A portrait of Valentine’s Day in Oban

Storm Ciara hadn’t long ceased from battering the country with gale-force winds when Storm Dennis came howling in on its tail.  In February, storms on the west coast of Scotland are a lot like buses in London:  two or three come at once, and you never know where they’re going to go.  I couldn’t recall exactly when the Met Office began the practice of naming storms, but when the country had gone from Ciara straight into Dennis, it sounded like an underwhelming Jane Austen novel.  

When the first storm landed the previous weekend, there weren’t many people around outside braving the elements.  I had made the short walk to Lidl for some parmesan cheese and the only thing I encountered was some leaves that were dancing across the pavement like drunks during the last song at a wedding reception.  On the other side of the street, someone had left three blue recycling bins sitting outside their block of flats; an invitation for catastrophe.  One of the bins had been blown over by the wind at least twice, on one occasion causing a load of cardboard to be carried off towards Argyll Square, reminiscent of the opening scene of a film depicting a dystopian future.  I presumed that somebody’s Alexa wasn’t talking to them that morning.  Why else would you put your bins out in the middle of a storm three days before they were scheduled to be emptied?

Between two storms

 

In my living room, the sound of the wind wheezing down the chimney made me think of asthma and it was unsettling, though not as painful as when the finale of the first of the winter storms arrived a day or so later and I was caught in a hailstorm as I was walking home from work along the Esplanade.  The hail was the size of pumpkin seeds and started to fall as I was rounding the North Pier.  It rarely ever comes just as you are reaching the front door of your building.  By the time it stopped a few minutes later my cheek was surely the same shade it turns whenever I have tried talking to a woman.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does.  Nothing except maybe Valentine’s Day.

The fourteenth of February was never a day of great significance for me; I rarely felt inclined to celebrate the patron saint of lovers and the Hallmark greeting card company, though Saint Valentine was also recognised as the patron saint of beekeeping, epilepsy, plague and travel, which just seemed like a reckless portfolio of jobs to assign to the same person.  However, like birthdays, anniversaries and New Year, it was always a date that served as a mile marker in life’s journey.  By the reckoning of my own internal odometer, I was on a streak of around eight or nine years of uninterrupted loneliness on Valentine’s Day during which I hadn’t received so much as a card or a heart-shaped piece of chocolate.  By far the most prolific period in my life was the few years in primary school when on the morning of the fourteenth the postman would deliver to our house a red envelope which had within it a card from a secret admirer, though since the sender appeared to share the same handwriting as Santa Claus I was always suspicious.

I wasn’t expecting anything different on the Valentine’s Day of 2020.  The evening before had seen a peaceful calm between the two storms where it could easily have been mistaken for a midsummer’s night had it not been for the biting cold and the snow on the hilltops of Mull in the distance.   I was walking along the seafront after work, where I saw a woman who was sitting on one of the benches with a box of chips balanced on her knee.  I presumed that she was a tourist, on the basis that a local probably wouldn’t sit so close to the shore on such a chilly night.  In her hand she was holding a book – although it might have been a mobile phone – while behind her, on the short stone wall which surrounded the little grass verges along that part of the Esplanade, was a crow.  The bird was standing in the shadow of the bench, waiting patiently in the seemingly vain hope that a chip might fall from the precariously positioned polystyrene and onto the ground where he could pick it up.  It looked to be a game of hope more than anything:  without anything other than someone else’s cruel luck, the crow was going to go hungry.  When I witnessed the scene, it made me think that it was how my own Valentine’s Day was destined to be.

Since the fourteenth fell on a Friday I was feeling hopeful that anyone who was out in the bars during the night without an obvious partner was single.  There was bound to be an anomaly here or there, but otherwise it seemed like a safe conclusion to reach.  With that in mind, I had been thinking of what I was hoping would be the ideal line, in the form of the traditional Valentine’s Day verse, in the event that I should find myself talking to another person with a similarly lonely heart.  When the prose suddenly came to me I was giddy with excitement, and it was all I could do to try the quartet of lines out on unsuspecting colleagues around the office during the afternoon.  Almost all of them were either married or with a partner, so I figured that they would be experts in the matter.  One by one they unanimously announced that the verse was terrible and that I would be better off considering a different approach, but by then I had memorised it and it was all I could think of.  I still believed that with a little work it had the potential to be a success with a fellow single occupant.

Roses are red;
Violets are blue.
Though I never received either
And obviously neither did you.

In response, one colleague swivelled around in her chair to look at me.  On her face was painted a look that resembled the outcome if you were to ask an artist to sketch puzzlement, bemusement and dismay.  She claimed to have a much better line that would practically guarantee success.  It was a line that my colleague and a group of her friends had passed on to their male friend to use while on a night out in Edinburgh.  The story went that he was lauded by all of the girls he recited the line to for his great sense of humour, and that sounded like something I would like to hear for myself, so I asked her what the line was.

“Were you brought up on a farm?”  The initial question asked.
“No.”
“Well, you sure know how to raise a cock.”

Although in my thirty-six years I had never been especially good at reading women or putting myself in their shoes – though, after all, I wear a size twelve – I was feeling fairly certain that opening with borderline misogyny wasn’t the way to go.  Most people agreed that my original verse was probably more suitable than the faux chicken pun, though it was suggested that neither would be appropriate to use.

Sandbags were lined in preparation for Storm Dennis

 

There wasn’t an obvious presence of love in the air in Aulay’s, although there were a few adoring glances being cast toward pint glasses.  Early in the night there was an unusually high quota of bald men; in parts of the pub the hair count matched my Valentine’s card count.  The plant doctor was standing at the bar wearing a black t-shirt which had animations of peeled bananas spotted all over it.  He was with his work colleague, the Czech marine biologist, and our discussion came around to chat-up lines.  Once again my verse was dismissed for its folly, and we began exchanging alternatives, one of which centred on the premise of me asking a woman to touch my navy blue tie and prompting her to guess the material it was made of.  After several guesses which would inevitably be wrong, I would interject and inform her that it was “boyfriend material.”  None of this was impressing the Czech marine biologist, who questioned why there was any need for a chat-up line at all and why I couldn’t just talk to a woman.  I reminded her that the last time we were speaking, at the Distillery before my reading in September, I had spent the better part of fifteen minutes telling her about my socks.  She was familiar with the occasion and acknowledged that it might be better for all concerned if I didn’t say anything at all.

The night developed like any other Friday in the pub.  One man, who walked in with the distinct scent of oil clinging to his person, was refused service from the bar staff, and when he questioned why he wasn’t being allowed to buy a drink he was told that it was because he looked drunk.  The man glanced down at the large item of luggage he had removed from his back and defended himself.  “You’d look pished too if you were carrying this bag.”  It was the sort of line that just hangs in the air like an empty crisp packet caught in the wind.  I wondered what could possibly be in the bag that was making it so heavy that it would give a person a look of intoxication.  Sometimes this place was like a continuous episode of The X-Files.

The plant doctor and I were feeding pound coins into the jukebox; finally a Valentine that would respond.  We curated a soundtrack that was in keeping with the mood of the day, playing songs such as Heartattack And Vine by Tom Waits, Come Pick Me Up by Ryan Adams, and Kashmir.  The latter enticed the man who was sitting at the table in the corner with his wife, and who seemed to be drinking at a ratio of two drinks to every one of hers, to make his own trip to the jukebox, where he engaged in a Led Zeppelin-off with the plant doctor.  They both reached for some deep cuts, and if I wasn’t in the mood for love, I was in the mood to listen to Led Zeppelin, who were a band I had never really paid much attention to.  I promised to seek out their 1975 album Physical Graffiti, if only because when I was in New York City in 2016 I had made a point of finding the building which was featured on the album cover.  The conversation brought me to look through the photograph library on my phone for the picture I had taken that day, only to realise when comparing it with the actual album cover that I had only captured half of the building.  It was yet another thing to add to my bulging emotional baggage.

I had somehow only captured half of the Physical Graffiti building in NYC in 2016

 

I left the Led Zeppelin-off and made my own pilgrimage to Markie Dans.  It was after midnight and the streets were deserted, without a soul or a lonely heart to be seen.  In the doorways of some buildings along the Esplanade there were sandbags which had been laid in anticipation of the arrival of the week’s second big storm.  Nobody was taking anything for granted.  There was disco music in full flow in Markies, and I was able to catch up with a couple of friends.  The young women were out as part of a collective who were referring to themselves as “single shambles”, and it sounded like a group I was meant to be a part of.

One of the girls I knew invited me to join the rest of the single shambles at a house party after the pub closed, and despite always feeling socially inept at such gatherings, I agreed to go.  The apartment building seemed new, clean and much too nice for a wretch like me.  I spent most of my time there standing in the corner of the room with a can of Dark Fruits cider in my hand, resembling the well-dressed but awkwardly shaped antique ornament that you can’t find the right place for.  I occupied myself by studying the plants which were lined along the windowsill.  There were four or five of them, and they appeared to have things like red peppers and green beans growing in them.  It was a nice touch.  I left for home once I had finished my can of cider.  It was just after four in the morning and the wind was beginning to pick up, while the pavements were slick with freshly fallen rain.  Valentine’s Day had passed for another year and there was a new storm about to crash onto the coast.  There isn’t much makes a person feel as lonely as a storm does…

This week I have been mostly listening to:

Plenty of fish in the sea

For some people, the final few days of January and the beginning of a new month was proving to be too difficult an idea to conceive of.  Often the phrase “I can’t believe we’re at the end of January” or “how is that a month of the year gone already?” was heard, in the manner of a mantra repeated by that small band of people who remained unaccepting of the Gregorian calendar.  It wasn’t only the passing of one month into another that folk seemed to be struggling with.  Even the day-to-day passage of time was an issue for some, as was evidenced by an encounter I had experienced in the toilet in Aulay’s on a Saturday night.

When I walked into the compact space, which like the bathroom of most pubs in Oban was only large enough to hold a handful of men at any one time, there was one fellow standing at the far end of the urinal, while the solitary cubicle behind him remained unoccupied.  The man had long straggled hair, similar in style and shade to that of a Highland cow, and a beard to match.  Although he was tall, his shoulders were slouched, as though he had been spending hours playing a video game, and he was looming precariously over the silver trough.  Ordinarily I would have taken the sanctitude of the cubicle when it was available, but on this occasion I was feeling confident that I had drunk enough lager to overcome any of my usual reluctance to urinate in the presence of another person.

Still, there was that indeterminable period of awkwardness when you are standing next to a stranger at the urinal where you are wondering – worrying – whether there is going to be a forced attempt at conversation.  I always preferred to be left to focus on the task at hand, the way I would reach the self-service checkout in Lidl and pray that the scanner would correctly establish the weight of my carrots without the system having to call for assistance when an unexpected item was detected in the bagging area and I would have to talk to the man who eventually appeared.  As I was finally beginning to relax into the situation at the urinal, the man to my left spoke to me, his voice sounding almost exactly as I would have expected.  He asked how my night was going, and I had no option but to politely reciprocate.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January

The hairy man’s shoulders suddenly straightened and he appeared at least four inches taller as he told me that he was having a good night, but that he was “fucked.”  I understood what he meant and assured him that it was fine, that’s what Saturday nights were for.  I hoped that would be the end of it and continued to look ahead, minding my own business, when he spurted out a sequence of words which I couldn’t be sure if they were a question or a statement.  “It’s Saturday?  I didn’t know it was Saturday.  I thought this was Friday?!”

I knew that it wasn’t Friday because I wasn’t wearing a tie and my socks weren’t matching any other item of clothing I was wearing, though I felt only the need to assure the gentleman that it was definitely Saturday.  “Monday is going to be a shock for you,” I noted as he tickled his hands beneath the cold water tap before approaching the hand dryer.  The stranger acknowledged that he wasn’t looking forward to the beginning of the week, and we reached an agreement that these things are somehow always realised when standing at the urinal.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January.  It didn’t amount to very much and had practically all melted away long before midday, but that didn’t stop people from worrying about it and the subsequent cold temperatures which had been forecast.  The pavement between my flat and Argyll Square was already grey and wet by the time I had left for work, though there were a couple of patches which crunched underfoot and threatened to present danger, while on the other side of the street I observed a similarly suited man who was walking with his arms outstretched, as though attempting to complete a walk across an invisible tightrope.  His trepidation was making me nervous, feeding into the anxiety I felt when confronted with snowy and icy conditions which had developed several years earlier during the last extremely cold winter in Oban.

It was 2010, maybe 2011, when the town was besieged by snow in the early part of December.  It was a Sunday afternoon when it all started, and by the following morning the pavements were like a surface Torvill and Dean would have practised their routines on.   I was working in a supermarket at the time that was around a fifteen-minute walk from my home in Lower Soroba, which was really just a part of town for people who didn’t want to admit that they were living in Soroba.  I had somehow worked myself into a position of management in the store and that required me to work a variety of different shifts, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night.  On this particular winter morning, it was my responsibility to open the store, which meant starting work at six o’clock.  The scene was as cold and dark as anyone could imagine for the hour, and by the time I had crossed the road from my home to the pavement which ran all the way to the entrance of the local primary school, I had fallen on the ice for the first time.

The rain was horizontal, as though someone was standing by the side of the shower cubicle with a hairdryer

I slipped another twice before I reached work.  The second instance wasn’t very far from the first, along the pavement overlooking the Lorn & Islands District General Hospital, where I was beginning to think that I might have been better off taking myself.  After that I was able to maintain my footing more like an adult male, even if not quite an adult penguin, for around ten minutes, until I went crashing to the tarmac for a third time at the crossing outside Oban High School, with my destination visible in the distance.  By the time I reached work my pride was almost as bruised as my tailbone and I had a freshly developed fear and loathing of snowy winter conditions which surpassed even my phobia of umbrellas.  The bottom of my back was in agony, and I had to throw every brand of painkiller that we stocked down my throat to be able to get through the day.  There was no way I could go home, not with what was essentially a sore arse.  Some things a person just can’t live down.  For every winter since I dreaded the forecast of cold weather.  The sight of a snowflake falling from the sky would have me thinking back to December 2010 and the pain in the arse I experienced, and I’d know that there was no way that my footwear was any more appropriate than it was that day.

It was fortunate that the ‘big freeze’ some had predicting never materialised on the west coast, and by the middle of the week there was nothing but rain.  At times the way the downpour travelled through the wind gave the appearance of how I imagined it would look if you were trying to take a shower and, for some reason, someone was standing by the side of the cubicle with a hairdryer aimed at the stream on full power.  Although that makes it sound quite dangerous, was it really any more of a risk than going out on the snow-covered pavements was earlier in the week?  Nevertheless, there reached a point where I wasn’t as concerned about the conditions underfoot as I was about the entrance to my building.  Before the end of the last year someone had fixed the hinge on the front door, since it never seemed to quite close all the way.  The fully functioning door only lasted a few days, however, and the new hinge was since seen lying on the concrete behind the door.  It was even worse than it had been before, and now the door wouldn’t close at all without being physically pulled behind you as you left the building.  As was often the case with these things, different people went to varying lengths to make sure that the door was properly closed, such was society in 2020.  The saga began bothering me more than the slush on the pavements outside and the fear of falling that it provoked, especially since I lived on the ground floor and was, therefore, left more exposed than anyone, though that wasn’t really what troubled me.  I couldn’t stop from wondering who had fixed the door in the first place, and why they weren’t as worried about it now that it was more desperately in need of repair than ever.

My mood wasn’t being helped by the fact that for five days straight I had forgotten to buy instant coffee, and by the end of the week the glass jar which usually kept the stuff was completely empty.  I liked to transfer as many things as I possibly could into storage jars, mostly because I thought that it looked better than having lots of different packages sitting around my kitchen, and also because I wouldn’t know what to do with the space otherwise.  Instant coffee, ground coffee, tea bags, pasta, olive oil, and vinegar were amongst the goods usually transferred straight into these jars, and once I’d gotten into the habit of doing it, I would begin to feel a real anxiety as soon as any of the jars neared emptying.  It didn’t seem as irrational as my phobia of umbrella spokes, but it was close.  I didn’t like the way that they looked so void and lifeless and stripped of their purpose, like my romantic interests.  The real kicker was that I had run out of coffee to help me fend off the anxiety.

An empty coffee jar

On Friday afternoon the sky was the colour of an unwashed plate after a chow mein dinner, and it had started to rain lightly when I was talking to the Polish scientist with a moniker for the first time in a while.  She was smoking a cigarette to pass the time as she waited for an appointment to have her eyelashes done.  Of all the things that people would spend their time waiting for in life, I never thought that I would meet someone who was waiting for their lashes to be treated.  The scientist told me that she would be leaving for Aberdeen on Sunday, where she was going to spend a month “listening to cod” for research purposes.  Apparently the fish had already been transported up north and were waiting for her in a large concrete container.  I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to listen to cod, but I knew that even if I asked her to explain I wouldn’t have understood anyway.  I told her, half-jokingly and half-hopefully that 2020 was going to be the year where I would finally meet a woman who could stomach my company.  She beamed and didn’t completely laugh off the prospect, suggesting that if I really wanted to meet a woman then I would be better off moving from Oban to a city like Aberdeen or elsewhere in Scotland where there are more people.  Already the hamster turning the wheel in my head had woken into action.

“I suppose it’s like you’ve been saying…there is plenty of fish in the sea up there.” 

The Polish scientist looked at me with a glaze in her eyes that resembled the snowy hilltops of Mull in the distance, like she didn’t know what I was talking about, though I suppose I had never mentioned any interest in fishing to her.  I had never really put much consideration into the thought of living anywhere other than Oban, but when Aulay’s was as empty as the coffee jar on my kitchen counter later in the evening, I had plenty of opportunity to think about it.  I wondered if it would really make much difference being in a large city with a bigger and more diverse population when my ability to talk to people was akin to my footing on ice.  It seemed unlikely, and I never had much desire to live somewhere else, but it was probably a good idea to leave the door open to the thought of trying something different.

Links & things:
This week I have mostly been listening to this miserable ditty by Radiohead…

The mild irritation caused by Tony Hadley

As I was getting older it seemed that every day was a ‘National day of’ something and that at some point anything you could think of had a National day.  It wasn’t a phenomenon that ever really bothered me, and I couldn’t remember knowingly celebrating National Croissant Day, National Lego Day or National Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, but I did sometimes wonder where such things came from, when they became popular and who decided that a particular cause was worthy of having a national day dedicated to it.  It was in the penultimate week of January that I got to really thinking about these events.  I discovered that there was a website dedicated to calendaring national days and that there were eighty-eight of them during the first month of the year. 

I had been provoked into searching for the history of days of celebration the day after ‘Blue Monday’, which was the name given to the third Monday of the month in January and was claimed to be the most depressing day of the year due to a calculation that was derived from a formula using factors such as weather, debt level, time since Christmas, and time since failing New Year’s resolutions.  ‘Blue Monday’ wasn’t a national holiday, but the following day was apparently ‘National Hugging Day’, which just seemed like bad planning on the part of those who determined such things.  Of all the days out of the year that someone might need a hug, it was surely going to be the most depressing day, rather than the day after.  No-one takes paracetamol the day after a migraine.  

I was deep in the throes of considering the thinking behind ‘national days of’ when I was preparing dinner early in the evening.  I would often go through phases of obsessing over one particular ingredient and would try to include the same thing in as many dishes as I could.  At this time I was using a lot of chilli, particularly red chillis, especially since I had learned how to cut them so that they were properly deseeded and I could be confident that they weren’t going to make my taste buds feel as though they’d had a flamethrower taken to them.  I was preparing a vegetable stir fry, chopping chillis with the nonchalance that comes when you know that you have mastered something, when I developed an utterly compelling urge to scratch my nose.  It was sudden and virtually impossible to resist, like when you are ready to leave the bar and someone offers to buy a round of Jameson.  It was a beacon, trying desperately to attract the attention of my finger, but I knew that it would be a terrible mistake to give in.  There had been many previous instances where I had touched my nose with an unwashed digit whilst cutting chilli only to recoil in horror from the insufferable sensation it created.  There was one particularly awful time in 2017 when I was convinced that I was going to need to undergo rhinoplasty.  Fortunately I prevailed on this occasion, but I was beginning to think that my obsession with chilli wasn’t worth the risk.

Tuesday morning in Oban was misty

Oban had been enveloped by a thick blanket of fog for much of the first half of the week, the sort which clung to the nearby islands and the trees on the hills and made the place feel much smaller.  It was quite atmospheric and I liked it, although the fog did make it difficult to take photographs, and especially at night.  Even though the days were beginning to stretch for another hour or so, it was still dark by the time I left work, and when I was walking along the Esplanade the headlights from passing cars would make the rain on the lenses of my glasses resemble a broken Kaleidoscope.  It was the kind of rain that barely touched the skin, like the memory you can’t shake of a lover from long ago, yet before you knew it you were drenched.  Despite the condition of my spectacles making it difficult to tell exactly where I was, with figures and the outlines of shapes such as bins, traffic cones, lamposts, dogs, and bus shelters appearing indistinguishable, I was feeling quite chuffed with myself when I realised that for the first time this year I could smell the pungent aroma of the sea.  The gentle lapping of the waves against the shore sounded like a standing ovation over my earphones, and when the scent crept up into my nostrils with each inhalation it felt as though I was finally getting over the flu/cold I had been suffering from since the beginning of the year, even if sometimes I was still coughing like someone with a dust mite allergy in a thrift store.

By the time I reached Argyll Square I had dried the drops of rain from my glasses, when in the distance, through the dusky drizzle, I could see a young woman walking across the road whilst brushing her hair.  The apparition was striding to the other side of the street with a carefree confidence, reminiscent of the way I had recently been slicing chillis, all the while running a brush through her long locks.  I had never seen anything like it.  To me it seemed like a terrible and needless risk for a person to be taking.  Why, I was thinking, would she not wait until she could find a bathroom with a mirror, where she could make sure that she could fashion her hair into perfectly straight strands without needing to worry about the weather disrupting her?

My own hair, for all that it was, had been neatly combed in front of my own bathroom mirror before I left to take part in my first pub quiz of the year in Coasters.  Once upon a time, the quiz in Coasters had been considered to be amongst the best in town, and I was looking forward to it returning for the first time in a few years.  The night was due to begin at 8:30, though due to a miscalculation in the time it would take me to walk to the bar, I arrived around twenty-seven minutes beforehand.  I sourced a table which had a view of one of the television screens showing the football, although it wasn’t that much of a challenge when only one other table was occupied.  Fairy lights lined the perimeter of the room, and I couldn’t be sure if they were adding a touch of glamour to the place or making it unnecessarily intimate for me and the other couple in the bar.

I was waiting for the rest of The Unlikely Lads to arrive, which on this occasion would only be the raven-haired quiztress, when another contestant for the quiz appeared and sat at the table by the window.  She was wearing a leopard print blouse, with the amber coloured spots nearly matching the shade of her hair.  Looking around the desolate bar, the young woman asked the older couple who were sitting at the table behind me if they were taking part in the quiz.  When they responded that they weren’t she shrieked, “boring!”  I brought my glass of Tennent’s Lager to my mouth with weighty anticipation, in the expectation that since I was the only other person in the bar she would ask me next, and I could only imagine her thrilled response when I told her that I was there for the pub quiz.

Her neck tilted towards me and her gleaming red locks followed.  I swallowed my drink and replied to her inquiry, informing her that the rest of my team was on its way.  Her reaction didn’t carry the delight I had been picturing in my mind, though she remained curious about matters and asked me if the others in my team, who had not yet arrived, were “a liability”.  My fingers were wrapped tightly around the base of my pint glass, as though it was a crutch, as I told the young woman that if anything I was the liability in our team, though it really depended on what came up in the quiz.  She offered the kind of lukewarm smile that was like a bowl of porridge on a cold winter morning which hasn’t been in the microwave for quite long enough:  it was welcome, but not really what anyone was looking for.  As she picked up her mobile phone from the table it dawned on me that we were talking about liabilities of a different sense and I had needlessly outed myself as being a fool.  When she received a FaceTime call from a man I presumed to be her boyfriend, I immediately decided that if I achieved nothing else that night, I wanted to finish ahead of her team in the quiz.

The bar filled modestly as 8:30 approached, with there finally being four teams participating.  Since there wasn’t anyone in attendance that we recognised from the other pub quizzes in town, the raven-haired quiztress and I could only judge their trivia abilities on their appearances, or in the case of the table of four young women by the window, how vocal they were.  We thought we had a fairly good chance of winning.  As the rounds progressed, our team of two found ourselves embroiled in a battle with a trio of men who were sitting at the bar and who we assumed were from out of town.  The other two teams, including the women at the window, were never really in it, and we were neck and neck all night with the boys at the bar.  From early on we were ruing the fact that we had dismissed three correct answers in the picture round, and probably more so that we couldn’t remember the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet.  

A bottle of raspberry-flavoured Sourz appeared on the street on Saturday night

After the final music round, we were locked on forty-four points with the trio by the bar, and the Coasters quiz was decided by a tie-break question.  It was the closest our small breakaway team had ever been to winning.  The question was posed and the host played the theme from the television game show Countdown.  It was the greatest pressure I had felt since the woman wearing the leopard print blouse had talked to me a couple of hours earlier.

“How many miles long is the M1 motorway?”

It had been many years since I last heard the traffic report on Radio 2 and I had no concept of which part of the United Kingdom the M1 was even in, let alone the distance it covered.  The raven-haired quiztress wondered if it might travel the entire length of England and all the way up into Scotland, in which case it would be at least five hundred miles.  I wasn’t convinced.  Five hundred miles sounded more like a distance a lovelorn man might walk twice to fall down at the door of a woman he desires rather than the length of a motorway.  It seemed too long to me, and I managed to argue my team-mate down to 397 miles, though even that still looked high.  The raven-haired quiztress pointed out that as I didn’t know how to drive I wouldn’t have any concept of the length of a motorway, and she was right.  It would be like me offering a jockey my thoughts on riding a horse, or talking to anyone about dating.

We handed over our answer, and it turned out to be quite a distance away from the correct one.  Almost the entire length of a motorway, in fact.  At 193 miles, the boys at the bar were much closer with their answer, which was somewhere in the low hundreds.  We were consoled with the runners-up prize of a bottle of Prosecco, but it struggled to make up for the fizzle of excitement we were feeling when we were thinking we might win the quiz and we had the images in mind of how we could use our triumph to lord over our usual pub quiz rivals.  We had achieved my private agenda of beating the young lady with the leopard print blouse and the hair which had a hue of gold, but things could have been so much better if only we had remembered the name of the lead singer of Spandau Ballet. 

Links & things:
The website which logs ‘national days’ can be found by clicking here.
0120 – my Spotify playlist for the month of January 2020

The following YouTube video is the song I have been listening to most this week:

I love the lyric “And you might as well be dead, he said, if you’re afraid to fall.”  Plus, the drummer might well be Brexit Guy, if he was the drummer of a nineties American college band.

An ordinary week

Monday 13 January 2020
I made what turned out to be one of my favourite dinners tonight, completely by accident.  It was a prawn and chilli linguine dish and the ingredients were relatively unspectacular and uncomplicated – otherwise I wouldn’t have been attempting it in the first place.  The pasta was cooked “according to packet instructions”, which I always took to be ten minutes, while the rest of the meal was prepared.  I successfully deseeded two red chillis for the first time, having previously just chopped the things up and hoped for the best when it came to eating them, and fried them off with a couple of cloves of garlic for around a minute.  Next I added a packet of king prawns and cooked them until they were turning pink while I took half a punnet of cherry tomatoes and halved them.  It was tempting to think of the outcome as being a quarter of a punnet of tomatoes, but even I knew that I couldn’t get away with saying that out loud in front of other people.  They were added to the pan and cooked for three minutes, at which point things started to go pear-shaped, if not literally then at least figuratively.

By the time I squeezed the juice of a lime and sprinkled some basil into the bubbling mixture, there was still around four minutes before the linguine would be cooked, according to my interpretation of packet instructions.  That was four additional minutes for the cherry tomatoes to soften and weep far beyond the healthy blush portrayed in the photographs which accompanied the online recipe.  The tomatoes became a mushy mess, more of a sauce than a juicy plate fellow, but once the whole thing was combined with the linguine and some starchy pasta water, it worked.  As I sat down to enjoy the meal, I was struggling to think of another time that one of my mistakes had turned out so pleasingly.

Tuesday 14 January 2020
The basement of Bar Rio was flooded with six inches of water from the storm last night.  There were videos on Facebook of the tide crashing into the bay and up over the railings onto the road, as well as photographs of the fire service pumping water out of the restaurant.  I was exchanging messages with a friend at the time it was all happening. She asked if I could see any lightning, but from the time I arrived home from work I had closed the living room curtains and been playing a playlist from Spotify, so I hadn’t seen nor heard anything.  A live-action recreation of the final fight scene from the Avengers movie could have been taking place on Combie Street and I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it.  Someone asked me today where I would be going for my cocktails now, but I have never been for a cocktail in Bar Rio.

A lone balloon struggled with the blustery conditions on High Street

 

Wednesday 15 January 2020
There was a funeral happening in the Parish Church at lunchtime, which wasn’t so remarkable an occurrence as a funeral seemed to be taking place most afternoons.  However, outside the church, as the service was underway, two black horses were waiting alongside a carriage, which was black and had gold trimming around the windows.  The horses were elegantly dressed in these long black feather plumes and they appeared much more patient than I imagined any human would be standing in the bitterly cold wind.  Almost like they knew that this wasn’t a place for fooling around and they had to be respectful.  It wasn’t something I had ever seen at a funeral, but it immediately struck me as being a much nicer idea than the large black hearse typically seen outside a church on these occasions, though I was reluctant to stare too much, especially when I was returning from Lidl with a litre of semi-skimmed milk and a packet of four pork loin chops in my hands.  People said it was traditional at a traveller’s funeral, but I had never heard of it before.

Thursday 16 January 2020
It never seemed to matter how often I brushed the flooring in my flat, a leaf would always turn up somewhere.  I don’t know how leaves constantly ended up in my flat, but they did.  I mean, I knew how they probably found their way inside – on the bottom of my shoe, but I couldn’t fathom how so many of them were attaching themselves onto my shoes when I wasn’t in the habit of walking through Oban’s leafy areas.  It was difficult to think whether there was even a tree to be seen on my daily walks between my flat and the office, travelling via the Esplanade.  Apart from the lack of trees, I hadn’t even taken the route that often over the last week or so with the stormy conditions making it difficult to walk any great distance without my trousers being soaked.  As well as wondering how these leaves kept appearing on my floors, I was made to question why I was still persisting with wearing grey trousers in winter.

A leaf troubled the floor in my hallway

 

Friday 17 January 2020
I’m not sure if it was the incident with the leaves which led me to take my periodic swipe through Tinder, but I ended up with a rare ‘match’ last night.  I only ever used the dating app when I was feeling truly miserable and at my most hopeless, and it hardly ever did anything to change that.  In a way it was no different to thumbing through the Argos catalogue; it passed a minute or two of boredom.  When you are matched with someone on Tinder you are taken to a private text-based conversation, which I always imagined would suit me better since I wouldn’t have to worry about things such as eye contact or whether she had smiled when I made a stupid pun.  Sophie* had seventy-seven words in her biography, which read like a shopping list and was punctuated at the end with a text smiley – the sort I remember using on MSN Messenger when I was eighteen-years-old : )

The seventy-seven words ranged from ‘anime’ and ‘vegan’ to ‘glitter’ and ‘faeries’ and I immediately endeavoured to find out more about them.

“Hi Sophie.  There are quite a few words in your bio.  Which would you say is the most important one?”

“DJ”
“[Emoji of a tongue sticking out of a mouth]”

“Very efficient; two words for the price of one!  Do you jockey discs for a living?”

When I next checked my Tinder account on Friday night, Sophie had unmatched me, which I supposed would be the equivalent of trying to talk to a woman at the bar who smiles awkwardly at your joke before turning her back to eye the table of rugby players.

Saturday 18 January 2020
Last night in Aulay’s, the barmaid with the bandana placed a £5 in-play bet on the Rangers vs Stranraer Scottish Cup fourth round game finishing 1-1 at odds of 70/1, even though she was a Rangers supporter.  The score was 1-0 at the time, and I told her that there would be more chance of me pulling a woman that night than there was of Stranraer scoring.  “In fact,” I insisted, “there is more chance of me pulling twice.”  Rangers won the game 2-0.

Sunday 19 January 2020
This afternoon I witnessed a woman running past my window, on the other side of the street, with a dog running alongside her on a lead.  She was wearing running clothes, black and fluorescent green, I think, so the jog was obviously a sporting endeavour and not because they were late for an appointment.  As a contest, the race seemed unfair and rigged.  The dog was always going to be limited in how far it could go, and if it ever threatened to build up a real head of steam, the woman could just pull the canine back and level things up.  All things considered, it was hardly on the same scale as the Russian doping scandal, but it was unsporting all the same, and the scene bothered me.  Like the leaf on the floor in my hallway, I couldn’t understand why I was seeing it, where it had come from or where it was going.  But the dog didn’t seem to be concerned by it as far as I could tell from my brief insight into their dynamic.  It was respectful and accepting; all that was missing was a black plume.

*Sophie’s name has been changed.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

Places not to wear an orange tie

It wasn’t until around nine or ten days into the new year before I was fully over my dose of the flu, and the main takeaway that I had from my period of sickness was how difficult it was to find a way of coughing with elegance.  Some people I know could easily stifle a sneeze and make it seem effortless, but a cough always seemed to appear more suddenly and as though it had come as a surprise to the victim.  A sneeze could be disguised and few people would be any the wiser, while anyone with a cough was destined to be detected.  In early January, the sound of my own coughing was closely resembling that of a 72-year-old smoker pushing an elephant up a flight of stairs.  At times I even felt like I was the elephant.  “Are you sure you’re alright?”  Concerned observers would ask, covering their sandwiches and other belongings as though I was exhaling nuclear waste.

I couldn’t be sure how long it was that the cough lingered around in my system, but I was able to clear the mantel place of its Christmas decorations a lot more easily than I cleared my chest of its congestion.  The way my flat had been dressed for the festive season could generously have been described as modest, sort of like someone who has been invited to a party they don’t really want to attend and so they don’t put much care or thought into what they wear.  That there were four women in my flat two days after Christmas and none of them made mention of the decorations on the mantel place said it all.

I had coughing fits that lasted longer than the time it took for me to climb the stepladder, fetch a small brown wicker basket from the first shelf of the floor-to-ceiling bedroom wardrobe, fill it with three novelty plush figurines and then return it to storage; Christmas decluttered in a few steps.

On the night before the general waste bins were scheduled to be emptied for the first time in the year, I was lying in bed listening to the wind as it wheezed between the three vessels outside my bedroom window.  It was late, and I couldn’t help questioning the wisdom of putting the bins out in such stormy conditions.  From where I was in the relative warmth of my bed, it was difficult to tell just how wet or windy it was outside, but that didn’t stop me from imagining bins toppling over up and down the street, bags of rubbish strewn all over the place, the pavements reduced to a windswept carpet of crap.  There was nothing that I could do about it, though; or at least there wasn’t anything I was willing to do.  I wasn’t going to get myself out of bed just to wheel the bins out onto the pavement at seven in the morning, which was when the lorry would usually empty them, and that was probably the first time I accepted that sometimes a storm, like the flu, is something you just have to let pass.

From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble

The first full week of 2020 ended with a full moon in the sky.  On one particular night between the storms, which was so calm and still that the woman in Poppies Garden Centre remarked that she believed it was the beginning of spring, the scene was spectacular.  The great big moon was sitting high on the canopy of a black sky, so crisp and flawless that it was as though it had been painted on.  From the light of the moon being cast onto the bay, the sea took on the appearance of a marble, like the ones I could remember playing with as a child, or those I had lost as a grown-up.  It was a great opportunity for taking photographs, and one of those moments when you could be thankful that if you had a mobile phone in your pocket, you had pretty much every piece of technology you could possibly need.  I always enjoyed snapping pictures, especially on the west coast of Scotland where there was a postcard waiting to be created on every turn, though photography always frustrated me.  My imagination was always better than my actions, sort of like any time I ever went to attempt conversation with a woman.  I never knew which was the right angle to come from, or how to frame the subject I was focussing on in such a way that it would seem appealing.  The end result never looked the way it did in my mind.

A vicious rain had returned to the sky by the following day, making the town no place for a camera lens.  I had been looking forward to my first drink of the decade ever since my flu had been downgraded to an irritating cough, and in an effort to show that I had learned from the last night of 2019, I went out wearing a thick black coat over my grey suit, and a pair of shoes which were bound to resist the torrent of rain.  Even by the time I had made the short walk from my flat to my spiritual home of Aulay’s, my coat was soaked and felt like it had gained a couple of pounds in weight from the rainwater, while I opened my wallet and prepared to lose a few.  It would have been tempting to remark that the pub was the busiest it had been all year, but the truth was that there was a funeral party in which had been drinking since the afternoon, and the place was more full than I had seen it on a Friday night in a while.

All around me were mourners who were dressed in black gowns, black ties and white shirts that were becoming as crumpled as the drunken bodies they were on.  As I glanced around the room, pockets of people huddled around tables in conversation, memorialising a loved one, I was growing increasingly reluctant to remove my large wet coat and hang it on the rack as I had been intending.  Underneath it, I was wearing a navy blue shirt and a bright, bold orange tie, the sort that would put the moon in the shade.  I was uncomfortable and began worrying about how I would explain my outfit if anyone from the funeral party queried it.  “But did you see the matching pocket square? It can’t be disrespectful if it’s stylish…”

I clutched the wet lapels of the black coat around my body like a comforter, trying to cover all evidence of the orange accessories, though there was nothing stopping anyone from spying the socks.  The pub was so busy that it was difficult to find any room to breathe around the bar, and I was getting hot in my three layers of clothing.  My appetite for lager was diminishing, while my body seemed to be rejecting the suggestion that I had fully recovered from the flu.  It was taking me the better part of two hours to work my way through a pint, even the new pint on tap in Aulay’s – Drygate Bearface Lager – was something that I could hardly contemplate drinking.

The end result never looked the way it did in my mind

Amongst the mourners were around four or five young women who were Irish and the only bright spot in the night, aside from my tie, which nobody could see anyway.  They were all wearing identical black dresses, which looked decidedly like they were fashioned from crepe paper, and their hair was as dark as the night sky.  Their accents were indecipherable, though one Irish lass had these eyes that betrayed the sorrow she must have been feeling.  They stole my attention the way the full moon had the previous evening, and I was soon considering the etiquette of talking to a woman at a funeral party you aren’t even part of.

It seemed a preposterous thing to even consider, and even the more assured guys in my company agreed that it was, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it was really any more outrageous than the idea of me talking to a member of the opposite sex at any time.  Was there really anything that I could say in this woman’s moment of grief that would make things worse?  The plant doctor and I discussed it for a moment and concluded that my attempt at talking to the Irish woman could actually work, and there might come a time, perhaps the following morning, where she would come to regret the terrible mistake she had made, and that was how things could get worse.

In the end, in a scene which was laced with more irony than opening your kitchen drawer and finding ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, the woman who had been the subject of my attention turned out to be the only one in the funeral party who was there with a partner.  For once I felt relieved that things turned out almost exactly as they were in my mind.

“She said the theme of this party is the industrial age,
And you came in dressed like a train wreck.”

“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things”

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.

Midnight mass wasn’t as busy as I thought it would be

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.

People enjoyed photographing and filming Kyle Falconer

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.

Links:

“A little weariness’ll change a lot of things” is a quote from The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac.

Christmas Wah-Wahpping – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of December
2019 – my cumulative Spotify playlist of the year (ie. 50 songs x 12 months less 11 Wah Wah’s and a couple of other duplicates)

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?

Crumb of comfort

“Fucking Fenian bastards,” came the yelp, similar to the sound a dog makes when its tail has been stepped on, from the table near the entrance of the bar at around ten to five on a Sunday afternoon.  The phrase wasn’t entirely in keeping with the season of goodwill, either in tone or content, even if it was something that most of the people in the lounge in Aulay’s at the time would have worn as a badge of honour.  As it was, a simple congratulations or a heartfelt happy Christmas would have been more appropriate.

Celtic had just beaten Rangers 1-0 in the final of the 2019 Betfred Scottish League Cup, and tensions were as frayed as the red tinsel which was pinned to the walls.  The atmosphere had grown heated and was ripe for dispute, the way a game of charades turns on Christmas night after hours spent drinking beer and gin through the day. Accusations of various folk being “a fucking clown” were being hurled back and forth across the decorative gold stars which were dangling from the shelf over the bar, and it was clear that no-one knew if it was a book, a film or a theatre production. 

The pub wasn’t as busy as many might have thought it would be for the football, a case either of supporters deciding to watch the game at home, the wild weather acting as a deterrent or people taking to heart the seasonal Ramones song Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).  The game was largely one-sided, with Rangers having so many chances that it seemed it would only be a matter of time before they scored, and for much of it I was feeling relieved to have the stars on the bar obstructing my view of the television.  The Celtic goalkeeper Fraser Forster produced a string of saves to keep the ball out of his net, and the longer the match went the less likely it seemed that he was going to let anything past him.  In that regard, he was proving as impenetrable to the Rangers attack as any woman I had ever attempted to talk to was to my charm.

On the final whistle, the vocal viewer in the corner belched his disapproval, his face contorted with fury and the colour of a Christmas tree bauble, but most everybody else was too triumphant to notice.  It was a scene not completely unlike the one I would find myself part of at the Christmas market in Edinburgh a few days later.  There were fairground rides and stalls the length of Princes Street Gardens, offering everything from crepes, fish and chips, sausages, gyros, cheese, beer, gin and mulled wine to crafts, toys, soaps, picture frames and authentic maps from the 1800s.  Feeling hungry, I spent five pounds on a German bratwurst which was almost as long as my forearm.  It was difficult to tell what it was about the sausage that distinguished it as being German, particularly once it had been doused with French mustard, but I felt good about holding it in my hand all the same.  It gave me the same sense of self-assurance that I had for years when I was a smoker.  I never felt as confident about eating a large sausage in public as I did about holding it, however, and it was a struggle to find a place where I could stand with my back to the swathes of festive market-goers, somewhere that I wouldn’t be seen trying to squeeze the end of a bratwurst into my mouth without leaking mustard onto my Cashmere scarf.

Everywhere I turned there were young families, groups of adventuring friends and romancing couples enjoying the spoils of the season, smiling and laughing merrily in one another’s company, while I was standing alone in the middle of it all, trying to get to grips with the geometry of a meat sandwich.  I felt like I was in a Smiths song, having all the appearance of the crumbs of toast that end up in the tub of butter, little dark stragglers in amongst the smooth, creamy goodness;  you just know that they don’t belong.  I was the crumb in the butter, the Rangers fan in the pub railing against fucking Fenian bastards.  

Things were much more sedate the following afternoon when I went to cast my vote in the General Election after arriving home from Glasgow on a train which had been delayed by forty-five minutes.  The reason for the delay, we were eventually told, was a “train fault”, which struck me when it was announced as being like a butcher who describes his missing thumb as being a cleaver fault.  It went without saying and didn’t really tell anybody anything.  I got off the train and dropped my bag off in my flat before heading across the road to my nearest assigned polling station, which I was visiting for the first time since I became a single occupant in the area.  The hall was positioned directly behind the parish church which I had often seen tourists stop to photograph from just outside my living room window, though as I was approaching the wide-open doors of the community centre it didn’t feel like I was walking towards a much-captured landmark, like the Empire State Building or the Eiffel Tower.

After navigating a myriad of doors, though it could have been no more than three, I was inside the main hall of the building, which had hardwood flooring like a basketball court.  My depth perception was challenged as the room was laid out before me.  A few feet from the doorway was a long black table, behind which were sitting three women who were ageless and looking as though they were simply waiting for something to happen.  I imagined that it was probably like walking onto the set of a television talent contest, only I didn’t know what my talent was supposed to be and the three judges didn’t have a clue who I was.  I handed my polling card over to the first woman, who studied it as though I was eighteen and trying to buy a bottle of White Lightning.  She leaned over and whispered something to the second woman, and I was wondering if she had noticed a dubious stain on my black Cashmere scarf and the pair of them were mocking me in that camp, theatrical TV way.  

A moment of worry lingered in the air before the first woman turned to the other and said, “that’s off Glencruitten.  One hundred.”  As the second of the judges ran a ruler down a clipboard laden with paper, the first woman turned her eyes up to me where I stood at the front of the table.  “Just for security purposes, could you tell me your name?” I panicked.  I had no idea there would be revision needed for this.  I couldn’t remember which name was printed on the polling card I had just handed over to the officials; whether it was my full name, which had been born from indecisive parents, or just the first half, which at various points in my life a small selection of people had referred to me by.  All I could do was imagine the shame of giving the wrong name to the judges and being eliminated at the first hurdle of the television talent contest.  To break the deadlock, I took a gamble and went with my full Sunday name, which seemed even greater of a risk in the Church of Scotland hall, but nobody seemed to notice.

The third woman, seated at the far end of the table, tore a sheet of paper from her own clipboard and handed it to me.  “One box, one cross.”  It was like I was going to confession.

At the polling booth, which had four sides and could have used some decoration to brighten the mood, there was a shelf to rest your ballot paper on, and a small pencil which was attached to the station with a piece of string, presumably as a security measure.  It seemed unusual that after the millions of pounds spent pushing shiny campaign leaflets from every party through everyone’s letterbox for six weeks that there would be such concern over losing the odd pencil, and I wondered if at some point, probably during the 1980s, there was a spate of people walking into polling stations and stealing the pencils, stalking away shiftily whilst trying to avoid making eye contact with the judges.

There were four names on the ballot paper for Argyll & Bute, and it didn’t take very long to study them and make a decision.  In many ways, it was similar to my experience of walking up to the bar in Brass Monkey twenty-four hours earlier, where almost all of the beers they were serving on draught were unfamiliar to me.  There was a heady and dizzying selection before me, each one seemingly no different to the other.  Regardless of which one I went for, it was likely that there would be a profound effect, one way or another.  In the end, it seemed wisest to go with what I knew, the option which would bring the least terrible hangover the next day, and I folded up my paper and slipped it into the ballot box. 

Christmas party season was well underway by the time I was next in Aulay’s, where in the public bar a renowned accordion player marked the occasion with a rendition of the Bruce Springsteen song I’m On Fire.  It was a different sort of racket from the previous time I was there.  In the lounge bar, the jukebox was broken, like reaching into your stocking on Christmas morning and finding not even a lump of coal, but a voucher for a future delivery of coal, and there was nothing to drown out the festive fare from next door.  Standing at the other side of the icebox from me was a bloke who had ordered two glasses of rum and coke for himself, having eventually been prompted by the barman into remembering which type of rum he had been drinking.  He was a tall figure, with a jolly belly which was barely concealed by a t-shirt which was the same colour as snow when it has turned to slush.  I was studying the scene, wondering why the man would be ordering two single measures of the same drink, when he edged closer to me.

“It’s pretty bad when I can’t even remember what I’m drinking,” he said, his voice much softer than his appearance.

“Or it’s a sign of a good night,” I sourced a response from my well of experience.

Though it turned out that the man hadn’t been having such a good night when he took the opportunity to tell me that he had been in the pub drinking since eleven in the morning and had missed the last train home to Fort William at six o’clock.  He was waiting for a friend who was going to give him a place to stay for the night arriving on the train travelling from the opposite direction, and he decided that the best way of spending his time was to carry on drinking.  He seemed to be at ease with his predicament, while I was trying to determine in my mind if a forty-five-minute delay in Crianlaich was a train fault, then would completely missing the last train home be a rum fault?

The wayward traveller returned to his table, which was positioned beside the fruit machine, and I was shortly joined by the Brexit Guy, who had recently returned from a trip to Colombia and had the same skin tone as a turkey on Christmas Day.  Over pints of the familiar Tennent’s Lager and a shot of Cointreau, he regaled me with tales of his escapades in South America.  I was never sure if it was envy or the memory of my brother’s dispute with him over Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, but I always had a hard time accepting his stories about beautiful young Latin women who swooned over older white men because they saw anyone who could spend £25 on a meal as being wealthy and exciting.  But I indulged them all the same, thinking that they had to be more entertaining to hear than my own fables about the German sausage at the Christmas market in Edinburgh, or the way that the bus I boarded in the city had the noticeable fragrance of the minty oral spray that mostly older men carried.

As the two of us got ourselves further into the festive spirit with yet more lager, the conversation deepened to reflect on Brexit Guy’s experiences with the NHS:  the chronic staff shortages, the lack of experience, the idea that samples of blood were taken by taxi from Oban to Glasgow, at a cost of hundreds of pounds a time, because there was neither the facility nor the skill to test them locally.  The more we talked his passion on the subject was evident, and the more absurd it seemed that earlier that morning the United Kingdom had returned a government which had overseen nine years of cuts to the health service.  After everything has been said, maybe we’re all just crumbs of toast in somebody else’s butter?

The advent of a fashion faux pas

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.

Encore

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.”

The reindeer parade took place on 23 November

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.

From up high, the station looked like a Christmas carousel.

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.

The figures on the side of the Helter Skelter were poorly dressed for a winter parade.

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.

Links:

November Rain: my Spotify soundtrack to the month of November

For anyone who doesn’t have access to Spotify, but does have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are the three songs I have been listening to most throughout November.

If I could, I would listen to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses all month long, but instead I settled for around three times a day:

I Can’t Think About It Now sounds like the best song Dire Straits never wrote.  The section from 2:34 to the line “the everlasting wisdom of a sports bar” is remarkable:

I will be reading ‘winter diaries of a single man’ from my notebook at the Rockfield Centre on Saturday 30 November. Event information can be found here.

They’re shellac, bitch!

It was a dark Monday night, the first after British Summer Time had ended, when I was reading a magazine article on the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles album Abbey Road, the recording of which was the last time that all four members of the popular band from the north-west of England were in the studio at the same time.  The piece described the tension and acrimony that was lingering between the artists following their previous, disastrous, recording session and the difficulty of convincing some of the individuals to try again.  I was sitting in the modest surroundings of my living room when I realised that while I had heard of Abbey Road, and I had seen the photographs of the famous crossing on the road, I had never listened to the full album.

I had a lone tea light candle for company, though it wasn’t much company when the only way it could offer an opinion on the music I was playing was to flicker and move in its little dish, and I didn’t really know what it was trying to tell me.  It was a lot like watching my own drunk dancing, the way that it was struggling to match the rhythm. The second side of Abbey Road contains a sixteen-minute medley of eight songs, which culminates in The End, a track which starts out sounding like a Beatles hit from before all the fighting, with Ringo banging on the drums like an impatient Halloween guiser, until it all slows down and ends with the line – the last official line on the final album the Beatles recorded together (although not their last release) –  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The lyric made me think not of my own lovemaking, which like the subject of ghosts around Halloween was something people were starting to question the existence of, but rather my recent trials with making bowls of overnight oats.

It couldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone, but people still liked to talk about how cold it was getting in the shortening days of late October.  On some mornings, cars could be seen coughing through the town’s choked traffic system with the roof of some resembling the worktop in a bakery.  To exhale was to be given visual confirmation that the body’s respiratory system was still in working order; the wonderous sight of carbon dioxide repeating into the atmosphere, because you always breathe out a little more emphatically once you know that you can see your own breath.  The falling temperatures had encouraged me to begin making batches of soup for lunches through the week again, which led me to take stock of the supplies in my kitchen cupboards, as well as to evaluate my supply of stock.

The spectacular autumn sunsets brought budding photographers out along the Esplanade

Whilst I was looking for red lentils, what I was struck by was the items I had accumulated over a period of fewer than two years which I thought I was going to need when I became a single occupant but that I had either rarely, or in some cases never, used.  One cupboard, in particular, was haunted by over-ambitious thinking.  On the bottom shelf was a cheeseboard which had a drawer containing four specialist knives for different varieties of cheese.  I had bought it anticipating sophisticated gatherings in my flat where guests would dine on brie, stilton and crackers, but the reality of my after-pub hosting was to be left with dry roasted peanuts or salted Pringles crushed into the flooring.  Next to it was a wide-bottomed wine decanter which a friend had suggested I invest in for those nights where I found myself with company of a more romantic nature. The decanter lets the wine breathe better than a bottle does, and it’s just a more sensual way of pouring a drink. I had often imagined sharing bottles of Chilean wine with an adoring female visitor in the intimate setting of my living room, but the truth was that it hadn’t been out of the cupboard since the night I moved in.  Between them, the cheeseboard and the decanter were fast becoming like ghosts and my lovemaking abilities.

Things weren’t looking much better in the other cupboards, where along with the red split lentils I was looking for, I stumbled upon an unopened bag of caster sugar, a three-quarters used packet of brown sugar, a two-thirds empty jar of peanut butter which could no longer accurately be labelled as being smooth, a tub of breadcrumbs which was dated end November 2018 and could have benefitted from having a trail left for it, along with a one kilogram bag of porridge oats which got me thinking.  I couldn’t remember when I bought it or why, but as a thrifty single occupant, I was going to have to find a use for them.

Porridge, for me, was always a lot like running – something I quite liked the idea of, but it seemed like a lot of effort.  The struggle was more related to the prospect of getting out of bed in the morning to stand in the kitchen while a warm portion of porridge was being prepared.  It was difficult enough when the mornings had been growing so dark and cold, when everything good or worthwhile seemed so far away.

Overnight oats, on the other hand, appeared to be to breakfast what Abbey Road was to music:  something I had heard other people talking about, but had no experience of my own.  The idea of making a bowl of oats the day before eating them and getting all of the goodness of a serving of porridge but where the only thing that would be getting chilly would be the breakfast as it settled in the fridge overnight appealed to me, and after I had researched some recipe suggestions online, I decided that it would be a good way of using my kilo of porridge oats.  Whilst I wasn’t confident of ever sowing my oats, it felt like it would at least be easy to refrigerate them.

The ingredients for my first attempt at making overnight oats weren’t overly elaborate or complicated.  In addition to the headline item, I used milk, natural yogurt, honey, blueberries and a handful of sunflower seeds, though I got the ratio all wrong and there was too much milk for the oats to soak up.  When I took the bowl out of the fridge the next morning I was greeted with a watery substance the colour of disappointment, and on the surface were six or seven blueberries which were floating along like a bob of seals.  I continued to adjust my oat to milk ratio as the week went on, and by Friday my dish was beginning to resemble the pictures I had seen on the internet.  Although the overnight oats were an unusual taste and texture for my idea of a breakfast, they offered a tremendous boost of energy to start the day.  They were a success, even if not quite an overnight hit.

Night after night in the fading embers of October, the pavement alongside the Esplanade was lined with people who were staring in silent reverence at the skyline as the sun was setting across the bay behind the hills of Mull, as though it was an art gallery.  All the way from the war memorial to the North Pier, cameras were capturing the scene from every angle, destined, I supposed, for Instagram likes.  The stream of stunning sunsets came to an end on Thursday, and on Friday the walk home was reminiscent of the line in the Guns N’ Roses song, when it was hard to hold an iPhone in the cold November rain.

Twenty-four hours had passed when we made the pilgrimage to Aulay’s to watch the Betfred Cup semi-final between Celtic and Hibs.  The rarity of a five-thirty kick-off time added a little excitement to the spectacle, although perhaps not for the Rangers supporter in the lounge bar who defiantly and drunkenly called out “C’mon the Gers!” following each of Celtic’s five goals.  It was difficult not to be amused by him.  At the table under the television screen were seated a trio of young women who were surrounded by empty water bottles and coffee cups.  They looked miserable, the visual representation of the way I had been feeling, and they didn’t appear to speak a single word to one another in the time they were there.  After a while, it had become obvious that at least two of the girls were frequently glancing up to look across the table and sketch each other into their notebooks.  I wondered if any speech bubbles in their drawings would have been bemoaning the fact that the jukebox in Aulay’s had recently lost a substantial number of their rock track offerings.

The new locally funded lights in Oban’s often spoken about Black Lynn added much colour to the town.

Celtic had just gone 2-0 ahead when a pair of fresh-faced young women with vibrant hair exploded into the bar, their voices loud enough to require two speech bubbles.  One of the girls, whose hair was the colour of a walnut tree, questioned why everyone was looking beyond her and up at the TV, and seemed irritated that there wasn’t more attention on her.  She was on her first night out since giving birth to her daughter five months earlier, and she went on to confess that she enjoys receiving attention.  Under the bar light, I could tell that her nails had recently been manicured.  They were a bold purple, while the ring finger on each hand was evergreen, and they stood out more than anything else.  I asked her if the nails were gel, and she shrieked with excitement, which I took as an indication that they were.

Her gaze took on a wide-eyed hysteria as she provided me with all the details of her new nails, her giddy speech was like fairground dodgems, going round and round until the words eventually collided into one another, so difficult was it for her to keep up with her frenzied thoughts.  I was told that women enjoy nothing better than when someone comments on their nails, and she went on to give me her best tip.  With the ring finger of her right hand extended, the green nail gleaming under the spotlight of my attention, she told me that unlike the others, this was a shellac nail.  “A woman would be so impressed if you noticed her nails and could say, “they’re shellac, bitch!”

She repeated the line more than once.  “Just tell her…they’re shellac, bitch!”

“But won’t they be upset that I’ve called them a bitch?”  I interjected, knowing that although my understanding of the opposite sex was on a par with my understanding of overnight oats, women generally didn’t enjoy name-calling.

“Well, yeah, to begin with.  But she’ll get over it, and she’ll remember that you noticed her nails.”

I suggested that I probably wasn’t going to follow her advice, and her enthusiasm turned to how the most motherly thing she had done since having her baby was to have made her first batch of tablet, which apparently upset the proprietor of her local village store, who viewed the act of home baking as unwelcome competition.  After knocking over my precariously placed glass of Tennent’s and paying to replace it, even though it was close to being empty, the girl with the gel nails and her friend decided that they had had enough attention and moved to sit at a table.  I turned my focus back to watching the football with my brother and the plant doctor, but I couldn’t get my mind off the shellac nails.  The discussion in our group over the method of manicure led us to remember that the former President of France Jacques Chirac had recently died, though we quickly got over that by debating the best song with a fruit in its title and briefly speaking entirely in lines from the Radiohead song Creep.

On our way to the Oban Inn, we were passed on the road by no fewer than seven cattle trucks, which we could tell were transporting cows due to the sound of mooing which was coming from the vehicles.  It was a different sort of meat market from the one usually seen around Oban on a Saturday night.  Although we had managed to grab ourselves a great table by the window, before the end of the night I was feeling withdrawn and subdued, and I never did get the chance to find anyone who was wearing shellac nails.  I was like a blueberry that just couldn’t catch a break in a bowl of oats and milk. If the Beatles were right, then I had no idea what I would be getting.