The other side

An unusual event took place on New Year’s Eve when I found myself drinking in the public bar in Aulay’s.  I didn’t often venture through from the lounge side, other than maybe for the occasional televised boxing fight, on account of the awkward glances whichever shirt and tie combination I was wearing would usually attract from the fishermen, farmers and others who typically didn’t feel the need to wear a pocket square to the pub on a Friday night.  Aside from the benefit of the lounge bar having the jukebox, I just never felt truly comfortable in the public bar, where people instantly assumed that I was above my actual station; usually a lawyer.  I was viewed with suspicion and folk were often reluctant to talk to me, and particularly share sensitive parts of a story.  Most of the time this seemed like a blessing.

I was the last of the gang to arrive at the bar on the final night of the year.  The diminutive barmaid poured me a pint and pointed me through to the public bar, where my brother, the plant doctor, Brexit Guy and others had taken residence on the stools.  I had turned up wearing a three-piece brown tweed suit, seeking to see the new year in with some sartorial style, and given the occasion, I wasn’t feeling quite so awkward about being the only person in the pub dressed as such.  On the television in the far left corner, a concert from the well-known pop band Coldplay was playing, though it was to everyone’s relief that the volume had been muted.  It was left to us to imagine what Chris Martin & co. were singing. 

It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.

For all intents and purposes, we were bringing in the new year in the wrong side of Aulay’s, but it didn’t seem to matter.  It was just like any other night.  We admired the blossoming kinship between my brother and the Brexit Guy, a sight which would have seemed impossible before the miracle of Easter 2019 [“The night of the handshake”].  Drink after drink appeared on the bar before us, in the manner of some late Christmas offering:  pints of Tennent’s, rounds of Jameson, Jack Daniels, our very own Tough Paper Round, and Cointreau.  The latter encouraged the plant doctor to make a pun centred on how the round of drinks had been “Cointreau-versial”, which was the sort of joke that no-one found funny, though everyone had wished that they’d thought of it.

We discussed the George Harrison song Wah-Wah, Netflix murder documentaries, and our resolutions for the forthcoming year.  I made the declaration that I had vowed many years earlier that I would not be making any New Year’s resolutions going forward, a dedication that I had kept every year since.  Often it occurred to me that I should at least make the promise that I would reach next 31st December no longer being a single man, but it seemed that these things should at least be realistic and achievable.

The hours were passing by, and so was the year we were about to leave behind as the pub rapidly filled with revellers at around ten o’clock, though was suddenly emptying by eleven-thirty when people started making their way to their preferred party destination.  With the all-important midnight hour ticking ever closer, we were considering amongst ourselves what the kiss protocol would be on the bells.  Once it was taken into account that some of us were related, and that the bar staff probably didn’t have it in their terms of employment that they should kiss the slobbering drunken customers on Hogmanay, we all agreed that hugs and handshakes would be appropriate.

As Big Ben chimed from the television in the background, fireworks could be heard crackling overhead in the distant January sky.   The few folks who were left in the pub began to filter out to watch them, and I would shortly follow.  I had worn my favourite tan shoes to compliment my tweed outfit, though much like any time I had made an attempt to talk to a woman in the previous twelve months, it turned out to be a mistake.  Standing outside the doorway of the pub, I watched the fireworks explode out of McCaig’s Tower on the hill, through a haze of cigarette smoke and rain.  It was as though a rocket had pricked an enormous water balloon.  I could feel water seeping in through the bottom of my shoes, and I soon realised that each of the soles were cracked.  Happy New Year!

When Aulay’s closed for the night, it was left to the four of us to first-foot Markies.  I had arranged to meet up with the Subway Girl somewhere along the way, but first our attention was drawn to an anonymous-looking woman who was huddled in the doorway of the butcher’s shop, presumably seeking shelter from the rain.  She was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be taking the time to send a text message, although it struck me from experience that she may only have been pretending.  The plant doctor began to dance back and forth in front of the doorway, almost in the manner of one of those hairy mascots with the over-sized heads that you find at sporting events or in shopping centres.  The texter seemed unperturbed.

“Don’t worry about him,” I called out through the mist of the rain.  “He’s just an idiot.”

“Oh, I noticed,” the woman in black responded, lifting her attention from her mobile phone.  We got to talking, and it transpired that she had just ended her relationship with her boyfriend and wasn’t sure what to do with herself for the rest of the night.  She said that she was in her early fifties, though I wouldn’t have placed her as being older than late forties. She asked where we were going and if she could join us.  After the plant doctor’s dancing, it seemed the least we could do was to take her to Markies.

Our inherited stranger hit it off with the Subway Girl, and our expanded group of six made its way down the seafront.  The streets were slick with rainwater, and the further we walked the more my socks were soaking it up like a sponge.  When we reached our destination we were stuffed into the pub like sardines, with barely enough space to fish dance, only the stench of tinned seafood had been replaced by the overwhelming fragrance of Christmas morning deodorant sets.  We were able to socialise all the same, and it was a fun night.

The early days of 2020 weren’t quite what I had hoped they would be.  By the second date, I had developed such a cough in my chest that subsequently anything I ate would come back up quicker than a Hogmanay firework.  By Friday I was struggling to get myself out of bed, and things were so bad that I couldn’t even make the usual trip to Aulay’s in the evening.  As the week progressed, it was becoming more like the New Year’s Resolution I hadn’t made:  I had spent four days in bed, my body had been ravaged from head to toe, my joints were throbbing, and I was a hot mess.  At around 3 am in the dark of one of the nights, Spotify began playing a playlist of power-pop ballads from the eighties and nineties featuring the likes of Annie Lennox, Cheap Trick and Garbage, and at one point I was feeling so sick that I began to question my own mortality.  I imagined how ridiculous it would be if I was a thirty-six-year-old man who perished to the flu.  I thought about the requiem mass that would follow and wondered if it would be better attended than the Christmas Eve service I had been at a week earlier.  In my mind’s eye, I could see a handful of people sitting around, looking at each other solemnly and asking, “why couldn’t he just wear jeans and boots like everybody else?”  

New Year’s Eve had been a good night spent amongst some of my best friends and the nicest people, and Brexit Guy, in our favourite places – or the wrong side of our favourite place.  For a few hours, it even felt good. It was just a shame about the shoes.

The song I’ve mostly been listening to this decade…

The nights I was having difficulty with language

New Year rings in the opportunity for renewal and arrives with a breath of optimism.  All around there are people promising great things to better themselves, making exciting plans for the weeks and months ahead and revelling in the ‘New Year, new me’ mantra.  For a while after the hands on the clock crawl past midnight it is as though anything is possible. It is in this sense that New Year is a lot like getting a haircut, only without having to listen to the barber’s banter for fifteen minutes.  There is nothing like a new haircut to allow a person to feel revived and enthusiastic about the opportunities in store; nothing except the New Year.

I was thinking about this on the afternoon of New Year’s Day, when I was hunched over the pristine porcelain of my toilet bowl, vomiting for the second time in as many hours.  My life was flashing before my eyes as another heave brought more of my guts to the water below me. If New Year is like getting a haircut, then New Year’s Day is the hairs that are trapped down the collar of your shirt after they are trimmed from your head.  It wasn’t even that I was hungover so much, although I had been drinking rum with a tall and wild-haired student from the University of St Andrews and his bespectacled girlfriend until five in the morning. I woke up on the first day of January with flu-like symptoms – a consequence of a rainy walk home a few nights earlier, I presumed – and they lasted until the fourth, by which point a healthy dose of my New Year optimism had been blown into most of the contents of a box of Kleenex.

The ten-second countdown to midnight started abruptly, as though the bar band had been lost in song and suddenly remembered why everyone was there.  By the time it ended and 2019 had arrived, there was a mass exodus from the pub by people who were keen to watch the fireworks explode against the black blanket of a winter sky.  When the celebrations started I found myself surrounded by swathes of people I didn’t know, and in keeping with previous New Years, I didn’t receive a kiss at the bells, although I have never liked to go too far on the first date anyway.

Amongst the drunken revellers who were clustered around the bar, I spotted the Italian doppelgänger version of my brother, and I approached him to wish him the best for the coming year.  He was accompanied by the smoking Frenchwoman, whom I endeavoured to talk to.  She was telling me that she had returned to Oban from Paris earlier that day, and in my never-ending quest to gather as many mundane details about a story as possible, I asked – or at least attempted to ask – how she had travelled back to Scotland.  I wasn’t looking for much; just modes of transport, weather systems encountered, anecdotes of awkward aircraft seating, interactions with train station baristas, airport security snafus, that sort of thing.

Against the backing track of the bar band, who had returned from their break and were in full swing with rambunctious ceilidh music, and with Jameson clinging to my tonsils, I was finding it difficult to make myself heard.  I tried changing my line of questioning, tried moving the words around, like when my dance moves aren’t quite working out and I try to involve more shoulder action, but it was futile.  The smoking Frenchwoman tilted her head and spoke.  “I don’t understand a word you are saying,” she hummed in a flawless French accent, her use of English unquestionably more effective than my own.  She left with a cigarette clutched between her fingers, and I was considering the ways that I could have made a worse first impression in a new year.

After spending much of New Year’s Day asleep on my father’s couch, I was determined to make my first homecooked meal of the year a delicious one when I was making dinner on the second.  I happened upon an appetising recipe for a chilli prawn linguine dish in that days Times newspaper, and I was looking forward to trying it.  In the afternoon, I walked the short distance along the road to the Lidl supermarket to purchase the small list of ingredients I was needing to make my evening meal.  Almost everything was readily available, although they were out of spring onions.  I considered the merits of going to one of the other stores which are nearby to finish my shopping, but in the back of my mind I knew that there was an onion or two in the back of my kitchen cupboard, and presumably the only effect of substituting spring onions for onions would be to make my cuisine slightly more mature.

I decided to take the lazy option and use onions in my recipe rather than walk all the way to another supermarket just for a bunch of spring onions, but the judgment weighed on my conscience for the rest of the night.  I was reluctant to let it trouble me too much – there is no use crying over sliced onion, after all – but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking how I was only two days into the new year and already I was following the same pattern as in 2018:  settling for what I already have instead of going for what I really want, and not making the effort to go and find the ingredient which will give my meal the flavour it needs.

On my first visit of the year to Aulay’s Bar, there was a complimentary pint of lager being offered to each of the ‘regulars’.  In addition to the pocket diary and pen which was handed out on Hogmanay, it was a generous gesture which left me thinking about whether it was the first time in my life that I had ever been considered a regular at or to anything.  I was basking in a sense of achievement when the plant doctor then revealed that he had returned from his Christmas trip home with a gift for me from his mother.  He reached into the pocket of his jacket, which seemed deeper than a regular pocket, and withdrew a Tupperware box which had inside it a neatly ribboned bag.  In the bag were five gingerbread figures:  four men who were each wearing glasses and were finely tailored in matching ties and underwear, and one gingerbread woman who had an ample bosom and a delicious red smile.  It immediately became the sweetest gift I had ever received, both literally and in terms of kindness.

I took the Tupperware box home at the end of the night and proudly spread the gingerbread people out across the kitchen counter, admiring the handiwork in their little personalities.  I began to imagine which of the gingerbread gentlemen would be first to make romantic headway with the gingerbread girl.  It was already noticeable that she was keeping a further distance from the baked figure which most closely resembled me, and I was wondering if he had said something on the way over.  I thought about the awkward tension there must be inside the Tupperware once I had carefully packed them all away again.  This should be when things are at their most intimate and exciting, when the lid goes back on and the lights go out and the possibilities are endless.  But the gingerbread representation of me had already made some sarcastic comment or arduous pun, and now he was going to have to watch as the other three gingerbread men made the girl swoon with their sugary charisma.  I wondered if it was best to just put myself out of my misery and eat the gingerbread me, but there was something uncomfortable about the idea of biting my own head off.

In Markie Dans, amidst the double celebration of an engagement and a thirtieth birthday, our crew was aware of a tall girl who was dancing alone in the corner of the dancefloor.  We observed the scene and realised that, for whatever reason, people just weren’t wanting to dance alongside this girl.  After some time the three of us each approached and broke out some moves of our own.  The not-so-tiny dancer turned out to be a Brazilian soap retailer who was fun and friendly and simply seeking friendship.  She told us that she felt other girls were reluctant to talk to her because they felt threatened by her, and the plant doctor and I looked at each other and expressed empathy with her trouble with girls.

“And guys only want to fuck me.”

Immediately the dancefloor became like a scene from a lame western movie, where the cowboys are all involved in a standoff and have holstered their weapons.  Our dance moves became much less sexualised, although mine started out that way and stayed the same.

The dancing Brazilian soap seller told us her name and after around seven arduous attempts by me to get the pronunciation right, with each one further aggravating her, we agreed that I was never going to make it sound right and that it would be in everybody’s interest if I stopped trying.

With all of us on a first name basis, and most of us with the ability to annunciate them, the four of us returned to my flat for beer, incense and music.  Although Wah-Wah was inevitably played, the scene was more like Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as we exchanged stories of romantic misery at four o’clock in the morning.  In many ways it was the same old new year, though all of a sudden my decision to use onions instead of spring onions wasn’t seeming so terrible.