Dreams of vaccines and Swedish cider

Any time I have ever been part of a conversation where another person is talking in great detail about a dream they have recently had, I always listen on in awe and with some degree of envy.  I can very rarely if ever remember the content of my unconscious movies, and it seems unfair to me that people who are already living more interesting lives than mine when they are awake should also be having it better when they are asleep.  Things seem to have picked up in the weeks since I received my coronavirus vaccination, however.  I seem to be having a memorable dream every other night at the moment.  There’s no way of knowing if it’s just a coincidence that I’ve been having these vivid dreams since I got the jag or if the conspiracy theorists were right all along and Bill Gates has successfully installed some kind of a programme into my subconscious, but it’s the most activity my bed has seen in some considerable time.

The dreams I’ve been experiencing haven’t been anything that would keep an oneirologist occupied for too long.  They haven’t been signifying anything unusual as far as I can tell, nor have they been terrifying in any way.  One night I had visions of running into a long-lost friend in WH Smith, by the greeting cards, I think.  On another, I awoke in a panic after realising that I had drastically under-ordered cases of Nescafé coffee for a sales promotion in the Co-op and customers were getting riled up because they couldn’t get their favourite granules at a discount price, even though it has now been more than six years since I worked in the supermarket.  I saw myself go on a bicycle ride with a woman who I once liked, only for her to drop her bike to the ground and turn back because she had forgotten to wear a helmet.  

Most recently I turned up to a venue that I couldn’t identify for a meeting of the album club I am part of, only to discover that I had gotten my dates mixed up and there was a wedding dance taking place instead.  I wandered around the vast complex until I happened upon two guys that I recognised.  Even though they were two of the most boring people I know, I sat and had some drinks with them anyway.  One of the men bought me some Swedish cider with an unpronounceable name, which seemed like a slam since they know that I drink beer.  The cider was the colour of beetroot juice, and I could tell that I wasn’t enjoying it.  Someone questioned why I was wearing my new brown shoes and then I woke up, and all I could do was wonder why the fuck they had to bring my shoes into it.

Fingal’s Dog Stone

When bars and restaurants were finally able to resume serving alcohol indoors from 17 May, I could hardly stop thinking about returning to Aulay’s.  Outdoor drinking is all well and good, but you’re always liable to get caught in a shower as we did outside Bar Rio, and cocktail umbrellas are never going to be enough to help you.  May is usually one of the finest months of the year on the west coast of Scotland; thirty-one hazy days straddling spring and summer that are full of promise for the season ahead.  It is the chapter in the calendar that gets our hopes up for a summer heatwave, and although May often turns out to be as good as it gets, you can never know that at the time.  This year, however, when we could really have done with a May to get excited about, Scotland has experienced what is reckoned to be its coldest May in more than 40 years.  Recently there was even snow seen on the hills, and I’ve still been making pots of soup for my lunches.

Oban was becoming increasingly busy once further restrictions were lifted and people could travel to the town again.  One morning I saw around a dozen bicycles sitting against the wall of Costa Coffee, which seemed quite daring to me.  I’m reluctant to drink anything within an hour of making any kind of journey.  Things seemed just as busy on the water as on land.  There were seven people kayaking in the bay, and the sailing club had nine boats taking part in their Round Lismore race.  I watched as they made their way towards Maiden Island, looking so majestic and yet so fragile, just like us all, I suppose.  It seemed as though the vessels could topple over at any moment, but I imagined that the people who built them probably know what they’re doing.  I decided then that I enjoy watching things occur at sea, but I don’t really like being on the water.

I was looking forward to Friday night drinks in Aulay’s more than ever.  The bar had been closed since October, and for all that I loved our Zoom beer clubs, there is nothing like the feeling of being with friends in the pub.  I dressed in the burgundy suit that I could barely squeeze into in December 2019 but was now a perfect fit.  A few people had told me lately that I’m looking “lean” and I didn’t believe them.  I find it hard to hear anything positive about myself.  But it was hard even for me to ignore the fact that I didn’t have to take a sharp intake of breath as though I had witnessed something shocking every time I fastened the button of those burgundy trousers.  A year of lockdown yoga seemed to be paying off, and I felt good for being able to wear a suit that was similar in shade to a summer fruits cider.  My brother and I went to Aulay’s at the usual time, around eight o’clock, and I could see as soon as I walked in that the place was pretty busy.  We were told that there were no tables available, so we turned back and left.  It was a nightmare scenario, the sort I ordinarily wouldn’t even see in my dreams, but here it was in front of me.  A knockback from Aulay’s on a Friday night was somehow worse than all of the other knockbacks I have had.

We went down to the Oban Inn instead, and although they also didn’t have any tables inside the pub, we were able to grab one outside.  It was a cold night and the breeze from the sea made it uncomfortable.  Suddenly the pride I had been feeling over the burgundy suit seemed stupid and I felt ridiculously under-dressed for the conditions.  While it was worth it for a pint of Budweiser, I spent most of my time wondering how long it would take for my hands to turn the same shade as my cobalt blue tie.  The cold air and the crisp lager conspired to send me to the bathroom, where I took the urinal on the far-left of a set of three.  It was hard to know which I was enjoying more:  the relief of emptying my bladder or the relief from being inside for a few moments.  The sensation wasn’t something I was able to enjoy on my own for very long, as soon another guy entered the bathroom.  He took the middle urinal next to me, not the free spot on the other side.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  What would possibly drive anyone to make that decision?  

As I was pissing I could hear the man breathing loudly through his face covering.  I imagined that the scene is probably how it would have sounded if they had urinals on The Executor.  The man’s breathing was so emphatic that I worried there might have been something terribly wrong with him and it was going to fall on me to assist him when he collapsed to the floor of the toilet.  I couldn’t think of anything worse.  Was it really worth getting the vaccine just to go back to the pub and be forced into helping the kind of person who takes the middle urinal?  It’s amazing how quickly you can pee when you really want to.  When I returned outside, my brother was talking to two strangers about Scottish independence.  It’s true that so very little has changed since the last time the pubs were open.

I worried that the sailing boats looked so fragile they could topple over

On Saturday evening our luck changed and we were able to get a table in Aulay’s along with the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete.  Geordie Pete was having a real day of it.  He had been in watching the football earlier in the day and then left to go to the bookies and take care of some other things.  On his way back, he fell down the steps outside Aulay’s.  He wasn’t hurt any worse than a little scrape on his hand, and really, nobody would have known about it if he hadn’t confessed to it.  The two of us had a glasses swap when my brother went to the toilet in a bid to find out whether or not he would notice the change when he came back.  I could see nothing out of Pete’s glasses, which I think were varifocals, and he said that wearing mine was like looking through the bottom of a pint glass.  Everything the Plant Doctor and I said to my brother for the next couple of minutes was an eye pun, which eventually brought our shenanigans into focus.

The bar wasn’t as busy as it appeared the previous night, though it was somehow louder.  One table in particular was boisterous, their voices filled the bar and everything they were saying to each other was obviously hilarious going by how frequently and loudly they laughed.  It seemed unlikely that anything could be that funny.  Usually people are loud in the pub because they have to compete with the sound from a game of football on TV or the jukebox to be heard, but those things aren’t playing in the post-Covid world.  We wondered what it must be like to live with people like that.  It must be a constant wall of noise where words are just said and never understood in a continuous battle for volume.  We didn’t miss them when they left.

At another table was a pair of older women who struck an uncanny resemblance to the former Prime Minister Theresa May and the popular TV comedienne Jo Brand.  Jo Brand was probably the most striking lookalike of the two, and all I could do when I looked at the woman was remember how vocal dad was with his criticism of Jo Brand when we were kids in the 90s.  He would usually change the channel whenever she appeared on our television, and glancing across the bar at the lookalike made me wonder how he would have reacted if he had been there with us.  Closer to us was seated an elderly married couple who are often in Aulay’s.  Judging by their ages I would guess that they have been together for maybe thirty or forty years.  The wife always looks to be having a better time than her husband, who just seems to wish he was at home.  He commonly becomes upset whenever his wife talks to another man, and there are times when I’ve lost count of how often she calls him a “fucking bastard.”  It’s hard to imagine what their married life is like when they are sitting at the dinner table eating a meal, or on the sofa reading their newspapers.  I can’t believe that it’s anything like what we see.

We had a fun night back in Aulay’s.  It was almost as though the last seven months hadn’t happened at all and we were just carrying on from the weekend before.  Nothing had changed, other than the fruit machine being removed from the lounge bar to make space for another table, and the coat rack is now standing in front of the lifeless jukebox where we would once have stood.  If you hung a burgundy suit jacket on the rack it could have made a pretty good lookalike of me.  In these days of reduced capacity and shorter opening hours, it requires organisation and planning to have a drink in a pub, which kind of takes away the impromptu, throwing caution to the wind nature of a night out that I enjoy, but nobody really complains about that when they have a pint in their hand.  Going home at 10.30 almost makes you feel that you’ve gained a few free hours, that there is still time to do something useful, such as watching a film.  But it never works out that way.  I’ve fallen asleep every time I’ve tried watching something after the pub.  I just can’t stay awake.  The good thing, at least for now it seems, is that I’m having some dreams to make it worthwhile.

Umbrella

It is difficult to imagine that anything interesting or controversial ever happens in the car park of our local Lidl store.  The concrete space sits off the busy Soroba Road and is opposite a Londis filling station and the Lorn Medical Centre, with the Black Lynn burn running along its back; an ordinary rural supermarket car park.  Surely nothing remarkable occurs in these types of places –  unless you are the guy who recently completed his six-year quest to park in all 211 spaces in the car park of the Bromley branch of Sainsbury’s whilst compiling a spreadsheet ranking each of them.  Until I read that particular story when it came to national attention in April, I often worried that I was spending too much time worrying about the pointless minutiae of life.  Things like the length of time it would take for my socks to dry on a clothes airer, the pollen count, or the procedure for changing lightbulbs in a Victorian-era height light fitting.  I thought about how best to organise my tie rack, how I could use the can of chickpeas I had panic bought at the beginning of the first lockdown, and the hygiene of using a pedal bin versus a swing bin.  But it turns out that I’m not alone, and in a way I felt vindicated.

I don’t know if there is anyone in Oban who is keeping a spreadsheet of all of the spaces in the Lidl car park, but if there isn’t then it seems reasonable to assume that there is nothing of consequence taking place there.  That is until my own clandestine meeting there last week.  I received a text message from the Plant Doctor asking me if I would be available to meet him and the owner of the Arctic Fox car in the Lidl car park at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening since Arctic Fox was leaving for a new job in Edinburgh at the end of the week and she was wanting to present me with a leaving gift.  Traditionally it is the person who is leaving that receives gifts, not those who are left behind, but it seemed as though all norms had been thrown out the window by this point in 2021.  I spent the day wondering what Arctic Fox was going to hand over in Lidl car park.  A brightly coloured pair of socks, perhaps, since we had spoken about the importance of socks to me on occasion.  Maybe a selection of beers after witnessing how protective I was of my cans when I fell in the mud on Kerrera without spilling a drop, or a bag filled with tennis balls that the Plant Doctor and I could entertain ourselves with in her absence.

The car park was practically empty at 7pm, making it even less remarkable than usual, though at one point, as I was standing talking to Arctic Fox and the Plant Doctor, a shoe did come flying out of the passenger side window of an oncoming car, soon followed by a girl of primary school age who ran out to chase after it.  Arctic Fox was carrying an Amazon Prime box which was open at the top.  Inside I could see not socks or beers or even tennis balls, but six houseplants of various types.  She handed the box to me, a leaving gift that was effectively a box of mass murder.  It’s not as though Arctic Fox didn’t know about my dire history of failing to keep houseplants alive for any significant time:  on the flap of the box she had inscribed the words “it is okay if they all die.”

She and the Plant Doctor tried to employ scientific reason to make me feel better about the grave responsibility I had inherited.  They speculated that the plants might have a chance of survival since they will have safety in numbers, and that statistically at least one out of the six should be able to live, but I didn’t believe it.  It’s not like I was purposefully killing all of my houseplants or that I took any kind of enjoyment from their demise, it’s just something that happens when they come into my guardianship.  Over my life as a single occupant, I have learned that I am no better at knowing how to properly care for houseplants than I am at knowing what to do with a can of chickpeas.

I lined the six plants across the edge of my mantelpiece, alongside a couple of cactus plants that have been gathering dust for a while and the Crassula ovata succulent I had bought from Lidl last September just to bring my shopping to £25 so that I could use a £5 off coupon and which was grimly clinging on to life.  I was quite impressed with how the collection looked.  My favourite was the plant that Arctic Fox had been growing inside a bottle.  It was pretty cool, though most things that come in bottles tend to appeal to me.  Seemingly the plants would only need to be watered once a week, and while that news should have been welcomed by my lackadaisical approach to horticulture, in my mind it somehow made things more difficult.  You can get into a routine when you’re doing something every day, such as feeding a child or a cat.  Having to remember to water your plants one day every week seemed awkward, the sort of thing that would be best done by keeping a spreadsheet.  And who wants to be that kind of guy?

The health of my new houseplants has been on my mind quite a bit in the days since I was gifted them, though occasionally I have been distracted.  Every night on the Esplanade, at exactly the same point, I passed a pair of pigeons who were sitting on the sea wall, always doing nothing but just staring at one another.  It was impossible to say for certain that they were the same two birds, but they looked the same anyway.  The pigeons were absolutely lovestruck, and I found myself wishing that there was someone who would look at me the way these pigeons were gazing at each other.  I’ve heard of a doe-eyed look, but I had never seen this kind of doo-eyed look before.

Nearby, a few metres away from the romancing pigeons, an elderly couple were sitting on one of the benches which face out onto the bay.  Their shopping bags were spread out on the ground by their feet, Marks & Spencer, I think, and the woman’s walking stick was balanced against the arm of the bench.  She was leaning back into the chest of her partner, as though they were at home on their couch watching a film, and her right arm was stretched out in front of them holding a mobile phone.  Presumably she was taking a selfie of the two of them.  It was quite nice that they still felt that way about each other at their age, but it made me feel sad too.  The Esplanade is full of couples strolling side-by-side these days, and sometimes it gets tiring to see.  I think I preferred it when the only people who would be out were the joggers; even the guy who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in winter.  Apart from anything else, I think what bothered me most was the knowledge that the woman’s photograph won’t even have captured the beautiful sea view with the sunlight exploding off the water in front of them.  Instead it will just be the two of them cuddled together with the Corran Halls car park in the distance behind.  Though I guess, like the pigeons, they didn’t really care about what else was around them.

It wasn’t until I got my hair cut on Saturday morning that I was able to shed some of my cynicism, along with more hairs than I had ever had on my head.  A sign on the door of the barbershop says that customers have to phone a number to make an appointment in line with government guidelines, but it turns out that the number is for a phone that the barber only uses when he is away on holiday and it is never answered and you simply go inside and write your name and the time in a large book.  Business had seemingly been slowing down now that most people have had their first cut since restrictions eased, while some people are still cropping their own hair at home, and the barber reckoned that he probably wouldn’t really get busy again until weddings were allowed with more substantial numbers and women would insist that their partners get a proper haircut for the event.  It never ceases to amaze me how much wisdom there is to be heard in the barber’s chair.  I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on keeping houseplants, but I was meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Poppies and I didn’t think that I had the time to get into it.

With my new haircut and wearing my favourite pair of beige chinos, I felt a lot like a garden chair that is retrieved from the shed and dusted down in spring after spending the winter in storage when I went out for drinks with my brother and the Plant Doctor.  143 days had come and gone since I last had a pint of lager poured from a pub tap, and nothing tasted better.  There wasn’t a table to be had outside Markies or the Oban Inn, so we settled for a seat at Bar Rio, which looked quite nice with its new wooden plant boxes enclosing the outdoor drinking area from the rest of the pavement.  It was a good spot for people-watching.  The weather wasn’t especially inviting for a beer garden with overcast skies, though it was dry and reasonably mild and we had spent the best part of five months indoors.  We deserved a drink.

Barely an hour had passed when a drop of rain fell from the sky and landed on the knee of my chinos.  Such is the way of these things it was swiftly followed by a crescendo of the stuff.  There was nothing we could do about it, not when we had bought another round of drinks, though the guy at the table next to us went inside the restaurant and ordered two cups of tea since they could be consumed indoors.  From our vantage point we could see everyone across the street in the Oban Inn desperately trying to squeeze under the canopy.  The Plant Doctor quipped that we should be drinking cocktails so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas, and when it came time for me to order our next round of beers I couldn’t help but steal his joke when the barmaid arrived at our table.  With her mask it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually get when I try to make a woman laugh, but her eyes suggested that she enjoyed the line.  A few moments later, the barmaid returned to our table with a small plastic box of the wee cocktail umbrellas and offered us our choice, which made us very happy.

The rain didn’t last terribly long, though the shower was heavy enough to leave us soaked and to water my Tennent’s Lager down from a 4% to a 3.9% ABV.  Ordinarily such an experience might have left us feeling miserable, but after a year of almost nothing but misery, it was hard to be upset over a little rain.  We dried out pretty quickly, and once we started drinking White Russians along with our beers, the whole world seemed to be singing and all the colours had come out.  I couldn’t believe that I had lived for 37 years without trying one of those before.  Seemingly when I arrived home after the ten o’clock curfew I planted the pink cocktail umbrella in the soil of one of my houseplants.  It’s funny trying to decipher the crazy way that the heavily intoxicated mind works.  The little umbrella wasn’t likely to make it any easier for me to remember to water the plants, and it wouldn’t protect them from the shower that probably isn’t going to come any better than it kept the rain out of my lager.  But still, it was nice to look at.

Skimming the surface (part two)

The first part of this story can be read by following this link.

Not only was Saturday the first day of May, but it was also the first Saturday morning in a long time that felt even close to resembling a “normal” Saturday.  I had arrived home from our in-person beer club drinks behind the lifeboat station in the early hours of the morning and fallen asleep in my tweed suit on the couch with a 568ml can of Tennent’s Lager by my side whilst attempting to watch the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It was the second time I had tried and failed to see the entire movie in recent weeks.  All I really wanted to do was to lay amongst my tangled sheets in a pitiful stupor and consider why the hell it was that I couldn’t make it all the way through that damn film, but I had made breakfast plans with the rest of my family and the alarm clock was about to go off.  Some things just aren’t meant to be.  

That hungover struggle to get out of bed and into a presentable state before my sister arrived to pick me up at 10.30 was maybe the first time I felt certain that things were beginning to return to more familiar territory.  We hadn’t been able to do our weekly breakfast at Poppies as a group of five since last summer and probably hadn’t been together as a family in as long.  For our father, it was the first time he had gone anywhere other than to Tesco for his shopping once every other week since August.  It was a big morning.  There was nothing like the rich, creamy Eggs Benedict from Poppies or the way that first cup of coffee would do to a hangover what finding God does to a heroin addict.  I could see myself one day sitting in a park telling complete strangers about that coffee.  We took a seat outside since Ardmucknish Bay and Dunstaffnage Castle in the distance were bathed in May Day sunshine, but the temperature wasn’t living up to the promise.  Since it was my suggestion that we eat at an outdoor table I felt compelled to make sure that I enjoyed myself more than anybody else, although that was difficult when my niece was so excited for finally having a group to perform in front of again.

Around twelve hours after parting, and with most of us refuelled with coffee, eggs or well-fired rolls, the beer club reconvened outside the Premier Inn to set off on our proposed adventure to Easdale Island.  Despite the island being only around 16 miles south of Oban, or a 31-minute drive according to Google Maps, it took our two cars closer to 50 minutes to make the journey to the ferry after both vehicles conspired to miss the two separate turn-offs from the main road.  Considering that the six members of our group had been split evenly between the cars, with each having a born and bred local and at least one scientist, it was pretty damning that we managed to miss both of the road signs.  I was in the lead car with the Plant Doctor and a red-haired biologist, which meant that we probably had to carry the can for the blunder, though carrying cans was our speciality.  It was no defence in hindsight, but at the time our car was deeply involved in a three-man rendition of the Britney Spears hit Oops!…I Did It Again which we later proudly performed on speakerphone for our trailing companions.  The red-haired biologist insisted that he had been looking out for a waterfall by the side of the road which he knew was close to Easdale, but I warned him against falling into the same trap as TLC once did, which I thought was the best joke I had ever made.  The detour was worth it just for that.

Easdale is the smallest of the Inner Hebrides’ inhabited islands and was once the centre of the Scottish slate industry until the great storm of 1850 flooded most of the quarries.  Today the island hosts the annual World Stone Skimming Championship which brings people from all over to the area.  The small boat to Easdale Island was carrying six passengers at a time, and we happily kicked our football up and down the slipway as we waited our turn to be taken across the water.  The crossing was only a matter of minutes, and you’re sat so low to the ground on the little speedboat that you can feel the ocean spray on your face.

Virtually the entire island is covered with tiles of slate, almost as far as the eye can see.  For a group of people who enjoy nothing more than casting sardonic comments at one another this was the perfect place to be.  Every piece seemed to be perfect, which led some of us to go off in search of the ideal coaster to take home.  It was a fun forage, but also very frustrating to know that I had spent £10 on two packs of four slate coasters at the time I became a single occupant when there was an endless supply of the stuff barely an hour’s drive down the road.  I reminded the red-haired biologist that it is important not to settle for the first one that you see, though in honesty I think I probably only told him that because he had found a piece of slate that was the desired shape and size for a coaster when we had only been on the island for ten minutes, and I wanted it.  He agreed and placed it back on the ground amongst the rest of the slate, though there was little chance of me finding that coveted piece again.  It was ever thus. 

There are fewer than 60 people living on Easdale and although we only encountered a handful of them, they were memorable meetings.  Due to our interest in examining the usefulness of pieces of slate as items that could protect a coffee table from rings, my brother, the red-haired biologist and I were lagging behind the second trio of our group.  We were idling over the terrain when we passed one of the few houses we saw on the island.  There was a young family out sitting in the calm of the afternoon.  We were in possession of the football, rolling it along the dirt track between the three of us.  That feeling of touching the ball with your foot never grows old, especially when there was none of the pressure that there was back on the slipway when we were terrified that the ball would end up in the sea.  A wee girl, maybe two or three years old, was standing on the grass outside the gate of the family home we passed.  She looked down at the ball in awe.  It could well have been the most wondrous thing she had seen that day.  The three of us spent what could easily have been five or ten minutes just kicking the football back and forth along the dusty path to this little girl.  

She squealed with excitement each time she kicked the ball, and at one stage even declared “Goal!  I win!”  The girl was having such a great time that we found it difficult to pick up our ball and leave.  The rest of our group had already disappeared into the horizon, and the girl’s parents kept telling her, “okay, one more kick and then say goodbye” but there was always another kick.  She didn’t care that we had quarries to visit or that our backpacks were full of beer.  She would tap the ball in any old direction, the red-haired biologist would exaggerate a dive over his bag and the trundling football, and this girl would celebrate like she had scored the goal that won the World Cup.  People often throw around the phrase that something is “as easy as taking candy from a baby” yet here we were, three grown men who couldn’t take a football from one.

Eventually we were able to say our goodbyes, but that was only the beginning of it.  A few hundred yards along the path, not long after I had taken a can of lager out of my bag, the three of us had our balls busted by an older gentleman who was out painting a shed.  Nearby his wife was sitting in a garden chair reading a magazine and minding her own business.  We exchanged greetings with the couple out of courtesy of being visitors to their island, then the man turned from his shed and called out to us across the slate and the grass.  “Do you have tickets?”  As though we were entering an exclusive museum, which in a way we were.  We smiled awkwardly.  

Noticing the can of Tennent’s Lager clutched in my left hand, unopened, he addressed us again.  “You know there’s no drinking on the island?”  I raised my hand above my hip.  “Oh, I only carry this to balance me out.”  It was the sort of response that sounded better in my head and didn’t really help the situation.

“Just remember to take your rubbish with you.”  We assured him that we were good citizens and continued on our way, not entirely sure whether the bloke had been serious or if he was pulling our legs.  We were convinced that he was joking, but his delivery was so dry that it was hard to tell.  As we were walking away we could hear the man’s wife scold him in the distance.  “Och, you do this to everyone!”

We caught up with the rest of our group, greeted by the sound of beer cans opening all around us.  Some of us noted the distinct whiff of gunpowder in the air, similar to the scent you get after you pull the string on a party popper, only in this instance there were no streamers to be seen, just steamers.  It didn’t take us long to reach our desired destination, which was the first of the two largest of the island’s seven flooded quarries.  From above, the water was the most exquisite colour you could imagine.  As a shade it was indescribable, like something you might see in the window of the Gem Box.  It was mesmerising to look at, especially when the water was surrounded by those towering columns of grey slate.  I asked the rest of the group what colour they thought the water in the quarry was, and the overwhelming, scientific, response was that it looked to be aqua.  It was difficult to argue the logic, just as it was difficult to hide my disappointment that they hadn’t come up with a word I hadn’t heard before.  That is the only thing that would have done it any justice.

The six of us descended into the quarry to sit by the water’s edge.  Although it was all slate and a reasonably stable climb, I felt terrified with every step I took – even more so than usual – but it turned out alright in the end.  There was no peace like the peace we found down at the base of the quarry.  It was the most tranquil place I have ever sat; so still, so unblemished, so aqua.  I parked myself on a rock that was just the ideal shape for a seat and cracked open a can of Innis & Gunn Lager, which being brewed in Edinburgh was really just a middle-class Tennent’s.  I rummaged in my backpack for the only item of substance I had brought with me on the trip – a Lidl Deluxe tub of Spanish olives with Gouda cheese.  They were intended to see me through the entire day, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic.  Around me others were indulging in a packet of mixed nuts, some rough oatcakes and a Tuna Subway on nine-grain wheat bread.  Between us I think we managed to name what eight of the nine grains would have been, but struggled on the ninth.  I wondered what the former heroin addicts who had found God and who the previous night had accused us of looking like a group of socialists from Glasgow University would think of the scene if they could see it.

Before long, the red-haired biologist had finished his Subway sandwich and stripped down to his swimming shorts, almost like the way the cartoon superhero of the eighties would eat a banana and be transformed into a muscular, caped figure.  He strode into the aqua water without any hesitation, like it was the most natural thing a person could do.  It looked so impressive, until the screaming started.  Soon the air was turned almost as blue as the water; an indescribable shade of blue.  I had never heard someone being tortured, but I expect that this is how it would sound.  Yet that didn’t stop the Plant Doctor from removing his clothing and wading into the quarry.  It was hard to tell if it was braveness or stupidity, or most probably that drunken spot right in the middle of the two.  That’s where most things tend to happen, after all.  The Plant Doctor didn’t swim all the way to the other side of the quarry like the red-haired biologist did – twice – but he at least got into the water, which was more than the rest of us could do.  Some dipped a toe into the aqua, but I forgot to even do that.  It was speculated that the temperature in there was no more than ten degrees.

The second quarry we ventured to was the one where the World Stone Skimming Championship is held in September every year, or at least it was during normal times – like in 2020, the 2021 event has been cancelled.  Along the way, some of the guys gathered up handfuls of what they believed were perfect stones for skimming in the quarry.  I didn’t particularly understand what they were looking for and took a greater interest in the flecks of fool’s gold that each piece of slate on the island seemed to have in it.  They each took turns tossing their stones into the water, the face of the aqua appearing to shatter like pieces of crystal with each throw as the stones skipped across the surface.  Somehow these stones could defy gravity.  According to the official competition rules, it is a distance of 63 metres from one end of the quarry to the back wall, and some of these throws threatened to go all the way.  

There was talk amongst the scientists about how the ideal technique seemed to be to try and throw your stone parallel to the water, which only had me less enthused about trying one for myself  I didn’t want yet more numbers to think about when the pollen count was still troubling me.  Yet being surrounded by all of these pieces of slate was no different to having a football within striking distance; your instincts compel action.  So I picked up a stone and stepped to the water’s edge, winding my arm back just as everybody else had.  I swivelled it forward with all of the might I could muster and released the stone from my grasp, sending it towards the water.  There was no bounce, hop or skip:  it immediately sunk, pretty much as I was expecting it would.  I returned to my seat with my beer, satisfied that the best use I would ever have for slate would be as a coaster on my coffee table.

As we made our way back to the slipway where we would get the boat returning to Ellenabeich, we passed by a small grassy area that had two sets of goalposts erected at either end.  It was impossible to resist.  Four of us threw our jackets, bags and beers down and began kicking the football around the field.  It wasn’t any different from when we were playing on Friday night, only this time we had a purpose; we had goals.  We arranged ourselves into a two-on-two game which was fairly ramshackle from the beginning.  A couple of young boys were walking along the dirt track beyond the field, and they seemed to take a keen interest in watching our game.  They could have been no older than ten, maybe younger.  Presumably on the island they had never seen four grown men – three of them inebriated – taking such delight in playing a game of football using children’s goalposts.  I booted the ball in their direction, a universal invitation to come and join us.  Only one of them did.  He told us that his friend wasn’t interested in football, that he preferred rugby.  I think we were probably just glad that he recognised that what we were playing resembled football enough to be bracketed in that category.

The ten-year-old boy joined the Plant Doctor and me as we faced off against my brother and the red-haired biologist.  He was wearing the blue jersey of the French national team, embroidered with the name of Antoine Griezmann on the back along with the number 7.  I asked him if he supported Barcelona since he had chosen to have Griezmann’s name on his shirt.  He dismissed my question as though I had asked him if he had landed from Mars.  “I hate Barcelona!”  Apparently he likes Arsenal and Juventus.  We were thankful to have young Antoine on our team – not only because he was a fairly skilful player who plays for the Oban Sunday league team Oban Galaxy, but mostly because he had bags of energy.  He hunted our opponents for the ball relentlessly.  It was tiring just watching him buzzing around the field, and it’s fair to say that he easily shamed us all.

Back in Oban we took some beers and sat on the shoreline, where we digested the weekend’s events.  Some chucked stones into the bay, and without a back wall to stop them it looked like the possibilities were limitless.  They could go anywhere, and so could we – almost.  We were astonished that the football had lasted the weekend and made it back from Easdale; not only due to our difficulty in taking it from young children, but because we were convinced that it was inevitable someone would kick it into the sea at some point.  We couldn’t stop thinking about the God-fearing former heroin addicts we had shared Friday night with, and how the tag of ‘socialists from Glasgow University’ had kind of stuck with us.  The whole weekend seemed normal, even if for the time there really wasn’t much normal about it.  More normal adjacent, or skimming the surface of what normal used to be.  It wouldn’t be long, surely, until we could plunge right in.

Skimming the surface (part one)

Even after a thrilling Easter weekend escapade on the island of Kerrera and even after discovering that, despite my worst fears, my washing machine is in perfect working order, I haven’t been feeling especially happy of late.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but I figured that it’s due to a combination of lockdown fatigue and the annual reminder that I suffer from hayfever.  It’s amazing the way that it always takes me by surprise when around the same time every April my eyes start to itch and my nose is streaming more than an addictive docuseries on Netflix.  It’s reminiscent of going into Lidl and picking up a jar of paprika because of a nagging feeling in the back of the mind that says you are out of it, only when you take it home and open the kitchen cupboard there is already a full one on the shelf and you are left with two of them, their powder as red as your eyeballs.

Around the middle of April, I started checking the pollen count every morning as part of my daily routine, mostly out of boredom but also because I was interested to know which days I was likely to suffer the most.  The Met Office website forecasted that it was ‘high’ during that week, though I still didn’t really understand what a high pollen count is or how people actually measure such a thing.  Most days it said that the main type of pollen in the air was birch and some willow, which was only useful for telling me that I was going to have to go and figure out which type of tree it is I am allergic to.  It seemed an inescapable truth that sometimes life is a birch.

My gloomy outlook wasn’t helped by yet another failed foray onto the smartphone dating application Tinder.  It is extremely rare that my use of the app ever results in me being matched with another woman, but on one afternoon in April I received notification of two separate matches.  The first young lady immediately messaged me with a red heart emoticon, to which my natural response was to comment on how I could “remember when those used to come as little candies with messages on them.”  She unmatched me right away.  The second young woman, who was named Kerys, had all of the physical attributes that I like in a person:  a symmetrical face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  I sent Kerys a message expressing my surprise at being matched with someone like her, though the truth was that I was surprised to be matched with anyone at all.  

She responded by saying that “U look like an interesting person :)” and I wondered what that meant.  What makes someone look like an interesting person?  It bothered me.  Was I interesting in the same way that I visited the Museum of Ireland – Archeology when I was in Dublin in 2017 because it was a rainy afternoon and it looked like an interesting way to pass the time?  A man who has tattoos and piercings all over his face looks interesting, but it was difficult to see how my Tinder profile picture could be in the same category.  I thanked Kerys without really knowing what I was thanking her for and told her that we would see if I could maintain her interest beyond two messages to back that up.  “Don’t be silly!  I’m interested in getting to know you xx” she swooned.  Her attitude towards me seemed unusually positive, and I figured that I would try and learn a little more about her by asking about the fact that her Spotify anthem was the song Dreams by Fleetwood Mac.  I haven’t heard from her since.

The Tinder snub didn’t bother me that much, but it was a small symptom of a larger malaise.  During one of my walks along the Esplanade after work, I observed as a seagull stood patiently on the pavement by the side of a parked car, its little head tilted upwards towards the passenger door.  I wondered what it was up to.  As I neared it became clear that there was a couple eating their chip shop dinner in the car, such is the way of ‘eating out’ in the lockdown age, and the seagull was behaving the way a dog does when it sits at the foot of its dining owner.  Even when I approached to within a metre or two of the bird it remained unmoved.  It never flinched.  Rather than the seagull being scared off by my approaching footsteps, I was the one worrying about why the gull was not intimidated by my gait.  What does it say about me when even a seagull isn’t taking any notice of my existence?

More than ever I was craving the lifting of lockdown restrictions.  It was obvious that I was spending too much time in my own company thinking about seagulls and pollen counts, and maybe the fucking seagulls are spreading the pollen.  I was worried that if things went on this way for much longer my eyes would grow used to the gloom.  Though the same was probably true of everybody.  All over Oban, people were preparing for the 26th of April when the country would move into level 3 and non-essential shops and outdoor hospitality could open for the first time in 2021.  Everywhere you looked buildings were receiving a fresh coat of paint and beautiful flower baskets were being hung, ready to woo the expected influx of visitors to the town.  It felt like the day of the high school Christmas Jingles when people would spend their time fretting about their clothes and hair ahead of the big night.  Though just like at the Jingles, where there was always one kid who wore a truly horrendous outfit that everyone would talk about for days, Oban’s spring reawakening had its own visual atrocity in the form of the newly purchased and renovated Regent Hotel.  

The 1930s art deco architecture of the hotel had always made it one of my favourite buildings in Oban and it was sad seeing it fall into a state of disrepair when the pandemic forced it and a few other hotels in town out of business last year.  Encouragingly it has recently come under new ownership, and like many other properties, it was repainted in advance of the 26th.  Unfortunately the classic understated light cream shade was replaced with a sickly yellow coat with red flashes between the windows.  One poster on the Information Oban Facebook group described it as “looking like a dirty tampon” but in my mind it was more similar to a plate of undercooked oven chips which have been smothered in ketchup in an effort to make them more palatable.  Either way, it wasn’t a good look.

Safety was very clearly the message of the moment in the week leading up to the next phase in the lifting of restrictions.  Around town – in the North Pier car park, at the station and along the Esplanade – there were large boards warning people to “avoid crowds” and reminding folk that they were to maintain a two-metre distance from one another.  Some of them were wrapped around lamposts like a dress.  There were also much smaller public information items found on most lamposts that were illustrated with two stick figures who were walking at a pace, presumably, two metres apart with the wording “keep a safe space”.  The same posts were already fashioned with Scottish National Party colours ahead of the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections.  All around town the message was clear:  Vote SNP, but form an orderly and socially distanced queue to do so.

On the final Saturday of lockdown as we knew it, it was a perfectly sunny day and evening, the sort that would perfectly illustrate why someone should visit Oban during spring – only no one could yet.  With the new rule of six people from different households being able to meet up outdoors already in action, we took the opportunity to hold the next edition of our album club in the garden of a bird enthusiast.  His residence near McCaig’s Tower had an almost unobstructed view of the entire bay if you were tall enough to see over the branches from the trees, which fortunately I was.  When the sun began to set behind Kerrera it turned a regal purple, a colour I can’t remember seeing so vividly before.  It was the most scenic album club we had put together.  If hosting these meetings on Zoom over the past year was like watching a poorly shot indie film that didn’t have the budget to hire a hairstylist, then this was the Oscars.  It wasn’t our first Jingles.  We sat drinking beers, gin and whisky in the garden until close to two in the morning, kept warm by a fire bucket that had been lit and maintained so expertly by the bird enthusiast and a doctor of words that we could easily have been discussing a popular song by Keith Flint’s former band.

I had walked to the album club meeting with the doctor of words, and we were surprised by the almost total absence of noise from the surrounding gardens in the area, especially considering that it was such a glorious night and larger groups could now socialise outdoors.  Near the Tower we passed the marine biology student who before the pandemic was occasionally a barmaid in Aulay’s.  I stopped to talk to her for a few minutes, always delighted for an opportunity to tell somebody about our geeky club.  The doctor of words said that the marine biology student seemed excited to see me and suggested that I should pursue something, but I didn’t believe her.  I think that it’s just been so long since all of us have seen other people that it’s exciting to see anyone and to be able to talk to them face-to-face.  It could also have been the fact that I was carrying my cargo of beers in a New Yorker tote bag.  I don’t take the bag out often, but whenever I do it usually seems to attract compliments, as though other people see it and automatically assume that I must be intelligent and funny and someone who is worth talking to, when the truth is that my brother had once gifted me with a one-year digital subscription to the magazine and the tote bag came as a reward.  Still, I quite liked the fact that people noticed the bag and seemed to appreciate it.  I’m considering taking a photograph of the tote bag and using it as the main picture on my Tinder profile.

With non-essential retail open again, I was finally able to go shopping for a new pair of brown shoes.  I had been in desperate need of one since my favourite pair had begun to fall apart before Christmas.  Having only black shoes in my wardrobe severely limited my options when it came to deciding which outfit to wear on a daily basis.  It was hard not to see how being unable to wear my brown tweed suit, for instance, wasn’t contributing to the gloom I had been feeling.  The shoe shop seemed reasonably busy – there were maybe two or three other customers – and it didn’t feel any different to any other time.  I went straight upstairs to browse the men’s footwear, where being met by row after row of neatly buffed smart dress shoes was everything I could have hoped it would be.  I don’t know if it’s possible to immediately fall in love with a pair of shoes the first time you see them, but there was one particular pair of Josef Seibels that I at least wanted to take out for a drink to find out if there was something there.

I took the shoes downstairs to pay for them, though my route to the till was obstructed by an elderly man who was preparing to try on a pair of his own.  He had as many as three different sets sprawled out across the ground in front of him, and his legs were as thick as tree trunks, making it impossible to walk around him as he sat there on the chair.  I stood with my new shoes dangling from the index and middle fingers of my right hand, watching as this large old man used a cane to help him rise from the seat.  Everything seemed to be happening in agonising slow motion.  His foot looked to be wider than any foot I had ever seen and it was difficult to see how it was going to fit into any of the shoes he had chosen.  Sure enough, the first shoe he managed to get his foot into was said to be too tight.  “Should I try the other one anyway?”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Why would you think to try on the left shoe when you already know that the right doesn’t fit?  It was all I could do to keep from inviting him to try on my shoes as well.  I couldn’t help but think that the old man was worse than the seagull I had seen on the Esplanade, completely unmoved by my presence.  Fortunately the shop assistant recognised my plight after not too long, and she cleared the shoes aside to give me enough space to pass.  As she was processing my purchase I noticed an A4 sign behind the counter advising the shoe store employees of all the occasions when they should wash their hands:  before starting their shift, before making a sale, after making a sale, that sort of thing.  It filled the entire page.

There was something almost inevitable about the dramatic drop in temperature and the return of overcast skies in the week that pubs could serve alcohol outdoors for the first time since December.  Although it was cloudy and not nearly as warm as the previous week, it was at least still dry when our Zoom beer club met up in person for the very first time.  Folk had come from Campbeltown and Glasgow for the occasion, which coincided with the scientist from Swansea University who has strong opinions on shoelaces celebrating his fortieth birthday.  Since the town’s beer gardens and restaurants were packed out with people taking advantage of the May bank holiday weekend, we were happy to take our beers and sit on the grassy area overlooking the RNLI lifeboat station, which would have been a fortuitous location should any of us have fallen into distress from the magnitude of the event.  Despite the cool night we never seemed to find it too cold up on the hill, though some of us did spend as much time kicking a football around the area as we did drinking our beers, so we might have been warm from that.  It’s remarkable how much joy playing with a football brings to a group of thirty-something-year-old men.

We spent several hours up there, just drinking beers, eating Space Raiders and punting the football, and it wasn’t really any different to when we would talk online; just better.  After a while, we were joined by three young ladies who were looking for somewhere to go after the beer gardens had closed.  I liked the fact that after hearing all about my ineptitude with the opposite sex every Friday for the last year the other members of the beer club could witness me conjuring these three young women to join us, even if it didn’t really mean anything more than them wanting a place to drink their Smirnoff Ice.  Two of the women were already known to the Plant Doctor and me after our last night out in The Lorne before Christmas.  We had grown into a large group, but it was fun, reminiscent of the days when you could go to the pub and meet different people.  On a bench further along the hill two guys were sitting playing guitar and smoking cigarettes.  They joined us later in the night after admitting that they were initially sceptical because they believed that we looked and sounded like a group of socialists from Glasgow University.  When you saw me in the tweed outfit that I was finally able to wear for the first time in months and the scientist with the strong opinions on shoelaces looking resplendent in a brilliant tweed blazer, the type which just demands a smoking pipe, it was easy to see how they came to that conclusion.

It turned out that the guys were former heroin addicts who have since found God, though they were reluctant to take song requests on their guitar.  They did at least allow the red-haired biologist in our group who actually is from Glasgow to strum a few notes, however.  One of the chaps seemed to take something of a shine to me and I spent a bit of time talking to him, though it was more of a wandering monologue than an actual conversation.  Some of his experiences and stories belonged in a book, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest that I have the stomach to write such a thing.  At the end of the night, after we cleared away our cans and debris, we went our separate ways from the guests who had briefly joined us and made our way home.  The streets were calm and still, allowing us the opportunity to play football on the road, as though we were kids in the 1970s.  We agreed that whatever expectations we had for the night couldn’t have been anything like the Friday we actually experienced.  Things immediately seem a lot less gloomy when you’re amongst good company, drinking beers and booting a football around the grass, meeting new people and hearing campfire tales you otherwise wouldn’t have if you were at home reading the pollen forecast.  We parted with the promise that we would all meet up again the following afternoon to take a trip down to Easdale Island, where a whole new set of experiences would be had. 

The second part of this story will be published in a week or so.

Enjoy every sandwich

By now it has been a few days short of a year since the first coronavirus restrictions were put in place across the UK, and depending on who one talks to it either ‘feels like yesterday’ since lockdown was originally announced on 23 March 2020 or it is as though this entire situation has been dragging on for years.  Days, weeks and months have blended into a single huge block, like the puddle that forms by the side of the pavement on George Street across from WH Smith on rainy days and is near-impossible to walk beyond without being sprayed by a passing vehicle.  You know it’s there and that you’re going to have to do something about it, but in the end, what does it really matter if you get soaked when there’s nowhere else to go but home?  I felt about Tuesdays and Wednesdays, February and March the same way I felt about that damn puddle.

Reading through old entries in my notebook from the time was almost as surreal as living through it.  Now that we have almost become accustomed to wearing face coverings wherever we go, social distancing, and pubs and restaurants either being severely limited in how they can operate or at times being closed entirely, it is incredible to remember that there was a time when everybody believed that the best way to combat an airborne virus was to stock up on as much toilet roll and pasta as we could fit in our cupboards and to wash our hands whilst singing God Save The Queen.  The latter was official advice from the UK government, and I still haven’t used the tin of chickpeas I had bought that first weekend in a blind panic because the rest of the shelves had been emptied.  At a time when some countries had closed their borders to international travellers, I was standing at the urinal in Aulay’s listening to a fellow drunk espouse his theory about how you can tell the quality of the lager in a pub from how wet the bathroom floor is.  His claim was that the more fluid there is to be seen on the floor of a pub’s toilet, the better the beer is because it proves that people are drinking a lot of it.  There wasn’t much opportunity to put the idea to the test before the lockdown eventually came, though it was clear that some puddles are to be avoided more than others.

In the week that the Scottish government revealed further details outlining its ‘roadmap’ out of the current set of lockdown restrictions that have been in effect since 26 December, Oban has enjoyed some brilliant early spring sun that started earlier and stretched later into the day than had been seen for some time.  Some days the temperature even threatened to reach the low-teens, which was reason enough for me to walk around town with my coat opened.  Nothing marks the changing of the seasons better than the first day of the year where it’s mild enough to unbutton your coat.  The weather was a welcome break from the grey and dreary period of rain we had recently been enduring, when at times the stuff seemed to be falling vertically and horizontally at the same time, and it didn’t matter how tightly your coat was buttoned because it would still find a way in.  Hailstones the size of fish food pellets lashed off the ground, and while it isn’t for me to suggest that Mother Nature was showing any kind of preference in the field of Scottish football, it was fairly compelling that the bad weather struck within hours of Rangers winning the Scottish Premier League title.

Like many Celtic fans, I had been resigned to the idea that the team would lose the championship since around October time, and even the most optimistic knew by the turn of the year that Rangers were on course to win it.  That gave me plenty of time to prepare myself for the inevitable sight of triumphant bluenoses in the spring, and when it came I was quietly relieved that lockdown restrictions meant that I wouldn’t have to witness it first-hand in the town’s pubs.  If the ostrich can survive for centuries by employing similar techniques, then I reckoned it was good enough for me.  I did everything I could think of to distract myself from the reality of the event:  undertaking a spring clean of my flat in keeping with the season, watching classic films I had missed over the years and immersing myself in music.  On YouTube, I came across the final television appearance of the rock star Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman in October 2002, some months after he had been diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that killed him a year later.  The host asked him if there was anything he understood now, facing his own mortality, that he didn’t before, and Zevon responded:  “You put more value in every minute.  It’s more valuable now.  You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.”  

For days I was trying my best to avoid my Facebook feed, which was filled with Rangers supporters who were enjoying the cheese and pickle sandwich of a Scottish Premier League title win, while the memories feature of the app was busy reminding me that five years ago I was embarking on my second trip to New York City.  As much as I enjoyed looking back at some of the old photographs from the holiday, it felt as though I was being taunted by a ghost when the furthest I can travel these days is the war memorial.  I decided to put the internet to better use in the hope of learning a new skill, and while it may not sound as impressive as some of the talents other people seemed to be cultivating during the extended period of being indoors, I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I cooked egg-fried rice for the first time.  As usual, the most difficult part of the dish was my attempt at measuring the amount of rice I would need when I was preparing it the evening before.  Rice is even more difficult to measure than pasta, which I always manage to cook too much of.  My ability has undoubtedly been hampered by the fact that the battery in the kitchen scales I bequeathed from home when I moved into my single occupancy has since died, and because I have never bothered to replace it I have been forced to measure certain ingredients ‘by eye’.  I believed that this was something I would get better at with experience, and especially now that I have my new glasses, but it turns out that I can no more remember how much pasta I poured into a pot two weeks ago than I can which day of the week it is.

They say that you can never have too much of a good thing, though, and I wasn’t about to complain about having a bowl which was piled with rice as tall as a molehill, especially not when it turned out to be so tasty.  That the egg-fried rice was so easy to make and just as delicious had me feeling ashamed that I had been buying the prepared packaged stuff from the supermarket for so long.  I wasn’t even put off eating those pouches of rice after the night in Aulay’s when the diminutive barmaid told me about the reason she had stopped buying them.  I was nursing a pint of Tennent’s at the end of the bar on a Wednesday night following another quiz defeat when for some reason the conversation turned to rice.  The barmaid mentioned that she had stopped buying the packaged rice as a consequence of a dinner-time disaster when she was squeezing the grains from the pouch into a stir fry and a dead mouse flopped into the wok.  All I can remember thinking was why she had felt it necessary to emphasise the fact that the mouse was dead when surely it was unlikely that it was going to appear amongst some processed food in any other condition.  The story never put me off buying the product, mainly because it seemed worth the very unlikely risk of finding a mouse in the packet for all the effort it saved from making egg-fried rice from scratch, though that no longer seems to be a reasonable excuse now that I know how simple it is to prepare egg-fried rice on my own.

It wasn’t much, but mastering even the most basic dish would be enough to allow me to leave lockdown feeling confident that the last year hadn’t been a complete waste.  Restrictions are due to start easing from the beginning of April, with beer gardens due to be reopened from the 26th and indoor hospitality resuming from the 17th of May.  I always imagined that if people still kept calendars in 2021 then those are the dates I would have been circling on mine, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was listening to the First Minister outlining the Scottish government’s plans for relaxing the rules and it wasn’t the proposed dates for pubs being able to open that had me most excited, but the one where barbers could trade again.  It is early December since I last had my hair cut, and by now it is resembling the sketch a toddler might produce after being asked to draw a scarecrow.  There are hairs branching off in all directions, like rain falling on an early March day. 

The notion that a man who is as follically challenged as I am should be wishing his hairs away seemed absurd, but at the same time I am almost missing the barber as much as I do spending time with my own family, or seeing some of the friends I have lost touch with over the last year.  I miss the barber’s chair nearly as much as I do the barstool, even if for reasons of vanity more than anything else.  My ability to deal with unruly hair is on a level with my judgment when it comes to measuring rice, in that I am forced to do it ‘by eye’ and no matter what I do, there is always too much of it.   The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what Warren Zevon was getting at when he spoke about enjoying every sandwich, but I’ve come to realise that it’s more than sandwiches.  When the time comes, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of that hair cut.

Framed

Our weekly Zoom meetings can often go on as late as three in the morning, far beyond the regular closing time of the pubs they are supposed to be a substitute for.  The same barman whose thankless task it was to have to encourage us to leave the bar using the sort of vocal persuasion that a parent might enlist to convince a reluctant toddler to eat a forkful of broccoli – if you leave tonight you can have ice cream tomorrow – can now only watch if we decide that we would like to have another beer and continue to discuss the issues of the day, such as the integrity of shoelaces or the ingredients of an aubergine pie.  I once referred to him as being amongst the ten best bartenders in Aulay’s, an observation which earned me some scorn, but what couldn’t be disputed was that he was the best barman on our Zoom calls.  One of his favourite phrases for ushering us out of the bar at the end of the night was to bellow that “we’ve all got homes we’d like to go to,” and now we were all in our own homes and there was nothing that anybody could do about it. 

Such was the case on a recent Friday night that came at the end of a week which was the coldest February week in Scotland for more than thirty-five years; though as is usually the case, Oban was spared the snow which had blanketed much of the rest of the country.  The nights were fierce, and I was thankful that I could log out of the virtual pub at 3 am and go straight to bed, avoiding the long walk home from Aulay’s or Markies that a Friday would usually require.  I was eager to disrobe myself of all of my garments and get under the warm duvet as quickly as possible and began tugging at my clothing as though there wasn’t a moment to waste, just like I had envisioned every other Friday, only in my mind there was always another person there with me.  In my haste I pulled my navy v-neck sleeveless sweater vest up over my head and unwittingly brought my glasses with them.  Before I knew it, the glasses were at my feet on the dimly-lit Portland oak laminate flooring in two perfectly individual pieces, and my heart sank.  I looked down in glum horror, utterly helpless for what could have been an eternity had it not been for the fact that it was cold and I was wanting my bed.

When I awoke the next morning it was with the sort of blissful ignorance that only alcohol can bring.  I was lying luxuriously amongst my 200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets as bony fingers of winter sunlight were stretching across the bed, making a mental list of everything I would get when I went shopping later in the day but would have forgotten about by the time I was in the shower.  I thought about how many eggs I would poach for breakfast and what I would make for dinner; contemplated whether I would go for a walk in early or late afternoon; considered how much longer I could stay in bed before I would have to get up if I wanted to see all of the regular Saturday card of televised football.  Something about watching television triggered a terrible realisation within my brain and I shot upright in my bed, reaching for the glasses case on my bedside table.  I prised open the lid with all of the hesitancy of a small boy who lifts up a rock knowing that he’s going to find the earth underneath teeming with worms, and there I saw my glasses, broken in two right down the nose, folded neatly away as though they were a loved one being laid to rest.  They were looking so peaceful, so dignified.  My glasses were broken, and I couldn’t think of a worse thing that could have happened.

I had been with that pair of glasses since the beginning of 2016 and had seen so many things through them – some things that I could never have imagined I would ever see.  Together we had looked out upon New York City, Budapest, Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and beyond.  I wore them to every game in the two seasons where I had a season ticket at Celtic Park and when I went to see Bruce Springsteen, U2, and The Gaslight Anthem.  For nigh upon five years they had gone everywhere with me, and when I realised that they were broken it was remarkable how the dread that came with wearing glasses for the very first time wasn’t anything compared with the fear of not having them at all.

I think I was maybe around 14 or 15-years-old when I was told that I needed glasses, and it was the sort of news that couldn’t be easily soothed by the red lollipop that was commonly handed out after visits to the optician.(i)  When I was in high school in the mid-to-late nineties it wasn’t considered cool to wear glasses.  There was still a stigma attached to anyone who needed corrective vision.   People who had two eyes were respected, admired and looked up to; those with four eyes, not so much.  You would have been as well turning up at the school gates with two heads or eight arms and legs.   I dreaded the prospect of wearing glasses.  Other kids I knew who wore them seemed to disappear after a while, as though the glasses were an invisibility cloak.  I found it hard enough as it was to fit in at school without putting a pair of glasses on my face.  

The greatest irony is that I was never a nerd when I was in high school, which is how those who wore glasses were generally perceived.  While I enjoyed English, history and modern studies, I was never especially studious in any subject – something which I regretted as I became older.  I spent a lot of my spare time writing out jokes or short stories which I would use to impress my classmates, and while some people did find them amusing, I was far too shy and introverted to make conversation beyond my little written notes, and I struggled to make many friends.  If I could do it all over again and go to high school now, I would almost certainly be a nerd – but then I would also be a 38-year-old man sitting in a classroom amongst a group of teenagers, and it would be just as uncomfortable as it was twenty-two years ago.

Waves of panic washed over me as I tried to figure out what I was going to do about my glasses.  I sent a photograph of the stricken spectacles to everyone I knew, seeking advice and probably a little sympathy.  One friend responded simply “don’t use tape” followed by no fewer than five exclamation marks, which quickly ruled out the only tool I had at my disposal.  I understood why she had offered that opinion, though, particularly when I have so little sex appeal as it is without wrapping my glasses in sellotape.  With my reluctance to further diminish any sex appeal – or specs appeal – I might posses, I had no other option but to go out and shop for something that would fix my broken glasses.  Stepping outside that Saturday morning was one of the most terrifying things I have done:  everything looked so different, as though being viewed through a glass of salted water.  They appeared blurry and somehow smaller, while the faces of people were indistinguishable.  Crossing the road seemed treacherous; I would have been as well putting on a blindfold and rolling a dice for all that I could make out the distance between the cars and where I was standing on the pavement.  Eventually I made it across the road and into Tesco, where the entranceway was choked with men who were studying the enormous display of Valentines flowers which seemed to be as tall as the ceiling, though there was no way of telling.  My brother had provided me with uncannily accurate directions for where I could find the superglue, and once I had finally broken free of the supermarket Romeos I was able to get my hands on the stuff I required.  I stood staring at the shelf for several moments, in the end having to bring the package almost directly up to my face in order to be able to read the text and be sure that I was buying the right product.  It wasn’t a bunch of red roses or a heart-shaped box of chocolates, but I was at least leaving with something useful.

With the two halves of my glasses reunited again at the bridge, it was possibly the closest I had felt to joy in a long time.  My surroundings made sense once more.  I wasted little time in going onto the Specsavers website to use their facility to order a replacement pair of glasses, after remembering that I had received an email from the opticians around November-time suggesting that I should schedule an eye test since it had been a few years since I last had them checked – an offer which I refused when I went online and found that the nearest available appointment wasn’t until after Christmas.  For some reason I was incredulous that I would have to wait more than four weeks for an eye exam, even though I had no plans for basically the next year.  Nevertheless, now that my glasses were fixed and I had some new ones on the way, I had assumed a new-found confidence.  I felt like I could do anything, even though Covid restrictions meant that I could essentially do nothing, and the best I could make of it was to go to Lidl on Sunday for the groceries I had missed the previous day.  It was beautiful being able to see clearly again, even the large sign in the middle of the foyer warning customers that they should “shop alone where possible.”  

While other people were doubtless enjoying romantic dinners of steak or oysters served with bubbly Champagne, I was shopping mainly for instant mash – which I had taken a lazy notion for to accompany a beef casserole – when I received a phone call from the local branch of Specsavers.  The woman on the other end of the line wanted to inform me that they no longer stocked the glasses I had ordered – my glasses – and that they had been advised of a cancellation that afternoon if I would like to come in for an eye test and to choose a new pair of glasses.  It was difficult keeping track of whether this was all good luck or bad. 

No less than an hour later I was picking up a blue medical mask and being led upstairs to the testing site in Specsavers, where I was asked to take a seat while the machines were being cleaned and prepared for use.  I was sitting with my hands clasped across my lap, almost like I was in church, not knowing who I was supposed to be praying to.  In my mind I kept replaying the scene on Friday night when my glasses hit the floor.  I had taken a jumper off over my glasses hundreds of times in my life and never once knocked them from my face, but I suppose there are some things you can only get away with for so long.  Following a few moments of contemplation, I became aware that in the background the R.E.M. song Everybody Hurts was playing over the in-store radio.  It was a surreal feeling.  If somebody had told me that in 2021 I would be spending Valentines Day in the opticians waiting for an eye test whilst listening to Everybody Hurts, well, it would have seemed about right, really.

“If you feel like you’re alone

No, no, no, you are not alone.”

The song hadn’t finished when I was asked to come through to the first room, where it was explained to me that there were two machines which were going to measure various things:  the first would use a series of lasers to analyse the insides of my eyes, and the second would blow a short puff of air into them.  I didn’t understand any of it, still thinking about why Everybody Hurts would be playing in the waiting area of any medical facility.  The optical assistant used the first device to look deep into my eyes, telling me when I should blink and when I should stare straight ahead, like I was participating in a hostage video and being commanded to communicate using only my eyes.  She would frequently repeat the phrase “now blink like normal”, and I had no idea how to blink like normal when there was a laser trained on my eye; a sniper waiting for me to make the wrong move.  It just wasn’t possible.  Instead I felt as though my eyelids were fluttering like a miller moth stuck in a net curtain, and it wasn’t a surprise that I screwed up and the optician later had to take me back through to redo part of the exam.  I always floundered any time there was a woman looking into my eyes.

After the first part of the test was done, the optician appeared in the waiting area and she summoned me into her office, which was dark except for the white light being emitted from the eye chart on the back wall and the glare from the computer screen in the corner.  I couldn’t help from noticing that on the optician’s monitor were the x-rays of what I presumed were my eyes, though I had never seen them in such graphic form to be able to recognise them for sure.  They looked hideous, like two cooked beetroots had been left out of their juices for too long and become shrivelled and dry and red.  Upon seeing the images I felt certain that the optician was preparing to give me some bad news, and I became queasy.  Why couldn’t I just have taken my glasses off before removing my sweater vest like any other normal person does?  

The optician asked me if I am familiar with the anatomy of the eye, a question which under ordinary circumstances sounded like it could have been a brilliant lead-in to a killer line, but I was in no mood for flirtation when I could see over her shoulder how sickly my own eyes were looking.  I smiled nervously behind my medical mask and told her that I wasn’t familiar with the anatomy of the eye, and the optician educated me in the basics before talking me through what she could see in the x-rays of my dried-up beetroots.  We were looking specifically at images of my retinas, and as she clicked through the graphics talking about deep craters and wide valleys, I realised that she would have been as well talking about the surface of Mars for all I understood.  Once the optician finished delivering her dissertation, she announced that my retinas are in perfect condition, which came as a pleasant surprise to me considering what I was seeing on her screen.

As a way of making small talk before we moved on to the eye charts, the optician asked what had moved me to make an appointment, and I told her the tragic tale of how my glasses had fallen to the floor on Friday night and broken in two.  She seemed neither up nor down when confronted by the saga, presumably because opticians hear all sorts of ridiculous stories about how people break their glasses.  Maybe R.E.M. were right after all?  I was gradually beginning to feel better about things, at least until we turned to the eye chart and I could feel my anxiety building again when the optician asked if I could make out the top line of letters.  I didn’t want to disappoint her after she had been so complimentary about my retinas, but the truth is that the letters were indistinguishable and didn’t make any sense to me, as though straight out of the pages of a Russian novel.  When it came to the part of the test where I was asked to determine the difference between various lenses – “is this one better or worse, or just the same?” – I felt like I was mostly just guessing, similar to the way that when a crow picks up a cigarette from the pavement it is simply acting on instinct and can have no way of knowing what it is really doing.  Snap judgments were never my thing; I always needed time to procrastinate over all options before coming to a decision, and even then it was probably with some reluctance.  There was one lens where the optician even prompted me, asking “are you sure?”  And I really wasn’t.

Despite all of this, even though I feel as though I can hardly see at all when I’m not wearing my glasses, it turns out that my eyes are healthy and haven’t changed at all since they were last tested.  I felt relieved.  As I was waiting to be taken back downstairs to pick out a new pair of frames, I heard the optician telling her assistant about how I had broken my glasses by trying to take my jumper off over them, and for a moment it was like being taken back to high school.  While she was measuring my face for the glasses I had chosen, the optical assistant looked down at my spectacles, bound together by superglue, as they sat in front of me on the desk.  She asked me where they were broken and I pointed to the area of injury on the nose.  The assistant commented that she couldn’t tell they were broken when they were on my face and insisted that I had done a good job of repairing them.  She could never truly understand how I had suffered for my craft.

My new glasses are due to arrive in a couple of days and natural balance will be restored in my life.  I should have been feeling pleased about things, or at least contented, but instead, by the end of last week I was feeling overwhelmed by feelings of dread any worry.  I hadn’t experienced anything like it in well over a year, not even through all of the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic.  It was difficult to understand why, and even more to know what to do about it.  On Thursday night my heart was thumping as though I had downed a dozen cups of coffee in quick succession and sat down to watch the final scene of the movie Seven.  My hands were clammy, albeit that was kind of welcome in the grip of winter, and my head ached with a sensation like it had been split open all the way down the middle from temple to chin, just like my glasses had been.  Glasses are easily fixed, though.  How do you superglue a broken person?  The best I could do was to go to bed and play the Limp Bizkit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water, which was the first one I had bought when I was 17-years-old.  The fact that I used to like Limp Bizkit so much often makes me cringe now, but back in 2000 I listened to that album on repeat morning and night whilst worrying about how I was going to fit in tomorrow.  It made me feel about as tall as a supermarket display of Valentines flowers, and I knew that’s what I needed last week.  I didn’t want to listen to Limp Bizkit any more than I wanted a new pair of glasses, but was I feeling better, worse, or just the same for having played that particular album on Thursday night?  At a guess, I would say that I was better.

(i)  Citation needed.  I can remember getting a lollipop after visiting the optician, but nobody that I have asked does.  It could have been the dentist.

One heart is better than none

During any conversation on the west coast of Scotland, it is usually only a matter of time before the subject turns to the weather, as if it were written into the local council bylaws that it must be discussed at every available opportunity.  I don’t know if it’s because there isn’t much else going on in some of the small communities around here, especially during these last ten months of lockdown, or if the weather is just such a dominant and dramatic part of the landscape that it demands attention.  After all, when you see the distant snow-capped hills rising from the sea looking like Tunnock’s Teacakes with the tops sliced off, it’s hard not to tell everybody about it.  Whatever it was, the topic of the weather always lingered in the air.  There were some people who you could tell wanted to talk about nothing but the state of the weather, while for others it took a little bit longer, but like a gentle breeze coming towards the shore from the sea, it would eventually get there.

Although the veil was slowly being lifted on winter and the daylight was nudging towards the evening, lasting as long as five o’clock by the end of the first week in February, the winter would still bear its fangs, and for much of January the talk seemed to be about how cold it was.  It had been freezing for weeks, with the temperature according to the Met Office sharing a lot in common with me, in that we were both a struggling single figure.  I had heard others say in conversation that it was the most prolonged cold spell they could remember, and I even used the phrase a couple of times despite not having any evidence to back it up.  I never wrote such things in my notebooks – weather reports, essentially – instead focussing on something I had eaten or worn on a particular day.  Recently I had written about a small purple blemish the size of a sunflower seed which had appeared on my right cheek, just below the rim of my glasses and in a position where a face covering wouldn’t hide it.  I noted that it was typical such a thing would happen to me just before Valentine’s Day, but when I read it back I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference.  Other things I had scribbled into my book included a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, minus the mushrooms, and a congratulatory piece about how I had managed to get out of bed to perform a session of yoga on three mornings one week, an achievement which I attributed to the fact that I had put a fresh filter in the coffee machine the night before – but nothing about the weather.  So much for my theory that a pretty notebook would encourage me to write better.

All through the chilly winter, I was wearing a brand new housecoat around the flat that probably turned out to be the best investment I had made in 2020.  I wore the robe every night and it provided great comfort and warmth in the face of the dire cold.  The coat was a fluffy navy blue colour with red trim around the lapels, and the belt tightened the garment snug around the waist, in keeping with its brand name; snuggaroo.  On either side there was a pocket which was about the size of a fist, and for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom what people were supposed to keep in those pockets.  They were big enough for a packet of tissues or a mobile phone, maybe, but if the whole purpose of a housecoat is that it is an item of clothing to be worn in the home, then everything you need is presumably within reach anyway.  It bothered me more than it should any reasonable person, but that’s what the long periods of lockdown had done to us; giving us nothing but time to sit and think about the reason for there being pockets on a housecoat.  I concluded that the only sensible use for the pockets would be to use them to stage my own Punch and Judy show if the options on Netflix ever dried up, but fortunately things hadn’t become that desperate yet. 

Whilst pondering the potential uses for the pockets, it struck me that I hadn’t owned a housecoat since I was a small boy, and the idea of getting one for myself hadn’t once occurred to me in the years since.  The way I saw it, the only types of people who owned a housecoat were children and the elderly.  I had never heard of anyone in the hinterland between the two groups wearing one, therefore it followed that by becoming a man who wears a housecoat I was accepting my fate as an older man.  I didn’t care about that, though.  The coat felt luxurious, and there were times when I was strutting about my flat where I felt almost as though I was Hugh Hefner.  An appreciation of robes is where the similarities with the founder of Playboy magazine started and ended, though,  Rather than being a millionaire publisher who spends his time partying in an extravagant mansion in Los Angeles surrounded by beautiful models, I was a single man who was happy to be breaking even, claiming a 25% discount on my council tax for being a single occupant in a tiny flat on Combie Street.  As for what Hugh Hefner would have kept in the pockets of his robe, the mind boggles.

With a slither more light in the morning, it was remarkable how things just seemed that little better than they had been a few days before.  While the country’s Coronavirus vaccination programme started to pick up some pace, the brighter mornings were a bit like a vaccine for the soul, and along with the promise of a fresh filter in the coffee machine, I was finding myself able to get out of bed earlier to indulge in my morning routine most days.  As well as being able to do a session of yoga, I finally started reading the English version of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar.  The book did a good job of making me miss my own local bars even more than I already was, particularly Aulay’s.  Many of his passages reminded me of the warmth of the pub, which is what I think I was missing most of all.  Not only the companionable warmth of another drinker, but the physical warmth of the pub, especially those nights where it was so cold that someone would fire up the little halogen heater which sat in the corner by the door that took you from the lounge to the public bar.  I don’t remember the heater ever making that much of a difference, but at least it was always warmer than my flat would have been.  I came to realise that there were times when I was going to the pub for the heat as much as for the company.   

My breakfast bar was finally being put to the use that I had always imagined, and if I wasn’t reading a book in the morning then I was flicking through the latest issue of Private Eye magazine during my lunch hour or reviewing the rare items of post I would receive.  Usually the letters were just a notification that the cost of my electricity or broadband was going up, or it was yet another leaflet from the Scottish Conservative Party that went straight into the recycling bin, but in the last week I received a pamphlet from NHS Scotland about the new organ donor legislation in the country.  Basically, from 26 March 2021, anyone who is older than 16 will be considered to have agreed to be a donor when they die; an ‘opt-out’ system rather than the current process where people have to make their own decision to sign up to the register.  Usually in early February it was heart donations of a different sort which were being exchanged by mail, or at least it was for other people.  

I think most folks believed that the change in the donor system was for the best, and for perhaps the first time it got me to thinking about what would eventually become of my own organs.  I presumed that my lungs would be useless to anybody on account of the years I had spent as a part-time smoker in my twenties, and even though it was known that the liver could regenerate healthy cells over time, I didn’t fancy the chances of mine being accepted by the health service, even in an emergency; though I did at least hold out hope that maybe my liver would be displayed in a beautiful glass case above the bar in Aulay’s, next to the really expensive malt whiskies, the way some other bars kept shinty trophies or golf shields.  That would be when I knew that I had truly made it.  As for the kidneys, I never fully understood what it was they did, other than sharing their name with a variety of bean, and I imagined that there would probably be plenty of them going around.

After some consideration, I decided that my heart would be the most likely candidate for any organ donation after my death.  I liked to think that I had a good heart, even if I had no expertise in cardiology to support this belief.  In the days after receiving my pamphlet from the government, I found myself walking around Oban sizing people up as potential recipients for my heart.  It made a change from judging them for the way they were dressed, or how they were wearing their masks – if they were even wearing one at all.  It wasn’t unusual for me to be looking at people and thinking of ways I could convince them to accept my heart, but this time it was different; this was for their own good.  Over the week I began to worry that any procedure might be like one of those countless science-fiction plots where the brain of some maniac is transplanted into the head of an innocent host who subsequently inherits all of the evil traits of the psychopath, leading him to an unwitting criminal rampage, and the scenario played on my mind.  

I got to thinking about the poor sap who would eventually end up with my heart; how he would likely be a ruggedly handsome figure who has all of the most attractive personality traits such as charm, intelligence, a razor-sharp wit, and he always knows exactly the right thing to say.  All that he was ever missing was a good heart, and when the day comes that he receives one from a donor, he is filled with joy and hope; finally his ills have been cured and he will be able to live a normal life.  But slowly, like in a bad sci-fi movie, he realises that something isn’t right.  He has become the kind of guy who opens a Tinder conversation with the line:  “Usually if I make a match on here I assume someone has swiped in the wrong direction.”  He’s a romantic illiterate and his love life has suddenly been ruined, to the extent that any time he approaches a woman he is filled with the same apprehension he experiences on the one day a year when he wears a red shirt and he knows that eventually he’s going to have to put it in the washing machine, so once he takes it off he stuffs it down into the bottom of the laundry basket and forgets about it until he next feels like wearing red.  It is woefully obvious to him that the heart he has been donated is a lonely heart, and in time he is spending his evenings performing puppet shows with the pockets on his housecoat.

Getting jiggy with it

It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody when the lockdown that was initially announced on 4 January for the entire month was extended until at least the middle of February in Scotland.  For all the promise of a fresh start at midnight on New Year’s Eve, suddenly we were living a longer version of the old one; the worst house of mirrors that anyone had ever thought of.  It didn’t seem to matter which direction we turned, we just expected to find the reflection growing larger and in the most ridiculous shapes.  This lockdown is different from the original one ten months ago, which felt almost like a novelty at the time, similar to the first day of snowfall in winter or when you buy a new pair of shoes.  Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and that made it exciting in a way, at least for a while.  There was naturally some uncertainty in the beginning, like when you can’t be sure how those new shoes are going to feel when you’re wearing them all day so you ‘break them in’ around the house to see if it hurts.  Gradually you feel confident enough to wear them outside, and before you know it you’re walking all over the place like it’s nothing.  That was the case until you realised that there was only so far you could go and so much you could do without the threat of falling flat on your face on a patch of ice.

Unlike in March, the winter lockdown has been dark, cold and wet, and because of it, people are truly forced to stay at home when they aren’t taking care of essential tasks.  It was difficult to tell exactly when it happened, but there came a point in the pandemic where we could measure our lives in lockdowns the way we used to with birthdays or summer holidays or football seasons.  I realised when I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t seen her since the beginning of the first lockdown; it was the period between the initial restrictions and the introduction of the tier system when I last had a drink in Aulay’s; I last had my hair cut the week before the second lockdown started, when the barber told me that he had trimmed my hair a little shorter than he usually does because he wasn’t expecting to be able to open again before the spring, as though the hairs falling from my head were tea leaves or some foreboding tarot cards and he saw some terrible events in them.  

The first lockdown was like the novelty of snowfall in winter

I took a real fascination in hearing about some of the different ways other people were passing the time during the extended experience of lockdown, mainly because they were more interesting than anything I was doing.  I had heard from at least a couple of friends who were watching the reality television series Married at First Sight Australia, in which complete strangers seemingly meet for the first time at their wedding.  I couldn’t get a single match on Tinder yet in Australia people were being married without having to put in any of the effort; without so much as a solitary swipe.  I never knew that such a show existed, and I asked what the point in it was if the people taking part had already got what they came for.   The viewer never saw the winning family proudly holding their prized fondue set at the start of The Generation Game, after all.

“It’s just easy television to binge,” it was explained to me.  The interesting part wasn’t the fact that these complete strangers were getting married without having never met, it was what happened after the wedding.  They would be followed by the cameras as they went on their honeymoon; when they met their new in-laws for the first time; when they moved into a home together.  And all the way through this they would be getting to know one another.  “Basically they’re doing everything in reverse.”  To me that meant that eventually the couple would reach a point where they are standing at their local bar and the man nervously approaches his wife with what in his head is a killer joke, but it only leads to a prolonged awkward silence before she turns and goes off to talk to the cool guys who are standing by the jukebox while he’s left wondering what he’s doing with his life.  He orders another pint, the camera cuts and the credits roll.

As well as binge-watching television shows, I knew of people who were reading as many as three books a week during the lockdown.  Others were engaging in crafts at home, while some had taught themselves how to cook some exquisite meals.  Most evenings the seafront was transformed into a cross between a running track and a camera club, and if the photographers were lucky they would get one of those clear winter skies that looked almost as though a nuclear reactor had gone off in the distance, or like a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon.  In my own social circle, there were as many people who had bought themselves a telescope as were watching Married at First Sight Australia.  The habits I had adopted were a bit more passive.  On a Sunday night, I liked to round off the weekend by lying in my bed and listening to the Absolute 90s radio station, which played nothing but music from the decade of its name.  I didn’t do this on any other night, just a Sunday.  It struck me as being a little peculiar, especially when I hadn’t paid much attention to the songs the first time around.  I wasn’t really into music at that age, and the only time I would hear it was when I played Nintendo in my brother’s room, where he’d usually be listening to Manic Street Preachers or Oasis, or occasionally Radio 1.  The only radio I ever listened to in the nineties was TalkRadio, where the presenters discussed the news of the day and took calls from listeners rather than play music, yet here I was in 2021 going to bed on a Sunday night with Absolute 90s playing until I fell asleep.  I suppose nostalgia is always comforting.

Through the week I often found myself gazing upon the drinks globe my sister had given me for Christmas with the same sense of wonder that I imagined other people must have for their children.  It’s so beautiful.  Sometimes I could just stare at it for minutes at a time without doing anything else.  I would think about a night when I could finally have folk around to serve them drinks from it, though I would need to invest in some more spirits since at the moment all that is inside the globe is three bottles of Jameson whiskey, along with some Jack Daniels on the bottom shelf of the trolley.  Although a generous supply of whiskey and bourbon wasn’t really giving any visitors a great deal of choice, I always liked to believe that Jameson could open up the world to anyone, and now I could actually see it happen.

When I wasn’t listening to music from a bygone decade or staring adoringly at my new bar, I most often passed the time by writing in my notebook.  My current book is a standard, unglamorous one picked up from WH Smith.  It has a black plastic cover which is bound by flimsy spirals, and there are 160 lined A5 pages.  I was down to the last few sheets when I started to take note of any old crap I could think of, so desperate was I to finish the notebook and move on to the new one I had bought towards the end of last year.  This is the drinks globe of notebooks:  a chestnut brown vegan leather hardcover; ivory white pages which are as thick as a fingernail; solidly bound.  I had ordered the journal from the London-based store Beechmore Books, and at £12.95 it was the most I had ever spent on a notebook.  I had convinced myself that if the book is prettier then the words I write on its pages will somehow be better and more meaningful.

This is the drinks globe of notebooks

To use up the remaining pages I took note of a story that appeared recently in The Scotsman newspaper about a DNA breakthrough made from the discovery of the 6,000-year-old remains of two men which were found in a cave in Oban.  According to the article, DNA analysis from a team led by a professor from Harvard University established that the men were descended from immigrants from the continent and were most likely related.  The report mentioned how the discovery tied in with previous research which has demonstrated that immigrant farmers from Northern France arrived in Britain in around 4,000 BC and brought with them a way of life that was entirely different to that of the indigenous population, who mainly relied on hunting, fishing and foraging.  These incomers had slightly lighter skin and darker eyes, and it is said that their DNA almost overwhelmed the indigenous DNA signature.  However, it has been discovered that seven people who were buried during the Neolithic period in Scotland were carrying a mix of both types of DNA, which perhaps shows that the immigrants were lovers and not fighters.  This was bourne out in a quote from Dr Allison Sheridan, who revealed the latest findings in a series of lectures.  She said:  “It is clear that some locals did get jiggy with some of the farmers.”  I underlined this line in my notebook and wondered if Dr Sheridan was also spending her weekends listening to vintage nineties music.

I often wrote down snippets from unusual news reports in the hope that I could use them later in conversation, making myself appear more interesting for knowing such things in the process.  I don’t know why I preserved this particular story about 6,000-year-old bones, however, other than to use up the last few pages of my notebook.  It’s not like I’m going to have any immediate use for the information with the country being in lockdown for the foreseeable future.  Yet despite that, it is hard to say how good an idea it would be to bring up the subject in the pub.  While I was often the butt of my own jokes whenever I tried talking to women, even I knew that I couldn’t approach a complete stranger at the bar when we aren’t even already married and bring up a story about 6,000-year-old remains and how there is evidence that even they had sex.  For the first time it seemed a good thing that the pubs weren’t open.

As the bars, like everything else, remained closed, our Zoom beer club continued to thrive into the new year, doing a good job of replicating – if not quite replacing – the Friday nights we used to spend in Aulay’s.  It was nice to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, even if it basically amounted to sitting in a different seat in my flat to stare at a screen.  Recently the plant doctor suggested that as a way of bringing some excitement to one of the meetings we could try playing an online Escape Room game, and he went ahead and bought us access to The Sinister Soirée.  Although only six people could participate in the game, a record high of eight people logged in to our beer club that night, ranging from such exotic locations as the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Italian Peninsula, to Campbeltown, by the Kintyre peninsula.   

A winter sky that looked as though a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon

The premise of The Sinister Soirée is that your niece, Victoria, has recently been the victim of an attempted murder at the party she had hosted to announce her engagement.  You, as a bumbling detective of no repute, are called upon to find the cloaked assailant, and you suggest that Victoria invites the same six people back for another dinner in the hope that you can figure out who the culprit was.  In order to solve the mystery and apprehend the would-be murderer, the players are presented with a number of puzzles that, once completed, offer up further clues which should help to crack the case.  The puzzles were said by the makers of the game to be of easy-to-medium difficulty, but I could feel myself floundering on the first one, which involved counting the number of petals on flowers around a fountain and coordinating them with the same colour of letter on the key to find the passcode that would unlock Victoria’s journal.  Everybody else seemed to get it without much fuss, which only heightened my anxiety.

As the games went on and I could tell that I was taking much longer to complete them than the rest of the group, I could feel myself becoming hot under the collar.  Deep down, I think everyone harbours some kind of belief that they would make an excellent detective, usually after watching a Columbo or Sherlock Holmes movie, when those characters make it seem like such an exciting living.  I was furious that my dreams were being torn apart in the cruellest fashion.  I was resorting to using the hints to help me solve the easy-to-medium difficulty puzzles, with the third hint being when the game would simply tell you the answer.  Somehow it didn’t seem like that would work in a real-life scenario.  I think my downfall was that I spent too much time focussing on the minutiae, jotting down into my notebook every small detail that might potentially be of use in the future.  Cecily spilt her wine; Franklin was behaving mockingly; Oliver doesn’t eat peppers; Adelaide is left-handed.

When it came time to guess which of the six suspects each of us believed had attempted to kill Victoria on the night of her engagement, my deduction was immediately met with derision.  I had somehow arrived at a theory that the dastardly diner was Victoria’s own fiancé, a fact that I had overlooked.  It went without saying that my guess was the worst, but in reality, nobody in the group managed to correctly identify the crook.  Considering that there were six of us playing the game, and that we had six options to choose from, that none of us managed to get it right was nothing less than an embarrassing sham.  I guess we were all pretty drunk, but since when has that been an excuse for not being able to do your job?  If there is one thing I learned from The Sinister Soirée as I looked around the screen at the faces of the rest of the beer club, it was that if there was ever a time when my bones would be discovered – maybe not 6,000 years from now, and perhaps not in a cave but somewhere else equally dark and cold, such as my flat – I hoped that no-one there would be responsible for investigating what had happened to me. 

DNA breakthrough of two men buried in a cave near Oban 6,000 years ago: click here to read the full article in The Scotsman.

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:

The Queen’s Gambit

Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end.  For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year?  It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess.  The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it.  As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy.  The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess.  I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.

Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for.  There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess.  Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start.  For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger.  After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.  

Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course.  Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound.  If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!”  It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar.  Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on:  I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how.  Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face.  Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.

I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities.  Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense.  Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times?  I asked myself.  My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks.  Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus.  Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside.  Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him.  Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?

We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect.  The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background.  Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party.  I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.

It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree.  Santa had been.  I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic.  It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning.  I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve.  I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead.  Blunder!

Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year.  I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing.  Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.

I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day.  I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth.  It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it.  It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement:  my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge.  My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it.  They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years.  It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it.  Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles.  Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.

It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley.  I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted.  They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn.  Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within.  It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”

Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits.  Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy.  My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks.  It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask.  I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.  

One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows.  He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set.  We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows.  My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch.  My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.