Under ordinary circumstances, I don’t care very much for bin collection day, least of all the six-weekly uplift of all six recycling and general waste bins from our block. It might not seem like very much, but I have always resented the five minutes it adds onto my morning routine to bring the emptied receptacles in from the pavement. My responsibilities were even doubled recently when the upstairs neighbours who would put the bins out the evening before collection moved away before Christmas. None of this mattered, though, seeing that bin collection day presented me with the opportunity I had been waiting for since my isolation began more than a week ago.
Shielded by the cover of darkness and beneath a thin cloud of drizzle, I was able to leave my flat under the guise of taking the bins out; though unfortunately it wasn’t just a ruse and I did have to actually take the bins out. Still, it felt great to breathe in the fresh night air – even when it was tinged with the stench of rubbish that had been sitting in the bulging waste bins for weeks. Doing my civic and environmental duty had never been so invigorating. It felt similar to when I was walking to and from work during the strict original lockdown in April 2020 or, further back, in the days when I was smoking cigarettes: although what I was doing wasn’t wrong, I didn’t especially want to be spotted doing it and I would feel as though I had to almost sneak around to prevent any disapproving glances.
Isolation, like everything in life, brings with it its own set routine, and when you can break out of it, even for something as simple as seemingly mundane as putting the bins out, it is utterly freeing and thrilling. My daily routine while in isolation hasn’t been much to speak of. I’ve been tending to waken at what I’d consider a normal hour, when I’ll get up and eat my usual breakfast of overnight porridge oats with no fewer than 25 blueberries mixed in. Most mornings I have awoken with at least one affection from my mixed bag of Covid symptoms. Today it was nasal congestion and a headache. Since I’ve still been having some difficulty falling asleep at night and wake up feeling very fatigued, I’ve been going back to bed and playing a Spotify playlist whilst I doze off for another three or four hours. Even when I finally emerge again in early afternoon, I haven’t felt fully awake in more than nine days.
My days have mostly been spent watching dozens of YouTube travel vlogs on Sarajevo, Mostar and Belgrade. I can’t get enough of them, and when I’m not taking the bins out to the pavement, it’s the closest I can get to feeling like I’ve left my flat. As much as possible I’ve been trying to journal my experience in isolation, but it isn’t always easy when attempting to focus on something for more than twenty minutes or so tends to invoke the brain fog. That’s usually when I’ll listen to the Beatles album Let It Be once again. I must have played it about a dozen times by now. In the early evening, I have set aside 45 minutes for yoga and meditation, which has become a great deal easier – and cleaner – than it was in the early days of my sickness.
After eating dinner, I repeat my afternoon activities with some Netflix streaming thrown in, usually a handful of episodes of Seinfeld, before spending several hours repeating the charade of trying to fall asleep. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that my time in isolation could have been more productive, but the alternatives have been fairly limited. Sometimes taking the bins out is the best you can do, and that’s fine.
I registered yet another positive lateral flow test today, and it really had to be the most pathetic positive result ever recorded. It just might be the most feeble thing I’ve seen. The line was threadbare, best described as a ghost of Covid – which by tomorrow it effectively will be. Even if an LFT shows me as being positive tomorrow I will be free to leave my self-containment providing that I don’t have a fever, and not before long. Ten days have never felt as protracted as they have this year.
There has been much to learn from and reflect over during this last week-and-a-bit. For example, I used to be concerned that I didn’t know how to take a lateral flow test properly when I was returning negative results despite suffering from a heavy cold, but now I can be sure following seven positive outcomes that not only have I been doing the LFTs correctly, but I really did just have a cold – at least until recently. It’s strangely reassuring to know that I have been swabbing my nostrils in the right manner all along.
I believe that after this experience I can comfortably offer the advice to anyone who will listen that it is a good idea to make a sensible meal plan before being forced into isolation. I hadn’t done this, but my failure to have a Covid meal plan in place did result in me learning that mince can be a more versatile meat than I had ever allowed myself to imagine.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned during this whole ordeal is that – no matter what it is – if you can breathe through it, it can’t be that bad. Even if your breathing is pretty fucked up.
For ten days all I have been able to think about is being allowed to leave my flat again. Not just for a brief walk around the communal garden or to haul the bins through the close and out to the pavement for them to be emptied. I’ve been craving a social interaction beyond the last one I enjoyed ten days ago when the young woman at the test centre calmly explained how I was to put my nasal swab into the solution so that it could be sent off for diagnosis.
In my mind, there are grand plans to take advantage of my newfound freedom from tomorrow. I’m going to arrange a trip to Bosnia and Serbia as soon as I can. It likely won’t be the full train trek around the Balkans I was planning for prior to the pandemic, on account of the arduous testing that would be involved when going from country to country, but I figure I can split it up over a couple of separate trips. In the meantime, I can see myself walking all over the place and participating in all sorts of different social activities. It will be life like I’ve never lived it before. Of course, the reality is that I will be back to striding to and from the war memorial with my earphones in every day. And since tomorrow is Friday I will be in Aulay’s at the first opportunity, toasting the freedom I haven’t had in ten long days. Things will quickly return to the way they were before I ever had Covid. And I can hardly wait for it.
Until a week ago, I had gone through the entire pandemic without seeing a positive Covid test, now I have received four of them in quick succession. The latest one, which I took whilst waiting for a tin of tomato soup to cook on the hob, means that my hopes of returning to the outside world early from my isolation are practically dashed. Although the second line on the test cassette has been getting fainter by the day, so too have my chances of leaving the flat before Thursday.
At times during this period of isolation, it would be easy to allow myself to feel the same way Ringo Starr looks in the opening scenes of episode two of the Get Back documentary when he glumly glances around an empty studio the morning after George Harrison has left the band and realises that neither of the other two Beatles has turned up for rehearsal. In my quieter moments – the much quieter moments – I’ll think back to my last face-to-face interaction with another human being at the test centre, where the young woman instructed me on how to take a swab of my tonsils. Right now it’s still all I have to look back on from my 2022 to date.
Most of the time, though, I’ve tried to remain mindful by focussing on things such as the meditation practice I listened to this afternoon which encouraged me to picture all the colours in a rainbow, which was useful since my Facebook feed was filled with people who had photographed an actual rainbow that appeared over Oban yesterday.
Much like it has been more than a week since I last tested negative for Covid-19, when I got out of bed today it had also been over seven days since I last trimmed my stubble. This was out of sheer carefree laziness more than any consideration of a future facial fashion statement, particularly when as unruly strands of hair appeared they seemed to be overwhelmingly salt in colour rather than pepper. There was some curiosity, I’ll admit, not least because of the high regard men who have beards seem to be held in by the opposite sex. But when I looked at my rugged and ragged face in the mirror this morning, I just couldn’t see it. Of course, it was only a week of growth, so not even close to being a proper beard, but I couldn’t help from thinking that my face resembled an unfinished drawing by a child.
Even if I’m not going to be able to go anywhere for another few days yet, I figured that it’s time to grow up rather than grow out and get myself ready for the outside world again. So I trimmed the hairs back down to their usual 1.0mm stubble, leaving a trail of clippings in the sink that gave the impression of an atrocity in a condiment factory. A weight has been lifted from my cheeks, if not my shoulders, and my face now looks like 1969 John Lennon – even if I’m yearning to get up and walk out like George.
I accidentally read a thread on Twitter earlier today about the long-term effects of Covid. It’s hard to go from reading something like that to brushing the oak flooring in my flat, but it hadn’t been done since I began isolating and I need to get a grip. One thing I don’t understand is where all the dust and debris on my floor has come from. I haven’t left the place in over a week, save for the thirty seconds I spent out at the recycling bins on Thursday, and goodness knows when anybody was last in here. There were indistinguishable strands of thread, shards of paper, tiny grains of dirt, and spent pieces of discarded sellotape all over the place. My flat looked like the aftermath of the world’s most underwhelming craft fair. All I’ve been doing for eight days is travelling from my bed to the couch, to the kitchen, to the couch, and back to bed again in some robotic trance. It’s implausible to consider where all the dirt had come from, and in the end, I don’t want to think about it any more than I’d like to know what being infected with Covid will do to my lungs and heart six months from now.
I woke up this morning feeling more symptoms at once than I have for several days. A pitiful cough, the frustrating brain fog and an exaggerated difficulty breathing all rolled out of the revolving door at once. I felt better as the day went on, however, it came as no surprise when I registered my fifth positive test in a row in the afternoon. The line was the faintest it has been yet, appearing as though it had been drawn on by a red felt tip pen that has almost run dry. All of which means I have another two days of isolation to keep my stubble trimmed and my flooring free of dust before I can be reintroduced into society.
Aside from a bit of fatigue, I woke up this morning feeling virtually free of Covid symptoms for the first day since Monday. Due to my decision to refrain from drinking alcohol last night, it’s probably the first Saturday that I’ve had a clear head in a very long time. I’m not sure that I like it. Of course, with the tiredness from my inability to sleep for much of the night, I turned over and dozed off for another four hours. I still don’t know what a Saturday morning actually looks like.
In a turn of events that can only be described as being one of the worst things that could have happened to me this week, I discovered today that the battery in my watch has stopped working. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much importance in wearing a watch when I’m stuck in isolation. I can’t go anywhere for another three days yet and my sleep pattern has been turned upside-down and back-to-front by Covid. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 6:50 pm, as it currently is at the time of writing, or half-past ten, as my watch seems to be under the impression it is. In isolation, I have all the time in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from my watch.
I have always worn a watch. I think I prefer the theatre of glancing at a timepiece on your wrist to simply reaching into a pocket to fish out your smartphone. It’s great for indicating your boredom with a situation, even if there is sometimes a risk that you are misinterpreted as giving that impression. I enjoy how wearing a watch feels, the way that it’s sort of like underwear for the wrist when it covers the modesty of an ill-advised tattoo.
Despite being into my fifth day of isolation, I am still wearing my watch around the flat. At this point, as the second hand staggers back and forth between two numbers in a manner strikingly similar to a drunk who is unsure of which door will take him out of the pub, it is nothing short of galling to look at my struggling watch and be reminded that I can’t even travel the short distance to the electrical shop next door for a new battery. From the mantelpiece, the clock ticks tauntingly in the background, for it knows that unlike my watch, it is there only for decorative purposes – but I am now relying on it.
If I could give one piece of advice based on the previous six days, it would be to prepare a meal plan and shop for it long in advance of receiving a positive result and the subsequent period of isolation. I ate pretty well last week, practically as normal, but there was scant thought for what I would do once I reached the latter part of my quarantine. I’ve been quite fortunate and incredibly touched by the fact that since I became sick I have received offers from no less than six different people to do some shopping for me, though I have to date turned them down since my cupboards are fairly well stocked – it’s just that I am discovering that the ingredients I have can’t really be brought together into a coherent and edible recipe.
I took inventory of my kitchen supplies this afternoon when it became clear that I didn’t know what I could eat for dinner tonight, not to mention because I don’t have anything better to be doing. I was surprised to find that I have four different shapes of pasta in my cupboard; I don’t remember buying so many different varieties of pasta, let alone cooking them. Alongside those, I found several cans of tuna, many tins of soup, baked beans, haggis, wholegrain rice, flour, porridge oats, straight to wok noodles, and the chickpeas that I panic bought in March 2020. I still have 250g of mince, two lemons, some eggs, and all of the herbs and spices you could name if presented with a thirty-second challenge to list things you might find on a spice rack. In the freezer, there are frozen vegetables, some other random items, as well as a few pieces of unidentified meats. There are meals to be found in my kitchen, I’m just not quite sure what yet.
Today is the first day I have looked forward to this year. Under the Scottish Government’s updated guidance, anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 can cut their 10 day isolation period short to seven days if they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven. This is the day that would effectively determine whether I would be allowed to leave the flat on Tuesday or be forced to isolate for at least another day. Considering my virtually symptom-free Saturday, I have never been as excited by the prospect of sticking a cotton swab up my nostrils as I was on this occasion.
As tends to be the case before taking most tests, however, nerves and anxiety kick in. I woke up this morning and coughed for the first time since Friday, while the brain fog and accompanying headache has returned. It was reminiscent of standing in front of the bathroom mirror on the morning of a Standard Grade exam and discovering that you have a massive plook on your face – only, of course, I have one of those today, too.
Last night, so enthused was I by the lack of Covid symptoms I was experiencing, I was intending that I would take the lateral flow test as soon as I got out of bed, kind of like a kid on Christmas morning. But given the plook, I put it off until after I had eaten some poached eggs. After taking my sample, I set the timer on my smartphone for fifteen minutes and went off to clean the bathroom. The alert sounded and I returned to the kitchen to read the result, my heart pounding away in my chest – either through nerves or yet another Covid symptom. There was the faintest of lines visible across the ‘T’ panel of the cassette, indicating that I am still testing positive for the virus. I couldn’t believe it; I felt certain that I’d be getting out on Tuesday. As it turns out, time is moving very slowly, and I still have a lot of it on my hands.
My positive PCR test result was confirmed by text message at 9.11 pm last night. I can’t recall the last time I ever received good news in an SMS at nine o’clock at night. Indeed, I don’t remember the last time anybody sent me a text at that hour. The result wasn’t a surprise, of course. I already knew from the lateral flow test I took on Tuesday afternoon and the way that I had been feeling for most of the week that I have Covid. I hadn’t been more confident of a test outcome in my life, not even when I sat my Higher Modern Studies and History exams. But I suppose it’s always nice to have administrative confirmation of these things.
I treated myself to a rare bit of fresh air today when I went outside to the recycling bins with a bag full of empty 500ml Highland Spring water bottles. It’s the first time I have been outdoors since I went for my PCR on Tuesday, though the novelty very quickly wore off once I had tipped my recycling into the blue bin. The communal garden at the back of our block of flats isn’t very much to look at. It’s a small area, with enough space for a clothes rotary, while the grass has all the appearance of winter about it. You could easily walk around it without having to stop to catch a breath, even if at present that says more about me than the size of my garden. On the other side of the fence, the garden looks onto a handful of parking spaces and behind those stands the back of a solicitors office. In hindsight, I could have done with a bigger garden and a better view, but then when people were in the property market back in January 2018 nobody was thinking about what would happen if they needed to isolate during a global pandemic.
To compensate for the shortage of space in my surroundings, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the trip to the Balkans that I’ve missed out on making during these last two years. I have long been hopeful that if international travel becomes less complicated in 2022 then I will be able to go on my cross-country rail journey, and having a ‘Covid recovery’ on my vaccine passport might even go some way to making me look good. Specifically, I have been researching Bosnia, which has quickly become the country I am most interested in seeing. Even though tensions seem to be simmering again in the region, it is still quite a bit more appealing than the view from my garden.
Reading TripAdvisor reviews of bars in Sarajevo and taking out the recycling can’t fill an entire day in isolation, however, so to add a bit of excitement to my afternoon I decided to put on a load of washing. Filling the washing machine has never been an activity that I would describe as being thrilling, but when even so much as walking from one room to another seems to be running the gauntlet of another episode of sneezing or a coughing fit, it brings an element of adventure to the chore. I don’t even have that much of a need for all of the freshly-laundered clothing I now have considering that I won’t be going anywhere for another five days and I’m not exactly dressing in my finest corduroy to sit amongst dying houseplants, but it passed another day and at the moment that’s all that counts.
Tonight is the first Friday I haven’t spent in a pub since the restrictions in Scotland were eased to allow indoor hospitality to resume last June, as well as being the first Friday that I can remember where I haven’t had a single beer, which is ironic since I don’t remember most of the Fridays when I do drink beer. Despite having a fridge full of lager and nothing better to do, it seems that it would be fairly foolish to load my body up with alcohol when my immune system is already busy trying to fight off something it has never dealt with before. So instead of sitting in Aulay’s and having the Plant Doctor make fun of my new-found fondness for corduroy, listening to Geordie Dave address me as Penfold, or hearing all about whether the barmaid who has a talent for naming business ventures has done better with her resolution to stop drinking than she was when I last saw her on Hogmanay, I am guzzling water and watching the second – 2 hours and 57 minutes long – episode of the Beatles documentary Get Back. For the first time, I am experiencing regrets over having ever joked about a hangover as being me “suffering from the Tennent’s variant.”
All things considered, my experience with Covid to date hasn’t been as terrible as it might have been. I’m determined not to become one of those bores who tells people that the virus is no worse than the common cold but, really, my own symptoms have not been all that different to the cold – it just isn’t any cold I have ever had before. Covid shares many of the same symptoms, only they’ve all been jammed into a revolving door and you can’t be sure which one is going to fall out and introduce itself next. I began to try and keep track of them in my notebook, but my head started spinning even more than it already was with the Covid fog by doing so:
When I awoke on Monday morning, I felt as though I had something small and fairly insignificant sitting on top of my chest; a throw cushion or a library book, something like that. It meant that I had to work a little harder to regulate my breathing, which isn’t the kind of effort you want to be making first thing in the morning.
Additionally, I had a persistent cough and a steady sneeze. I felt certain that it was Covid, but I tested negative on the final lateral flow test in my box. Monday was probably the day where my symptoms were at their worst, yet I didn’t show as being positive until the following afternoon after I got my hands on another box of LFTs from the test centre.
This is a virus that seems to be all about producing sounds: the sound of the phlegm trembling at the top of my chest each time I inhaled before coughing on Monday; the way my breathing went from resembling a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory to the slow opening of a bottle of soda water. It is fairly normal today.
Subsequently, the coughing and sneezing have tapered off. I had recently bought a packet of 10 packs of pocket tissues and a box of 225 facial tissues, and with the way I was feeling on Monday, I was concerned that I might not have enough paper to see me through my isolation. But as of today, I have blown my way through about half of one pack of pocket tissues.
On Tuesday I couldn’t do more than 15 minutes of yoga without my nose dripping all over the mat. By Wednesday I had developed into something of a shy sneezer. I could go several hours without so much as a sniffle, then I would stand up to walk through to the kitchen and I would suddenly fire off eight sneezes in a row. It made me think of the one guy in a group who never says very much until he’s had a couple of beers in the pub and then you can’t shut him up. A shy sneezer.
Many of my symptoms seem to come out at night. During the day I can be sitting around eating the potato and leek soup I made while I thought I was still healthy and feel almost nothing, making a mockery of the idea that I am confined here until next Tuesday.
There is pretty much a constant dull sensation in my head – a sort of brain fog – that only ever becomes a headache at night, or first thing in the morning, or if I’m trying to focus on something. This is by far the worst of my symptoms.
I struggle to sleep at night and often I have had to get up two or three times within an hour or so to use the toilet. It’s hard to say if this is a symptom of Covid or of getting older.
I haven’t experienced any fever, but there have been times when my hands have become pretty cold. However, my flat is notoriously chilly, so it could be that.
My ribs felt a little sensitive on Wednesday morning, which was likely from all the coughing the night before.
My thighs were sore on Thursday, but I think that was from the yoga I tried on Wednesday.
There is definitely muscle fatigue, and a 39-minute yoga video is about the limit of what my body can do at the moment, although today I managed it without once falling over and I was so happy about it that I could have wept.
The constant brain fog is like trying to find the right radio frequency, back in the days when people still had to turn a dial to tune into radio stations. I’m looking forward to when it finally finds a song I like.
With the exception of the brain fog and accompanying headache as well as the occasional pitiful cough, I feel I’m more or less over the worst of my Covid symptoms. Having said that, given the option, I would much rather be waking up tomorrow with the Tennent’s variant.
After nigh upon 707 days, my unbeaten run against Covid-19 has finally come to a shuddering and sniffling halt. A positive lateral flow test four days into 2022 is the sort of turn of events that makes the drunken wishes of a “happy new year” on Hogmanay sound preemptively ironic.
In reality, with the reported increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, avoiding sickness over the Christmas period always seemed to be like Road Runner’s constant effort to outrun Wile E. Coyote: every so often the bird would be caught, but it never ended up quite as terribly for him as the coyote intended.
Aside from the obvious downside of experiencing an unpleasant illness, the worst part about testing positive for Covid is the requirement to isolate for 10 days. My self-containment happens to be coming after a 13-day break from work over Christmas and New Year, which was an isolation of a different sort. Boredom had already set in with that one around the same time as the first festive hangover started to wear off on the 27th. I was looking forward to getting back into a normal routine with healthy habits and social interactions that don’t just take place across the bar. The difference between this isolation and the one over Christmas, and indeed those through various lockdowns, will be that I can’t leave my flat to go for a walk, buy some milk or sit in a beer garden. This is proper isolation, where the last person I will have had any interaction with for the next 10 days was the young woman at the test centre this afternoon who explained how I had to stick a swap up my nostril and make ten rotations. I thought I was lightening the mood when I asked if I could at least pick which nostril, but it turns out that’s all I’m going to be thinking of for the next week and a half.
Since I am going to be stuck inside the modest four walls of my single occupancy for 10 days with nowhere to go, I have resolved to at least try and do some yoga to keep myself exercised. I thought that a low impact, slow flow working on my hips would be something I could handle in the circumstances, but I was forced to give up after no more than fifteen minutes. Not only was the flow of snot from my nose impossible to contain, but I struggled with stretching my legs as wide as the video demanded. Though that was less to do with Covid and more an indictment of my own flexibility. It was the same when I attempted a breathing exercise yesterday, when my symptoms had first developed, although on that occasion it probably was Covid that was making me sound like a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory.
The Scottish Government today reduced the isolation time for positive cases to 7 days provided they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven, so without even trying I have already gone through a chunk of the isolation I was expecting to be subjected to yesterday. It is a Pyrrhic victory, but in this situation, I believe in grasping any small successes.
Despite my efforts to focus on the tiny triumphs, I’ve been finding it difficult to fill the time during my first two days of isolation and I can’t help from feeling that I might have made a mistake by watching all of the films that I had been saving for the Christmas break. If I’d thought that I would have another 7 days at the end of it all I might have spread them out a bit more evenly so that I could savour them over time, like a carton of Celebrations. But, really, who lives life like that? So I was quite relieved when I remembered about the new three-part Beatles documentary Get Back that I had been putting off from watching because it is so long. Each episode clocks in at an average of 150 minutes, which should mean that by the time I have managed to watch them all, my isolation will be over with.
After sleeping longer than I have ever slept on a Wednesday, I got out of bed today and sought to reaffirm my commitment to continue with my yoga practice every day. Following my troubles yesterday I wanted something a bit more mindful, as well as less likely to make my nose run. The brain fog meant that some of my transitions weren’t exactly graceful, but I was able to last all the way through the 39 minutes of my chosen video. It felt like a big deal, even more than waking up to find that my isolation had been cut by three days. My Ujjayi breathing was a mess, of course. Every time I exhaled through my nose it sounded like when you open a bottle of soda water very slowly. But there was no snot nor a sneeze. Today has been a good day.
A thick mist hung over Oban for several days in the week before Christmas, which if nothing else had the benefit of hiding the town’s thin display of festive lights from view. It made for quite an eerie spectacle around the area when all you could see was the distant islands wrapped up in a veil of fog, their vaguely visible lumps resembling the appearance of my own crudely papered gifts, or the way the tree in Argyll Square would suddenly emerge from the haze the way a cocktail stick does from a cloudy alcoholic concoction. The entire weekend was as though we were existing within the pages of a Stephen King novella, though it was impossible to say which one.
Nowhere was this more true than out in Pennyfuir Cemetery, where we took a family trip shortly after Santa had visited The Happy Wee Health Club. Graveyards are spooky places by their very nature, often found in remote locations surrounded by dark, bare trees, usually with an old church nearby; and the cold, low-lying mist on this occasion only added to that atmosphere. Just inside the gates at Pennyfuir sits a set of public toilets alongside an enclosed seating area which is described by a sign above its entrance as a “waiting room.” It’s hard not to be struck by the rich black comedy of there being a waiting room by the cemetery gates. Those benches are surely the least worn anywhere in Argyll. They could have labelled it anything else and it would have been better: seated area, benches, shelter, living room. Once I saw it I couldn’t stop from wondering if it was deliberate; a disgruntled council employee’s idea of fun on their last day in the job, or did they really name this little hut at the entrance of the cemetery the “waiting room” without realising the connotation?
After we accompanied dad to lay some flowers at mum’s grave, we all took a wander around the rest of the site on our way out. Some of the headstones around the place are majestic, particularly the much older ones from the turn of the last century that are as big as a fully-grown adult. It was fascinating to read many of the tributes engraved on these stones. You felt as though you were getting a small insight into the life the person lived. Not quite the full story, but something akin to reading the back cover of a book. A handful of the inscriptions were a little more on the disturbing side, though. I read one on the stone of an infant child that mentioned the cause of death being a hospital procedure, which is the first time I can remember seeing such a thing. Closeby, a headstone stated how the poor soul below had died in the Royal Hotel in 1927, whilst another made it known that the deceased had passed in number 33 Combie Street. I have always known that it’s only natural that over the years people will have died on the street where I live, and even in the very same flat I’m currently residing in, but it isn’t something I have ever given any thought to. Something about seeing the name of my street on a gravestone sent a chill down my spine, and I suppose it would have in mid-July, let alone a misty afternoon the week before Christmas. It seemed so final. I couldn’t help from thinking that a hundred years from now someone else would be wandering around Pennyfuir, their hair badly combed and troubled by the breeze, and from looking at my own headstone they might know me only by the fact that I once lived across the street from the Oban Grill House.
As well as visiting mum’s grave around the anniversary of her death on 17 December and what would have been her birthday on the 19th, another tradition our family has that is perhaps more in keeping with the festive spirit is when we get together for an evening of mulled wine consumption. Most other years we have done this on the night when the town’s Christmas lights have been switched on, but because we were in Inverness this year, we saved it for the last Saturday before Christmas. Since it had been agreed that we would all spend the big day at my brother’s flat, he and I ventured out to Benderloch for mulled wine at my sister’s place. I’m always impressed by the spread of food she lays out for guests. We enjoyed mince pies, cheese of all varieties, grapes of every shade, crackers, and venison burgers. I hosted the mulled wine night once, in 2018, and was questioned as to why I had prepared the bottle of wine in a pot with a whole, unpeeled orange sitting in the drink. The only downside this time was my inability to savour as much of the cheese as I ordinarily would have on account of being challenged to eat an entire cheese plate by a waitress at Soroba House the previous evening. I believe that I won the dare, although nothing about how I was feeling afterwards suggested that I was a successful man.
While the usual songs of the season streamed from a nearby Alexa device, a pack of playing cards was produced and it was suggested that we should entertain ourselves with a round of poker. I had never played a hand of any card game more complicated than snap, whilst at five years of age my niece had yet to be introduced to casino contests, so it was going to be up to my siblings to coach the youngest and oldest participants at the table. The first problem we faced was that we didn’t have any chips to place our bets with. We thought about dividing the stems of grapes amongst us, but they were much too juicy to last through more than a couple of hands. Our next best alternative was to use my niece’s collection of small, glossy, paperback books. There had to have been around sixty of these things, each one brightly coloured and depicting popular children’s stories. We shared the substitute chips out evenly between the four of us and embarked on a quick run through the basics of the game before playing it for real.
The first few hands were quite cagey, with more folding than is seen in the Mandarin Laundry. We each won a hand to add to our pile of books, but the truth is that as novices neither my niece nor I had any idea what we were doing. It quickly occurred to me that the skills needed to be successful at poker – a good poker face, the ability to refrain from going “all in” at the first time of asking, as well as having a great deal of luck – are exactly the ones I am lacking when it comes to interacting with women. Somehow, though, it didn’t matter that most of them were missing from my poker game since a lot of the time I was able to bluff and wing my way through.
Despite not having any idea of the value of the cards we were holding in relation to the ones being turned over on the table, my niece and I embarked on a strategy of recklessly raising the stakes on every move. Sometimes by as many as three or four books at a time. It was a real test of nerves, but it’s easy to hold your nerve when you have no clue what you’re doing. When the final card was turned and fortune decreed that whatever cards I was holding were better than my niece’s, I won a tremendous bundle of books. My five-year-old competitor became upset. Not only did she hate losing, but she also realised that she had lost her favourite book. From the next round forward we had to wait an eternity as she leafed through her collection to determine which tale it was safe to gamble. There was a valuable life lesson in there somewhere, but I was too busy trying to figure out why I had won to realise what it was.
Either side of the high-stakes poker game, the days were clouded with the fog of alcohol as well as the meteorological phenomenon of condensed water vapour. Hours after my mulled wine win, across the bar in Aulay’s, I was asked by the podcasting phycologist how I was doing. When I told her that I was feeling kinda rough, she took a couple of steps back, despite already being a decent social distance away from me. It was then that I remembered that in 2021 we have to be more expansive when telling others about our physical wellbeing lest the situation is misinterpreted and a round of lateral flow tests need to be ordered. I immediately sought to soothe the situation. “Don’t worry, it’s only the Tennent’s variant,” I insisted to a look questioning what on earth I was talking about. “I’m hungover, basically.”
A group of us went out to watch the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Hibernian the following afternoon when I was still in recovery from the aforementioned ailment. It was an entertaining game which Celtic won 2-1, ensuring that they went home with a more palpable prize than the books I was forced to hand back to my niece earlier in the weekend. Most of the guys in our company were on a self-imposed curfew for the night. The Plant Doctor left at seven for an evening of port and cheese with his girlfriend, whilst Brexit Guy had a date with a Chinese – which on this occasion was a takeaway dinner rather than the Colombian women he was due to be socialising with after Christmas. I insisted to my brother that I would be staying out no later than eight o’clock since we both had a few more days of work to get through before the festive break. This noble intention quickly crumbled as soon as I realised that the new barmaid was working on the other side in the public bar. I had talked to her a week earlier and discovered that she has the most remarkable knack for naming business ventures. She has started three or four different businesses of various natures, and although the ideas hadn’t worked out, it was difficult not to admire the creativity that went into the names as well as the determination to try again.
Aulay’s was much quieter than you might expect for the last Sunday before Christmas. With cases of the new Omicron variant on the rise, the Scottish Government had gone to great lengths to deter people from gathering in places like pubs and restaurants without introducing any real measures to compensate the hospitality industry for the loss in trade. At times we virtually had the entire bar to ourselves. There was one large group who briefly appeared alongside us. They had come over to Oban for the weekend from one of the nearby islands, either Islay or Jura, and they had the dialect to prove it. The men were at a level of drunkenness that suggested there was going to be no curfew on their good time. Of the group of four, the senior figure was the most talkative. He frequently leaned across the bar and blurted out a series of words, some of them in the right order, though the only one I could make any sense of was when he kept referring to me as Rupert. It was presumably an attempt at likening me to the long-running cartoon character Rupert Bear, on account of the yellow and black checked shirt I was wearing.
The nickname bothered me. Not because I found it insulting, or even when the pedant within me reasoned that it is Rupert’s trousers that are yellow and black, and not his shirt. It troubled me that so many other people seem to possess the uncanny ability to summon catchy names for folk they barely know when it takes me all my time to come up with a retort, if I can at all. I am struck by how much more useful a skill it is to have than my own quality of asking the most inept questions imaginable, such as when the young man next to the islanders introduced himself as being the captain of the Bulgarian rugby team and I sought to ask him about the worst injury he has suffered on the field. In the last six months alone I have been christened Penfold, Joe 90 and now Rupert. I have little idea of who I am meant to be these days, and evidently, neither does the barmaid who herself has a talent for naming things since she only came to realise on Christmas Eve that my name isn’t actually Rupert.
With hindsight, I suppose the weekend was always likely to be lost in the fog. It all started on Wednesday when we lost the quiz to a tie-break question. It was going well until we reached the food and drink round, which is up there amongst our worst pub quiz subjects. You can hear the groan from our table when that particular round is announced. We completely flopped in the ten questions, allowing Quadrophenia Alley to surge ahead of us, and although we ultimately clawed them back to take the quiz to a tie-break, our chances had been done for by the food and drink round. It’s ironic, really, that the same thing that keeps us alive in day-to-day life is what kills us in the quiz.
The Friday before our family mulled wine poker game was the office Christmas lunch, which in line with the decree from the Scottish Government was most definitely not a party, although it was the source of me picking up the Tennent’s variant. A small handful of us started the day in the Oban Inn before moving on for lunch. In the corner of the bar, someone began streaming the broadcast of the day’s Coronavirus update from the First Minister to parliament. There was an element of the surreal about sitting in a pub listening out to hear whether there would be an announcement of any further restrictions on hospitality venues. In a way, it was no different to sitting on a bench in a cemetery waiting room. Although the restrictions didn’t come that day, it was only a matter of time. You could have bet all your books on it.
In the sort of occurrence that can really make a person step back and take stock of how their life is going, I was recently on the receiving end of a diss from a garden centre Santa. It wasn’t a cruel jibe or a personal insult per se, but until that moment I had never been dissed by a man who impersonates Santa Claus for a living in the approach to Christmas, and these things only ever give pause for reflection. In the days since the incident, I have been doing little else but think back on the events immediately leading up to Santa’s slam and trying to determine for myself whether or not there was something in his words. In my quieter moments, towards the end of my morning meditation, for example, I would convince myself that the faux Father Christmas had gotten it all wrong; that an old man who operates out of a shed at the back of a garden centre couldn’t possibly know enough about me to make the kind of judgment he did. But something about it was still haunting me, and in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help from thinking that he might have had a point.
On the last Friday in November, my sister drove my brother and me up to Inverness so that we could all take my niece to the virtual reality sleigh ride at Simpsons Garden Centre on Sunday morning. At least, we were telling anybody who would listen that we were going to see Santa for our five-year-old niece, but the truth is that we were just as excited about it as she was. We used to travel up north to visit mum’s side of the family quite often when we were growing up, but I hadn’t made the trip since we went to the Belladrum Tartan Heart music festival in the summer of 2014. The drive on this occasion made me think a lot of those journeys as kids when dad would play the same mixtape on repeat every time. Without even looking you could almost map where we were on the route by which song was playing: Sit Down by James, Radio Wall of Sound by Slade, Joyride by Roxette. In an attempt to recreate the memory, we synched a phone to the car’s SatNav system and streamed a 90s playlist from Spotify. It seems to be that nostalgia and Christmas go together like mulled wine and mince pies; pine trees and fairy lights; the eighties Swedish pop duo Roxette and a family car journey to Inverness.
It was funny to think back on those trips and how I would struggle to make it as far as Fort William – or through one play of dad’s mixtape – without feeling car sick. I had a terrible stomach for travel sickness. It’s something that I appear to have grown out of, and this time the journey was a breeze – even with the conditions outside the car being far from a breeze, as 65 miles per hour winds from Storm Arwen raged across the country. If I hadn’t already given up my lunch by the time we stopped in Fort William then it was a near certainty that I would find myself on the shore of Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit with Urquhart Castle in the distance. There aren’t many more picturesque places to be sick, as the tour buses at the side of the road would attest. The old ruin wasn’t visible this time due to the thick veil of mist that was drawn across it by the winter storm, but I could picture it all the same. Back in those childhood days of weak-stomached travel there is a case that could have been made for the role played by Smarties in my car sickness, whilst as adults we were all snacking on oranges, Royal Gala apples and those mini cheese bites with the herbs on top. Time, as well as Covid, has changed us.
While my sister stayed outside the city with her friend Hannah for the weekend, my brother and I took residence in a city centre flat along the bank of the River Ness. It was an ideal location for sampling some of Inverness’s watering holes. Just a ten minute walk away was Glenalbyn Bar, whose sign advertised it as being “the oldest pub on the west of the river.” It seems that these days every pub has to claim that it’s the oldest in some category. The place wasn’t particularly busy for a Friday night, but it seemed friendly enough, and it was difficult to argue against the accuracy of the sign once you had seen the interior decor and the clientele. We were advised by the barmaid that it would be best not to take a seat in the large leather chairs by the corner of the bar since many people seemingly have a habit of falling asleep in them, but such was my brother’s and my confidence in our youth and the proximity of the seats to the bar that we felt we could risk it. As it turned out, the leather chairs were fantastically comfortable and it’s likely that the only reason we didn’t doze off in them was because someone had put a Slipknot song on the jukebox. In my list of places where I would least expect to hear heavy metal music, Glenalbyn Bar is right up there with Monster Fish & Chips, where we stopped in Fort Augustus earlier in the day and could hear the drumbeat from the car park.
The music was considerably better in MacGregor’s on Academy Street, where a man who was wearing a cream straw hat and a white tie with black musical notes played classic rock songs on the piano. It was impossible to imagine that anybody ever comes to MacGregor’s just to hear this guy play, but there was at least a table of women who were seated in the corner near the door who lapped it up and I believe even convinced him to come back for an encore. My favourite part of his performance was when he segued from Space Oddity into Rocket Man, a transition that was almost as smooth as the Cromarty beers on tap. I told a couple of locals I met the next day about the pianist and they immediately knew who I was talking about. That being said, they spoke of a chap who “looks scruffy but plays better than he dresses” which was not at all the impression I had of him. Maybe the tie was a bit gimmicky, but as someone who has been known to match his pocket square to the colour of his socks, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything.
By the time we returned back along the river at the end of the night, Storm Arwen had really taken hold. My blue corduroy jacket couldn’t be pulled tightly enough around my body to shield it from the biting winds, which according to reports had already forced the closure of much of the rail network in the north and east of the country. Small snowflakes were seemingly suspended in mid-air, caught up in a struggle between gravity and the storm force winds. It could have made for the perfect festive scene, against the backdrop of Christmas lights and the sight of the moon peeking out from behind black clouds over the shoulder of Inverness Castle, had it not been for the fact that the wind was reaching into the very core of my body and tormenting my bladder the way it was ScotRail’s timetable, which was making it dangerous to stop and admire the view.
Although the snow seemingly never did make it all the way to the ground in Inverness, the roads and towns on the outskirts of the city were full of it, adding to my niece’s excitement when we all visited Smyths toy store the next morning. The shelves in this place were stacked so high that even if you craned your neck the way you would gaze up at the stars in the sky, you still wouldn’t see the very top. Every shelf down every aisle was greeted with a breathless “oh wow!” from my niece. I could just about relate to how she was feeling: Smyths is very much to a five-year-old toy lover as Oban Beer Seller is to a grown-up craft beer drinker.
Even when we were sitting in the popular coffee chain next door recovering over a cup of extravagantly priced froth and she spied a young man walking in wearing a Smyths uniform it provoked a great deal of animation. At the time I wondered at what age we lose that wide-eyed wonder for absolutely everything, but really, I don’t think that we actually do lose it – we just have to work harder at it. Following the multiple lockdowns of 2020/21, I’ve been finding that I get a thrill from doing all the simple things that I probably took for granted before, such as standing at the bar in Aulay’s on a Friday night or going out for dinner with friends. I was ecstatic upon finding a pair of green chinos when I was browsing in Next having arrived in Inverness to the realisation that I had only brought the trousers I was wearing. It was the same twelve hours earlier in MacGregor’s when the pianist eased from Space Oddity into Rocket Man.
With a fresh head of steam gained from our mugs of milk and steam, we ventured forth to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, which was resplendent in Christmas lights and decorations of all shapes and sizes. There was an enormous sleigh suspended above the escalator, gift-wrapped presents dangling wherever you looked, stars, reindeer, and baubles the size of your head. As we approached the old part of the building, we were suddenly reminded of the Noah’s Ark clock which dominates the back wall. It is one of only six such automation clocks of its kind in the UK. Each hour a monkey climbs up to the top of a tree and chimes a bell in order to tell those shoppers who aren’t carrying smartphones what time of day it is, while a piece of organ music plays and some of the windows of the ark open out to showcase a different animal every hour. I think we got a pair of reindeer, which I don’t remember featuring in the original Biblical tale, but I suppose Christmas is a time for indulgence. At midday each day the clock embellishes us with an even more dramatic display when all of the windows are opened and the entire diorama operates. As children visiting the Eastgate Centre with our parents all those years ago we would sit patiently on the nearby benches for up to thirty minutes before the hour waiting to watch this event, as though waiting for the lights to come down at the theatre, and on a good shopping trip we might even see it a second time. In some ways, I think we were probably more excited about the clock than my niece was.
When my sister and Hannah carried on to go shopping at one of the larger outlets outside the city centre, it left my brother and me with the unplanned opportunity to go to the pub and watch the football scores on television, in a turn of events that I can only imagine as being similar to rounding a corner and finding a display full of L.O.L. Surprise dolls. With the addition of a rare treble coming in for a grand winning of £11.35, it was just about the best Saturday ever.
Those additional digits in my online betting account proved useful when my brother and I took a £30 taxi from Inverness out to the Cottage Bar & Restaurant in the village of Maryburgh, where we had reserved a table for dinner with my sister and the rest of our family. Our driver was a friendly and talkative young fellow who professed that he had once driven the 66 miles from Inverness to Fort William in under an hour and a half. Having never been behind the wheel of a car myself it was difficult to know how to react to such a claim, but I think we were supposed to be impressed. If nothing else, we at least knew that we were probably going to arrive at the pub well before six o’clock, although it is probably the uneasiest my stomach has felt in the back seat of a car without having a bellyful of Smarties.
The Cottage is a cosy little family-run bar with further tables for dining out in the conservatory. It was the perfect setting for catching up with family who we hadn’t seen for too many years. I learned that my uncle is a huge fan of the four-piece Irish band U2, which for some reason surprised me. It seems like the sort of thing you should know about a close relative, especially when we had seen them play on the same tour, albeit on different dates. At the bar, over a pint of Cromarty’s wonderful local pale ale Happy Chappy, we even met a man who had left Oban more than forty years ago and worked with our grandfather in the hydro. People from Oban have a habit of getting everywhere. My attention was caught by an A4 poster on the wall behind the bar which was advertising the drawing of the monthly “meat raffle” due to take place that night. I wondered what the letters M.E.A.T stood for, presuming that it must be an acronym for some cause benefitting the surrounding area, and thought of how funny it would be if customers were buying tickets for this lottery without realising that the prizes on offer were, in fact, entirely cuts of meat.
As I discovered when the barmaid arrived at the table during our meal with a book of raffle tickets, a meat raffle is exactly that – a drawing where the winners each receive a different piece of meat. I couldn’t believe it, though since my luck seemed to be in for the day I paid a pound for one ticket. If I had thought it through I would have realised that transporting any winnings back down the road on a three-hour car journey on Monday would have been ridiculous, but a pound stake for a steak seemed too good a deal to pass up. The draw was being held back in the main bar, and my sister took her daughter through to watch the ceremony. To my niece’s delight, she was invited to assist with the raffle – an important job that was seemingly no less exciting than an entire shop filled with toys. Within minutes she appeared back in the conservatory clutching a green ticket and the whole chicken that evidently my uncle’s wife had won. The same act was repeated moments later when Donna had the winning number for a joint of beef, at which point I began hoping that no one else from our table would win a prize. I worried how the whole scene might look to the regulars in the pub when this five-year-old was just so happening to pull out all of the tickets that were bought by the adults at her table. It was all I could do to imagine the front page of the following Monday’s edition of the Press & Journal: “Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme.” It would be impossible for us to show our faces at any fête or fundraising gala ever again. We were innocent, of course, but then everybody says that.
Sunday was the big day, the one in which we were scheduled to meet Santa, and it began with an unusual request. We were due to meet our sister in the city centre sometime after 10:30 en route to making our way to Simpsons Garden Centre, however, our niece had awoken with a desire to wear a Christmas party dress like my sister and Hannah were kitted out in, and my brother and I were given the task of venturing across the river to Primark to pick one out. Whilst I have amassed plenty of experience in shopping for chinos and corduroy trousers, I’m not as familiar with what I’m looking for in terms of dresses for a five-year-old girl. I had never knowingly been in a Primark before, but it struck me as being the retail equivalent of international waters; a place transcending boundaries and laws. There were some people who had clearly wandered in there without knowing where they were going and they couldn’t find their way back out. Who knows how long they had been there. Typically, the girls clothing section was as far away from the entrance as you could get. To our surprise, there wasn’t an abundance of Christmas party dresses, and it took a bit of effort to find the two they had left in stock. It didn’t take very long for me to become aware that we were two men in our late thirties wearing black masks, a dazed look in our eyes and doubtless the fragrance of stale Happy Chappy still clinging to my corduroy jacket, wading our way through the girls section of Primark at 10.30 on a Sunday morning. I couldn’t help but feel that we were attracting curious glances from passing mothers, and not the sort of looks we’re usually hoping for. Suddenly Monday’s Press & Journal was looking worse and worse.
Fortunately, of the two dresses Primark had one of them was in our niece’s size, and she was so delighted to receive it that she conducted an outfit change in the car park of Simpsons Garden Centre. You don’t want to meet Santa without wearing your party dress, after all. Before we could see the man in red we were taken through the virtual reality sleigh ride experience, though only after we had resolved some confusion caused by the fact that we had somehow booked tickets for two different dates. We arrived at the right time but three-and-a-half weeks early for one slot and thirty minutes late for the second. The elves were thankfully very understanding of our predicament and helped rearrange Santa’s entire schedule to accommodate us. Our group of six was led through to sit in the large mechanical sleigh, where we were each handed a sanitised set of yellow goggles that felt as heavy as an Argos catalogue. If I’d thought that I was going to be wrapping something like this around my head then I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time combing my hair before we left the flat.
The ride itself was probably more enjoyable for the adults amongst us, with the presentation taking us through the skies of cities such as London and New York City and then out into orbit, looking back down on planet Earth before guiding us to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole. It was pretty cool, though it ended with one of Santa’s animated helpers informing us that we had failed the trial to join his team on Christmas Eve and that they were just going to carry on delivering presents themselves. I don’t know, I felt like I could have done without a virtual reality failure being added to all of the real ones. From there we walked through Santa’s living room, which had a human-sized taxidermied owl and an enormous bear dressed in a three-piece tweed suit sitting on a golden throne. As far as feng shui goes, Santa’s energy is all over the place.
Meeting Santa was always a magical experience, I seem to remember. It didn’t matter if one week he was big and jolly when dropping in to the primary school Christmas party and the next he had gone through a remarkable weight loss programme to greet children in the Caledonian Hotel, or if his whiskers had a distinct whiff of tobacco. Our capacity for suspending disbelief when young is incredible. The Simpsons Garden Centre Santa was on the short side, had little festive cheer to speak of around the stomach department and was clean-shaven on his cheeks, with only an explosion of fluffy white covering the front of his face like an oversized surgical mask. He was very pleasant, though, and seemed to be following the How To Be Santa Claus manual to the letter. Santa asked the usual questions about what my niece would like to receive from him on the 25th of December, what she would be leaving out for him to eat and drink when he visits on Christmas Eve and whether or not her house has a chimney. Upon hearing that there is no chimney in my sister’s home, Santa showed us the key he uses to enter any house in the world that doesn’t have a fireplace for him to flop down into. It was pretty big, probably as long as a good-sized television remote control – the sort of thing that would be a nightmare to find a replacement for in Timpsons if it was ever lost.
Santa asked my niece about everyone who had come along with her to meet him, and when she reached my brother and me at the end of the room he paused. On the desk before him were a few different sheets of paper, which Santa reached for. He repeated our names and announced that, as he suspected, both of us were on his naughty list. My niece found this greatly amusing and laughed out loud, whereas on the inside I was seething. It seemed like an unnecessary slight on my character, particularly when one of my most proficient failures is my effort to get on anybody else’s naughty list. I couldn’t understand where the garden centre Santa got off making such a statement, especially when he doesn’t have the powers to see everything as the actual Santa has. Maybe if he had witnessed my part in the suspected ruse to defraud the Cottage Bar’s meat raffle of its two main prizes I could concede my place on the naughty list, but then nothing was ever proven, and by rights our entire family should have been struck from the nice list if that was the standard Santa was holding.
Usually garden centres are a place of boundless optimism, filled with all of these beautiful plants that you look at and imagine how much colour and life they could bring to your home. It is easy to believe that I might one day get around to taking care of a plant like the ones you see there, even if in reality it never happens. My optimism was being stifled by Santa’s barbed comments, however, and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Even when Simpsons had an assortment of Christmas decorations as far as the eye could see and every fragrance you could think of, from scented candles to bath bombs to chocolate, I could think of nothing but the fake Santa’s announcement that I was on his fake naughty list. Word was beginning to spread around that my niece had confided in my sister that Santa had probably put my brother and me on the naughty list due to all the wine we drink, which was the moment I realised that we were probably going to be stuck on his list forever, despite being told by him that we had around twenty-seven days to change our ways and be transferred to the nice list.
The episode was still playing on my mind when we went out for a couple of games of bowling at the Inverness Rollerbowl later in the afternoon. Bowling, like seeing Santa, isn’t something that I had done since being much younger, and I could only hope that it would go better than that particular event. Somehow the red and blue bowling shoes complimented my navy corduroy attire quite well, which made me feel more at ease with things. I had never considered what a bowling look should be, but I think I pulled it off. The shoes were actually so comfortable that I walked out of the place at the end of the night with them still on my feet and didn’t realise until my uncle pointed out my mistake. Imagine adding the theft of a size 12 pair of bowling shoes to the shame of rigging a meat raffle and being caught wandering around the girls clothing section in Primark. The woman behind the counter didn’t seem too perturbed when I walked back inside and confessed to my crime. Apparently they see this sort of thing all the time, and often people will phone the alley when they get home and realise that they are still wearing the bowling shoes.
Away from the catwalk and onto the actual sport, my niece opened our game by knocking down nine pins with the very first bowl of her life. Despite having the advantage of the bumpers that are available to children, she didn’t even need them on her second round when she rolled the ball straight down the middle of the lane and hit a strike. Things were going so well for her that she was developing her own wee victory dance after every round she played. I threw two gutters in my first round; the pins weren’t even close to being troubled, and everyone else was fairly terrible, too. It was gutting.
I went up to the bar hoping that another beer would be the thing to help improve my hand-eye coordination. It’s my experience that alcohol at least gives the illusion of developing better physical qualities. The young woman who was tending bar had hair that was as dark as a stormy winter night, and as she poured my drinks I thought to ask if she could see the spectacle that was unfolding on lane 22. I described the way that my five-year-old niece was giving us all a bowling lesson and how I had to get myself out of there after completely missing the pins with my first two attempts. She laughed as I explained how all this had come after I was mercilessly dissed by the garden centre Santa. “It sounds like you’re having a pretty bad day,” she said with the kind of sympathy that only a barmaid can have for a drunk bowler. It is difficult to say with any certainty whether it was the beer or the sound of someone laughing at my jokes, but I returned to our game and found that I could suddenly bowl. Within minutes I actually smashed a strike. Throughout my life, I have become used to striking out, but this was different altogether.
Although it was probably only in my head, things were beginning to heat up in a competitive sense. I could tell that my niece was starting to tire of the game as it reached the later rounds, as is always likely to happen when you’re five and there’s an arcade full of games to explore. The closer the margin between our scores narrowed, the more desperate I became to win. Perhaps the best thing for an uncle to do when it became clear that a competent final round would snatch a comeback win right out of the hands of his niece would be to roll the ball into the gutter and allow her to have the glory. Maybe anybody else would have done that. But the way I saw it, my niece would have forgotten all about whether she won or lost her first game of bowling by the time she fell asleep that night. It wasn’t like meeting Santa, exploring the vast aisles of Smyths toy store, drawing the tickets for a meat raffle, or even listening to a mixtape on a long car journey.
For me, on the other hand, winning a game of bowling – even against my five-year-old niece – was everything. It would probably be the achievement I would remember years from now when everybody else I know is proudly talking about their career, their wife and their children. So I picked up the medium-sized purple ball which had become my weapon of choice in this battle, strode up to the line and bowled a strike to win the game. The garden centre Santa might have been right about me all along, but at least now I could justify it.
Sunday the 31st of October was undoubtedly the spookiest day of the year. Not only was there the rare occurrence of Halloween falling on the same day as the end of British Summer Time and the loss of an hour of daylight, but in our wisdom, a group of friends and I had booked a tour of the Oban Distillery for 11.30 in the morning. Like on any other Sunday, a hangover on Halloween is just a haunting by the ghosts of last night’s whisky, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to mess with yet more spirits by taking a trip to the distillery.
Of all the ways I thought I would spend my extra winter hour, a Distillery tour complete with three drams of whisky hadn’t featured near the top of my list. I could have caught up with some reading, tended to some of the repairs needing doing around my flat, made a hearty pot of soup for the cold days ahead or done something else equally as productive. The reality is that I would have laid in bed until around eleven thinking of all the useful things I could have been doing with that time, before getting up and spending hours on the couch watching old episodes of Seinfeld, but at least there was the potential for productivity. As it was, by the time my bleary eyes screamed open sometime after nine, it took me all of my energy trying to determine which of my timepieces was telling me the correct information, since my watch and iPhone were showing a difference of an hour, whilst the clock on my mantelpiece was frozen at a couple of minutes to seven, the thin golden second hand dancing back and forth around the IX marker, as though suspended in an eerie memorial to time passed. The fading houseplants on either side of the clock completing the deathly scene. If only I’d had the time to water them.
We had good reason for booking a Distillery tour at 11.30 on a Sunday morning; it wasn’t just a spur of the moment act of madness. Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, was visiting Oban for potentially the last time before departing Argyll to be with his wife in the west of Wales, and a trip to the Oban Distillery seemed a nice milestone following the experience our group had at Deanstoun in August. Apart from all of that, the tours were fully booked on Saturday, so we had no option but to go the next morning. In a cruel twist of fate, our guest of honour wasn’t able to imbibe any of the samples along the way since he was driving home afterwards, an outcome that was devilishly reminiscent of Deanstoun, when Adam had to bottle his tasting glasses on account of him driving us from Stirling to the distillery. People have often asked me why I have never learned how to drive; this serves as a pretty good reason why not.
Our group of seven whisky explorers agreed that we would meet outside the Distillery on Stafford Street at 11.20, and it was remarkable to watch as each one of us arrived at 11.25. The Oban Whisky website states that the Distillery is 208 steps from the sea, but they probably weren’t accounting for visitors in the condition we were in. Brexit Guy was last on the scene. We looked down George Street and caught sight of him sprinting along the pavement at what we presumed was full speed, his dirty blonde hair flopping in the breeze. It was like watching the nineties television series Baywatch, if instead of the show being set on a Malibu beach and starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson it originated from a rainy and blustery town on the west coast of Scotland and featured a fifty-year-old oncologist with a taste for single malt whisky.
When we lined up on the cobbles opposite our destination, seven dreadfully hungover souls still haunted by the spirits of Saturday night, it was difficult not to view us as a tremendously underwhelming Halloween parade. We were pale, eyes hollow, each of us carrying the demeanour of a basket of unwashed laundry, and caught in the uncertainty of two different times. I could swear that if we didn’t go inside when we did, some passer-by who didn’t know any better would have handed us a bag filled with sweets and monkey nuts and we would have been invited to dook for apples.
The only time I had previously been in the Oban Distillery was back in September 2019 when I was invited to read from my notebook in the bar prior to local band The Blue Moon Travellers performing as part of their album launch event. On that occasion, I smuggled a bottle of Chilean merlot into the place as a prop for my set and didn’t touch a drop of our home produced golden goods the entire night, which is something I always felt a touch guilty about. Think of going to New York City and not seeing the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa, or Campbeltown and whatever they have there.
It was interesting being a tourist in one of the town’s most popular attractions and the producer of its world-renowned export. I have lived here for all of my 38 years without knowing that the Distillery was opened in 1794 before the town even existed. We are, quite literally, a town built around whisky. Our guide on the tour happened to be Mike, who I know as one-half of our Lorne pub quiz rivals “Texas Denied.” He was knowledgeable and funny, though I was reluctant to laugh with too much enthusiasm out of respect for Erin, our delightful Deanstoun director. Often Mike would pose our tour group some pieces of whisky trivia, and I was becoming increasingly irritated by my inability to answer them since I knew that he would be marking it down as an area of weakness for the weekly quiz. It’s damaging enough not knowing which mainline train station in London you would go to take a train to Gatwick Airport, but if the silver-haired quiz host ever decided to use any of this whisky stuff on a Wednesday, our chances of winning would soon evaporate as quickly as the Angel’s Share Mike told us about.
We were taken through the different parts of the whisky making process, guided by Mike and the intoxicating fragrance that lingers around the place. The operation is a lot bigger than I had imagined, although Oban’s production is restricted by the distillery’s location which has no capacity for expansion, and the equipment is vast. The four wooden washback containers had to be around twelve feet wide and at least twenty deep, which is a lot of wood. This is where all of the alcohol is produced, and you can really tell it from the atmosphere. We were all invited to stick our heads into the container and have a sniff, which is one of those things you should always be dubious about when it is suggested, but we all took the plunge. Your nose barely had to pass into the hatch before it was hit with the warm, putrid stench from the wash, which at this stage in the fermentation is said to be something resembling beer. Mike asked if anyone felt that they could drink the washback. Ordinarily, I would have expected that at least one person from our group would admit to having so little restraint around alcohol that they would down the stuff, but I think we were all too spooked by our hangovers to entertain the hypothetical offer.
A Sunday afternoon truly takes on a different look when you have had three whiskies before midday. I suppose it isn’t a surprise that tasks such as filling the washing machine or blending a broccoli and goats cheese soup seem less arduous once your hangover has been displaced by the radiant sensation of whisky in your belly. It seemed silly that I hadn’t done this before. With my trivial chores done for the day, I retired to the couch with a cup of coffee and some television streaming services. I glanced over at my living room clock and wondered where all the time had gone.
Everything changes in October. One day you are basking in the breathless autumn air admiring the way that it is so clean, so fresh and so clear that you feel as if you could reach out and shake it with your hands, as you would the blocks of ice in a whisky glass, and the next you have been caught in a downpour of rain so heavy that you are left feeling wet in places that haven’t been wet in years. Even the sight of a rainbow looping across the front of McCaig’s Tower wasn’t enough to take my mind off the fact that my underwear was saturated and my shoes squelched with every step that night. On the darker evenings, the headlights of approaching cars can give the impression of a hurried search party, and the sky wheezes with the whiff of chimney smoke, no doubt people burning what fuel they have while they can still afford to.
While the weather has undergone a striking change in appearance, my own wardrobe also recently went through a seasonal transformation. For as long as I’ve been a single occupant I have gone to the pub after work on a Friday night wearing a suit. The colour of the accoutrements – the tie and pocket square – would match the shade of my socks, and after a while, the technicolour triumvirate became the most memorable thing about me. It was always the first thing a person would ask upon seeing me: “What are you so dressed up for?” Most of the time the question never troubled me, since apart from anything else it got people talking to me, but the pandemic seems to have stifled my patience in such situations. Curious drinkers would ask the same question now and it would be as if there was something weird about wanting to look your best to drink in the lounge bar in Aulay’s. Within a few months of things opening up after the last of the various lockdowns, and following several Fridays spent under the spotlight, I decided to adopt a more casual look on my Friday nights in the pub, mostly out of the hope of putting an end to the interrogation over my fashion.
Amongst the tweed suits and silk ties hanging in my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, which is so tall that the top shelf can scarcely be reached from a stepladder, was a solitary pair of beige chinos that I would break out on occasional Saturdays if I was going for a more smart-casual guise than the usual jeans offer. It struck me that if I wanted to sport such a look more regularly I would need to invest in a greater range of bottoms, so I took to the internet for inspiration. I shopped for chinos and cords in all sorts of colours: plum, watermelon, kiwi, cherry, banana. If the colour was a fruit and the trouser began with a ‘c’ I was in the market for putting my legs through them.
My decision to change out of my suit and into something looser for my Friday nights was made all the easier by the soaking I suffered earlier in the day on that first instance. If I was being forced to remove everything after being drenched to my delicates, then it seemed to make sense that my entire outfit should be revitalised. I wore a pair of chinos not too dissimilar in shade to a blueberry in Aulay’s that night, and there wasn’t a tie or a pocket square in sight. Yet I could never feel at ease. Neither could Geordie Dave, who sat on the opposite end of the table and gazed upon me with a gimlet eye. Eventually, he cracked, querying “weren’t you at work today?”
It wasn’t any different when I decided to wear my first ever pair of corduroy trousers when Scotland played Israel in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match on a Saturday afternoon. The bar was packed, busier than at any point since the pandemic began, and although all eyes were on the television screen, it felt as though everyone had seen my ginger cords. One person commented that I was dressed like a maths teacher. Having removed the pocket square from my jacket, people were suddenly seeing a protractor. It’s uncanny how often I have been told that I look like a teacher; although it is always a different subject each time, as if everyone has gotten together and agreed that I couldn’t possibly specialise in one area.
In keeping with the season of change, Scotland defeated Israel to take an enormous step to securing a play-off for the 2022 World Cup. It was the fourth consecutive game of football the country has won, which is something that hadn’t happened since 2007 – practically an entire lifetime ago. The tension was palpable as the match swung back and forth. Israel scored within five minutes of the kick-off; Scotland equalised, though we were only level for a matter of minutes before Israel scored again; Scotland missed a penalty kick right before half-time but made it 2-2 ten minutes after the re-start. The bus driver standing at my right elbow complained that he had left the bar for a cigarette twice and on both occasions Scotland scored, to which the only sensible suggestion I could offer was that he should go back outside and stay there. He laughed, but I wasn’t entirely joking.
My nerves were as shredded from watching the game as my feet were from the new pair of shoes I had been breaking in during the week. If there’s one thing you can guarantee about autumn it is that you will quickly learn which of your shoes are leaking. Scott McTominay scored the winning goal for Scotland in the 94th minute of the contest and the pub exploded into disbelieving bedlam. There were limbs and pints in every direction. People who had socially distanced for 18 months were suddenly thrust into the arms of a stranger. It isn’t often that followers of the Scottish national team have something to celebrate, besides the occasional draw with England, so this victory was a welcome change.
When I was next in Aulay’s it was a week later, I was a year older, and the atmosphere was significantly less raucous. A guy no older than me who had all the makings of a bad acid casualty was plying the jukebox with coins and filling the playlist with 90s boy band hits and the occasional Britpop classic. Even after he had been refused service for another Bloody Mary he continued to pump pounds into the machine. Back and forth he would go between the bar and the jukebox, selecting three songs at a time and returning to his spot, where he would once again ask for another drink. It was fascinating to watch. He must have been turned down at least half a dozen times. I just wanted somebody to put him out of his misery and tell him about YouTube.
At the table directly behind the Britpop binger sat an older couple who appeared unperturbed by the saga which was unfolding in front of them. The gentleman bore a striking resemblance to a famous figure, follically at least, but we couldn’t reach an agreement on who it was. Brexit Guy, my brother and I each came up with names for whom the slicked-back grey locks reminded us of: Rod Stewart, Denis Law, Christopher Walken, but we couldn’t settle on a definitive answer. All I really knew was that at 38 I could only dream of having hair like this guy in his sixties or seventies had.
Our trio was later joined by a fourth man who I initially assumed was an acquaintance of Brexit Guy due to him taking a barstool and engaging Liam in conversation, but who it turned out was a complete stranger. At first glance he was fairly nondescript, not unlike any other man who walks into a pub on a Saturday night. He was dressed in jeans, a jacket and a t-shirt, a look I couldn’t attribute to any kind of teacher. Apparently he was still struggling with a tequila hangover from the previous night, although that didn’t stop him from ordering a shot of the stuff on my round. It was suggested that we all take a shot of tequila, but I was still coming to terms with being a guy who wears corduroy without also becoming someone who drinks distilled Mexican agave before nine o’clock on a Saturday. I turned down the opportunity of buying myself a tequila, citing the fact that drinking it usually results in me losing my mind – a statement that I would come to think of later in the night.
When Brexit Guy and my brother both got up to go to the toilet, I was left to make conversation with the stranger. He seemed amiable enough, even when he told me that he is from Bridge of Weir and I jumped in with a mistaken comment about it being near Stirling. Of course, I was thinking of Bridge of Allan, which is a small town north of Stirling, rather than the village of Bridge of Weir, which I was told is close to Paisley. The transient tequila drinker spoke about how he likes to visit Oban twice a year for the peace and quiet he can enjoy in the area, allowing him to get away from the pressures of life back home for a few days. It seems to be a fairly common reason folk have for coming here, and most of the time you can see why – even amidst a low-volume flurry of songs by Westlife and Backstreet Boys.
The bloke didn’t stick around for very long before he moved on, and it was only after he had left that Brexit Guy revealed how the visitor had told him earlier that he had served eight years in prison for killing a man. I believe the story was that his home had been burgled and as he sought retribution against the perpetrator some time later he ended up killing him and stabbing two other people. It sounded like the plot for a movie you might find on Channel 5 on a Sunday afternoon. Upon being told about this development, it was all I could do picture the next scene in the script, where after rehabilitating his life and becoming a pillar of the community, the ex-convict takes a weekend break in Oban which suddenly turns sour when a local at the bar he visits rejects his offer of a shot of tequila because it makes him lose his mind.
Brexit Guy went on to confess that although he didn’t particularly like or dislike the transient tequila drinker, he offered the gentleman his mobile phone number anyway because “I didn’t want him to think bad of me.” I was incredulous. I mean, this I really couldn’t get my head around. How is it that a convicted killer can walk into Aulay’s and receive a phone number almost immediately when I’ve been going there every Friday night after work for more than five years and not been given so much as a digit? I poured a bottle of ginger ale into my Jameson and watched as the bubbles frolicked around the cubes of ice at the top of the glass, the entire drink changing before my eyes. Like everything else in October, I was going to have to hope that the change from wearing a suit to chinos or cords was going to lead to a wider change in my life. Such as being offered a phone number in the pub, or even just something as simple as an agreement on the school subject I could specialise in.
There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street. The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in. It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there. I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book. Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar. On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind. As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie. She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.
My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.
Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic. Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”. People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country. A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.
Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.
Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan. How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to. There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.
Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football. It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park. It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin. It never seems to matter that I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.
Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind. Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company. It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.
My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.
It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away. Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites. The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in. There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices. You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.
One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing. He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face. Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with. The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people. It was uncanny. He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it. I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations. Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same. That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.
The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.” It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule.
As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift. He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor. Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.” It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay. I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice. He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure? Not even bi?” In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex. Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.
Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink. Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city. Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.
“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.” I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.
“Mikey? Are you sure that’s your birth name?”
“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”
Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me. “What’s your full name?”
I stumbled. “Michael Alan Ross.”
“Ah-ha! So Mikey isn’t your name!”
I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.
Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service. You could tell he knew it was coming. This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman. He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt. His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast. The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one. She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.
As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember. The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing. I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them. He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet. “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage. When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken. That’s what people are like here.” This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him. It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.
After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”
The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh. It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way. The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee. One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home. In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it. Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.
Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.
Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been. To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s. I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about. After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd. I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd. We returned to our respective drinks. The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.
“I killed my last one. The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”
I could tell that this guy is an animal lover. He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another. But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.
Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf. Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words. Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack. People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk. It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.
The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living. He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it. Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison. “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine. I was quite happy. And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”
I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into. He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave. Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for. As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name. “They call me Hawkeye.” There wasn’t much more that could be said.
My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.
The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland. Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling. I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van. Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.
As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”
I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed. For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside. I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me. A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot. There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum. There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside. Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.
Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company. The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer. It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen. If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.
The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?
My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved. Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash. I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars. My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet. It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.
Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar. Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint. As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments. When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success. Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.
Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on. I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing. I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet. Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down. I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought. She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.
Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.
When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me. There was no need for improvisation this time. I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it. The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee. Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way. I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation. The place has a rich history with many quirks. More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters. Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.