Everybody seems to have a Wordle strategy these days. The web-based game where players are given six opportunities to solve a daily five-letter word puzzle is the hottest trend of 2022 so far, and for once I seem to be in tune with popular culture. My opening salvo is almost always HOUSE, I believe for as simple a reason as I am usually in my flat when I attempt the day’s challenge and it only has four letters. In my next guess, I like to use the remaining vowels, since I would have to shyly confess that I can’t think of any words that do not have at least one vowel in them.
The one time that I deviated from my game plan also happened to be the only occasion from 21 puzzles where I have failed to get the correct word. I had decided to switch from HOUSE to SOARE after reading an article by a language researcher who reasoned that the word for a young hawk is the best option for a first guess because it uses five of the six most common letters in the English language as well as being in a more strategic order than, say, AROSE. I couldn’t stop from wondering how it must be to be like some of the people I had spoken to who are much more free-spirited with their leading Wordle guess and type the first thing that comes into their head, varying their opening word from day-to-day. It was difficult to imagine having such spontaneity with words, but I figured I would give it a go with SOARE first and see how things went. As it turns out, I just couldn’t get the word that day. I think I was one letter away in the end, but it wasn’t coming to me. Mostly because the word was one I didn’t expect to encounter in such an inoffensive game. It was PRICK. What has life become when even Wordle is goading you?
My introductory Wordle pick has been the same ever since my 100% record was pricked. I’ve rarely thought about it, but I suppose I’m rigidly habitual like that; if something works I tend to stick with it and if it doesn’t I’ll usually avoid it. This is why I have cooked the same adventure-free pasta sauce recipe for the last five years, and it’s the reason why I haven’t accepted a shot of Sambuca since the stuff immediately had me vomiting on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday. On the other hand, it hasn’t stopped me from making jokes anytime I talk to a woman I have met, but there are some habits you just can’t change.
I solved Monday’s puzzle within a couple of attempts while I was taking the bus to Glasgow to see The Districts play that night. It was my first time at a gig since the summer of 2019, if I don’t consider the time the Edinburgh band Wrest played in The View in November 2021 whilst a 40th birthday celebration was taking place in the adjacent function space. It’s not that Wrest aren’t a decent act, but I found it hard to focus on the music when there was the sight of several enormous helium balloons emblazoned with the number ‘40’ rising to the ceiling at the back of the room as a member of the bar staff emerged with a buffet of party food.
Saint Luke’s is a repurposed music and arts venue in the east end of Glasgow. It was originally built in 1836 as a church, and when that was disbanded in 2012 the building underwent an elaborate refurbishment. There’s a temptation to suggest that the fact my first gig in over two years took place in a former church had some kind of a spiritual significance, but really, it was probably just a coincidence since the show was originally scheduled for May 2020 and was postponed twice due to a global pandemic that has caused millions of deaths.
Adjacent to the old church building is a bar and restaurant, The Winged Ox, where I ate a halloumi sandwich and drank some lager from the nearby Drygate Brewing Company. As far as I can remember, it is the first time I have eaten grilled Cypriot cheese in an establishment that has the statue of a saint perched on the shelf above its bar. Not long after my plate had been cleared away, I was surprised to look up from my pint and see that the four members of the band who I was about to see play on stage were standing at the end of my table, not but a chip’s throw away from me. They must have been there for several minutes. My heart was rattling all the way through my ribcage as soon as I recognised them, and I’m sure it wasn’t just from the Covid I had recently recovered from. I could hear the drummer tell a story about a flight he had missed one time in Germany before they stepped forward to the bar. Each member of The Districts was lined up along the front of the bar, taking it in turns to settle their individual bill. I could hardly believe it. That’s how my brother, sister and me pay for our breakfast on a Saturday morning if dad hasn’t come with us, but this was a touring rock band. Although they are far from the best known musical artists on the circuit, I had always imagined that the rock and roll lifestyle would be different; more glamorous. I never knew that they would have to queue up to pay for their own food at The Winged Ox.
One of the downsides of dining solo is that there isn’t anyone to tell when you see something remarkable occur in your vicinity. Worse still, if you want to engineer an opportunity to take a picture of a rock band who you have been listening to for six years standing near your table with bar bills in their hands, you are forced to make like you have a keen interest in photographing empty chairs. I felt ridiculous, especially when I couldn’t position my phone whilst the four men were standing side-on to me so I had to wait until their backs were turned when effectively I would have been as well snapping a picture of anybody.
Inside Saint Luke’s itself, a mirrorball hangs from the rafters above where the congregation once would have gathered. Part of me likes to imagine that it was there before the refurbishment, unlikely as it seems. I can never grow tired of gigs in former churches. This was my third such venue, and somehow they always sound brilliant. I met with a former Unlikely Lads pub quiz team-mate and her friend before The Districts took to the stage, though as happy as I was to have some great company for the gig, I found myself distracted by the tall man who was standing in front of me. It was impossible to stop myself from staring at the back of this guy’s head, which was covered with long, bedraggled hair the colour of a rabbit’s tail. I had only ever seen hair like it once before, but there was no way that the guy who used to own the Squeeze juice bar next door to Aulay’s was in Glasgow to see this little-known band who pay for their own meals. The resemblance was uncanny, however, and eventually, it was all I could do to unburden myself and ask Hannah if she recognised the man stood a few feet away from us as being someone who I had spoken to a maximum of four times in my life. She couldn’t be sure either, but when we heard his bellowing Northern Irish accent between songs it heightened our interest, and she had to approach him to ask if he had ever run a juice bar in Oban. It was just like being back at the Lorne pub quiz in the days when Hannah would pull out an answer that nobody was expecting, and in this instance, it turns out that the man in front of us was indeed the former owner of Squeeze, though he had no idea who The Districts are and was only there because his friend had offered him a free ticket. So little was the juice maker’s interest in the band that I could swear there was a point where he had fallen asleep on his feet for a few moments.
To the left of the man who once blended fruits for a living, my gig companions were in the midst of their own curiosity. They were observing a young couple who might well have been the only two people in the entire place who wore face masks the entire way through the gig. Most others we saw, including ourselves, would put them on whenever we went up to the bar, but these two only ever pulled theirs down for a moment to take a brief mouthful from their cans of cider before fitting them back in place. In a way, there was something to be admired about the couple’s resilience, and if that’s what they felt was necessary to allow them to enjoy a night out then it doesn’t seem right that anyone should judge them for it. But when they would bring their heads together and kiss by pressing the front part of their masks to one another, I was incredulous. Here I was, a man whose chances of receiving affection from a woman are as likely as solving a Wordle puzzle on the first attempt – ZILCH – and then there’s this couple who dared to just throw kisses away against a piece of dirty fabric like they were nothing. It was a toss-up to say whether the young couple was excellent at hygiene or exceptionally terrible with romance.
Back in Aulay’s on Friday, some of us were still feeling the effects from Wednesday night when we had been in to watch Celtic’s 3-0 victory over Rangers. The post-match libations were as unexpected as the nature of the win, and I felt thankful that I was at least sensible enough to stick to my principles and refuse the offers of Sambuca, even if I wasn’t quite as strong when it came to the Tequila. On this occasion, we came out to celebrate the 29th birthday of the town’s most elusive barmaid, a woman who seemingly has a different career-changing scheme each time you talk to her, sort of like a Marvel villain.
The Plant Doctor was already seated at a table with a man who I didn’t recognise when I arrived. We learned that Joe is a chef by trade who was visiting Scotland from North Yorkshire for five days with his wife and their young daughter, who is a year-and-a-half old. He is one of the few people any of us had heard describe a child’s age in that way rather than the more commonly used 18 months, and we welcomed it. Joe had left his wife and daughter in their campervan for the evening while he went out to watch his team, Manchester United, play in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough. He had been looking forward to seeing the football while enjoying a quiet pint in a local pub, but as the night progressed he was finding himself watching less and less of the game as he became involved in our nonsense discussions.
Manchester United were leading for much of the contest, though since Joe had fit into the group so seamlessly we suggested that he could message his wife to tell her that the match had gone into extra-time to give him an excuse for spending another half an hour in our company. He wasn’t convinced that his partner would believe that United were incapable of beating an opponent from a lower league, yet Middlesbrough went on to equalise as we were plotting and that’s exactly what happened. Joe was shocked at what he was seeing – although he hadn’t seen very much of it at all. We all laughed at the idea that the Yorkshire man’s wife would receive a text from her husband claiming that Manchester United had drawn 1-1 with Middlesbrough and immediately accuse him of lying to her. There would be no WiFi reception in the couple’s campervan, while the television signal wasn’t picking up ITV, so she coudn’t check the result for herself. Ultimately the supposed deception might prove destructive to their marriage, or at the very least Joe was going to be restricted to masked intimacy for a while.
Friday was one of those brilliant, bizarre nights that often occur in Aulay’s. It had just the right mix of Jameson, good tracks on the jukebox and eccentric out-of-town characters. As well as Joe, there was a middle-aged couple who were seated in the corner of the pub underneath the television who choked the jukebox with songs that the blonde woman danced her heart out to as her husband took videos. At one time there were four songs by Alanis Morissette queued up on the playlist. Meanwhile, when my selection of Be My Baby by The Ronettes played, the woman shrieked and beckoned me to join her in busting some moves. Her husband didn’t seem to care, although he became agitated when all nine minutes and thirteen seconds of Neil Young’s Down by the River came on. They didn’t stick around for very long after that, but Joe was there until closing time, several hours after he was supposed to leave. Something told me that it wouldn’t take much to guess the five-letter word that would best describe his wife’s mood when he returned to the campervan.