Portrait of a Hogmanay at home (aka Accidentally maudlin)

When I first moved into my new flat and became a single occupant in January 2018, I had grand plans in mind for my morning routine.  I wasn’t necessarily a “morning person” by nature – it was something I had fallen into the same way I imagine some people fall into selling drugs:  you have to do something to earn a living.   I was forced into learning to live with early mornings after more than eight years of working six a.m. shifts in the Co-op, though by the time I was living in my own flat the Co-op had been closed for three years and my interest in mornings was reduced to a desire to keep the impressive breakfast bar in the kitchen from going to waste.

In the weeks before I was handed the keys, I would picture myself waking early in the morning and turning on the radio to catch up with the day’s events before getting up and stretching out in a session of yoga.  Feeling energised, I would savour my luxurious shower and skincare routine, leaving me fresh and nourished and eternally youthful.  After getting dressed, with the colour of my tie and socks being a near-perfect match, it would be time to sit down at the breakfast bar with a cup of Lidl’s own Fairtrade roast and ground Colombian coffee and a book, fuelling my body and my mind before walking to work.  I suppose it wasn’t so much a breakfast bar as it was just a place to sit, since in those days I didn’t really eat breakfast, but the rest of it sounded pretty good to me. 

And for a while it worked.  I was getting out of bed before daybreak, doing my exercises and moisturising my face, with enough time until I left for work to sit with a fresh cup of coffee.  The morning had almost become my favourite part of the day, a couple of hours of bliss before the reality screams in your face.  However, over time, as is so often the way of things in life, what is easy soon overwhelms what can make you happy.  It started when I grew tired of having to clean out the coffee machine every other day, lifting soggy, mud-coloured filter papers out of the tray and making sure the entire thing was ready to be used again the next morning.  Once I’d figured out that I could give myself another fifteen minutes or so in bed by giving up the coffee for a glass of orange juice, that was it for the coffee machine.  Gradually I would find myself stealing even more time in bed, using the sound of rain beating on the window as justification for not taking the long way to the office, or convincing myself that it wouldn’t matter if I missed my morning yoga because I could do it in the evening.  Sometimes I even moisturised my face without first using the deep cleansing facial scrub like some kind of hard-skinned heathen.

The first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 helped me to refocus a little and I at least managed to get into a habit of doing yoga twice a day, even if the rest of my routine was still lacking.  My new-found enthusiasm didn’t last for long, though, and by the bleak winter months I was staying in bed later than ever, only giving myself enough time to get washed and dressed and little more.  Darkness was yawning long into the morning, and when I would waken and ask my little Google Play device to tell me the latest news headlines, I usually lost any interest I had in getting out of bed to do anything productive.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in getting up early during the pandemic when every day was the same as the last.  I don’t know how anybody else was getting through December, but for me it was the moments after Google’s computerised female voice told me that she had played all of that morning’s news stories and I would sink back into my pillow and fall asleep until the next alarm went off.  It was an almost companionable silence.

A while ago I had promised myself that I would never make another New Year’s resolution, but it was difficult not to see the advancing of 2021 as anything other than an opportunity for improvement.  It just had to be a better year, even for those people who had vowed to afford themselves some more alone time or to do some work around the house and who were probably quite content with how 2020 turned out.  I decided that I was absolutely going to stick to my vaunted morning routine no matter how dark or wet the day was, or how often I had to clean the coffee machine, but that I would do it from the fourth of January since I knew that I would be suffering from a hangover on the first three mornings of the year, and there’s no point in setting yourself a target that you know is impossible to reach.

I was never a big fan of Hogmanay and the pressure that came with the 31st to be this picture-perfect landmark of the passing of time, and for maybe the first occasion during all of the tiers (and tears) of lockdown restrictions I was quite glad for the opportunity to not be expected to make any plans.  There was a relief that came with knowing that I wouldn’t be forced into spending ten minutes queuing at the bar to be served a Jack Daniels and Coke in a plastic tumbler, and that the reason I wouldn’t be sharing a kiss at the bells this New Year wasn’t due to my own ineptitude but was instead because a global pandemic had made everybody else just like me.

Earlier in the day I had taken a crisp afternoon walk along the Esplanade in what not only were the fading embers of the day, but also the year.  As I was nearing St Columba’s Cathedral, I happened upon the multi-talented young woman who had previously curated the successful Let’s Make A Scene events in town.  She was out walking with another gentleman who I didn’t immediately recognise.  As I approached her, I pulled the earphones out of my ears and she remarked that “this must be where all the Catholics go walking.”  It wasn’t until she happened to mention her companion’s name after a few minutes that it registered with me who he was.  It turned out to be my best friend from primary school who I hadn’t seen since leaving Oban High, though in my defence he didn’t have the wispy beard back then and his voice wasn’t nearly as deep.  Almost immediately he reminisced that, as a boy, I was the one who was responsible for wrestling being banned from St Columba’s primary school, though that wasn’t how I remembered it.  There was certainly a time when my brother refused to watch WWF shows with me anymore because I always insisted on having matches with him during the ad breaks, and it was during one of these impromptu bouts that I burst his bottom lip open with a stray knee, but I just figured that he was a sore loser.  Nevertheless, this chance encounter on the seafront was very nearly the perfect ending to 2020, and it probably would have been had there not been another eight hours of the year left.

Until now I had never fully understood why mum always cried at the bells, though it was undoubtedly part of the reason why I never particularly cared for New Year.  My memories of the night were mostly of the generous spread of finger food that would gradually begin to appear before midnight:  dishes of salted peanuts, bowls of crisps, sausage rolls, and cocktail sticks which were loaded with a block of cheddar cheese the size of a small piece of lego, a slice of ham, and a pickled onion.  The cocktail sticks were everybody’s favourite part of the 31st of December.  In some ways they were even better than Christmas.  Every year dad would wait until a couple of minutes before the countdown to open his bottle of Whyte & Mackay, and once we had passed into the new year he would take his first drink.  He only ever drank whisky at new year, one of those little traditions that people have around this time, and it was funny how drunk it would make him.  On the television we would watch BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Hogmanay street party in Edinburgh, where the countdown to midnight ended with the firing of the gun from the castle.  We always muted the sound so that we could hear the CalMac ferries sounding their horns in the bay, and then mum would start to cry.  It wasn’t until we were talking about it at my sister’s over Christmas that I realised they weren’t tears of sadness.  Not an unhappy sadness, anyway.  They were tears for the people who weren’t there; for memories and nostalgia.  

As things turned out, spending New Year’s Eve at home alone wasn’t any better than previous years spent in a packed pub, surrounded by a sea of people I didn’t know, barely enough room to wave a cocktail stick in the air.  I thought about the people who I couldn’t be with – not only that night, but all through the year – and I felt nostalgic for previous Hogmanays, even the ones where I felt anxious over not having any plans or not enjoying the celebrations as much as everybody else seemed to be.

I tried everything I could think of to amuse myself until midnight, but it wasn’t easy when the only living company I had was the crassula ovata houseplant that I’d bought in September just so that I could make up the minimum spend to use a £5 off coupon in Lidl.  At least I think the succulent was still living, it was hard to tell.  I wasn’t sure how those plants were supposed to look when they’re healthy and thriving; it was more common for me to see them when they were withered and miserable.  My entertainment for the evening was my Spotify playlist of the year, which was 43 hours and 47 minutes long, and to pass the time until the gun was fired from Edinburgh Castle I played some YouTube videos in the background of some of the places I had planned to visit during the year but couldn’t due to the pandemic.  I watched videos of Ljubljana, Zagreb, a 4K walking tour of Belgrade, the fountain in the square in Sarajevo where all the pigeons frequently gather, and even footage of Edinburgh.  Places that all felt a lot further away now than ever before.

In an effort to fend off some of the weariness I was feeling after a few beers, I put a tray of sausage rolls into the oven at around ten o’clock.  It wasn’t pickled onions and cheese on a stick, but it was the best I could do to keep myself interested.  The trouble with hot pastry goods is that once they are there, it is close to impossible to stop yourself from eating them, especially when I was the only one who could eat them.  After a handful of the sausage rolls I was feeling bloated and queasy, and my thoughts turned to trying to figure out how long the bag had been sitting open in the drawer of the freezer.  It isn’t the sort of thing that you ever think you’re going to have to remember, not like the date your home insurance is due for renewal or when you last had a dental check-up.  There was no way of knowing when I had opened the sausage rolls, but given that the bag was advertising the goods as being part of a Christmas party range and they weren’t typically the type of food I would eat if I was on my own, it was reasonable – if not entirely safe – to assume that it wasn’t within the last year.

The point at which I started to feel at my most lonely wasn’t when I had ignored any sense of uneasiness and continued to polish off the entire plate of sausage rolls, but rather it was when I downloaded yet another dating app.  The way I saw it, I couldn’t have been the only person that was sitting alone on New Year’s Eve and feeling nostalgic for the company of others, and surely out of all those numbers someone was going to be drunk and lonely enough to swipe on my profile.  To sweeten the deal, I considered an addendum to my biography that would let the single women of Scotland know that I had excess sausage rolls which I could do with a partner to help me finish, but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words.  A better man than me would have known how to make it sound romantic, but I just never had that ability.  Besides, any potential match would have been prevented from visiting my flat under the restrictions of the time anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to start a relationship with a promise that I knew I couldn’t keep.  I imagined the disappointment on her face when she arrived to discover that I had already eaten all of the sausage rolls, the sort of look that summed up so many Hogmanays before it.  Is that it?  By the time I had finished my beers and taken myself off to bed it was long after 3 a.m. and I hadn’t found a single match across any of my dating apps.  When I asked my Google Play device to play some Ryan Adams, the robotic voice all of a sudden wasn’t sounding so companionable. 

As a mass vaccination programme began in Scotland on the fourth of January, the government announced that the country would be going into a full lockdown until at least the end of the month to support it, though most people believed that it would go on much longer.  It wasn’t unexpected, but you could tell that everyone was demoralised by it all the same.  When I arrived home for lunch on the fifth, the front door to my close was pinned open and the concrete floor was strewn with a blanket of pine needles.  Someone in the block was really taking the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ seriously.  It was a mess, like a road traffic accident where the only recognisable piece of debris is the air freshener.

I had been doing a pretty decent job of sticking to my morning routine during the first week of the year, managing to get out of bed at half-past six on three out of the five days, and I was feeling good about myself for it.  The town seemed to be stuck in a perpetual frost that week, with the temperature mimicking the number of my recent romantic encounters, in that it was struggling to climb above zero.  I couldn’t remember a cold like it, though it made for a fantastic Instagrammable scene with the snow-capped hills hugging the backdrop of the town.  Some of the pavements around the station and George Street seemed particularly slippy underfoot, which was something that I had felt especially anxious about since the morning in either 2009 or 2010 when I fell on some ice three times on my way to a 6 a.m. start in the Co-op.  I bruised the bone at the bottom of my spine quite badly and for weeks it would hurt to sit down, though the damage to my pride lasted much longer.  Every winter I felt the same fear whenever the weather turned cold enough for the ground to freeze.  To any casual observer I must have looked like a trauma victim learning to walk again for the first time after a terrible accident.  I could hear the physiotherapist by my side, coaching me along, becoming exasperated.  “If you could just take your hand off the rail and put your left foot forward, it isn’t that hard.”  It was difficult to enjoy the winter landscape when I could see the ground approaching with every step I took.

On at least three evenings I passed the same guy who was out running, always wearing a pair of black shorts, a t-shirt that was a shade only slightly darker than my cheeks, and a winter hat.  I felt like the Michelin Man every time he jogged by me.  Here I was wearing as many layers of clothing as I could fit into, and this guy was in shorts and a t-shirt like it was nothing.   Just seeing him was enough to make me feel colder.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could be out running on those pavements when I could hardly even walk on them.

Soon the sight of this guy’s t-shirt became like a rag to a bull for me.  I had never hated anyone; sure, like anybody else I held on to petty disputes, but hate was a bit strong, something I reserved mostly for mushrooms and Boris Johnson.  But by the end of the week I found myself wishing that the runner would find a thick patch of black ice.  It wasn’t anything I could say out loud, even though it wasn’t like I was wanting him to be severely injured – just a minor sprain, enough to help me feel better about myself.  With my luck it likely wouldn’t make much difference anyway.  The guy would display all of the natural balance of Christopher Dean, and would probably manage to save a small child in the process.  Meanwhile I would be seen off in the distance, unable to move from the one spot I knew for certain was safe, shivering and helpless.  Obviously I knew that deep down what I was feeling towards the runner wasn’t hatred at all, it was more like envy, which in some ways was worse.  I was jealous of the confidence he had on his feet, the fact that he was seemingly impervious to the lowly temperatures.  I could tell just from looking at him that he wasn’t the type of guy who had to bargain with himself to get out of bed in the morning, like a contestant on a TV game show.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be leaving the flat in shorts and t-shirt, but maybe 2021 was going to be the year where I could at least settle for a cup of filter coffee.

As Scotland’s Covid vaccine programme begins, this song seems like the ideal anthem for the month of January:

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…

The advent of a fashion faux pas

Although I didn’t have an Advent calendar, the third night of December still carried a surprise behind the window of my bedroom.  The festive discovery maybe shouldn’t have come as such a shock to me, or at least it wouldn’t have done if I had read the letter I received in the post a week or so earlier from the energy company SGN instead of tearing it up into snowflake-sized pieces of paper and tossing it into the recycling bin.  I was reminded of the contents of the communication at around ten o’clock when, in the way that a smiling snowman or a steaming pudding in the form of something resembling a piece of chocolate prompts you that Christmas is another day nearer, the dim and distant sound of a drill cutting through tarmac reminded me that there were roadworks scheduled at the end of my street.

My bedroom was lit up like a fairground park, only as usual without the amusement.  The curtains, which stood from the floor and were much taller than I was, danced along to the beat of a dazzling orange light, which was flickering wildly through the material, on and off and on again, in rhythm to the sound of a pneumatic drill.  I approached the beaming drapes with all of the excitement that a younger me had when holding a cardboard Thomas The Tank Engine Advent calendar, curious to see what was going on on the other side of the window.  I peeled back the curtain with the care of piercing a perforated, numbered square and craned my neck to look out towards the top of the street, where the works vehicles were stationed.  It soon became clear that for me it wouldn’t be a silent night, but for the men who were working on the road, it would be a holey night.

For nigh upon two years of living in my town centre flat, my bedroom had witnessed an underwhelmingly little amount of activity.  Suddenly, on the third night of Advent, there was too much of it.  As I was getting changed for bed under the glowing spotlight of an SGN van, minding my own business in much the same way that any single occupant does, I noticed a spider sitting around fourteen inches from the top of the ivory coloured curtain which hung across the front of my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe.  Having disrobed myself of my yellow shirt, I was feeling fairly certain that the spider, with its eight little eyes, was much more terrified of the situation we had found ourselves in than I was.  We hadn’t quite locked eyes, its being much too small to pick out from a distance, but we were bitterly entrenched in a stand-off across the room, neither party willing to cede ground.  Eventually, like whenever I thought about talking to a woman I liked, my feet grew cold – the disadvantage of having to stick to walking on the floor – and I gave up and got into bed.

From under the comfort of my two thousand thread count Egyptian cotton duvet, all I could think about was the spider.  Was it thinking about me?  Who knew.  But all I knew was that it looked ridiculous standing there on the curtain which my suits and shirts were neatly stored behind.  I stared at it and thought how it would be like me, as someone who gave up learning how to drive after four lessons, standing on the forecourt of a used car dealership.  Like every other spider, the one on my wardrobe curtain had eight legs, and just like every other shirt, the ones I wore had two sleeves.  Even if it was presumed that the arachnid could stretch two of its legs out into the sleeves, I had no idea what it would expect to do with the remaining limbs.  What colour of shirt would a spider even wear? It would be an absurd appearance.  And that would be without considering its ability to match the socks.

I settled back into my pillow and turned off the lamp on my bedside table, not that it really made much difference with the roadworks ongoing up the street.  With my glasses folded away and the light from the trucks illuminating the room every other second, the spider was resembling little more than a conspicuous smudge on the curtain, like an inkblot on an old-fashioned scroll.  As I was laying there, instead of laughing in the arms of a loved one, I was questioning the motives of a spider.  If it wasn’t trying to get into my shirts or to spin a web around the fly of my trousers, then what did it think it was up to?  Nobody ever spoke of finding a spider on their curtain.  A moth, usually, but never a spider.  I began to wonder if it might have been identifying as a moth. It wouldn’t matter because, in time, like anything connected with my bedroom, the spider eventually scurried over the horizon of the curtain and was never seen again.

A calendar, either traditional or Advent, wasn’t required to tell me that it was the first week of December and that the countdown to the twenty-fifth day was underway.  Across my social media accounts, Christmas trees had been popping up everywhere, as though most people had received the same notification alert.  The Instagram photographs and Facebook status updates were only a reminder to me of the pitifully sad tree I had erected in my living room a year earlier, where all of the 1980s novelty glass baubles had been hung on the lower branches, at arms reach of my two-year-old niece, and I wasn’t ready to think about festive decorations again.  It was similar to the way I felt when friends would post pictures of their latest romantic adventure with their partners when all I had recently done was to make a joke to a girl about dressing my mantelpiece with a DVD copy of The Wizard of Oz.

Although I looked forward to Christmas every year; the festivities, spending time with family, seeing people who maybe hadn’t been seen for some time, I wasn’t quite able to get into the spirit yet, though it was hard to say if it was through a Scrooge complex or laziness.  I was treating the early December days like any other in the year, more concerned with matching the colour of my socks to my tie than mistletoe and yuletide.  In an effort to brighten my mood and embolden my dress, I took a rare midweek foray into wearing a red shirt.  I hardly ever wore my red shirt, a decision which wasn’t so much due to sartorial consideration, but rather was born more from a fear of putting the garment in the washing machine.  Nevertheless, sometimes a man has to throw on a black sweater vest and a tie, face his anxieties and, at the end of the day, hide the red shirt at the bottom of the clothes hamper if necessary.

Throughout the day, no fewer than four people, though no more than five, passed comment on my red shirt “looking festive.”  I tried to defend myself with my insistence that it was just a shirt with no cheery motive behind it, or inside it, but the charges of a festive appearance continued.  I was forced to accept that by innocently wearing a red shirt I had become accidentally festive, even if my mood was closer to the black tie. Would a spider be forced to endure such criticism if it left the web wearing a bright red shirt?

Worse was to follow the next day when I returned to a more standard combination.  In the comfort of my bedroom, I dressed myself in a pair of smart navy trousers which no-one could mistake for looking festive.  The shirt and tie were equally as unseasonal, and I was feeling more like myself.  I plugged my earphones in and left my flat, stepping out into the dirty daylight of a December morning.  I think I had reached the square, or maybe it was the station, when I realised that the trousers I had believed were blue were actually black, and my face had become as red as a festive shirt.  I thought about hastily retreating home to change, but someone was bound to have already seen me, and what would look more foolish than a man wearing black trousers with a purple tie, other than one who wore two different pairs of trousers in the same morning?  I could at least console myself with the knowledge that my shoes were black, and it wasn’t a completely ridiculous circumstance, but I was troubled by how such a mistake could have happened. It was apparent that the lighting in my bedroom was to blame and I would have to change the bulb, or at least consider dressing at night, when the roadworks were illuminating the street and I could compare notes with the spider on the curtain.

The night I went solo

By the end of the week, the mild winter had been withered by a cold front which was sweeping through from the east.  On Friday morning, the pale sky was threatening to cough up a flurry of snow, though in the end it only amounted to a brief scattering of flakes, as though someone was furiously agitating a near-empty salt shaker over a plate of steaming chips.  As I was walking home from work in the early evening, a bitter breeze was wheezing in off the restless sea. It was the sort of wind which wasn’t respecting the boundaries of clothing, eating its way through my thick black overcoat and everything below it.

The preceding days had brought with them a sense of loneliness and an anxious feeling which was creeping through me in the same manner the icy wind had found its way past my woolen scarf.  In an effort to fill the void in my life with some kind of meaningful activity, I decided to reorganise the items which were pinned to the two corkboards residing on the walls of my kitchen. I dumped written reminders from May 2018 to check the process of changing to a billed electricity meter and a vegetable-heavy shopping list which kept me fed for a week in late November.  

With space freed up on the boards, I thought it would be a good idea to record words I hadn’t understood in books or articles I had read, or songs I had heard, and research their meaning to allow me to introduce them into my everyday vocabulary.  After three days I had noted twelve words, and I was beginning to question my methods, which were in danger of making me appear illiterate. I was studying my cards each night, with every addition leading me to think about how I was going to use my newly learned words,  It was proving more difficult than I initially thought it would be, and as the days moved on without me using any of the twelve words I had investigated through the week, I came to realise that with the type of lifestyle I live, there is never a situation that is practical for imprecation.

By the time I had defrosted after my walk home from work, it was becoming clear that my weekly visit to Aulay’s was going to resemble my love life and be a solo endeavour.  In the doorway of the lounge bar, a group of smokers had assembled, huddled beneath the edge of the building as they sought to enjoy their cigarettes shielded from the snarling face of the winter wind.  I walked through their clouds of smoke and entered the tavern in a more spectacular fashion than usual, though there was nobody that I knew inside to witness it.

As I was standing at the bar drinking alone, I became aware of a boisterous conversation taking place between the two tables behind me.  I continued to slowly sink into a pint of Tennents Lager as I became immersed in what sounded to be a happy meeting of two separate couples who were from the same area of the west coast of Scotland.  The most animated of the characters was a large man who had the pinkest cheeks I have ever seen on an adult.  His appearance was similar to that of a garden gnome who had recently learned that there is more to life than simply fishing all the time.  The second gentleman in the newly formed quartet was wearing a navy blue jumper which had a red animal motif sitting on the left breast, waiting patiently to be petted or fed.  It may have been a donkey or a horse, though I could never get close enough to properly examine the design.

The voices of the two men were much louder than those of their female counterparts, and I listened as they were discussing the part of the world where they both happened to come from.  The men were challenging one another on their memories of buildings, places they had worked over the course of their lives and bars they had drank in.

“If you were working in this job then you must have known that person?”

“You’ll know the place I’m talking about, it used to be next to the ethnic corner shop, though we can’t call it that anymore.”

“Did you know the big man?  It would probably have been around 1974 to 1983.”

Neither of the two men knew what the other was talking about, and there reached a point in the night where I was beginning to consider the possibility that they had realised this long ago and were attempting to one-up each other with improbable tales and recollections, knowing well that the other wasn’t going to recognise the people or the places involved.  It was the only explanation I could think of for the woman who had miraculously fallen pregnant following her first visit to the newly opened tanning salon in 1994, although I wasn’t hearing every detail of the stories.

After a couple of hours spent wallowing in my own company, the beers were only weighing my spirits down.  The random mix of music which the jukebox plays when nobody has paid for specific songs was leaving me apprehensive, so I decided to play a few of my own.  For my pound coin I was afforded three selections, and my third Ryan Adams choice was Nobody Girl, by which point the lounge bar was quickly emptying.  When I am feeling particularly low Ryan Adams is all I ever want to listen to, and Nobody Girl is a song which seems to me to be a lament to a lost girl, where the singer is trying to convince himself that this girl is a nobody who isn’t worth fooling his heart over, though he is conveying all of this in a song which is nine minutes and 39 seconds long.  After around seven minutes of misery, the track explodes into a Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street-like finale, but by the time this arrived there was almost nobody left in the bar to hear it.

In the meantime, a middle-aged couple from Hamilton had arrived, though they had presumably not come directly from the Lanarkshire town to Aulay’s Bar.  The man was mild-mannered and friendly, whilst his partner was a much more energetic and slightly older woman who spoke with an English accent and whose hair was as white as the icy winter air.    Although she was admirably balanced in her heeled footwear, her gait led me to suspect that she may have had a couple of coins trapped in her shoes.  The white-haired woman was querying why anyone would have filled the jukebox with so much sadness, and she immediately made it her mission to liven the atmosphere in the bar.  After a failed attempt at operating the digital jukebox, she called me over to assist, and I was forced to help her find the Marina and the Diamonds and the S Club 7 songs which were going to “get the party started.”  As Nobody Girl was nearing its emphatic climax and the numbers in the bar were diminishing, the woman chastised me.  “There isn’t going to be anybody left to hear my songs!”

Back at the bar, the mild-mannered man from Hamilton and I were bonding over a beer and our mutual disdain for his partner’s taste in music as she was dancing in a barren background.  He went into some detail about their weekend trip to Oban and the wider context of their relationship, which was only in its sixth year.  I could sense the regret in his voice that although they had known each other for many years, they had not gotten together sooner.  Before I could learn why they had not become romantically involved until six years ago, the white-haired woman with the awkward walk crashed into us and demanded to know where the best bar to visit next would be.  The most flamboyant barman in Aulay’s was standing nearby, and he insisted that if the couple wanted a true taste of Oban then they should go across the road to the Claredon, where Friday night is karaoke night.  A sense of dread imbued with my drunkenness as the woman shrieked her delight at the prospect of being able to perform her signature song.  Nevertheless, I agreed that I would show them the sights of the Claredon.

We finished our drinks and headed into the vast darkness, where plumes of alcohol bellowed from our mouths like great chimneys.  As we were walking the short distance across two roads to reach our next destination, I thought it would be best to paint the couple a picture of what they should expect when we reach the Claredon.  I asked them to recall the 1972 film Deliverance, with the greatest difference between the two being that instead of duelling banjos there would be karaoke in the Claredon.

The blue doors to the bar swung open before us, and as I led the couple from Hamilton on their first foray into the Claredon bar we were greeted by the sound of what could only be described as being an imagining of a scenario where Bryan Adams had been captured and held hostage by two powerful men, whose giant bear-like hands were wrapped violently around the singer’s throat as they threatened him with the death of everyone he loves unless he performs their favourite song in the style of a nervous baboon.

On the far side of the room, close to the stage, there were around six or eight – maybe seven – balloons of different colours which had been tacked to the wall and were visibly sagging.  They surrounded a short but cheerful blue banner which was wishing an unidentified person a happy birthday.  The white-haired woman was eager to perform a song, and she approached the hostess to request that her name was added to the list of people waiting to entertain the bar.

Meanwhile, at the bar, I was standing with the mild-mannered man, trying my best to make sure that my tan shoes weren’t sticking to the floor.  His face was contorted with the sort of confusion a dog would display when its owner pretends to throw a toy.  Over my right shoulder, I could see the Subway girl with the smile, and I excused myself to go over and talk to her, though the conversation was brief as her group was leaving.  I returned to the company of the couple I had come with, when the gentleman asked me if I ‘like’ the sandwich artist.  I questioned why he was asking, and he responded by telling me that it was “written all over my face”, like in The Smiths song, I assumed.  The couple enthusiastically suggested that I should leave and pursue the girl, the white-haired woman’s enthusiasm so strong that she grabbed a hold of my arm and tried dragging me towards the door.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t have such resistance to leaving the Claredon, but on this occasion, I dug my heels into the syrupy floor and advised the couple that it wouldn’t be a good idea.  I was reluctant to tell them that I had already twice tried and failed in my pursuit and was now in a Wile E. Coyote-like loop, and instead left them with the fleeting hope that I might one day succeed.

The white-haired woman with the coins stuck in her high heels was growing impatient as a succession of terrible crooners stepped up to take the microphone, and when her name once again wasn’t called she claimed a conspiracy against visiting karaoke artists, insisting to her partner that it was time they left for their accommodation.  I finished my Jack Daniels and walked back along the seafront to Markie Dans, even the addition of a navy v neck sleeveless jumper to my attire struggled to keep the vicious cold wind from attaching itself to my body.  I took a seat at the bar as a band was playing to an empty dancefloor, presumably out of contractual obligation rather than enjoyment.  If only the Marina and the Diamonds enthusiast could see this scene, I was thinking.

As the curfew was approaching after midnight, a series of stragglers were beginning to arrive from the Oban Inn, and the bar was looking a little more healthy as drinkers were indulging in their unhealthy pursuits.  The Subway girl was amongst them, and after some time her acquaintance slid onto the barstool next to mine.  She observed that I appeared to be miserable and was curious as to why.  I was struggling to conjure an answer to her question before she amended her enquiry to ask if my sorrow was related to sandwiches.  The truth was that the Subway girl was only a very small fraction of the shape I was in, but to confess otherwise would only have led to more questions I wasn’t in a position to answer, on a barstool in Markie Dans with a Jack Daniels in my hand.  The acquaintance suggested that I should talk to the sandwich artist, advice which was proving difficult to refute when I couldn’t offer alternative explanations for my moping demeanour.

I peeled myself from the barstool in the way a plaster is pulled from a gaping cut and approached the Subway girl.  I had no idea in my mind of what I was going to say, and I was feeling as though I was carrying a comically large box labelled “ACME”.  Words began to fall from my mouth like snowflakes, melting as soon as they landed on the floor around us.  Just as I started talking to this girl who I have known for years, I realised how big the world is.  The box didn’t explode in my face, though I was searching for another word for melancholy.