After midnight

While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years.  It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought.  These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep.  Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different.  For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.  

There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on HogmanayDid they change the rules after Christmas?  Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember.  Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party?  I could have sworn that was the year before.  2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022.  Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year?  I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then.  Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe.  Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books.  What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?    

Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now.  It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident.  You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know.  People have more important issues to be thinking about these days:  The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.

Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.

The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off.  We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour.  A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves.  A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find.  Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess.  That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.

Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos.  We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place.  Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade.  On this night, however, it belonged to us.  Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation.  We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground.  It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.

Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me.  She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line.  It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance.  I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.

The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around.  She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear.  People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them.  This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing.  I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.

I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket:  my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook.  Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it.  She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself.  “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.

Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.

Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual.  It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all.  Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground.  People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements.  Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.  

We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine.  Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display.  Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets.  The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.

The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019.  I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year.  When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid.  Everyone is doing their best to recover that time.  Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered.  In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila.  Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either.  I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night.  My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room.  Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner.  There are some things that are best forgotten.



The air was thick with the fragrances of a late November night.  It was either a roast beef dinner, chestnuts over an open fire, toffee, or chimney smoke coughing into the damp air.  It could have been all of those.  In the distance, the Cathedral bells could be heard ringing over and over again, their sound growing louder all the time, as though struggling to compete with the pipe band that was leading the reindeer parade through town; the fight between the church and commercialisation taken to the streets of Oban.  My brother and I were walking from his new flat to meet up again with our sister for the switching on of the Christmas lights, having spent the afternoon drinking mulled wine, in a family tradition we had started some years earlier.  Before the 2018 ceremony we celebrated the beginning of the build-up to Christmas with the festive flavours in my town centre flat, and it was debatable whether we had gone to my brother’s as a flat warming of sorts, or because of the memory of a whole unpeeled orange sitting in a boiling pot of red wine in my kitchen twelve months previous.  As the seminal Canadian pop poet Alanis Morissette once sang in 1995, “you live, you learn.”

The reindeer parade took place on 23 November

We were really pushing it to make the advertised time of six o’clock for the seasonal lights being illuminated, though I wouldn’t have known it from looking at my watch.  When I checked my timepiece it was showing eleven-forty, though in those days it was always twenty minutes to twelve, no matter when I glanced down to my wrist.  The battery in my watch had died almost a week earlier when I wasn’t looking, and although I still made sure to wear the thing every day, I could never remember to have the battery replaced.  From our vantage point on the road running below McCaig’s Tower, we were looking out over the entire town, the mass of darkness broken only by a mushroom cloud of light around the station, where the festivities were taking place.  The view was like staring at a Christmas carousel on a mantelpiece, and the church bells were the music, letting us know that it was almost six.

Earlier in the day, I was standing in line at McColl’s waiting to top up my electricity key, because at one o’clock on a Saturday afternoon there was only one place in town with PayPoint facilities.  I had just invested in a new Christmas jumper, since the tradition we had introduced also required the wearing of dubious knitwear, and I was feeling pretty good about things once I had come across a tie that it could be worn with sitting in the bottom of a drawer in my bedroom.  Walking uptown to the newsagents was a study in how it would be to be invited onto a catwalk for a winter catalogue.  Every other person seemed to be dressed in a Christmas sweater, even the little brown and white terrier dog I passed outside the mobile phone shop was in a red and white knitted outfit. 

I was fidgeting with the plastic electricity key in my left hand as I waited, its halves of green and blue much less festive than the canine coat.  There were two people ahead of me in the queue, and when the older gentleman who was standing in front of me happened to look over the shoulder of his black winter jacket, he spoke with a voice which made him sound like a character from a Guy Ritchie movie, both in accent and tone.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” he said to me.  If I didn’t know better it could as well have been an accusation, but I recognised him and was in agreement that it had been a while.  I told him that it had been five years since the Co-operative supermarket had closed, which is where I was working the last time he laid eyes me.  His facial features were inscrutable, like an artefact from the Natural History Museum, but I was certain that he had spent those years believing that everyone from the Co-op who he hadn’t seen since the day it closed had died.

“It’s frightening how quickly time passes,” he whispered in another classic Lock, Stock & Two Smoking barrels line as he stepped forward to the front of the queue and I looked down at my watch and wondered how many lottery scratchcards he was going to buy.

From up high, the station looked like a Christmas carousel.

The official turning on of the lights was preceded by the ‘reindeer parade’, where a figure we are to believe is Santa is led through town by a trio of reindeer and a pipe band.  By the time we had worked our way through three bottles of mulled wine and a box of mince pies the parade had already reached the station and the reindeer were in a makeshift pen, happily munching on some straw.  None of them appeared to have a red nose, though under the spotlight of the Christmas lights it was clear that some of our faces were a little rosier than normal.  Around the area which was usually reserved for the taxi rank were a selection of fairground rides which attracted the attention of the young and the old alike.  There was a House of Fun which was taller than the clock tower, the standard spinning teacups, and an ‘extreme’ Helter Skelter, the frame of which was brightly-coloured and emblazoned with the animated image of two young women wearing bikinis.  It looked an unfortunate choice of outfit for a parade in Oban in late November, though the scene did leave me feeling much more smug about the warm new Christmas jumper I was wearing.

My brother and I left the parade for Aulay’s, where we stopped for a couple of pints of lager before eating dinner at our sister’s.  There was a steady hum of early evening revellers around the bar, where we managed to take our usual position close to the icebox, which was a spot where at least something managed to look cool.  Looking across at us from by the fruit machine was a woman whose coat was as thick as the fur on a reindeer, although darker in colour, and her hair was white and curled like an envelope which has been crammed inside a pocket for two weeks.  She wasn’t long in telling us that she was 73-years-old and enjoyed nothing better than coming to the pub on a Saturday night and talking to people.  That much was evident when the woman went on to compliment my brother on having a nice nose, the way that someone might pay homage to a homegrown vegetable patch or a bed of flowers:  it’s all the work of nature, but I suppose he helped it along the way.

Stood to the left of the woman was a similarly-aged man who she pointed to as being her husband.  I wondered what he was thinking as his wife once more emphasised how she thought that my brother had a very nice nose, particularly when his own snout resembled a slice of pastrami.  The more this woman was heaping praise upon my sibling’s sneezer, the more I was feeling aggrieved that she hadn’t mentioned mine, despite it having come from the same allotment.  I wasn’t especially wanting to be noticed by a 73-year-old lady at the bar, but it would have been nice, and I was expecting that her husband was feeling the same way.

I gazed across the bar at the elderly man with a sympathetic eye, the same way I looked at anyone who was near the fruit machine.  My elbow was pressed tightly into the surface of the bar as I spoke in his direction. “Don’t worry, I think your nose is fine.”  It seemed like a gentle, reassuring thing to say, but the gentleman glanced back at me in a manner that suggested he didn’t know what I was talking about, or as if to say keep your nose out of my business.  For a moment I considered that maybe I had read the situation all wrong, and the whole episode might just have been the couple’s bold attempt at sparking some renewed interest in their relationship.  They would go to bars, or any public space, really, and she would compliment younger men on their more appealing features in an effort to inspire some jealous passion in her husband before they took a taxi home together.  My brother was just a patsy, really.  Who knew if it was really the case, but it was an explanation that would keep everyone happy.

The figures on the side of the Helter Skelter were poorly dressed for a winter parade.

At my sister’s, we ate a meal of roasted duck and potatoes, before drinking some more mulled wine and playing a spirited game of Cards Against Humanity, which revealed much about us.  Somewhere in amongst all that, the one-year-old daughter of my sister’s friend, who were both spending the night at the house, decided to walk for the very first time.  It was an emotional thing to witness happen, even if technically the baby had initially walked on her own feet upstairs when her mum was getting her ready for bed. In the excitement, she was brought back downstairs and convinced to perform the act again, in front of an adoring audience who had mobile phones poised.  In that sense, I hadn’t seen the girl walk for the very first time, rather it was like seeing only the encore at a Beyoncé concert.

It was a remarkable thing to be present in the room for, when suddenly for this little person the world went from being a very small space that was limited to places where she could be carried, to a place of never-ending potential.  The entire world was there, ready to be explored. As I was watching the first steps being taken for the second, third and fourth time, I was thinking about how it was probably a similar sight to how seeing myself walk away from the bar in Aulay’s at the end of a night would look.  The way that she first rose to her feet, shaky and looking very uncertain about it all.  There was a look of stern focus on her face as she took a few steps forward, away from the safety of her mother’s arms, and slowly began to realise that she could do it; her legs were working and her toes were more than just hilarious little things to play with.  She was growing in confidence with every step, building up an impressive head of steam, before finally collapsing onto her bottom in fits of laughter.  The only difference was that the laughter was her own.


November Rain: my Spotify soundtrack to the month of November

For anyone who doesn’t have access to Spotify, but does have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are the three songs I have been listening to most throughout November.

If I could, I would listen to November Rain by Guns N’ Roses all month long, but instead I settled for around three times a day:

I Can’t Think About It Now sounds like the best song Dire Straits never wrote.  The section from 2:34 to the line “the everlasting wisdom of a sports bar” is remarkable:

I will be reading ‘winter diaries of a single man’ from my notebook at the Rockfield Centre on Saturday 30 November. Event information can be found here.

A unicorn walks down the street

When word began to spread around the office on a Friday afternoon in November that Oban’s ninth annual Winter Festival would be starting at five o’clock that evening with a unicorn parade through the centre of town, the primary concern of most people was how they were going to get home from work when the busiest roads would be affected by the festive fanfare.  As someone who uses his feet to travel most places, my thoughts went directly to the claim that unicorns were going to be walked down George Street. The creatures we had only ever read of in fairytales or seen in Disney movies were going to be trotting past Boots, Superdrug and the bank where I had my mortgage.  All I could think about was how they were going to pull off such a feat, and why was the world’s media not converging on the town for the happening.  In my head I was imagining some kind of trickery; a small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head, for example.  In reality, that’s exactly what the unicorn turned out to be.

As a thirty-six-year-old single man I had some concerns about how it would look if I was walking my usual route home after work while there was a unicorn parade going on, yet at the same time I was anxious to see it happen, so I messaged my sister and asked her if she and my niece knew about it.  Fortunately they didn’t, and with giddy excitement and multiple renditions of Jingle Bells, we converged at a spot on George Street where we could witness all of the magic unfold before us.  One by one the lights in the stores along the high street were gradually turned out, like watching an awkward power cut which was lacking in confidence, in preparation for the Winter Queen to arrive on unicorn back and switch on their Christmas window displays.  Anticipation was growing, although for the younger ones around us who weren’t yet old enough to have developed that emotion, it was only restlessness.  In the distance, we could see the flashing of blue lights against the blanketed winter sky, and we knew that something enchanting was happening.  It wasn’t quite a Disney family favourite, but it was a unicorn receiving a police escort through Oban town centre.

Such was the wonder and mystique of the unicorn, nobody was quite sure which route the parade was supposed to be taking.  The official festival programme had suggested that the otherworldly beings would be guiding the Winter Queen down George Street and through to Station Square, despite it being not much more than a fifteen-minute walk for a mere mortal, but if you could ride on the back of a unicorn then why wouldn’t you?  Once the parade had passed us on George Street, my sister, niece and I walked the short distance round to Station Square along with all of the other enthusiasts of horned mythical creatures, where we waited for the procession to loop back around.  A few minutes had passed, though who knew how long that translated to in unicorn years, and some were beginning to show signs of impatience again when the parade had not reappeared as expected.  

A small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head

There were mutterings of, “they definitely said it was coming back round this way,” before the police escort was finally spotted on the corner of Argyll Square.  It was sitting stationary, as though uncertain, like a shy, rosy-cheeked elf.  Beyond the emergency vehicle we could see a fluffy spectre in white, and it was apparent that the unicorn parade was taking a left turn up onto Albany Street.  We wondered what was going on and why nobody knew the precise route of the pageant, but none of us was truly qualified to question the ways of the unicorn.  When the gathering had eventually made its way to Station Square and we were as close as I could ever have imagined we would be to the Winter Queen, we found ourselves merely feet away from a pair of unicorns.  For all those people who had ever told me that there was more chance of me seeing a unicorn walk through the centre of Oban than there was of me finding a woman who was willing to date me, it seemed they had been proven right.

Of course, the unicorns had the appearance of two little white horses which had become separated from a birthday party, their dishevelled wee hats having slipped down onto their foreheads.  And that’s what they were, to an extent.  The young children around us were thrilled to have encountered a unicorn in their own town, but I couldn’t help but survey the scene and wonder what the horses were making of it all.  How did they feel about wearing what amounted to an ice cream cone on their faces, like some once amusing internet meme?  Were they feeling comfortable amongst a large crowd, or were they like me, cold and worried about what they were wearing?  

Later in the night, at the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop, the winter festival was warming up with the traditional whisky tasting.  The store, which sat on the corner of George Street and Stafford Street and looked out towards the ferry terminal pier, was an intimate space that felt like standing in someone’s living room with its leather chairs situated by a well-stoked fire and tall oak shelves that could have been stacked with high-brow books, but were instead teeming with high-volume alcohol.

A whisky centrepiece

At £10 a ticket for six drams, the whisky tasting seemed like too good a value deal for a single occupant to miss, even if my appreciation of whisky was akin to a youngster’s love for a parade unicorn:  I knew that I liked something simple, like a Jameson, but stick a cone on a horse’s head and I would never be able to tell the difference.  The bottles were lined up at the front of the room, the way a piece of artwork hangs in a prominent place in a lounge, where all eyes are drawn to it, and we were told that the whiskies would be poured in 15ml measures to ensure that no-one would become too drunk before the sixth drink and that we would begin our journey with a couple of less complex blends as we worked towards the final bottle, which was a special and rarely seen thirty-year-old Bowmore.  It was a similar idea to if I was introducing someone to the music of the Irish four-piece rock act U2, in that I wouldn’t take them straight to Achtung Baby.

A young woman who had flowing red hair like a Disney princess and who came from the nearby island of Islay, meaning that her pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ went on for days and had a charming lyrical quality, stepped forward to guide us through each of the whiskies and offer her own tasting notes.  She inhaled the fumes from her glass and described such elegant fragrances as a hint of marzipan, yellow skin apple, light wafts of plum, liquorice and even leather.  Already I could tell that I was out of my depth as I glanced around the room and could see other people nodding along to the distiller’s sketch of what she was smelling, a look of quiet content drawn across their faces.  I was cradling my glass under my nose, contorting and flaring my nostrils like a manic little sniffer dog, desperately trying to catch a whisper of maple syrup, but the only thing I could smell was a future hangover.

I wasn’t much better when it came to identifying the tastes which were washing over my palette.  With each different glass, the distiller from Islay talked about tastes as wide-ranging as butterscotch, freshly-baked shortbread, ginger, smoked fish, grape, charcoal and strawberry flavour Haribo.  I was getting none of it, and for all I knew I could have been as well walking across the road and dipping my glass into the cold seawater.  This was no better evident than when a couple of us lingered around after the whisky tasting had finished, the way a peaty malt hangs on the tonsils long after the drink has been swallowed.  We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample the thirty-year-old Bowmore again.  There were only one hundred and ninety-one bottles produced from the cask, and the sole bottle for sale in the shop had been purchased for £350 that night. It was said that even to buy a single measure in a pub would likely cost around £50.  Being unaware of what had been poured into our glasses I turned to my friend and readied myself to make my most insightful contribution of the evening.

“You know, I think this is even better than the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” I said with the heady confidence that only the eighth whisky of the night can bring.

“This is the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” the bird watcher advised me.  Having spent £10 on a ticket for the event and received two whiskies with a value of around £100, as well as the others in the tasting, it seemed that no matter how much defeat would come, I would finish the night in profit.

Down the street, through the wreathed arch of The Oban Inn, I became involved in a conversation with a woman who was dressed from head to toe in tweed.  On her right lapel she was sporting a white badge which read “I love walking,” with the emotion being signified with a red heart symbol rather than a four-letter word.  I wondered aloud if she would have still felt that way now that Oban had a fleet of unicorns offering public transportation, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about.

The wreathed arch around the entrance of The Oban Inn

Undeterred, and feeling somewhat drawn to another soul who enjoyed wearing tweed in public places, I told the rambler about the evening I had just spent at the whisky tasting.  I explained that although I enjoyed a whisky, I didn’t know very much about the spirit, and I had spent the event feeling uncomfortable being amongst a group of people with whom I didn’t belong.

“Do you often feel uncomfortable?”  The woman asked, the expression on her face indeterminable through the haze of malt and barley.

My mouth took inspiration from her badge and ventured on a lengthy preamble.  “I start the day off feeling uncomfortable, plateau sometime around late afternoon, and then I go to bed and replay the events of my day and become even less comfortable.”  Finally, the words strayed even further off the beaten path when I returned to the whisky tasting and offered the insight that all I really knew about the whisky I had drunk was that I was about to go and splash around £50 of the stuff against the urinal.  I staggered off towards the men’s room and never heard from her again.  The profit on my winning night was diminishing all the time.

Spirits were still high on the first frosty Saturday of the Winter Festival.  The sky was a crisp marble blue, the kind of colour one could only ever smell with the aid of some whisky tasting notes.  The roads were slick with dew, the low hanging winter sun causing them to shimmer like crystals on a Christmas tree.  Into the cold air, I could see clouds of Bowmore leaving my system.  The streets were thriving with well-wrapped locals seeking the wealth of events on offer in the festival programme, while the distant yells of a town crier could be heard over the festive chatter and shop music.  In every corner, there seemed to be something different going on.  A craft market of local handmade goods – glass, jewellery and embroidery – brought colour to the Perle Hotel.  There were food markets in The View, with cheese, venison, chocolates, chutneys, foraged mushrooms, fish and other things that I should likely have been able to taste in a whisky.  Behind Oban Distillery, children were having their photographs taken with two Shetland ponies.

The local fire brigade was on hand offering passers-by the opportunity to sign up for a home fire safety check, where anyone who put their name on the clipboard would receive four free cinema tickets once the visit had been completed.  My sister filled the form in with enthusiasm, and standing a few paces behind I was compelled to put my name on the next line, lest the fireman be given the impression that my sister’s life had drastically hit the skids.  We were told that the cinema tickets would be given either as a package of passes for two adults and two children, or for an adult and three children.  I wondered how that could be useful to a single occupant whose days of feeling close to thirty came only at a whisky tasting.  When I thought about it more, the four cinema tickets I was bound to inherit were going to place a lot of pressure on the £25 Lorne bar voucher that I still had on my pinboard to work miracles, and quickly.  The voucher for the meal was due to expire on the ninth of January 2020.  It seemed more likely that I would witness a unicorn walking down the street.

Further information:
The 2019 Oban Winter Festival programme can be found here.

I will be reading winter tales of a single occupant from my notebook at Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 30 November. The event is part of the Winter Festival, and details can be found on the Facebook page here.

The night I wore a tie which matched the colour of my plaster

I cut the middle finger of my right hand on a can of tuna chunks in brine – sliced it right open on the raised lid – and there was so much blood spilling from the wound that I was wondering how this whole thing could possibly be considered as being sustainably sourced.  For a moment I was frozen to the spot, questioning how it was that a 35-year-old man could cut open his finger on a can of tuna, but as crimson dripped onto the clean kitchen counter I knew that I had to take immediate action. Life is difficult enough as it is without becoming known as the man who lost a digit to a tin of fish.

As I stood over the kitchen sink with my hand held under the taps, bloodied water splashing everywhere against the stainless steel, as though I had come to the sudden realisation that nobody really likes cranberry juice unless it is used as a mixer, I was feeling myself become light headed and a sharp pain was shooting through my finger.  It seemed like it was going to take an eternity for the blood to clear away, so long that I might never get around to finishing the construction of my tuna salad for the following day’s lunch. Then I remembered that I am a trained first aider, and that running an injury underneath a cold tap might be how one would deal with a minor burn as opposed to a small laceration inflicted by a tuna can.

I raced through to the bathroom, cradling my wounded finger in the palm of my left hand in the way that I might if I had come across a stricken robin.  Blood was pooling around the bird as I stood outside the bathroom cursing my obsessive need to keep every door in the flat closed. A mess was going to be made either way.  Once inside, I wrapped the victim in a fluffy blue bath towel and applied as much pressure as I could manage, until I could feel it twitching and throbbing. I couldn’t be sure whether it is a wound or a fracture which should be kept elevated, so I held my right arm high upright and the left one to my heart, and after several minutes had passed, the blood had trickled to a stop.  As I was fumbling, one-handed, with an unopened box of plasters, I observed all of the blood spread around the porcelain of the bathroom sink, on the chrome taps and the hand wash dispenser, and I was beginning to reconsider my position on blood spatter evidence in the Netflix series Making A Murderer.  

The incident with the tuna can led me to reflect on recent events and consider where things had begun to go wrong in my life.  It wasn’t as though I had been plunged into a deep despair when the sharp aluminium from the tin was plunged into my middle finger, but something didn’t seem right about a man whose greatest joy in months was when his cactus plant produced a pair of pink petals.

I was sitting on the same chair in my living room which, days earlier, I had awoken in at seven-thirty in the morning with little recollection of the previous night.  Staring at the beige Elastoplast which was crudely dressing my finger like an ill-fitting jumper, I played through a highlight reel of memories which were laced with misfortune in search of an answer.  There was the moment during the redheaded rugby players leaving night where tequilas were offered – and subsequently drank quicker than the time it takes to say ‘yes’ – that I kept returning to, like it had been bookmarked in my brain with a yellow sticky note reading:  “this is where things were fucked up.”

My cheeks were blushing pink with the mixture of Tequila and Jameson, similar to the shade of the tie I was wearing.  The potent pairing had worked its way through my entire body, from hazy head to dancing feet, and it wasn’t long before I was overwhelmed and everything became a blur.  By the end of the night, I was in my flat with my favourite delicatessen delight, making another calamitous attempt at convincing her that it would be a good idea to date me.  When I woke up in my chair the next morning, I was feeling like less than the sum of a six-inch sub.

As the days progressed, I was finding myself in the grip of a slow drying sock saga.  Since I became what Argyll & Bute council describes as a single occupant in January, I have typically done my laundry between one and three times a week – ie twice – and regardless of the climate outside, I will dry my clothes on an airer which sits in the centre of my kitchen.  Over the months it has become increasingly evident that there is a disparity in the time it takes different items of clothing to dry, and every time I run a wash I know that I am going to be plagued by the frustration of waiting days for four pairs of socks to dry.  It is a vicious cycle.

Irrespective of colour or whether they are plain or patterned, dress shirts tend to dry in around a day.  Jeans, towels and other large items are usually ready to be stored away in under thirty-six hours.  But the socks, by far the smallest things in the load, take much longer than anything else to become fully dried.

For months I have been questioning the physics of socks and why it takes them such a time to dry compared with the rest of my laundry, which is hanging in exactly the same conditions.  I haven’t been bold enough to try it yet, but there are occasions where I have considered changing the positions afforded to each article on the airer, as an experiment to see whether being closer to the ground makes it more difficult to recover from the wash.  I’ve been feeling reluctant to do this, however, due to the fact that my underwear occupies the bottom rungs of the clothes airer, and moving them to the top would raise the danger that anyone who is unsuspectingly passing the kitchen window could catch sight of my pink socks and boxer shorts.  I’m just not sure that I am ready for someone who I am not in a romantic relationship with to see my underwear, and I don’t want to make things awkward with my neighbours.

Bedsheets need the entire airer to themselves, and during the week I undertook the task of changing my sheets.  Washing and drying them is not problematic, but putting a fresh layer of linen on my bed proved troublesome on this occasion.  I struggled to feed the double duvet into its white cover, its size and unwilling floppiness making matters more difficult than they should have been.  I have heard people speak about leading a horse to water and the difficulty of convincing it to drink, and I quickly realised that similarly, you can lay a duvet on the bed, but you can’t make it go inside a duvet cover.

After what seemed like at least seven minutes of wrestling with the duvet, I was feeling defeated by the cotton and began to consider how much it would really matter if I slept without a cover on the duvet.  No-one is likely to see it and judge me any differently because of it, I was thinking to myself.  The absence of a duvet cover on my bed isn’t going to be the reason another woman doesn’t want to sleep with me.

I asked myself who I was making the bed for.  It is the sort of activity I can imagine a couple doing together at the end of the day, laughing at one another’s incompetence – just like sex.  Then they would fall onto their perfectly made bed and make love, whereas I am a man who is doing everything by himself, and my bed is like an exhibit in a museum; something that was once useful years ago.  Next to the display would be a handwritten sign which requests:  “Please do not touch on the exhibit.”

The duvet was eventually stuffed into the cover, and the day after I sliced my finger on the can of tuna I went to Aulay’s, where the band of beards was joined by a friend of the plant doctor’s.  We enjoyed several beers over discussions about literature, the question of which album we would choose if we were forced to listen to a record a thousand times consecutively, and hip hop, although it seemed as though we had the hops without the hip.

Soon our group was joined by a wavy-haired woman with an Italian accent, and I asked her more questions about worms than I ever knew I had.  I enquired about what they eat and whether or not they have their own personalities, and after an extensive conversation regarding worms, I realised that the reason I was asking so much about her work was to challenge myself to understand the Italian accent.  After some time, the subjects ranged from worms to Francesco Totti and the Mafia, and I felt that I probably had a better grasp of her Italian timbre than she had of my slurred Scots.

By the jukebox, I observed two young women scrolling through the selection of music on offer.  Their first three picks were quite inoffensive choices for the moment, though they then somehow proceeded to mistakenly play ‘Something’ by The Beatles four times in a row.  I opened up my wallet and found two pound coins amongst the loose change.  With the coins clenched in my closed hand, I approached the music machine, imagining myself as some kind of jukebox Romeo.  I made light of their Beatles blunder as I slotted the gold into the machine in a fumbling manner which probably didn’t look as seductive as I was hoping.  We were talking briefly as the girls made further song choices, and they left two in the machine for me and promised to stick around the bar until they played.  By the time their songs had finished, they had left their table, and my own Beatles song went unheard.

The town’s fortnight-long Winter Festival was underway, and on a blue and chilly Saturday, the Christmas lights were switched on.  In a continuation of a tradition we started the previous year, my sister and I decided that we would drink some mulled wine before heading out into the cold darkness.  While she and her partner took their daughter to see Santa, I prepared for the first pre-midnight gathering in my flat.  There was incense burning in the living room whilst mince pies and sausage rolls cooked in the oven and a pot of mulled wine was warming on the stove.  I set plates on the coffee table and was feeling pleased with my efforts when it occurred to me that I didn’t have any classical means of pouring the wine.  I don’t own a ladel, or even a serving jug, and eventually, I had to resort to transferring the wine from the pot to a measuring jug in order to pour it into the mugs.

My guests arrived, and upon inspecting the pot of mulled wine, my sister queried why I had dropped a large, unpeeled orange in the wine rather than peel it and allow the flavour of the fruit to imbue the drink.  I knew better for the second serving, but I was again asking myself where things had gone wrong in my life.  With a wound across my middle finger, slow drying socks, a crudely made exhibit of a bed and a whole orange sitting in my pot of mulled wine, I wondered if this is really the life a 35-year-old man should be living.  I thought back to a line I had used in conversation on Friday night, and it seemed to be true that I am not getting older, it’s just getting harder to live.