Absolute Beginners

“I like the way you dress.  Where did you get your shoes?”  I’m never asked this sort of question when I’m on my way home from the pub by a woman, so it figures that recently when I was stopped on the bridge at Airds Crescent by someone who wanted to comment on my outfit, it was by a guy who was so wasted that it was impossible to say whether it was from alcohol or drugs.  He couldn’t stay still, as though he was being operated by a video game controller, and if I wasn’t already dizzy from Aulay’s then I might have been from trying to keep up with him.

My sartorial suitor complained that he can never find a good pair of shoes; that every pair he buys immediately becomes scuffed and eventually the sole falls apart within a few months.  Where he was going wrong, he seemed to believe, was that he wasn’t spending enough money on his footwear.  “How much should a good pair of shoes cost?”  I considered telling him about my experience in Rogersons a few months ago when I approached the counter with the brown shoes he was so admiring of and the saleswoman commended me on my choice.  She mentioned that the shoes had been treated with a special waterproof spray, as though she had done me a personal favour, and I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time.  But I could see what she was talking about on every rainy day since when the water would disappear from the tops of my feet virtually right away and they would appear as though I had never been outside at all.  Then I asked myself why this guy who was probably high on drugs would care about waterproof spray, and I realised that my idea of good shoes was probably different to his anyway.

These types of characters only ever seem to turn up in my life on a Friday night, and usually they disappear just as soon as they make themselves known.  Like the bloke we met in Aulay’s last Friday night, for example.  I was in a group with the Plant Doctor and some other marine biology types, as usual, when we were joined by an older gentleman who didn’t have anywhere else that he could sit.  This guy had a fluffy goatee that matched the nest of white hair contained beneath his flat cap.  Each ear had a silver ring hanging from the lobe, while we learned that he was originally from the town of St Helens in Merseyside.  Everything about him looked and sounded like a local radio DJ from the 1970s.

Whilst the Plant Doctor and I were trying to organise our gameplan for the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy on Sunday, the would-be radio DJ insisted that he had no interest in watching the football, instead claiming that the true biggest match to take place at Wembley Stadium this year would be the rugby league Challenge Cup final featuring Castleford Tigers and St Helens the following weekend.  He was very proud of his hometown and enjoyed speaking about how much the rugby meant to the place, though I was having some difficulty participating in the conversation since the would-be radio DJ was extremely hard of hearing in his right ear, which of course was the side I was sitting at.  Whenever I tried asking him a question about St Helens or rugby league he would shake his head and say that he couldn’t hear me, before craning his neck and cupping his hand around his good ear, the bar light reflecting off the earring making it look like a tiny fish dangling from the end of a line. 

Most of all he recalled some of the many famous musical acts he had seen perform in the Liverpool area back in the day:  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie.  Bowie was his favourite, “a real showman.”  The night when he played the song Space Oddity was clearly one of those life events that a person doesn’t forget, similar to your wedding day or the birth of a child – or at least I would imagine it is.  The most memorable event in my life recently was the discovery that I could wear my brown shoes in wet weather without the risk of the leather having an unsightly appearance of melted treacle. 

When the would-be radio DJ returned from placing his second order of the night, he was followed by a barman who was carrying two pints of Caledonian Best.  Apparently this is what he does when he knows that he has almost had enough for the night – he buys his last two drinks together.  I didn’t understand it, especially when the table service in Aulay’s is so prompt.  Leaving one of your drinks to warm to room temperature is one way of ensuring that your pint of Best wouldn’t be at its…finest.  While he was working his way through his pints of dark beer, we learned that the man’s wife had passed away a few years ago, and ever since he has just been travelling around the country to keep his mind off it.  The Plant Doctor had met him on his last trip to Oban, but this was my first encounter, and I was wondering how costly it was going to be when he pulled his phone from his pocket in an act of drunken confession.  He swiped his way through some screens before holding the device out across the table to show us that he had been pinged by the NHS Track and Trace app as a close contact of a positive Covid case five days ago in whichever town he had last been to during his travels.  

It was interesting to see the screen, more as a novelty than anything else since I had never seen what happens when a person is pinged by the contact tracing app.  There was a timer that counted down the days, hours and minutes remaining in your ten-day period of self-isolation, like when you click one of those online quizzes asking you to name all the players who have scored in European Championships finals.  “I can’t self-isolate,” he told us.  “I’m on holiday.”  Somehow in the back of my mind I could almost hear the next words to follow:  “and playing now we have Night Fever by the Bee Gees.”

It wasn’t a conscious decision for me to play some David Bowie the following morning, he simply featured on the most appealing of Spotify’s Daily Mix playlists as I was plotting a shopping trip to Lidl before meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Roxy’s coffee shop.  Bowie had never captured me in the way that he had the would-be radio DJ, though I usually enjoyed what little of his back catalogue I had heard.  Absolute Beginners, the full-length eight-minute version, was the third song to play from the playlist, meaning that I had made my way around the store and had reached the self-service checkouts by the time the dramatic opening of the song kicked in.  I was immediately hooked.  

As I was scanning the items from my basket – a bottle of orange juice, a pack of four Greek yoghurts, a jar of pickled gherkins – I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.  The line “as long as we’re together the rest can go to hell/I absolutely love you/But we’re absolute beginners” slayed me.  I was on the verge of being a wreck as I made my contactless card payment of £22.36, and by the time I reached the exit I felt as though I could cry.  I was short of breath, my heart was racing and my eyes were welling up.  I loved the song, but I hated how it made me feel, and as I was striding towards the bedding plants in the foyer it was easy to see me collapsing face-first into the Sweet Peas.  Of all the things to have happened in my life, this would be the most difficult to explain.  Fortunately, I was able to make it beyond the Begonias and into the great wide open where I removed my mask like the most hapless of superheroes and everything was suddenly washed away.  It was hard to know why I was affected by the song in such a way, especially when my Last.fm account shows that I have listened to it a further 24 times since the incident and I’ve felt nothing but peaceful enjoyment.  On reflection, the only explanation for the intense reaction seems to be that it was a manifestation of my concern over the supermarket being out of stock of one-pint bottles of semi-skimmed milk thus forcing me into buying the blue-topped variety.  I don’t dislike whole milk, but I’ve never responded well to change.

In keeping with the strategy the Plant Doctor and I had agreed on, I arrived in Aulay’s early on Sunday to make sure that we could get a table for the Euro 2020 final later that night.  He is almost always the first one of us to get to the pub, and he disputed my ability to get us a table when it really mattered, which had me determined to prove him wrong.  It was a game that everyone was going to want to see, and when I arrived at 3.30 there was just one table left by the bar in the public side of the pub, although some opened up in the lounge later and we were able to move.  The Wimbledon tennis final was on TV, so it’s not like I was just drinking to pass the time.  Some guy at the back of the bar announced that day’s Covid numbers in the way of a typical pub discussion where sporting statistics are casually thrown around, like Novak Djokovic winning 79% of his first-serve points, or being successful in 20 out of his 30 Grand Slam final appearances.

It was shortly after the Plant Doctor turned up that we were able to find a seat in our favourite side of the bar, at a well-aired table at the rear of the lounge.  There was quite a haughty feeling from having a position by the door where we could watch people come in, knowing full well that they were going to be turned away.  Around the bar, a palpable nervous tension was rippling through the atmosphere in the hours before the game, entirely different to the buzz of excitement felt before Scotland played England a few weeks earlier.  People were genuinely worried that England might win the tournament.  When we were joined just before kick-off by two young women who had featured in a couple of our recent drunken adventures it was all we could do to lighten the mood by making a wager on the game.  Each of us offered our predictions of what the final score would be, with the winner being given the opportunity to buy a round of drinks of their choosing for the table; sort of picking everybody else’s poison.  When England scored after two minutes, all bets were off.

England were still leading 1-0 at half-time when our group grew in size with the addition of two characters who do the bidding of Her Majesty – a VAT man and a postman.  It was possibly the first time that I’d watched a game of football in their company and we were all rooting for the same team.  Eventually Italy pulled themselves back into the contest, and the final was decided by a penalty shootout, an outcome which didn’t do anything for anybody’s nerves.  I had never appreciated before how watching a penalty shootout is like listening to the David Bowie song Absolute Beginners for the first time.  Even when Italy won, it wasn’t something that any of us could really enjoy; it was more of a relief, like when you have made it past the Begonias and you can breathe again. 

23 Years

I recently received a message from an ex who lives in the south of England.  She had been watching the BBC’s One Show on a Tuesday evening when they aired a feature about the black guillemots that nest in the drain pipes in the sea walls along Oban’s Esplanade.  The birds are extremely striking with their black and white plumage and shiny red feet, looking almost as though they are stepping out to a gala ball wearing their finest tuxedo.  They are quite tame little creatures, and I’ll often see them sitting in pairs along the edge of the pavement by the sea, just a few feet away from some people who have shoved an iPhone in their beaks.  My ex observed in her message that she didn’t notice me strutting about the place in the video, which was probably a good thing, even if I wouldn’t look out of place amongst a flock of guillemots.

It was interesting that she even thought to contact me about the feature considering that when we were together nigh upon ten years ago she had a dreadful fear of birds.  I have never seen anything like it, before or since.  She would shriek if a bird so much as flapped its wing within a couple of metres of her, and you could forget about walking through a park or a square with this girl.  I always hated how the spectacle made me look, especially when she would usually grab for my elbow and seek protection behind my not particularly intimidating torso, as though I could do something to warn off the birds.  I mean, really, what am I going to do about a flock of pigeons?  Birds are a law unto themselves.  I responded to the text the only way I knew how, commenting that “it turns out Guillemots are not only a semi-popular English musical act from the early noughties, they are also a very lovely sea bird.”  I haven’t heard from her since, and I suspect that there can no longer be any mystery as to why we are not together.

The black guillemots are most commonly seen early in the morning, and I had an unexpected opportunity to view them after our latest album club meeting on the weekend after they had been featured on television.  The gathering was more of a meeting about the club itself than it was any one album and most of the group left at a reasonable hour, though the Plant Doctor and I found a kindred spirit in our host’s husband and the three of us sat drinking beer and listening to music until six o’clock on Sunday morning.  We would probably have stayed out in the gazebo even longer if the family didn’t have a dog that needed walking, and besides, we had surely peaked around dawn when we were belting out Elbow’s One Day Like This.  I struggled to reason in my mind how it was possible that I could go home from the pub any other weekend and fall asleep on the couch leaving a quarter-drunk can of Tennent’s to go flat, and yet here I was walking away from an all-night drinking session, when the daylight appeared even brighter than it was when we had started thirteen hours earlier.   

The Plant Doctor and I took what we both agreed was the best walk around the perimeter of the North Pier we had taken together.  From the green on Corran Esplanade we saw that the bay was bathed in an exquisite blue, with only the tops of Mull in the distance holding what appeared to be a wizard’s wisp of clouds.  There was serene stillness about the place, the only sound heard was the gentle hum that comes with being a certain level of drunk.  Indeed, the only people who seem to come out at six o’clock on a Sunday morning are the dog walkers and drunkards.  A lone Innis & Gunn pint glass sat on a bench in front of the Columba Hotel, far from where it belonged, while berthed at the marina was a boat which had a mast that was nearly as tall as the sky.  I liked to think that the top of it had pricked a hole in the atmosphere and let the sunlight in.  Out in the bay, the guillemots had emerged from the drainpipes much like the way we had left the sewers of our drunken debauchery and dared to face the day, although they were handling it much better than we were.  They looked elegant and graceful atop the surface of the water, all the things we weren’t.  It was easy to see why the BBC had filmed a report about them.  I took a photograph which I intended on sending to my ex but thought better of it after I had been to bed.

June marked the start of the European football Championships – Euro 2020 – which had been delayed by a year due to the pandemic.  Ordinarily these bi-annual international football tournaments are simply an excuse to spend more time in the pub, with as many as two or three televised games a day, but this year Scotland are competing for the first time in my adult life – since the World Cup in 1998 – and there is a great deal of excitement around it.  I remember the thrill of rushing home from school to watch Scotland lose to Brazil in the opening match of that last tournament, the hype surrounding the game against England at Euro ‘96 where we eventually lost to one of the most famous goals of its generation, and I have vague recollections of wondering where Costa Rica even is after we were defeated by them in the 1990 World Cup.  All of my memories are of Scotland losing, but at least this time I will be old enough to drink.

One of the best things about these month-long festivals of football is that the more frequent visits to the bar often present an opportunity to meet people who you otherwise might not end up talking to, such as the Swiss student lawyer who was in favour of using spinach as a pizza topping that I spoke to for ninety minutes after her country had played in the World Cup three years ago.  I’m fairly sure that my brother first fell out with Brexit Guy during that same competition.  It would be different for the European Championships, however, with the restrictions that are still in place meaning that bars are extremely limited in the number of patrons they can have in at one time and everyone has to be seated at their own tables.  You can no longer just turn up in time for the national anthems and find a space at the bar to stand and watch the game; a night in the pub requires precise planning and a little bit of luck.  

Before the opening match, the Plant Doctor, my brother and I arrived in Aulay’s at least an hour earlier than we usually would in order to secure a table so that we could watch Italy playing Turkey.  In time we were joined by a wandering hotelier who we have seen around the bars many times in the past.  He asked if he could sit with us since there were no other tables available and he would otherwise be asked to leave, and we were happy to have another person to tell our stupid jokes to.  

The Wandering Hotelier had fluffy balls of white hair that resembled the clouds we had seen clinging to the peak of Mull at six o’clock the previous Sunday morning, and it was obvious that he would have made an excellent Santa Claus back in the days before he had lost all the weight.  He told us that his small guest house hasn’t been as busy as he was hoping since the season started and blamed it on the popularity of Airbnb rental properties, which seems to be a common complaint in the town these days.  It was interesting to hear about the different ways he and his wife have to run their business during these unusual times.  We learned that he can no longer show his guests to their bedrooms, instead “I point them upstairs and tell them that they’re in room number three.”  He isn’t allowed to cook breakfast for them and now hangs a package on the door handle in the morning.  I found this amazing.  In my mind’s eye, all I could see was the vision of a confused elderly couple wandering the upstairs corridor of a small guest house on the west of Scotland clutching their complimentary breakfast bag which contained a banana and some French pastries, eternally unable to leave.

Sometime during the second-half a couple of young ladies who we were vaguely familiar with received a knockback from the bar staff since there were no tables left.  We asked the barman if there was a limit to the number of people who could sit together, and when he told us it was eight we invited the women to join us.  We could see that they really had to think about it, but eventually they concluded that it was better to get their drink and put up with our shit than to not get their last drink of the night at all.  The four of us had been discussing who we each thought would win the tournament, and we extended this question to our new tablemates.  They both said emphatically that it would be Scotland, as though it was the stupidest question we could have asked, and my brother somehow convinced one of them to put their money where their mouth is and bet £10 on Scotland winning Euro 2020.  She had to lift the strict deposit limits she had set on her online gambling account to place the wager, and when she finally did she made it an “each way” bet, which seemed to make it a better idea.  I asked the second girl, who works in one of the hardware stores in town, what type of hammer she would recommend if I was in the market for tools.  I don’t think I have seen anyone drink a glass of vodka and cranberry juice as quickly as those two did.

By the time the second Friday of the tournament came around, Scotland had already lost their first game to the Czech Republic and were in a precarious position in the group.  Our second game in the competition was against England, and nobody was giving Scotland a chance.  According to the experts it was simply a matter of how many goals England were going to win by.  Nevertheless, we packed into Aulay’s as much as anyone can pack into anything these days, and it’s amazing how holding a pint of Tennent’s Lager can make you believe that anything is possible.  For some of us, there wasn’t as much trepidation about the game as there was about being in a pub at all, since cases of Coronavirus had been increasing rapidly in Oban during the week.  As far as we saw it, we were in just about the safest place we could be since the clientele of Aulay’s is usually so old that most people there would have been double jagged anyway.

One of the biggest talking points prior to kick-off, besides team selection and tactics, was the strategy of breaking the seal and when to go to the toilet.  It’s a delicate matter when watching a game of football, since you don’t want to go too early and let the flow of beer know that there is an easy way out, but you also want to beat the crowds and ensure that you see all of the game.  The Plant Doctor went early, around forty minutes before kick-off, which I felt was a risky move since he would surely need to go again before the match began.  I held on until just before the anthems were played, following my usual trusted gameplan.  Whilst I was standing at the urinal, feeling pretty chuffed with my success, the man who was finishing up approached the wash hand basin, though you could tell that it was all for show.  He placed his hand under the sensor long enough for it to release a sprinkle of water, barely enough to water a plant.  I think he used it to slick back his hair more than for any hygienic purposes, and he spent more time at the hand dryer.  It’s times like these where I really wonder if two vaccines will be enough.

People were being turned away from the bar all night, and I was thankful that the Plant Doctor had saved me a seat at six o’clock.  Shortly after the game kicked off I noticed that the two men who had been sitting at the table which is positioned beneath the television for at least two hours got up and left.  It is hard to believe that they weren’t interested in watching the football, because everyone was wanting to see Scotland versus England, which could only mean that after having occupied the spot for the entire night, they realised when the match began that they were in the only seat in the entire pub where they couldn’t see the television.  Imagine having that kind of luck.

As well as being in the company of two Aulay’s barmen and the Wandering Hotelier, the Plant Doctor and I watched the football with the two Geordie’s – Pete and Dave.  These are two guys who are from roughly the same neck of the woods and who had never met each other until they came from North East England to the west of Scotland, and more specifically to Aulay’s Bar, where they have since formed the Geordie community of the pub.  They had been looking forward to this game as much as the rest of us, and naturally, they were supporting their home nation as opposed to their adopted one.  There was some good-humoured banter between us all, which made the occasion that bit more fun.  The two Geordies were a bit more vocal about things as the match progressed, which seemed to offend one man in particular who was further back in the bar.  He would occasionally holler out:  “fuck off you English cunts” and at times seemed to be more interested in being anti-English than pro-Scottish.  

The Geordies never rose to the bait and continued to watch the game, but a couple of us at the table grew tired of it.  Peter and I turned and asked the guy to calm down and be more respectful of the fact that people have their own nations to support, not to mention the fact that the Geordies drink in Aulay’s all the time whereas this guy was presumably only there because he couldn’t get in anywhere else.  This fellow was big, broad and bearded, and he seemed to take exception to our intervention, turning his anger onto me.

“I’ll bite your nose off!”

I’d heard of biting your own nose off to spite your face, but never biting somebody else’s nose off.  I could maybe understand it if he had threatened to punch my lights out, break my glasses or perform almost any other act of violence, but what would he even do with my nose once he had bitten it off?  I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing a person makes a habit out of.  I told him that it was the most bizarre threat I had ever heard, especially during a game of football, although with hindsight I am not sure why I added the stipulation about the football.  It’s a bizarre threat to be issuing in any circumstance.  Although the xenophobic outbursts ceased, it was plain to see that Geordie Pete was a lot more withdrawn for the remainder of the game, which I felt sad about.  The big, broad and bearded bloke came over to me and apologised at full-time, blaming “football fever”, but it wasn’t me who he owed an apology.

Scotland played as well as I had ever seen them play in a game of football, and while everybody was delighted with the unlikely 0-0 final score which kept us in the tournament, there was a tiny part within us that was disappointed we hadn’t actually won.  Already thoughts were turning to the next match against Croatia on Tuesday, and the permutations that could have us qualifying for the knockout round of a tournament for the first time, as well as the permutations that would be needed to get us into a pub to see it.  

After the disappointment of Monday’s defeat to the Czech Republic, where waiting 23 years just to get a massive kick in the baws at the end of it seemed to me to be similar to what it would be like to finally have a woman show an interest in me only to find that she is as afraid of my jokes as she is of birds, things were suddenly very different on Friday.  Scotland had given us hope again.  When the pub closed at 11 pm, the Plant Doctor and I found ourselves drinking bottles of Budweiser in the flat which belongs to the podcasting phycologist and the girl with the scarf until five o’clock in the morning.  On this occasion there was no silence like there was a couple of weeks earlier as I walked home, not even a gentle drunken hum; the entire country was still rocking.