“Happy new year”

It was Monday night when I had finally been able to enjoy a cup of coffee in my own home after remembering to buy a jar after work.  I had used the coffee machine on Sunday afternoon when my need became desperate after I had once again forgotten to replenish my supply of the instant stuff and I refused to go back out as a matter of principle.  Sometimes a person has to take a stand, even if it is against their own capacity for memory.  The coffee machine was like a lot of other things in my kitchen that seemed like a good idea when I bought them before becoming a single occupant, but which had rarely been used since.  A wine decanter, a cheeseboard, a packet of quinoa.  I still had a glass container which was three-quarters filled with ground roast coffee – French, I think – and I decided that it would be worth brewing a fresh pot since it was there, though it turned out that the machine was probably in need of cleaning, because the water tasted kind of stale in the end.

By the time the first week of February had arrived, things were starting to look a whole lot better.  The days were lazily stretching out beyond five o’clock, a phenomenon which the consensus opinion suggested was quite early in the year when it was considered that we were still in the depths of the winter season, and the extended daylight helped to bring a healthier complexion to things.  It was like meeting a friend who you haven’t seen in a while and they are sporting a brand new haircut.  Although the fading light in the early evening closely resembled a candle which has burned all the way to the bottom of its wick and was flickering its last breath, it was still enough to turn vague shadowy figures into fully formed silhouettes.  For the first time in the year it was possible to stroll along the Esplanade and see couples out walking their dogs along the shore, with just enough light for the ducks to be alert and keep a safe distance.

The ducks were wise enough to keep a safe distance from the dogs.

 

The two sets of traffic lights on Argyll Square were always my most used, even more than the one just along the street from me, which I never really liked.  Even in early February, I reckoned that I must have used the lights on the square at least a hundred times.  On one of those occasions, as I crossed the road at the first of the lights to the narrow island in the middle of the road, I witnessed as two gentlemen embraced in the middle and shook hands.  They were older, the sort of age at which the hair is white rather than grey, and at least one of the men was sporting a beard.  It was possible that they both had facial hair, though it was difficult to tell from the way that the man whose back was to me had his face obscured by the other’s bold red waterproof jacket.

As I walked past the pair, I could hear them exchanging a “happy new year” against the din of slowing traffic, and it seemed a small mercy that the light had turned red, as I would likely have been too preoccupied to notice any cars coming towards me.  Just as there had been some surprise at how early in the year the evenings were becoming lighter, I found myself bewildered at how late in the year people were wishing others all the best for 2020.  I had assumed, and even expected, that the cut off had long expired; that the latest such a greeting could be passed on was at the end of the first week of January.  Any mention of it after then just seemed like attention-seeking.  I was reluctant to say anything after the third of the month, since in the digital age so much could change in three days that it might as well have been a year anyway.

I think that what was really bothering me about the belated happy new year was that it seemed to be impossible to rationalise where the line would be drawn.  If it was acceptable to some to offer the happy new year even after a twelfth of the year had passed, then what else were they making up for in that meeting on the square?  I spent quite a bit of time considering the question and drew a scenario in my mind where the two men had happened upon one another at the traffic lights for the first time since the June of the previous year.  They started off with a happy new year and worked their way back through all of the events that had taken place since they last met.

“Merry Christmas.  Did you spend yours with the family?”

“Well, actually, Mary and I converted to Judaism in September, so we celebrated Hanukkah last year.”

“Wait, what does that mean for Halloween?”

“Oh, we thought it would be a laugh to go as Catholics.
It was your seventy-fifth birthday in October, wasn’t it?  Happy birthday!”

“Thanks.  We had a party at the golf club.  I wanted seventy-five helium balloons around the place, but by the time we had paid the hire fee, my state pension was only going to pay for forty balloons.  Nobody understood why I still bought them.”

“You always did like balloons.”

“How was your summer holiday?  I remember last time I saw you that you said you were taking a cruise for your anniversary?”

“We went to Islay for a week.  It rained every day.  We decided that we would stay on the mainland in future.”

Although in the first month of the year I had solidly stuck to my resolution to not make a New Year’s resolution, I was still at least harbouring one ambition for the year, which was that our breakaway pub quiz team The Unlikely Lads would finally win.  Most of the time there were three of us in the team, and while we had pretty successfully cemented ourselves as a regular feature amongst the top three on the leaderboard, we had really only ever come close to winning once or twice.  There was a revolving door of occasional support characters who would come along now and again to support our cause; people of various nationalities, heights, genders, and depth of facial hair.  We were happy to accept anyone who could help us to clean up the points we were spilling, though privately we agreed that we shared the hope that our very first win would come on a night when it was just the three original Unlikely Lads.

On this occasion, the first quiz in February, two of us had each invited a friend along to join us, and one of them had encouraged another couple of medical students to participate, the sum of which left us with one person more than the traditional pub quiz team limit of six.  Negotiations ensued as to the separation of our inflated team into two outfits, and a couple of voices raised the possibility that although we were different teams, there was no reason why we couldn’t assist one another by exchanging answers to difficult questions across the tables.  I had been reading Misha Glenny’s book on the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early nineties and found myself with a taste for conflict, so I argued that if our team was being forced apart, then it would be with the blood and brutality of the wars in Serbia and Croatia.  We had to treat the quiz competitively.  It struck me that no-one else was taking things quite that seriously, but the three of us who were sitting closest to the next available table moved, and I found myself in competition with the other two Unlikely Lads.

As the quiz was beginning with the picture round, which featured daytime television personalities, our infant trio was joined by yet another medical student who had been sitting on his own at a table waiting for the rest of his team to arrive, only they never showed.  He was familiar with the other student in our team, who was a stranger to the bird enthusiast and me, so it didn’t feel awkward.  Rather than christen ourselves with a moniker which made it clear that we were a second-string Unlikely Lads, we named our team The Transition Zone, which was supposed to be some sort of Brexit joke based around the fact that the United Kingdom had left the European Union the previous Friday and was now in a year-long ‘transition phase’, but nobody else in the pub seemed to care about our humour, or know that we were in a transition phase of our own.

A glance behind the scenes of the Lorne pub quiz.

 

Our team immediately felt like two pieces of Lego that just clicked and fitted together.  From the first two rounds, which were scored together as always, we had established a fairly healthy lead, and from there we suspected that something special was about to happen, at least as far as pub quizzes went.  When most of our original group had reunited and were sitting together in Aulay’s later in the night, the girls admitted that they had felt sorry for the male medical student who was eventually stood up by his team and gone on to join my splinter group.  They sounded sad and genuinely sympathetic, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone had ever studied me at a bar and felt such sensations.  Albeit there was a difference in the scenarios when this solo guy had gone on to experience success when he found himself part of a winning pub quiz team.

I initially felt great joy and satisfaction when it was confirmed that The Transition Zone had progressed into the unfamiliar role of quiz winners.  There was a sweetness in beating the team we had been separated from, as though we had given them a glimpse of what they could have had, but after the wave of euphoria had washed over me I felt sadness that I hadn’t won the quiz with The Unlikely Lads and the two people I had suffered defeat with every other week.  Much like when I had finally gotten the cup of coffee I was craving, the water was sour, and I was going to have to wait for another time to fulfill my unspoken New Year’s resolution.

This week I have been mostly listening to:

Plenty of fish in the sea

For some people, the final few days of January and the beginning of a new month was proving to be too difficult an idea to conceive of.  Often the phrase “I can’t believe we’re at the end of January” or “how is that a month of the year gone already?” was heard, in the manner of a mantra repeated by that small band of people who remained unaccepting of the Gregorian calendar.  It wasn’t only the passing of one month into another that folk seemed to be struggling with.  Even the day-to-day passage of time was an issue for some, as was evidenced by an encounter I had experienced in the toilet in Aulay’s on a Saturday night.

When I walked into the compact space, which like the bathroom of most pubs in Oban was only large enough to hold a handful of men at any one time, there was one fellow standing at the far end of the urinal, while the solitary cubicle behind him remained unoccupied.  The man had long straggled hair, similar in style and shade to that of a Highland cow, and a beard to match.  Although he was tall, his shoulders were slouched, as though he had been spending hours playing a video game, and he was looming precariously over the silver trough.  Ordinarily I would have taken the sanctitude of the cubicle when it was available, but on this occasion I was feeling confident that I had drunk enough lager to overcome any of my usual reluctance to urinate in the presence of another person.

Still, there was that indeterminable period of awkwardness when you are standing next to a stranger at the urinal where you are wondering – worrying – whether there is going to be a forced attempt at conversation.  I always preferred to be left to focus on the task at hand, the way I would reach the self-service checkout in Lidl and pray that the scanner would correctly establish the weight of my carrots without the system having to call for assistance when an unexpected item was detected in the bagging area and I would have to talk to the man who eventually appeared.  As I was finally beginning to relax into the situation at the urinal, the man to my left spoke to me, his voice sounding almost exactly as I would have expected.  He asked how my night was going, and I had no option but to politely reciprocate.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January

The hairy man’s shoulders suddenly straightened and he appeared at least four inches taller as he told me that he was having a good night, but that he was “fucked.”  I understood what he meant and assured him that it was fine, that’s what Saturday nights were for.  I hoped that would be the end of it and continued to look ahead, minding my own business, when he spurted out a sequence of words which I couldn’t be sure if they were a question or a statement.  “It’s Saturday?  I didn’t know it was Saturday.  I thought this was Friday?!”

I knew that it wasn’t Friday because I wasn’t wearing a tie and my socks weren’t matching any other item of clothing I was wearing, though I felt only the need to assure the gentleman that it was definitely Saturday.  “Monday is going to be a shock for you,” I noted as he tickled his hands beneath the cold water tap before approaching the hand dryer.  The stranger acknowledged that he wasn’t looking forward to the beginning of the week, and we reached an agreement that these things are somehow always realised when standing at the urinal.

The first snowfall of the winter to make it as far as ground level landed in Oban early on the last Monday morning of January.  It didn’t amount to very much and had practically all melted away long before midday, but that didn’t stop people from worrying about it and the subsequent cold temperatures which had been forecast.  The pavement between my flat and Argyll Square was already grey and wet by the time I had left for work, though there were a couple of patches which crunched underfoot and threatened to present danger, while on the other side of the street I observed a similarly suited man who was walking with his arms outstretched, as though attempting to complete a walk across an invisible tightrope.  His trepidation was making me nervous, feeding into the anxiety I felt when confronted with snowy and icy conditions which had developed several years earlier during the last extremely cold winter in Oban.

It was 2010, maybe 2011, when the town was besieged by snow in the early part of December.  It was a Sunday afternoon when it all started, and by the following morning the pavements were like a surface Torvill and Dean would have practised their routines on.   I was working in a supermarket at the time that was around a fifteen-minute walk from my home in Lower Soroba, which was really just a part of town for people who didn’t want to admit that they were living in Soroba.  I had somehow worked myself into a position of management in the store and that required me to work a variety of different shifts, sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night.  On this particular winter morning, it was my responsibility to open the store, which meant starting work at six o’clock.  The scene was as cold and dark as anyone could imagine for the hour, and by the time I had crossed the road from my home to the pavement which ran all the way to the entrance of the local primary school, I had fallen on the ice for the first time.

The rain was horizontal, as though someone was standing by the side of the shower cubicle with a hairdryer

I slipped another twice before I reached work.  The second instance wasn’t very far from the first, along the pavement overlooking the Lorn & Islands District General Hospital, where I was beginning to think that I might have been better off taking myself.  After that I was able to maintain my footing more like an adult male, even if not quite an adult penguin, for around ten minutes, until I went crashing to the tarmac for a third time at the crossing outside Oban High School, with my destination visible in the distance.  By the time I reached work my pride was almost as bruised as my tailbone and I had a freshly developed fear and loathing of snowy winter conditions which surpassed even my phobia of umbrellas.  The bottom of my back was in agony, and I had to throw every brand of painkiller that we stocked down my throat to be able to get through the day.  There was no way I could go home, not with what was essentially a sore arse.  Some things a person just can’t live down.  For every winter since I dreaded the forecast of cold weather.  The sight of a snowflake falling from the sky would have me thinking back to December 2010 and the pain in the arse I experienced, and I’d know that there was no way that my footwear was any more appropriate than it was that day.

It was fortunate that the ‘big freeze’ some had predicting never materialised on the west coast, and by the middle of the week there was nothing but rain.  At times the way the downpour travelled through the wind gave the appearance of how I imagined it would look if you were trying to take a shower and, for some reason, someone was standing by the side of the cubicle with a hairdryer aimed at the stream on full power.  Although that makes it sound quite dangerous, was it really any more of a risk than going out on the snow-covered pavements was earlier in the week?  Nevertheless, there reached a point where I wasn’t as concerned about the conditions underfoot as I was about the entrance to my building.  Before the end of the last year someone had fixed the hinge on the front door, since it never seemed to quite close all the way.  The fully functioning door only lasted a few days, however, and the new hinge was since seen lying on the concrete behind the door.  It was even worse than it had been before, and now the door wouldn’t close at all without being physically pulled behind you as you left the building.  As was often the case with these things, different people went to varying lengths to make sure that the door was properly closed, such was society in 2020.  The saga began bothering me more than the slush on the pavements outside and the fear of falling that it provoked, especially since I lived on the ground floor and was, therefore, left more exposed than anyone, though that wasn’t really what troubled me.  I couldn’t stop from wondering who had fixed the door in the first place, and why they weren’t as worried about it now that it was more desperately in need of repair than ever.

My mood wasn’t being helped by the fact that for five days straight I had forgotten to buy instant coffee, and by the end of the week the glass jar which usually kept the stuff was completely empty.  I liked to transfer as many things as I possibly could into storage jars, mostly because I thought that it looked better than having lots of different packages sitting around my kitchen, and also because I wouldn’t know what to do with the space otherwise.  Instant coffee, ground coffee, tea bags, pasta, olive oil, and vinegar were amongst the goods usually transferred straight into these jars, and once I’d gotten into the habit of doing it, I would begin to feel a real anxiety as soon as any of the jars neared emptying.  It didn’t seem as irrational as my phobia of umbrella spokes, but it was close.  I didn’t like the way that they looked so void and lifeless and stripped of their purpose, like my romantic interests.  The real kicker was that I had run out of coffee to help me fend off the anxiety.

An empty coffee jar

On Friday afternoon the sky was the colour of an unwashed plate after a chow mein dinner, and it had started to rain lightly when I was talking to the Polish scientist with a moniker for the first time in a while.  She was smoking a cigarette to pass the time as she waited for an appointment to have her eyelashes done.  Of all the things that people would spend their time waiting for in life, I never thought that I would meet someone who was waiting for their lashes to be treated.  The scientist told me that she would be leaving for Aberdeen on Sunday, where she was going to spend a month “listening to cod” for research purposes.  Apparently the fish had already been transported up north and were waiting for her in a large concrete container.  I wasn’t entirely sure what it meant to listen to cod, but I knew that even if I asked her to explain I wouldn’t have understood anyway.  I told her, half-jokingly and half-hopefully that 2020 was going to be the year where I would finally meet a woman who could stomach my company.  She beamed and didn’t completely laugh off the prospect, suggesting that if I really wanted to meet a woman then I would be better off moving from Oban to a city like Aberdeen or elsewhere in Scotland where there are more people.  Already the hamster turning the wheel in my head had woken into action.

“I suppose it’s like you’ve been saying…there is plenty of fish in the sea up there.” 

The Polish scientist looked at me with a glaze in her eyes that resembled the snowy hilltops of Mull in the distance, like she didn’t know what I was talking about, though I suppose I had never mentioned any interest in fishing to her.  I had never really put much consideration into the thought of living anywhere other than Oban, but when Aulay’s was as empty as the coffee jar on my kitchen counter later in the evening, I had plenty of opportunity to think about it.  I wondered if it would really make much difference being in a large city with a bigger and more diverse population when my ability to talk to people was akin to my footing on ice.  It seemed unlikely, and I never had much desire to live somewhere else, but it was probably a good idea to leave the door open to the thought of trying something different.

Links & things:
This week I have mostly been listening to this miserable ditty by Radiohead…

An ordinary week

Monday 13 January 2020
I made what turned out to be one of my favourite dinners tonight, completely by accident.  It was a prawn and chilli linguine dish and the ingredients were relatively unspectacular and uncomplicated – otherwise I wouldn’t have been attempting it in the first place.  The pasta was cooked “according to packet instructions”, which I always took to be ten minutes, while the rest of the meal was prepared.  I successfully deseeded two red chillis for the first time, having previously just chopped the things up and hoped for the best when it came to eating them, and fried them off with a couple of cloves of garlic for around a minute.  Next I added a packet of king prawns and cooked them until they were turning pink while I took half a punnet of cherry tomatoes and halved them.  It was tempting to think of the outcome as being a quarter of a punnet of tomatoes, but even I knew that I couldn’t get away with saying that out loud in front of other people.  They were added to the pan and cooked for three minutes, at which point things started to go pear-shaped, if not literally then at least figuratively.

By the time I squeezed the juice of a lime and sprinkled some basil into the bubbling mixture, there was still around four minutes before the linguine would be cooked, according to my interpretation of packet instructions.  That was four additional minutes for the cherry tomatoes to soften and weep far beyond the healthy blush portrayed in the photographs which accompanied the online recipe.  The tomatoes became a mushy mess, more of a sauce than a juicy plate fellow, but once the whole thing was combined with the linguine and some starchy pasta water, it worked.  As I sat down to enjoy the meal, I was struggling to think of another time that one of my mistakes had turned out so pleasingly.

Tuesday 14 January 2020
The basement of Bar Rio was flooded with six inches of water from the storm last night.  There were videos on Facebook of the tide crashing into the bay and up over the railings onto the road, as well as photographs of the fire service pumping water out of the restaurant.  I was exchanging messages with a friend at the time it was all happening. She asked if I could see any lightning, but from the time I arrived home from work I had closed the living room curtains and been playing a playlist from Spotify, so I hadn’t seen nor heard anything.  A live-action recreation of the final fight scene from the Avengers movie could have been taking place on Combie Street and I probably wouldn’t have been aware of it.  Someone asked me today where I would be going for my cocktails now, but I have never been for a cocktail in Bar Rio.

A lone balloon struggled with the blustery conditions on High Street

 

Wednesday 15 January 2020
There was a funeral happening in the Parish Church at lunchtime, which wasn’t so remarkable an occurrence as a funeral seemed to be taking place most afternoons.  However, outside the church, as the service was underway, two black horses were waiting alongside a carriage, which was black and had gold trimming around the windows.  The horses were elegantly dressed in these long black feather plumes and they appeared much more patient than I imagined any human would be standing in the bitterly cold wind.  Almost like they knew that this wasn’t a place for fooling around and they had to be respectful.  It wasn’t something I had ever seen at a funeral, but it immediately struck me as being a much nicer idea than the large black hearse typically seen outside a church on these occasions, though I was reluctant to stare too much, especially when I was returning from Lidl with a litre of semi-skimmed milk and a packet of four pork loin chops in my hands.  People said it was traditional at a traveller’s funeral, but I had never heard of it before.

Thursday 16 January 2020
It never seemed to matter how often I brushed the flooring in my flat, a leaf would always turn up somewhere.  I don’t know how leaves constantly ended up in my flat, but they did.  I mean, I knew how they probably found their way inside – on the bottom of my shoe, but I couldn’t fathom how so many of them were attaching themselves onto my shoes when I wasn’t in the habit of walking through Oban’s leafy areas.  It was difficult to think whether there was even a tree to be seen on my daily walks between my flat and the office, travelling via the Esplanade.  Apart from the lack of trees, I hadn’t even taken the route that often over the last week or so with the stormy conditions making it difficult to walk any great distance without my trousers being soaked.  As well as wondering how these leaves kept appearing on my floors, I was made to question why I was still persisting with wearing grey trousers in winter.

A leaf troubled the floor in my hallway

 

Friday 17 January 2020
I’m not sure if it was the incident with the leaves which led me to take my periodic swipe through Tinder, but I ended up with a rare ‘match’ last night.  I only ever used the dating app when I was feeling truly miserable and at my most hopeless, and it hardly ever did anything to change that.  In a way it was no different to thumbing through the Argos catalogue; it passed a minute or two of boredom.  When you are matched with someone on Tinder you are taken to a private text-based conversation, which I always imagined would suit me better since I wouldn’t have to worry about things such as eye contact or whether she had smiled when I made a stupid pun.  Sophie* had seventy-seven words in her biography, which read like a shopping list and was punctuated at the end with a text smiley – the sort I remember using on MSN Messenger when I was eighteen-years-old : )

The seventy-seven words ranged from ‘anime’ and ‘vegan’ to ‘glitter’ and ‘faeries’ and I immediately endeavoured to find out more about them.

“Hi Sophie.  There are quite a few words in your bio.  Which would you say is the most important one?”

“DJ”
“[Emoji of a tongue sticking out of a mouth]”

“Very efficient; two words for the price of one!  Do you jockey discs for a living?”

When I next checked my Tinder account on Friday night, Sophie had unmatched me, which I supposed would be the equivalent of trying to talk to a woman at the bar who smiles awkwardly at your joke before turning her back to eye the table of rugby players.

Saturday 18 January 2020
Last night in Aulay’s, the barmaid with the bandana placed a £5 in-play bet on the Rangers vs Stranraer Scottish Cup fourth round game finishing 1-1 at odds of 70/1, even though she was a Rangers supporter.  The score was 1-0 at the time, and I told her that there would be more chance of me pulling a woman that night than there was of Stranraer scoring.  “In fact,” I insisted, “there is more chance of me pulling twice.”  Rangers won the game 2-0.

Sunday 19 January 2020
This afternoon I witnessed a woman running past my window, on the other side of the street, with a dog running alongside her on a lead.  She was wearing running clothes, black and fluorescent green, I think, so the jog was obviously a sporting endeavour and not because they were late for an appointment.  As a contest, the race seemed unfair and rigged.  The dog was always going to be limited in how far it could go, and if it ever threatened to build up a real head of steam, the woman could just pull the canine back and level things up.  All things considered, it was hardly on the same scale as the Russian doping scandal, but it was unsporting all the same, and the scene bothered me.  Like the leaf on the floor in my hallway, I couldn’t understand why I was seeing it, where it had come from or where it was going.  But the dog didn’t seem to be concerned by it as far as I could tell from my brief insight into their dynamic.  It was respectful and accepting; all that was missing was a black plume.

*Sophie’s name has been changed.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

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.

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

Four ladies and a tramp

In the week where the world was celebrating the wonder of the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, I had a variety of concerns of my own.  It was around 7.45 on Tuesday night when I had just finished my second load of washing of the week, and as usual, the socks had taken longer than everything else to dry.  In 1969 man achieved the previously unthinkable when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the surface of the moon, while in 2019 I was still questioning why it takes the better part of three days for my socks to dry on the airer in my kitchen.

It wasn’t often that my laundry basket was so full that I had to run the washing machine any more than once a week, but for reasons I couldn’t quite understand there were seven shirts and just about every pair of boxer shorts that I owned in the basket on Sunday morning.  Along with the usual addition of bath towels, kitchen towels and anything else that was wet, I had no choice but to operate a second cycle once the first had dried. When the socks eventually allowed it, I transferred the second load of laundry onto the airer, and I had a sense of achieving something which although it was never likely to be recognised by NASA, was about the best that I could have hoped to do at the time.

That Tuesday night in mid-July was one of the most productive in terms of mundane household tasks that I had experienced in a while.  As well as restoring my wardrobe to near full capacity with the second cycle of laundry, I had been able to use some store cupboard ingredients to cook a Thai red curry for dinner, all of the washing up had been done, the toilet and bathroom sink had been treated with bleach, while the last eighth of the pint of milk in my fridge had turned bad, meaning that I could at least get the plastic into the recycling bin before it was put out for collection the following morning.  

A cup of Earl Grey tea seemed to be just the right reward for my achievement, but at the time it felt like the most satisfying thing imaginable.  I sat down to savour it, my back sinking into the brown leather sofa the way a foot disappears into a sandy beach. Everything was peaceful and relaxed, until the sound of frantic buzzing suddenly arrived to break the silence.  It grew louder and sounded like a lawnmower on full throttle. I was still basking in the spoils of my productivity and was in no mood to get up from the couch to investigate, but I didn’t need to.  Soon I could see a fly the size of a walnut circling the living room, urgently bumbling from one end to the other, as though it owned the place.

After the astronomical effort I had gone to in order to get my flat settled into its routine, this fly was going to come along and ruin everything.  Eventually I was going to have to prise myself from my position of comfort and deal with the intruder, and it all just seemed like so much effort.  I was reminded of the sometimes hours-long battles my father would have with home invaders when we were growing up; flies, wasps, bees or bluebottles who had mistakingly flown in through an open window, most commonly during the summer months when all the windows of the house would be wide open.  It was easy to see how anything could make the mistake of thinking that they were being offered an invitation inside.

The effort to convince the insects to leave and return to the great outdoors was usually painstaking and elaborate.  It would begin with the search for a newspaper which had already been read, a step that would often give the fly time to find a safe space out of sight, sometimes in a different room altogether.  The newspaper would be rolled up into a tightly bound weapon, as though having hands which were a hundred times bigger than the fly wasn’t enough of an advantage, and if the fly was still in sight then the appearance of this large weapon was supposed to act as some kind of threat.  If you don’t leave then the only outcome is that you are going to be swatted, and you don’t want to be splattered against the window just as much as I don’t want to have to wipe the glass clean after I have splattered you. 

Any attack on the uninvited enemy would usually be accompanied by an utterance which questioned the legitimacy of the fly’s parentage.

Often there would be an option before the death penalty was administered if dad was feeling like compromising.  This would involve me or one of my siblings opening the window out wide, and the rolled-up Transformers-like extension of dad’s arm would be used to usher the beastie back outside.  The compromise had to be acted on quickly, though, and it required military-like teamwork to make sure that none of the fly’s friends came in while we were trying to get it out.

None of this was required in my flat, however.  By the time I had finished thinking about how I would deal with my own intrusive insect, it seemed to have realised its error and found its way back out the way it had come in.  There was a small part of me that was left feeling disappointed, even rejected.  What was wrong with my flat?  Why didn’t the fly consider it good enough to spend hours buzzing around in?  Then I tried to see things from the point of view of the fly.  Whether deliberately or not, it had flown in through my open kitchen window and found itself in the neatly arranged habitat of a single occupant.  There were damp socks on the airer, surfaces slick and gleaming with antibacterial cleanser and a man wearing a tie and drinking tea on the couch.  With its five eyes, the situation could only have looked two and a half times more desperate to the fly, and it was understandable that it didn’t want to linger.

The rain on Sunday made the soggy bottom of trousers seem like the halcyon days

The following night I was hoping to fly into a different window of opportunity when the raven-haired quiztress and I formed our first breakaway quiz team.  We had been a part of the winning outfit for the previous two weeks and were feeling pretty confident about our chances of challenging the Bawbags on our own right.  We were joined by two other women, who I was being introduced to for the first time, and a third who I had previously introduced myself to having forgotten that we had already met once before at a bar in town.  The five of us were settling in nicely together, although many of the questions in the rounds based on the moon and events from the month of June were proving to be more difficult than a simple small step for man.

My own contribution to the quiz was being hampered by my realisation that I was sitting for most of the night on my coat, which was damp from the rain that had been falling for much of the evening.  I can cope with trousers which are wet around the calves or on the thighs, where rain often naturally finds itself.  But a soggy butt cheek is something else to think about entirely. I couldn’t shake it from my mind, all the more so when I found myself surrounded by four women at the table.  We had given ourselves the name The Unlikely Lads, but after a couple of hours it seemed that Four Ladies and a Tramp would have been more appropriate.

Despite a bottom which was far from dry and a difficult selection of questions, we finished the night in fifth place, which would accurately be described as being better than half of the teams who took part.  Although most teams traditionally participate in a pub quiz with the goal of winning, this felt like a victory considering the infancy of our team and the fact that most of us were strangers at the start of the night when the picture round was being debated.  If it wasn’t a giant leap for mankind, it was at least comparable to drying a set of socks in less than three days, even if not a pair of trousers.

It was when I was returning from the men’s bathroom in Aulay’s a couple of nights later that I was reminded of how easily some situations can begin to feel uncomfortable.  I was walking past a woman whose head was topped with a mop of ruby.  She was moving to the sounds of the Billy Idol song Dancing With Myself, and as I tried to dodge out of the way of her flailing limbs, as though she were a rolled-up copy of the Daily Record and I was a hapless fly, she spied my brown tweed suit.

“What do you do for a job?”  She asked. “Are you a teacher?”  She continued, usurping her own question.

I couldn’t bring myself to decide if it was impressive or troubling that someone should think I would be a good candidate to nurture our brightest hopes for the future, but I felt that I should at least find out what subject the red-haired dancer imagined I would teach.

“You look like a physics teacher.”

It was the last thing I wanted to hear.  My troubles with language would naturally rule out French, German and probably even English, but even despite the lack of obvious chemistry between us, I was hoping that she would at least see me as being capable of teaching a cool subject like modern studies, or at a push history.  What I didn’t want was to be seen as a boring physics teacher, the subject I disliked most of all at school.  If I looked like a physics teacher to a redhaired Billy Idol fan who was, at the very least, in her mid-forties, then how was everyone else seeing me?  It seemed like yet another reason I was encountering resistance from the ladies.

At the bar, I was once more thinking about the fly which had abruptly exited my flat when I found myself in conversation with a woman who had fingernails the colour of an Aero Mint chocolate bar.  She had managed to get herself a chewy sweet from the moonlighting banker behind the bar when I had been standing there for hours nursing nothing but a pint of Guinness.

“Sometimes if you want something you just have to ask,” she said, washing down the treat with a mouthful of fruit cider.

Although I couldn’t compare myself to a chewable sweet, I was able to engage in a conversation with the woman who when seated on a barstool was the height of my shoulder and whose hair was similarly coloured to the gin and lemonade her friend was drinking.  I learned that the two ladies had travelled to Oban that afternoon from Larbert, which I correctly and pointlessly identified as being close to Falkirk.  They had come to meet up with a friend who was sailing across from one of the distant islands, and she described their long journey as being a “party train” on which they drank Prosecco and ate croissants.  Their party train sounded infinitely more enjoyable than my own travel experience with Budweiser and unripened peaches.

The Larbert lass’s pink cider was rapidly diminishing, and when she made a passing mention in conversation that she and her friend were spending the night in the Premier Inn, my heart and stomach were buzzing like the wings of a lost fly.  I felt a rippling, palpable opening up of possibilities.  As she finished her drink she leaned across the bar to me, her Aero Mint fingernails clutching onto the edge of the surface for support.

“Do you know where we can get decent chips around here?”

“If there is one thing that Oban is good for it is chips,” I responded, before directing them to Nories.  It was the most charming thing I could think to say.

With that, the woman left with her friend almost as quickly as she had entered my life, like a fly who swoops around the living room a couple of times before it realises that it has made a terrible mistake.  These things have a habit of disappearing much more quickly than you anticipate.