was closer to the black tie. Would a spider be forced to endure such criticism if it left the web wearing a bright red shirt?
Worse was to follow the next day when I returned to a more standard combination. In the comfort of my bedroom, I dressed myself in a pair of smart navy trousers which no-one could mistake for looking festive. The shirt and tie were equally as unseasonal, and I was feeling more like myself. I plugged my earphones in and left my flat, stepping out into the dirty daylight of a December morning. I think I had reached the square, or maybe it was the station, when I realised that the trousers I had believed were blue were actually black, and my face had become as red as a festive shirt. I thought about hastily retreating home to change, but someone was bound to have already seen me, and what would look more foolish than a man wearing black trousers with a purple tie, other than one who wore two different pairs of trousers in the same morning? I could at least console myself with the knowledge that my shoes were black, and it wasn’t a completely ridiculous circumstance, but I was troubled by how such a mistake could have happened. It was apparent that the lighting in my bedroom was to blame and I would have to change the bulb, or at least consider dressing at night, when the roadworks were illuminating the street and I could compare notes with the spider on the curtain.
The air was thick with the fragrances of a late November night. It was either a roast beef dinner, chestnuts over an open fire, toffee, or chimney smoke coughing into the damp air. It could have been all of those. In the distance, the Cathedral bells could be heard ringing over and over again, their sound growing louder all the time, as though struggling to compete with the pipe band that was leading the reindeer parade through town; the fight between the church and commercialisation taken to the streets of Oban. My brother and I were walking from his new flat to meet up again with our sister for the switching on of the Christmas lights, having spent the afternoon drinking mulled wine, in a family tradition we had started some years earlier. Before the 2018 ceremony we celebrated the beginning of the build-up to Christmas with the festive flavours in my town centre flat, and it was debatable whether we had gone to my brother’s as a flat warming of sorts, or because of the memory of a whole unpeeled orange sitting in a boiling pot of red wine in my kitchen twelve months previous. As the seminal Canadian pop poet Alanis Morissette once sang in 1995, “you live, you learn.”
We were really pushing it to make the advertised time of six o’clock for the seasonal lights being illuminated, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at my watch. When I checked my timepiece it was showing eleven-forty, though in those days it was always twenty minutes to twelve, no matter when I glanced down to my wrist. The battery in my watch had died almost a week earlier when I wasn’t looking, and although I still made sure to wear the thing every day, I could never remember to have the battery replaced. From our vantage point on the road running below McCaig’s Tower, we were looking out over the entire town, the mass of darkness broken only by a mushroom cloud of light around the station, where the festivities were taking place. The view was like staring at a Christmas carousel on a mantelpiece, and the church bells were the music, letting us know that it was almost six.
Earlier in the day, I was standing in line at McColl’s waiting to top up my electricity key, because at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there was only one place in town with PayPoint facilities. I had just invested in a new Christmas jumper, since the tradition we had introduced also required the wearing of dubious knitwear, and I was feeling pretty good about things once I had come across a tie that it could be worn with sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my bedroom. Walking uptown to the newsagents was a study in how it would be to be invited onto a catwalk for a winter catalogue. Every other person seemed to be dressed in a Christmas sweater, even the little brown and white terrier dog I passed outside the mobile phone shop was in a red and white knitted outfit.
I was fidgeting with the plastic electricity key in my left hand as I waited, its halves of green and blue much less festive than the canine coat. There were two people ahead of me in the queue, and when the older gentleman who was standing in front of me happened to look over the shoulder of his black winter jacket, he spoke with a voice which made him sound like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, both in accent and tone.
“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to me. If I didn’t know better it could as well have been an accusation, but I recognised him and was in agreement that it had been a while. I told him that it had been five years since the Co-operative supermarket had closed, which is where I was working the last time he laid eyes me. His facial features were inscrutable, like an artefact from the Natural History Museum, but I was certain that he had spent those years believing that everyone from the Co-op who he hadn’t seen since the day it closed had died.
“It’s frightening how quickly time passes,” he whispered in another classic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking barrels line as he stepped forward to the front of the queue and I looked down at my watch and wondered how many lottery scratchcards he was going to buy.
The official turning on of the lights was preceded by the ‘reindeer parade’, where a figure we are to believe is Santa is led through town by a trio of reindeer and a pipe band. By the time we had worked our way through three bottles of mulled wine and a box of mince pies the parade had already reached the station and the reindeer were in a makeshift pen, happily munching on some straw. None of them appeared to have a red nose, though under the spotlight of the Christmas lights it was clear that some of our faces were a little rosier than normal. Around the area which was usually reserved for the taxi rank were a selection of fairground rides which attracted the attention of the young and the old alike. There was a House of Fun which was taller than the clock tower, the standard spinning teacups, and an ‘extreme’ Helter Skelter, the frame of which was brightly-coloured and emblazoned with the animated image of two young women wearing bikinis. It looked an unfortunate choice of outfit for a parade in Oban in late November, though the scene did leave me feeling much more smug about the warm new Christmas jumper I was wearing.
My brother and I left the parade for Aulay’s, where we stopped for a couple of pints of lager before eating dinner at our sister’s. There was a steady hum of early evening revellers around the bar, where we managed to take our usual position close to the icebox, which was a spot where at least something managed to look cool. Looking across at us from by the fruit machine was a woman whose coat was as thick as the fur on a reindeer, although darker in colour, and her hair was white and curled like an envelope which has been crammed inside a pocket for two weeks. She wasn’t long in telling us that she was 73-years-old and enjoyed nothing better than coming to the pub on a Saturday night and talking to people. That much was evident when the woman went on to compliment my brother on having a nice nose, the way that someone might pay homage to a homegrown vegetable patch or a bed of flowers: it’s all the work of nature, but I suppose he helped it along the way.
Stood to the left of the woman was a similarly-aged man who she pointed to as being her husband. I wondered what he was thinking as his wife once more emphasised how she thought that my brother had a very nice nose, particularly when his own snout resembled a slice of pastrami. The more this woman was heaping praise upon my sibling’s sneezer, the more I was feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t mentioned mine, despite it having come from the same allotment. I wasn’t especially wanting to be noticed by a 73-year-old lady at the bar, but it would have been nice, and I was expecting that her husband was feeling the same way.
I gazed across the bar at the elderly man with a sympathetic eye, the same way I looked at anyone who was near the fruit machine. My elbow was pressed tightly into the surface of the bar as I spoke in his direction. “Don’t worry, I think your nose is fine.” It seemed like a gentle, reassuring thing to say, but the gentleman glanced back at me in a manner that suggested he didn’t know what I was talking about, or as if to say keep your nose out of my business. For a moment I considered that maybe I had read the situation all wrong, and the whole episode might just have been the couple’s bold attempt at sparking some renewed interest in their relationship. They would go to bars, or any public space, really, and she would compliment younger men on their more appealing features in an effort to inspire some jealous passion in her husband before they took a taxi home together. My brother was just a patsy, really. Who knew if it was really the case, but it was an explanation that would keep everyone happy.
At my sister’s, we ate a meal of roasted duck and potatoes, before drinking some more mulled wine and playing a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, which revealed much about us. Somewhere in amongst all that, the one-year-old daughter of my sister’s friend, who were both spending the night at the house, decided to walk for the very first time. It was an emotional thing to witness happen, even if technically the baby had initially walked on her own feet upstairs when her mum was getting her ready for bed. In the excitement, she was brought back downstairs and convinced to perform the act again, in front of an adoring audience who had mobile phones poised. In that sense, I hadn’t seen the girl walk for the very first time, rather it was like seeing only the encore at a Beyoncé concert.
It was a remarkable thing to be present in the room for, when suddenly for this little person the world went from being a very small space that was limited to places where she could be carried, to a place of never-ending potential. The entire world was there, ready to be explored. As I was watching the first steps being taken for the second, third and fourth time, I was thinking about how it was probably a similar sight to how seeing myself walk away from the bar in Aulay’s at the end of a night would look. The way that she first rose to her feet, shaky and looking very uncertain about it all. There was a look of stern focus on her face as she took a few steps forward, away from the safety of her mother’s arms, and slowly began to realise that she could do it; her legs were working and her toes were more than just hilarious little things to play with. She was growing in confidence with every step, building up an impressive head of steam, before finally collapsing onto her bottom in fits of laughter. The only difference was that the laughter was her own.
Twas the night before Christmas, when all through my flat there was a great deal of stirring and noise, and I was finding it difficult to sleep. There was a commotion in the walls and pipes of the old block of flats, the same way there is at around the same time every night, whilst traffic was clattering past my window with abandon, like a drunk driven sleigh landing on a tiled roof. In the corner of my bedroom, by the door, was a gathering of shadowy figures cast in darkness. I couldn’t stop myself from looking at them, convinced that they could belong to the ghost which for a brief week or two earlier in the year I suspected was haunting me. I tried to ignore them, tried to close my eyes and sleep, but I was restless and I kept returning to stare at them through eyes which were heavy from four bottles of mulled wine and two bottles of Jammy Red Roo, which had been shared earlier in the evening with family to celebrate the arrival of Santa. I knew that the shadows were either from a benevolent spirit or from the three coats which were hanging on the back of the bedroom door.
My troubles with sleeping could be traced back to the night after my office Christmas party when, even following fifteen hours of continuous drinking the previous day, I found myself sitting with my brother and the plant doctor, drinking beers and eating dry roasted peanuts until 7.30 on Sunday morning. We listened to the George Harrison track Wah-Wah at least a dozen times, and despite promising to myself several years ago that I would never again make another New Year’s resolution, I vowed that in 2019 I would convince as many people as I could to listen to the song.
During an interlude in my sleeplessness, I had a dream which took place back in the days when I was working in a supermarket. I spent more than eight years in a variety of roles in the local Co-operative before it closed at the end of 2014, and they occasionally occur to me when I am in an unconscious state. In my dream, I was approached by a female customer to whom I was immediately attracted, and when she asked me about a product which had escaped my mind by the time I had woken, I began to attempt a series of jokes based on canned foods. Each pun exasperated her more than the last, and she went to great lengths during the rest of her time in the store to avoid making contact with me, including spending an inordinate amount of time in the customer toilets. By morning, I was unsure whether I had experienced a dream, a memory or an epiphany.
On Christmas Morning I started, and finished, wrapping my presents whilst watching an episode of the Netflix murder docuseries The Innocent Man. It didn’t seem like the most festive beginning to proceedings, but it did prepare me for the emotional waterfall of a day spent drinking gin. My sister and her partner hosted the family dinner for the third year running, which was wise when she has all of the poise and grace under pressure required for cooking a meal for more than one person. I often struggle with the timings of preparing a straightforward pasta dish, and burned sweet potato wedges have become my specialty, yet she prepared roast beef, goose and all of the traditional trimmings with aplomb and a plumb and cinnamon gin.
In contrast to hearing the details of a gruesome murder in a town in Oklahoma in the 1980s and a discussion of the DNA analysis of pubic hair, the scene inside my sister’s flat was filled with festive cheer. Her two-year-old daughter was hyper with the excitement of the day and the spoils of Santa. It was heartening to witness such joy and madness, unblemished by politics or religion. A little thing with nothing but happiness for the world around her. Strewn amongst the rubble of wrapping paper and musical toys and plush animals was a microphone which Santa had picked up for fifty pence from a branch of Poundstretchers in Fort William. For the entire day, this small pink amplifier was the most wondrous thing that had ever existed.
After a hearty feast of food, it followed that the board games would be dusted down and brought out of hibernation. My sister unveiled the WH Smith version of the stacking game Jenga, which was named Tumble and was exactly like the classic version, but with a different name. We each took turns removing a block of wood from the structure and placing it on top of the increasingly unstable pile, and after a few collapses we were getting the hang of the game. Even my niece, no more than three months away from her third birthday, displayed brazen and unnerving confidence when it came to pulling a plank from its place. As what turned out to be our final game was becoming more competitive and fraught with tension, I think that my sister could tell that I was becoming slightly intimidated by my niece’s unflinching ability.
“Maybe you should try thinking of it as being like when you are out on a Friday night. Try and find the loosest one in the group.”
It was a pretty good line, but I reminded her that all of the blocks were proving equally as difficult to influence, and that my romantic prowess is even less impressive than my board game expertise.
“So I just have to not talk to them?”
The game advanced to an impressive, and baffling, feat of engineering until, as with at the bar on a Friday night, my unsteady and uncertain movements caused the entire thing to collapse before me. I could see from my niece’s face that even though she wasn’t entirely understanding what was happening, she was feeling a certain smugness that she had gotten the better of me again.
Once a certain threshold of drunkenness had been reached, my brother, sister and I seized the opportunity to question our father about the songbook he had written some decades earlier. We had seen the songbook once, one afternoon in the nineties when it was briefly retrieved from the loft, and we held it in our hands in a triumphant scene reminiscent to the moment Indiana Jones first recovers the Ark of the Covenant. It was taken from our hands before we could fully appreciate it, and ever since we have been searching for its return. Christmas seemed like the ideal time to raise it again, and we vowed that if the treasure was ever handed over to us we would do something tremendous with it: my brother could put the songs to music; my sister could use her great social influence to make sure that the songs are heard; I would….well, we all agreed that it would be a family project.
On Boxing Day the bars were busy with festive revellers. The dancefloor in Markie Dans was crammed with gyrating bodies, whilst the air was thick with the fragrance of gift set body spray. I was wondering if there had been a generous sale on somewhere in the last week, because everyone seemed to be smelling the same way.
It was difficult to move amongst the mass of bodies, and I found myself stuck in the corner like a life-sized doll which had been set aside in favour of a fifty pence novelty microphone. I was looking around the crowded bar, trying to catch sight of a face I would recognise, but no-one was familiar and everyone else was looking exactly like one another. The more I looked around me, the more I was feeling something like the titular character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was an old man, getting older by the minute, and everywhere around me were young people who were only getting younger the more I glanced around the bar.
The situation reminded me of the previous Saturday night, where I had briefly been in conversation with an NHS staff nurse whose role it was to insert catheters into elderly patients. She made the announcement to our group that she “does catheter insertions”, and it was all I could do to throw myself into the conversation and ask: “but what do you do for your profession?” She didn’t understand nor care for my joke, and she repeated that she is responsible for the insertion of catheters.
I was biding my time, waiting for an opportunity to make a second impression, when the woman was making the exclamation that “nobody messes with me.” It was perfect, and I immediately coughed out my line: “they probably mess on you at work though, don’t they?” She buckled and complimented me on a very clever line, though I felt the need to confess that it was the most clever thing I had said in thirty years.
“But you said you are thirty-five?”
“That’s right, ” I admitted, and she didn’t acknowledge me again.
Having left the crowded scene in Markie Dans on Boxing Day night, I arrived in the Lorne to see a woman I recognised as being my neighbour from the top floor of my block of flats. She confirmed that a couple with a young child had recently moved into the flat opposite hers, and I felt relieved to learn that the stroller which had been sitting at the bottom of the stairs outside my flat for the past three or four weeks was not a cruel joke after all. She went on to note that every weekend when she passes my door at the end of the night there is music playing, and she remarked that for someone who looks like the most mild-mannered man imaginable, I seem to be quite the party animal. I chortled at this suggestion, and began to picture the look on her face if only she could open the door on one of these apparent parties and see the plant doctor and I sitting there, eating dry roasted nuts and listening to Wah-Wah on a continuous loop. Or on any of the many occasions in which I have fallen asleep on the couch in my full suit with a quarter drunk bottle of Budweiser.
By the end of Christmas week, the pale winter sky had been washed away by the wettest rain you will ever see. I went to Aulay’s for some catchup beers with a keen bird enthusiast and the VAT man, which proved to be significantly more enjoyable than my time in Aulay’s the following afternoon. Afterwards, the bird watcher and I made our way to the Oban Inn, where I saw a bar band play a cover of U2’s With or Without You for the second time that week, though on this occasion it was not dedicated to a newly engaged couple.
Along the rainswept Esplanade in Markies, a ceilidh band was playing to a much smaller audience than had been present earlier in the week. I spoke to a sandwich artist for the first time since the bread in a friendship baguette turned soggy several weeks earlier. I was feeling anxious when I saw her, the same way I felt days earlier when I was reaching for a delicately balanced piece in Tumble, though once we enjoyed a shot of Tequila Rose I was feeling more of the wah-wah.
The walk home felt shorter than it had done of late, though the rain was so cold and wet that it soaked me through to my bones. Even with my leather jacket zipped all the way to my throat, the rain reached through all of my layers and the next morning I could still feel it reverberate around my being like a voice through a cheap Poundstretcher microphone. I was alone again at 3am, but this time I felt sure that the only ghost was a wet leather jacket hanging on the back of my bedroom door.
Although I had only heard Fairytale of New York once – on the dark journey home from Edinburgh, whilst travelling through a sleepy village on Sunday morning – I could tell that the Christmas party season was in full swing by the end of the week. Around Aulay’s there were ladies flaunting their finest frocks, some men were attired in tasteful Christmas jumpers, and no more than one gentleman was resplendent in a kilt which had been thoughtfully gifted to him by a co-worker, despite the seasonal conditions outdoors. I was standing at the bar drinking the scene in.
At a table in the corner of the room, I observed a group of three women who had carried their drinks from the bar to sit down. They each removed their scarves and their jackets and took a seat, one by one, the way a squad of synchronised swimmers might. The women all had a shade of blonde hair, which made it difficult not to question whether it was by coincidence or if having a certain style of hair was a prerequisite to joining their group. They were seated along the cushioned couch side of the table, in a perfect line from lightest shade of blonde hair to darkest. From my vantage point at the bar, it was almost like looking at a magazine article depicting the appearance of a turkey during the process of cooking Christmas dinner: the way it starts out pale and tightly held in place, gradually yellowing under the burning light in the oven, here represented by the gentle glimmer of a bar light, before finally coming out a crisp, luscious texture.
After a while, continuing their commitment to synchronicity, the trio of blondes reached into their respective handbags, pulling out smartphones in the way, once upon a time, they might have withdrawn a compact mirror. They were each gazing into their screens, swiping through social media and interacting with the world; save for the life which was going on around them. For several minutes there was no communication amongst the group, neither through eyes nor voice, as the three of them became lost in technology. I was wondering how much they could be enjoying their night. Then, bearing witness to the scene, I wondered how much I was enjoying mine.
My fixation with the non-communicative trio of blondes was broken when an unrelated woman with fair hair appeared beside me at the bar to order drinks for her table, who were a group on a work party. She asked the banker who was moonlighting behind the bar which whisky he would recommend for her boss, and he turned the question over to me. I have never considered myself an expert in the grain, or in anything for that matter, and I felt sure that if anyone else was standing at the bar they would have been better suited to offer advice. As it was, my knowledge of whisky extended to two varieties: the type which would make me brilliantly drunk and aid in an enjoyable night, typically Jameson, or the kind of whisky that would have me falling through my shower screen and waking up the next morning in my bathtub.
I asked the fair-haired woman if she would point out her boss to me. We turned in the direction of her table, where there must have been around a dozen people, and she told me which of the figures was her boss. He was dressed casually and had floppy silver hair, although I still couldn’t be sure why I had asked for the information. It did nothing to help me, but I supposed it was adding to the air of whisky authority I had somehow assumed, and I went along with it. After a moment which was heavy with consideration, I suggested that he would enjoy a Lagavulin.
Some time later, the girl was returning from the bathroom when I stopped her en route to her table to ask whether her boss had liked the malt whisky I had selected for him. She said that he considered it better than the Famous Grouse he had been drinking for much of the night, and I felt quietly satisfied. As our brief conversation developed beyond whisky, the woman with the fair hair informed me that it had occurred to her when she was in the toilet that she knew me from a time when I worked with her mother. I knew that she was right, but I was immediately distracted by my attempt to think of an occasion when something had occurred to me whilst in the bathroom.
Things just don’t tend to occur to me when I am standing in the men’s room, particularly the men’s room in Aulay’s, which is an intimate space. Do other people experience these flashes of inspiration when they are splashing their urination? Could I be the only person who doesn’t experience a moment of clarity in the toilet? We continued to talk, and I was wondering if I had ever been an occurrence in the mind of any other women when they were in the bathroom. The thought disturbed me, and the fair-haired woman soon wandered back to her table.
“Just a wee bit of ice…naw hunners,” was a phrase I heard uttered over my left shoulder. The gentleman in question was requesting that his empty pint glass, which was intended for a bottle of cider, be supplied with only a few ice cubes, but I couldn’t get past the idea of hundreds of blocks of ice being fitted into the pint glass. In my mind, I was imagining the last person who served this customer, the member of the bar staff who caused him to ensure in future that he asked specifically not to be given a glass with hundreds of pieces of ice in it. I could see the look of determination on his or her face as they were focussed on angling the cubes in such a way that they could get another in, like a cold game of Tetris. I looked at my own glass, which was still around half empty, and reckoned that I could only manage 33 ice cubes at best, but then I was never very spaciously aware.
In the upstairs of a bar overlooking the sea, a young woman was carrying a large handcrafted version of the popular board game Battleship. It was attached around her neck with a piece of cable and was housed in a box which was the size of a very big pizza delivery box. When she lifted open the lid, an elaborate maritime warfare scenario was revealed. I expressed wonder at the impressive work which had gone into the board, though she seemed to be burdened by the effort of carrying it around her neck all night. She asked me if I would like to make a move, which is a question that ordinarily results in me crumbling into a small pile of bones and dust before a woman. I realised before I said something stupid that she was referring to her ongoing game of Battleship, and I studied the board for a while before settling on B9. She looked back at the scorecard on the base of the lid, and as is typically the case with the moves I make, nothing came of it.
Beyond the Battleship beholder, I could see the moonlighting barmaid who, months earlier, disputed my claim that Kenny Anderson of King Creosote was dressed like a homeless man. I was keen to find a way of getting across the bar to talk to her, but the floor was crowded and I didn’t know what I would say to her without introducing myself as the man who thought King Creosote appeared underwhelmingly dressed. It seemed like the most difficult level of Minesweeper, and before it could all blow up in my face I left for a bar further along the seafront.
An inconsequential number of minutes passed and I became aware that the moonlighting barmaid had arrived in Markies. It was all I could do to stare across the sparsely populated bar, and eventually, I managed to convince myself that I should approach her. The Jameson I had been drinking earlier in the night ensured that I would never remember the words which stumbled from my mouth, but I felt confident that she had moved past the King Creosote incident, and like with the game of Battleship, I hadn’t triggered any fatal explosives.
The streets of Edinburgh were bulging with city goers seeking some festive spirit, with crowds of people so thick that it was barely imaginable that a line of a hundred white LED lights could be strung through them. It required a real effort and a measure of ingenuity to walk from one end of Princes Street to the other at any kind of regular pace. There were families exploring the vast Christmas market, whilst couples were walking with their arms linked along the street, their knitted hats and scarves straight out of a page they saw in a catalogue. A pair of large dogs, Great Danes, I think, were striding alongside their owners, each dressed in a red and a green elf costume. Meanwhile, I was on my way to dine alone at a French restaurant I had read about earlier.
Everything about the city was lit up. In the gardens, by the Scott Monument, stood a massive Big Wheel which was flashing a brilliant bright red as it turned. Positioned so close to the Victorian Gothic structure, built in 1844, the scene looked like a Pixar production of Lord of the Rings. On George Street, there were Christmas lights as far as the eye could see, more than any person could reasonably count. In the windows of department stores, there were colourful and joyous displays, depicting all sizes of Santa Claus, red-nosed reindeer, and sweet haloed angels. Over on the South Bridge, the neon blue sign of The Church of Scientology was burning in the cold night air, and I thought to myself how nice it was that all of the crazy beliefs were being catered for.
Down a cobbled side street, I found the traditional French restaurant I was searching for. Opened two years ago and run by a French couple, the restaurant was small and intimate, housing only six tables and seating a maximum of four parties at any time. At the door, I was greeted by the wife of the couple, whose role in the partnership seemed to be to act as the most diminutive French waitress I have ever seen. She led me to a table at the back of the room, taking me past a long table in the centre of the dining area which was showcasing a range of Christmas figurines arranged into a festive scene. When seated I became aware of the fact that the woman was dressed entirely in black, with the exception of her footwear, which was a pale colour. Once I had seen it I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I was wondering if she knew. Soon it was as distracting as the waitresses’ habit of approaching my table as I was deep in contemplation, and I never did get to finish my thought.
After a short while, the waitress – no taller than a mid-size Christmas tree with a star on top – presented me with two menus: one was the dinner selection and the other a seven course Christmas menu. I perused the festive feast on offer, considering whether the duck foie gras would be like the French Christmas dinner equivalent of a pig in a blanket. Seven courses seemed like five too many for someone who has never dined in a French restaurant, however, and after a quick consultation with Google to pinpoint which dishes on the menu might contain mushrooms, I ordered from the regular evening selection.
Along with my Venison Parmentier, I ordered a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, because it was the only words I understood the waitress say. She returned from the wine rack with an ice bucket and the bottle of my choosing, in a presentation which seemed much too elaborate for a single man who was really only wanting to get drunk. She opened the bottle, the glass dripping with an enticing condensation, and asked me if I would like to taste it. I have never known anyone to say no in such a scenario, though a panic streaked through my mind as I considered how awkward it would be if I tried the wine and found it was disgusting. Would I have the guts to turn it away after she had gone to all the trouble of opening the bottle and resting it in a chilled silver bucket?
The waitress poured a mouthful of Sauvignon Blanc into my glass, and I raised it slowly to my mouth, pausing to take an exaggerated inhale. I wasn’t sure what I was sniffing for, but it seemed like something a person would do when tasting wine. “That’s acceptable,” I said, in the most ridiculous manner possible, after drinking the fruity white.
I was reveling in the adventure of trying French cuisine for the first time. It was in contrast to my dining experience earlier in the day, on the train from Oban to Glasgow, when I was forced into eating an entire mango on the journey – rather than saving some for the later leg to Edinburgh – after forgetting to pack my tangerines. I had never before eaten so much mango in a single sitting, and the thought crossed my mind that there could be some kind of unexpected side effect, the way children become hyper on too much sugar, or I transform into a bumbling buffoon around women after a certain amount of beer and Jameson.
Across the aisle from my seat was a girl who had olive skin and who was wearing a fluffy red hat. I noticed her staring as I brought another chunk of juicy yellow fleshed mango to my mouth. I couldn’t help but worry that she had seen how much mango I was eating, knowing the crude effect it would have on a person. She had doubtless seen the way that the skin around my nostrils had the appearance of a window which has been decorated with spray-on snow, the aftermath of a cold earlier in the week, and we both knew that I would have been better off eating an orange.
There was no muzak in the background of the restaurant, a feature which I considered would be ideal in the wild event of me dining with a woman on an intimate date, allowing you to really talk to a person. Sitting by myself in the corner, it made things eerily quiet, and I was left to dwell on my own thoughts. Part of me was wanting to create some atmosphere by plugging my earphones into my phone and playing something on Spotify by La Fouine, but I wouldn’t have known where to begin. After finishing my meal, I sat for what felt like at least fifteen minutes trying to catch the attention of the waitress in order to ask for my bill. It was another scenario in which I was left to rue my inability to make eye contact with a woman, and it was only after my second attempt at raising my arm in the air that I was able to draw her to my table.
After eating, I retired to my favourite bar in the city, Brass Monkey, where in contrast to the manic streets outside, I found a surprising solitude. I sank into a seat at the bar and ordered a pint of Innis & Gunn. On the chalk menu overhead, there was an offer of a mug of mulled wine and a mince pie for £3.25. It seemed appealing, though I decided that it would contradict the fine French wine I had just enjoyed. As I was mulling it all over in my mind, I wondered whether they would use the whole orange, or would they peel it and cut it into pieces first?
I was nearing the last mouthful of my third pint and considering moving on to The Advocate, which wasn’t so far from my hostel and in my thinking would save me a walk later in the night. To my left, there was a man ordering around four or five drinks. He was sitting at a table with a group of friends, and once he had paid for his round he carried three of the drinks over to them. He mentioned to the barmaid that he was doing this, and noticing that the head on his pint was evaporating, she asked him what he was drinking so that she could top it up in the meantime.
“It’s a beer,” he responded, quite matter of fact.
“What kind of beer?” The barmaid enquired. “We sell several of them.”
The man informed her of his tipple and took the rest of his drinks to the table. “It’s amazing the number of people who come in here and ask for ‘a beer’,” the barmaid said to me, standing behind rows of taps. Her voice was sounding faintly Irish to me, and her hair was nearly as dark as the tattoos which were covering the arm she was using to pour pints. My soul was on fire. I was put in mind of McSorley’s Old Ale House in New York City, which to this day only serves two varieties of beer: light and dark. Having made contact with the barmaid, I decided that I would remain seated in Brass Monkey, and I had the perfect line for her.
“Since you brought it up,” I began, leaning forward on the oak surface of the bar, excitedly. “Can I have a beer?”
The barmaid laughed and rolled her eyes at the same time. “What kind of beer?”
I stayed until shortly after midnight, but the barmaid didn’t talk to me again.
Whilst standing at Aulay’s Bar in Oban, thinking about another beer, a quartet of Greeks arrived. They were talking about their travel plans for the following few days, and when they mentioned their intention to drive north to Inverness, I felt that it would be useful for them if I shared my experiences of making the same journey as a child, when we would often take family car trips to visit my mother’s side of the family. The Greeks – two couples – were listening with interest as I enthused about the beautiful scenery they would witness on the drive, which is in excess of three hours long.
“I used to suffer from terrible travel sickness when I was younger, though,” I warned. “There would be many an occasion when mum would have to pull over so that I could be sick at the side of the road.”
“Come to think of it, much of that was probably the Smarties I was eating,” I recalled.
“There was one time I vomited on the banks of Loch Ness. Dad tried to make me feel better about it by convincing me that we had seen the Loch Ness Monster while I was throwing up, but I never believed it.”
“So, if I could offer you one travel tip when you are driving to Inverness, it would be this: don’t eat Smarties. And carry a plastic bag.”
The group was looking at me with their big, dark Mediterranean eyes, expressionless and uncertain. They shuffled off towards a table in the corner of the bar without saying another word. It occurred to me that I should have mentioned the mango.
I was sitting at my laptop, on the internet auction site eBay, browsing the various categories in search of inspiration for Christmas gifts, but it didn’t seem that any of their retailers were selling it. Scrolling through pages of listings, my attention was grabbed by a collection of vintage 1980s glass baubles for a Christmas tree. For the price of £5, it seemed like it would be a mistake to not hit the blue ‘Buy it now’ button, and within seconds I was the owner of decorations for a tree I did not yet have.
Some minutes later, I happened upon a 9ft artificial pine garland, which I could imagine happily dressing in a festive fashion the mirror which sits on my fireplace. At £5.99 with free postage and packaging, it felt as though I was really sticking it to those eBay sellers when I bought one. What a bargain! I was thinking to myself as I got into the Christmas spirit of buying things for myself. Adrenalin was pulsing through my body: it was the most exciting thing I had done in months.
I had forgotten all about buying presents for other people by the time I arrived on the next page and found a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines which looked ideal not only for sitting along the end of the mantel place but also for providing more animated company during the season than the tired old cactus plant, which is collecting dust in the way a group of festive carol singers gathers elderly women. I placed a bid of £12.99 and went to bed to read a book written by Charles Bukowski.
The ornamental figurines had slipped from my conscience by the following morning, though when I received an email notification that I had been outbid for them, I suddenly found myself embroiled in a war for their affection. I was feeling strangely hard done by that someone should wish to deprive me of a plush Santa, snowman, and reindeer – and at Christmas, too! – so I logged back into my eBay account and set a maximum bid of £19.99, which seemed reasonable to me. For the next nine hours and 48 minutes, I was on tenterhooks. I imagined that this must be how a person who is in court accused of some petty crime must feel as they await judgment, wondering if they have done enough to plead their case. They might consider it unfair that they are even in such a position, arguing for their freedom, as I was feeling that it was unjustified that I should have to increase my bid for a three-piece set of plush Christmas figurines that I previously hadn’t known I even wanted. When the judge finally returned his verdict, I was the owner of some new novelty ornaments.
Despite vowing to myself at the beginning of every December that I will make a concentrated effort to start Christmas shopping early, and maybe even have it wrapped up by the second weekend of the month, I always drag it out into the week before the day itself. I can’t keep my mind from thinking that, even though there is still time to get the shopping done early, there will still be time in a week, or two weeks, from now. It is a lot like the dilemma faced when there is an alluring girl at the bar and I am procrastinating over talking to her: I could go and speak to her and screw it up in that moment, but I know that there will still be time to make a stupid joke later in the night.
Things seemed much more simple back in the days when I was but a pre-teen boy; when on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon in December I would venture out into the cold and rain with a budget of around £5 of my pocket money to spend per person. As an adult man, £5 wouldn’t cover the cost of a whisky chaser or a 9ft artificial pine garland, though I no longer have to shop in the rain and the majority of my purchases can be made online, in the cold of my flat.
In the halcyon days of the nineties in Oban, it was more or less a choice between looking in John Menzies or Woolworths for gifts, maybe Boots if I was really stuck, feeling inventive or shopping for my mum. I would return home after around an hour or so clutching a couple of plastic bags, my cheeks and big ears pink and wet and weather-beaten, like a sodden little elf. Feeling tired and unsure of my gift wrapping credentials, I would attempt to convince different members of my family that it would make my offerings look more presentable if they had been wrapped by someone else, and usually I would get away without having to touch a roll of gift wrap or struggle to find the end of the sellotape. As a young boy, like now, I cursed the festive season for reminding me that I am terrible at wrapping, whereas for the other eleven months of the year it is my inability to rap which frustrates me.
While over the years I have come to terms with my useless gift wrapping, it is so often the case that the truth is painful to hear, and that was the eventuality for the woman in Markie Dans who questioned whether the plant doctor, my brother and myself are all brothers. We glanced at one another, feeling amused that someone could think such a thing, and it seemed a harmless thing to say that we are all brothers. “Really? Youse don’t look alike,” was the woman’s response, which was accurate in so much as we don’t look alike and the plant doctor isn’t a sibling of my brother and me.
My two brothers spread around the bar to talk to other people, and I was left in conversation with the unsuspecting woman, who spoke with a Lanarkshire dialect. Over the course of ten cycles of the second hand around a clock, I learned that she is in her forties, had recently been divorced, returned from living in New Zealand and had made a bad impression at a job interview with the NHS. I was drinking all of this information in, whilst at the same time contemplating why I was the one who had been landed talking to her. As she stared across the floor at the two bearded men I had walked in with, she once more asked if we were really all brothers. I can’t be sure why I didn’t take the opportunity to come clean and confess that only one of the men is my brother, or at least tell the lesser lie and claim that I had misheard her to begin with, especially when the entire rouse didn’t seem as funny when it was only me hearing it, but instead I continued to insist that the plant doctor is a blood relative.
The story became more elaborate when I decided to throw in the additional detail that we probably don’t all look the same because the plant doctor was put out for adoption when he was two-years-old. This surprised the Lanarkshire lass as much as it did me, and she asked why our parents would decide to do such a thing. “Our mother was hoping for a girl,” I said as we looked over at the plant doctor’s hairy red beard.
“Does she have mental health problems?”
“She wasn’t happy with how the plant doctor turned out.”
“It’s really nice that you are all still friends.”
Returning to her time in New Zealand, the forty-year-old health professional asked me if I had traveled, and when I told her that I hadn’t, she chastised me for failing to experience life. As she took video footage of the bar band as they played in the corner, I decided that I would travel – and I walked out of the bar and traveled home along the Esplanade as I talked on the phone to a friend I don’t talk to often enough. It transpired that she later asked the plant doctor if we were all really brothers, and when he advised her that we are not, she left with a look of upset on her face.
I learned of this development the following evening when we all attended the Bassment event in the Cellar Bar. Bassment is a night of electronic dance music, and although it is not typically a genre of music I enjoy, I decided that I would go along after hearing my brother rave about their previous events.
When we arrived downstairs in the bar, the plant doctor joined a group of his work colleagues. I sat amongst them and soon attempted to engage a smoking French woman, and the rest of the table, in what felt like a deep and meaningful conversation about cigarettes and beer, and whether we can honestly say that we enjoy every one we have. As I listened to the smoking Frenchwoman’s voice, I was reminded of the few years I spent studying French during high school. For Standard Grade, students were given the option of continuing to learn either French or German, and I chose the former since I found German to be a quite brutal and harsh sounding language. I was never particularly good at French, though, and I can remember my teacher often criticising me in class for my failure to understand the French feminine form. Twenty years later, Mr. Wilson’s words still rang true.
On the dance floor, the scent of B.O. was clinging to the atmosphere the way a stray strand of tinsel holds on to a sweater. It wasn’t immediately obvious, or off-putting, but it was there. The DJ decks were sitting on top of a covered pool table, and when I first noticed this I was struggling to get it out of my mind. I couldn’t give myself up to the electronic dance music when all I could concentrate on was my attempt to think of a pun for the image of DJ decks on a pool table, but I couldn’t get anything. Eventually, my feet began to move like a kick drum, and my first night at Bassment wasn’t as bad as I feared.
Sunday was the day of the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Aberdeen, and my intention was to go easy the night before so that I could enjoy the day and take part in the pub quiz on Sunday night. After a shot of tequila my mood lightened, and following Bassment my brother, my fake brother and I went back to my flat, where we drank beer and listened to George Harrison until five o’clock in the morning. In an effort to be a more mature host than on previous occasions, and as a means of not having to brush broken Pringles off my floor the next day, I opened a 400g bag of salted peanuts and shared them amongst three small bowls, which worked out at approximately 133g of nuts each. A scattering of savoury snacks were still strewn across the oak flooring, however, and when they were tread on they had been crushed into the wood. I observed this scene on Sunday morning and mused how it was not the first time that my nuts had been crushed in my flat in recent times.
Despite recovering from Saturday’s hangover in a manner that some might consider miraculous, and even after a generous serving of Baba ghanoush, the pub quiz quickly descended into a drunken shambles, and our team finished last out of a meager three teams. By the time the final questions arrived, I was left to single-handedly tackle the music round, and the tracks played were not kind to a thirty-five-year-old man. We were too luminous in liquor to wallow in our defeat, and instead, we were dancing to some terrible pop music which none of us recognised, a distraction which made it difficult for those guys who were still trying to finish their game of pool.
My attention was drawn to a girl who I felt I wanted to talk to, but I didn’t know how, and in the back of my mind I feared that she would only recognise me as a pub quiz loser. After some time thinking about it I approached her. All I was able to do was remark on her red glasses, and before my brain could catch up my drunken mouth had noted how they were similar in colour to her lips and her hair, though not her mauve nails. I wasn’t even entirely sure what colour mauve was, but it didn’t matter, I’d already said it. I retreated to my table and accepted that I should have treated the situation like my Christmas shopping.