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.

Enjoy every sandwich

By now it has been a few days short of a year since the first coronavirus restrictions were put in place across the UK, and depending on who one talks to it either ‘feels like yesterday’ since lockdown was originally announced on 23 March 2020 or it is as though this entire situation has been dragging on for years.  Days, weeks and months have blended into a single huge block, like the puddle that forms by the side of the pavement on George Street across from WH Smith on rainy days and is near-impossible to walk beyond without being sprayed by a passing vehicle.  You know it’s there and that you’re going to have to do something about it, but in the end, what does it really matter if you get soaked when there’s nowhere else to go but home?  I felt about Tuesdays and Wednesdays, February and March the same way I felt about that damn puddle.

Reading through old entries in my notebook from the time was almost as surreal as living through it.  Now that we have almost become accustomed to wearing face coverings wherever we go, social distancing, and pubs and restaurants either being severely limited in how they can operate or at times being closed entirely, it is incredible to remember that there was a time when everybody believed that the best way to combat an airborne virus was to stock up on as much toilet roll and pasta as we could fit in our cupboards and to wash our hands whilst singing God Save The Queen.  The latter was official advice from the UK government, and I still haven’t used the tin of chickpeas I had bought that first weekend in a blind panic because the rest of the shelves had been emptied.  At a time when some countries had closed their borders to international travellers, I was standing at the urinal in Aulay’s listening to a fellow drunk espouse his theory about how you can tell the quality of the lager in a pub from how wet the bathroom floor is.  His claim was that the more fluid there is to be seen on the floor of a pub’s toilet, the better the beer is because it proves that people are drinking a lot of it.  There wasn’t much opportunity to put the idea to the test before the lockdown eventually came, though it was clear that some puddles are to be avoided more than others.

In the week that the Scottish government revealed further details outlining its ‘roadmap’ out of the current set of lockdown restrictions that have been in effect since 26 December, Oban has enjoyed some brilliant early spring sun that started earlier and stretched later into the day than had been seen for some time.  Some days the temperature even threatened to reach the low-teens, which was reason enough for me to walk around town with my coat opened.  Nothing marks the changing of the seasons better than the first day of the year where it’s mild enough to unbutton your coat.  The weather was a welcome break from the grey and dreary period of rain we had recently been enduring, when at times the stuff seemed to be falling vertically and horizontally at the same time, and it didn’t matter how tightly your coat was buttoned because it would still find a way in.  Hailstones the size of fish food pellets lashed off the ground, and while it isn’t for me to suggest that Mother Nature was showing any kind of preference in the field of Scottish football, it was fairly compelling that the bad weather struck within hours of Rangers winning the Scottish Premier League title.

Like many Celtic fans, I had been resigned to the idea that the team would lose the championship since around October time, and even the most optimistic knew by the turn of the year that Rangers were on course to win it.  That gave me plenty of time to prepare myself for the inevitable sight of triumphant bluenoses in the spring, and when it came I was quietly relieved that lockdown restrictions meant that I wouldn’t have to witness it first-hand in the town’s pubs.  If the ostrich can survive for centuries by employing similar techniques, then I reckoned it was good enough for me.  I did everything I could think of to distract myself from the reality of the event:  undertaking a spring clean of my flat in keeping with the season, watching classic films I had missed over the years and immersing myself in music.  On YouTube, I came across the final television appearance of the rock star Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman in October 2002, some months after he had been diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that killed him a year later.  The host asked him if there was anything he understood now, facing his own mortality, that he didn’t before, and Zevon responded:  “You put more value in every minute.  It’s more valuable now.  You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.”  

For days I was trying my best to avoid my Facebook feed, which was filled with Rangers supporters who were enjoying the cheese and pickle sandwich of a Scottish Premier League title win, while the memories feature of the app was busy reminding me that five years ago I was embarking on my second trip to New York City.  As much as I enjoyed looking back at some of the old photographs from the holiday, it felt as though I was being taunted by a ghost when the furthest I can travel these days is the war memorial.  I decided to put the internet to better use in the hope of learning a new skill, and while it may not sound as impressive as some of the talents other people seemed to be cultivating during the extended period of being indoors, I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I cooked egg-fried rice for the first time.  As usual, the most difficult part of the dish was my attempt at measuring the amount of rice I would need when I was preparing it the evening before.  Rice is even more difficult to measure than pasta, which I always manage to cook too much of.  My ability has undoubtedly been hampered by the fact that the battery in the kitchen scales I bequeathed from home when I moved into my single occupancy has since died, and because I have never bothered to replace it I have been forced to measure certain ingredients ‘by eye’.  I believed that this was something I would get better at with experience, and especially now that I have my new glasses, but it turns out that I can no more remember how much pasta I poured into a pot two weeks ago than I can which day of the week it is.

They say that you can never have too much of a good thing, though, and I wasn’t about to complain about having a bowl which was piled with rice as tall as a molehill, especially not when it turned out to be so tasty.  That the egg-fried rice was so easy to make and just as delicious had me feeling ashamed that I had been buying the prepared packaged stuff from the supermarket for so long.  I wasn’t even put off eating those pouches of rice after the night in Aulay’s when the diminutive barmaid told me about the reason she had stopped buying them.  I was nursing a pint of Tennent’s at the end of the bar on a Wednesday night following another quiz defeat when for some reason the conversation turned to rice.  The barmaid mentioned that she had stopped buying the packaged rice as a consequence of a dinner-time disaster when she was squeezing the grains from the pouch into a stir fry and a dead mouse flopped into the wok.  All I can remember thinking was why she had felt it necessary to emphasise the fact that the mouse was dead when surely it was unlikely that it was going to appear amongst some processed food in any other condition.  The story never put me off buying the product, mainly because it seemed worth the very unlikely risk of finding a mouse in the packet for all the effort it saved from making egg-fried rice from scratch, though that no longer seems to be a reasonable excuse now that I know how simple it is to prepare egg-fried rice on my own.

It wasn’t much, but mastering even the most basic dish would be enough to allow me to leave lockdown feeling confident that the last year hadn’t been a complete waste.  Restrictions are due to start easing from the beginning of April, with beer gardens due to be reopened from the 26th and indoor hospitality resuming from the 17th of May.  I always imagined that if people still kept calendars in 2021 then those are the dates I would have been circling on mine, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was listening to the First Minister outlining the Scottish government’s plans for relaxing the rules and it wasn’t the proposed dates for pubs being able to open that had me most excited, but the one where barbers could trade again.  It is early December since I last had my hair cut, and by now it is resembling the sketch a toddler might produce after being asked to draw a scarecrow.  There are hairs branching off in all directions, like rain falling on an early March day. 

The notion that a man who is as follically challenged as I am should be wishing his hairs away seemed absurd, but at the same time I am almost missing the barber as much as I do spending time with my own family, or seeing some of the friends I have lost touch with over the last year.  I miss the barber’s chair nearly as much as I do the barstool, even if for reasons of vanity more than anything else.  My ability to deal with unruly hair is on a level with my judgment when it comes to measuring rice, in that I am forced to do it ‘by eye’ and no matter what I do, there is always too much of it.   The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what Warren Zevon was getting at when he spoke about enjoying every sandwich, but I’ve come to realise that it’s more than sandwiches.  When the time comes, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of that hair cut.

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?

Betting on the bird

It had taken me half an hour to prepare a teriyaki beef stir fry and no more than ten minutes to eat it, such was the disparity between the science of cooking and the reality of gluttony.  Other things didn’t keep me occupied for much longer.  A session of yoga would take only twenty-seven minutes, the subsequent shower was maybe around ten minutes.  I could stretch the two-minute walk to or from work out to twenty minutes if I tried, but when you are spending so much of your life in your own company, it becomes difficult to find new ways of passing the time and keeping things interesting. 

Recently I had become fixated on a seagull which I could see waddling up and down the street across the road from my flat window.  The bird carried itself with a demeanour which suggested that he was making it known that the little strip of tarmac between the Oban Grill House and the red Mossfield postbox was his territory.  He owned that area, and night after night it was the only seagull to be seen.

Of course, my ability to tell one seagull apart from another was comparable to the way I discerned between basil, thyme and oregano – I couldn’t, so I used the dried ‘Mixed Herbs’ instead – and therefore it was impossible for me to know that I was seeing the same seagull every night.  The trouble with seagulls was that, as far as I could tell, they didn’t have any distinguishing features or personality traits.  No-one was dressing their webbed feet to match the colour of their thorax, and if one of them was then they were all doing it, like when I was sitting in Aulay’s before reading at The Rockfield Centre and a wedding party of around half a dozen men wearing suits walked up to the bar.

The more I watched this solo seagull the more I was finding myself wondering if it knew something that the other birds didn’t.  One night I must have spent around fifteen minutes observing the seagull, though in bird years it felt like it was about four hours.  It was patrolling the pavement outside the takeaway restaurant, all the way up to the red postbox, which it would stand on top of, staring intently at the entrance with its beady little eyes, eyes which were only ever good for staring.  Sometimes it would puff out its chest and flap its wings over to the street sign which stood right outside the Grill House, all the time still staring.  I had heard of the Leonard Cohen song Bird on the Wire, but this was a bird on the controlled zone parking sign.  I started to ask myself if it was possible that the seagull had learned that people were particularly prone to blunder in that location and if that was why it persisted in hanging around there.

You wait ages for a bus and then two rays of light appear together.

It seemed more likely that the bird was just a hopeless fool.  That there was an occasion when it was swooping by and it happened to catch the scent of kebab meat in its beak and it was fancying its chances of picking up a tasty treat.  It returned night after night, looking for that opportunity where someone wasn’t paying attention and could be caught unawares, when it could dive right in and pick up the pieces.  The bird was just standing there on the pavement, or perched on the postbox, waiting for something to happen when all of the other gulls were down by the Esplanade where all the action was and they knew that some gullible tourist would eventually toss them a chip.

After something close to twenty minutes it occurred to me that the seagull was using the red mailbox the same way I leaned against the end of the bar in Markie Dans, waiting, ever hopeful that something might happen or that someone might talk to me, while everyone else had gone to The Lorne at the end of the night because they knew that it was open later and that there was more likely to be company to be found there.

The first Saturday of the new football season brought with it a fresh opportunity for excitement and distraction from single life with the weekly plotting of a coupon that would bring fortunes.  It had been around three months since I last stepped inside a betting shop, and while most people had online gambling accounts, I was the type of guy who still enjoyed the feeling of walking into the bookies and handing over a five pound note that I knew I likely wouldn’t be seeing again.  It was a lot like the way many of the people I knew had an online dating account, but I was still throwing the cheapest jokes I had at women at the bar who I knew would never talk to me again.  Either way it was a gamble.

There was a very distinctive atmosphere in the branch of Ladbrokes I liked to visit.  The air was thick with the smell of freshly brewed granulated coffee and burning bank statements.  All that could be heard was the carnival sound of the fruit machines at the back of the room, each of them occupied by starry-eyed punters and emitting the very sound of joy.  It was easy to understand how people could easily be sucked into choking the thing with every coin they had earned.

Every so often a countdown would begin on one of the multitudes of screens which were broadcasting live horse racing from some far off place like Doncaster or Wolverhampton, and the cast of older men who inhabited the place would make their way towards the cashier’s desk with their hastily scribbled betting slips.  The bookies was only ever populated by elderly men who suffered from ailments as far apart as an unnerving cough and walking with the aid of a stick, and the fastest they would move on any day was when they were told that there were only two minutes until the next race started.

The few hours on a Saturday afternoon after my three football coupons had been placed were the most optimistic I felt all week.  All I would see when the sheet was being fed through the computer and a receipt would be coughed out of the other end was money. The slender white piece of paper, which was often longer than my arm, would summarise your bets and calculate your potential winnings, though the ‘potential’ part of the deal never did mean anything to me.  As far as I was concerned I had picked all of the winning teams on any given week and there was no way I could be wrong.  Once my three bets had been placed and the receipt was safely folded into my wallet as though it was a bundle of twenties, I considered the winnings as good as mine.  When leaving the betting shop I was visualising how I would spend the cash, like the results of the football later in the day were a minor inconvenience.  I would go back to New York City, maybe invest in some fresh artwork for my bedroom, or buy a few new ties in order to help me stand out from the crowd. 

It was around four minutes past three when Peterborough fell behind at home to Fleetwood Town that my first coupon began to fall apart.  A few minutes later, Oxford were beating Sunderland and another coupon was in jeopardy.  By the time Alloa scored against Partick Thistle a little after half-past three, the entire thing was going up in smoke.  It wasn’t lost on me that I would struggle to find Alloa on a map of Scotland, just as I wouldn’t be looking out my NYC guide books for at least another week.

As the Leonard Cohen song goes: “Like a bird on the controlled zone parking sign…”

For much of the last few days of July various parts of Argyll & Bute had been issued with flood warnings following the forecasting of some serious thunderstorms, although for me the days remained to be a desert.  A passing rain shower on Saturday evening influenced my decision to wear a leather jacket when I went out later in the night, and by the end of it all my cotton shirt was clinging to my back the way the claws of a seagull would grip onto a street sign.

After a walk to the bathroom which required a stream of apologies to get from one side of the busy pub to the other, I ended the night alone at the end of the bar in Markies.  Chunks were playing their usual set in a room which was feeling more like a sauna only without the naked bodies, although it occurred that that may not have been a more uncomfortable sight than some of the other scenes around the bar.  One woman was holding a small novelty rubber toy which had been moulded into the shape of a penis. She was presumably part of a hen party, and she gripped the length of the comedy gift as though it was a precious family heirloom which would come to be damaged in the hands of anyone else.  It was the same way that another woman in the group was carrying a fishbowl that was as big as her head.  It was three-quarters full with a drink the colour of a goldfish and it had three black straws dangling over the rim, although she seemed to be the only one who was getting anywhere near it.

I was standing against the bar as many people were beginning to leave for The Lorne.  A lavishly drunk young man blundered through the doors, and although he was refused service, he was able to ask the barmaid if she had any cigarettes.  When she advised him that she didn’t, he followed up by questioning whether she had a lighter.  It struck me as an unusual thing to request in the absence of a cigarette, like walking into a DIY store and asking for a screwdriver after being told that they are out of screws.  What was he going to use the lighter for if she had given him one?

The question gave me something to think about for a minute or so, but it was a brief distraction and I quickly lost interest in it.  All I was really hoping was for someone to give me some company, throw me a chip so to speak, though the odds were against it.

The night of the jukebox consternation

Although with spring the days were growing longer and lighter, they were also becoming lonelier.  It seemed that in the last year I have become a lot like the Conservative Party, in that I have developed a difficult relationship with May.  If it is true that April showers bring May flowers, then I should be expecting to inherit a lot more houseplants for me to kill in the coming months.

Recently I have been substituting an absence of actual friendships for imagined acquaintances I’ve been making in the street.  These relationships were not random in the conventional sense, in so much as the people involved were strangers who I had been passing on my way through the town on a near daily basis for several months.  There comes a point when you are seeing the same people every day that in your mind you start to feel like you already know them.  Even though you only see them for those same few seconds each day, you begin to build a story of their routine in your head.

There is the man who is shaped like a large free range egg.  I pass him almost every morning when he is carrying two or three shopping bags which for some reason I always imagine are filled with those packs of a dozen rolls.  I have yet to figure out why a person would need so many rolls, but the timing of our meetings suggest that he is the first person in the supermarket when it opens and that he empties the entire bakery section of rolls, therefore depriving everyone else.  This has caused me to take an immediate dislike to the character, which no matter how harsh it seems, I have been sticking to rigidly.

At the station, a woman gets off the bus from out of town at the same time each day.  She is usually quite smartly dressed in a long skirt and heels, and her professional attire leads me to think that she probably works in an office, though her hair sometimes has an indescribable quality which reminds me of a scarecrow.  Often she is seen carrying a cotton bag over her shoulder, the type one might keep clothes pegs in.  Silently I judge this, as it doesn’t really match anything that she is wearing.  The first thing she does after disembarking from the bus is to light a cigarette, I expect probably more out of an addiction to nicotine than from the treacherous rush hour bus journey through Oban.  I have never seen the woman without a cigarette in her hand, and it is usually a pretty good indicator of how early or late I am for work by how much of it she has smoked.

On a morning at the end of April, a large lorry was taking up an entire lane of a road which straggles off the square as it was unloading a delivery to one of the nearby shops.  The cigarette smoking scarecrow was finding it difficult to cross the road due to her inability to see any oncoming traffic in the other lane.  From the side of the road that she was hoping to reach, I could see that there were no cars approaching and I crossed with confidence.  As I reached the lorry I looked at the stranded smoker, and feeling secure enough in our imagined friendship to attempt actual communication, I assured her that “it’s alright to cross, you’re safe.”  The smoker didn’t seem to have reached the same stage in our relationship, though, and she smiled out of the other side of her cigarette, in a way that said I don’t know who you are.

It was the same look of ignorance that I imagined the charity collectors for the National Deaf Children’s Society saw on my face later in the week.  They had been stationed outside Boots for several days, though I had not passed them due to my habit of walking on the opposite side of the street, which is closest to the sea.  When I found myself striding towards them on Friday evening, I had beers on my mind and my music was turned up loud in my ears.  As I was approaching the donation-seeking duo I could see the woman’s lips moving as she held up her hand in an effort to attract my attention.  I waved in return whilst mouthing the word “sorry” as I continued to walk on by.

A display in Poppies Garden Centre, near Oban, put me in mind of the phrase “April showers bring May flowers.”

Later on Friday the local amateur football club Oban Saints were playing in their first major final as they contested the West of Scotland Amateur Cup in Hamilton.  The public bar in Aulay’s was packed full of sports fans cheering on the team from afar, as the match was broadcast live on the big screen thanks to the efforts of the entrepreneurial local startup Oban Live Streams.  It was a rare sight to see everyone in the bar cheering for the same team, rather than against Celtic.

Things were looking hopeful early in the second-half when Saints marched into a 2-1 lead, and although the promise of victory didn’t last long, the town threatened to have a new hero when Cameron Hill scored his second goal to make it 3-3 and take the final to extra-time.  The goalscorer’s name was being chanted around Aulay’s by drink wet voices, though eventually the valiant effort of the local team succumbed to Bannockburn AFC in the additional thirty minutes and the final ended 6-3.

In the lounge bar, the plant doctor and I had each contributed £1 to the jukebox in order to have our preferred playlist of songs heard.  The usual mix of The Smiths, Neil Young, and R.E.M. serenaded the humming bar, and the plant doctor and I greatly enjoyed our selections.  After around twenty-five minutes of musical bliss, the jukebox returned to playing a random mix of music, as it does when there are no other songs waiting to be played.  The first song it played after our £2 outlay was a Punjabi track which had a hint of the sound of Shakira.  It turned out to be a favourite of the Polish scientist with a moniker, and the plant doctor and I were left feeling umbrage and considering the fairness of the jukebox system.

Despite the incident with the jukebox, we returned to Aulay’s on Saturday, where we watched Celtic win their eighth consecutive Scottish Premier League title.  The noise which roared from the public bar any time Aberdeen threatened to score suggested that, as ever, there was a significant majority hoping to see Celtic lose, which only made the victory more enjoyable.  I had grown up in the nineties, when seeing Celtic win a trophy, let alone a league title, seemed about as likely as me finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night does now.  These days when Celtic win are not to be taken for granted, and they are celebrated with pure joy when they come around.

In Markie Dans, there were celebrations of a different sort.  The dancefloor was pulsing with a wedding party, and one particular woman who was dressed in a becoming ghostly white dress had caught my eye.  I thought that I could dance closer to her, hopeful that my moves would attract her attention, but before I could so much as sway my hips in her direction, she was gone.  Like an apparition in the night, she had vanished in the blink of an eye.  At the end of the night, I was left to go home to the solace of yet more imaginary relationships without finding the company of a woman on a Saturday night.  Some things never change.

The night I decided to support Switzerland in the World Cup

When the FIFA World Cup began on Thursday it offered yet another excuse in the pantheon of reasons to visit the pub, and even if the only fixture of the day had concluded three hours before I walked in to Aulay’s it felt as though it could be justified because it is a World Cup year.

With the hushed tones of commentary from the live golf whispering to the thin spread of patrons in the bar, sounding more like a nature documentary than a large sporting event, I stood and took mental inventory of my collection of pocket squares after the formerly red-haired barmaid had commented on my failure to compliment my bottle green tie with an accompaniment of similar colour.  I don’t own a green pocket square and it suddenly occurred to me in that moment that I can’t be taken seriously if only some of my ties have a suitably shaded pocket square companion.

Not for the first occasion in recent times the formerly red-haired barmaid suggested that I should source some kind of lesson in the techniques required to talk to girls.  She is not the only person who has offered me this advice, and I began to consider whether there might be some education in the enticement of estrogen available out there.  I took a seat on a bar stool by the end of the bar and pondered where one might find lessons on talking to girls:  somewhere on the local college prospectus, perhaps; a Gumtree ad or a Facebook group; the local newspaper or a community noticeboard.  I felt that I would surely have seen such an advertisement if it were in the public domain and I imagined a scenario where I would walk into Waterstones in search of a self-help book on the subject of talking to the female sex.  In this scenario I expected that such a book would prove very difficult to find and I would be forced to track down a store assistant to help me locate a self-help book on talking to girls.

The following night I returned to the bar, where this time there was some World Cup action to enjoy, and I assumed my regular position close to the ice box – because it is the only time I can look cool next to something.  As well as the Spain vs Portugal game, this Friday was also the night when the formerly red-haired barmaid became a purple haired former barmaid and to mark the occasion she took a selfie with my three drinking companions and I in the background in which we were almost perfectly positioned should anyone ever wish to measure beard level, as we went from fashionably bedraggled to neatly styled to my careful 1.4mm stubble to recently trimmed.

The bar hummed with the excitement of a thrilling contest and the pints of beer flowed accordingly.  This was troublesome because I had made a considerably more substantial effort in the sartorial stakes which led me to wear a grey suit, a shade which can be susceptible to the particularly fierce splashback in the newly fitted urinals in Aulay’s if one isn’t careful.  Even before I put myself in the firing line I was forced to overcome a traumatic struggle when I couldn’t find the window in an unfamiliar pair of underwear.  My hand was fumbling around – literally – like a drunk man trying to find his way around the inside of a pair of trousers, and the situation was becoming increasingly desperate because the penis seems to have an inherent ability to know that it is close to a toilet; close to salvation.  Its internal GPS knows that it should be acceptable to let go now and its resistance quickly begins to fade.  It is like the countdown to a missile launch and it can’t be stopped.  The tension was mounting as I desperately searched for the window and without any further hesitation I had to delve over the waistband to prevent a much more severe splashback incident.

When I next returned to Aulay’s on Sunday each of the bar staff had their own naturally coloured hair and there was the excuse of two games of international football to distract from real-life.  As the rain guided in the evening and we embarked on a search for food before returning to the bar to watch Brazil play Switzerland, we found a couple of young women seated in the area where we typically stand to watch these big games.  I initially felt awkward standing behind them, worrying that they might feel concern that we would attempt to engage them in conversation, but they didn’t seem to notice us.  The game developed and I found myself distracted as I tried to deduce where the women were from.  Over time I detected the use of some French and I had noticed that each time Brazil were in possession of the ball the girls were looking pensive and holding their fingernails to their lips.  I suspected that they were Swiss and I soon found myself urging Switzerland to equalise, believing that it would be my only opportunity of seeing a look of ecstasy on their faces.

Upon the final whistle, with Switzerland having snatched a much celebrated equalising goal to draw the game 1-1, I was at a level of drunkenness where I could no longer stop myself from trying to talk to these two girls.  The semi-Arabic Harry Potter looking of the pair had stepped outside for what must have been her fourth cigarette of the night and I lurched forward and blurted out something stupid like:  “It seems to me that you ladies might be Swiss.”

The blonde-haired young lady was initially startled by my sudden outburst but she quickly composed herself and confirmed that she was indeed from Switzerland.  I raised my right-hand in the offer of a high-five and congratulated her on her nation’s success, noting that it has now been twenty years since I, as a Scotsman, felt the experience of watching my country compete at a World Cup.  She smiled warmly and our hands slapped together.  Her eyes were the sharpest blue I have ever seen and they had the appearance of something which should be displayed on a cushion in a jewelry store window.  She was, by some distance, the second most beautiful woman that I have ever talked to for more than thirty seconds, although on this night our conversation was approximately ninety minutes in length.

Any thought of seeking lessons momentarily left my head and our discussion spanned such matters as using spinach as a pizza topping, why Toblerones are so difficult to break, why her old cat is named Flip and whether it is because he is acrobatic (that wasn’t the reason,) Highland cows and her goal of becoming a lawyer in the next year by passing the bar – a joke which I milked much too often by pointing out that she could also reach the ladies bathroom in Aulay’s if she passed the bar.  She laughed with exuberance and frequently – although not often at the law jokes – and I hardly felt awkward at all.

The Swiss girl with the blue eyes was the designated driver of the duo and when her semi-Arabic Harry Potter looking friend finished her Guinness they left in preparation for their early drive to Skye the next morning, and once again the penis was thwarted.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The weekend where many small things happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The day I didn’t wear a jacket


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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