“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?