Life changing events don’t usually occur when I open the letterbox outside the door of my flat on a Monday afternoon. Still, when a small handwritten envelope greeted me, my hopes were raised that something special must have been contained inside. After all, nobody communicates by writing letters anymore, so someone had to have gone to a great deal of effort to get in touch with me. It seemed quaint; charming even. My immediate thought was that it could be a secret admirer who had finally summoned the courage to make their long-suppressed feelings known, even when it didn’t seem the most romantic of gestures to address me as “the occupier.” People go by all sorts of nicknames, I thought, and I could probably get used to it for the sake of a little loving.
The return address on the back of the envelope was a local one – Ganavan; so my admirer was apparently someone from money. I bounded through to the kitchen and peeled the envelope open with all the delicacy of a nervous lover. Inside was a beautifully handwritten note that had letters swirling across the paper like great rivers, along with a thin pamphlet posing the question: “Can the dead really live again?” The brochure provided three options as a possible response: Yes, no, or maybe, and if the ‘dead’ that was being referred to was my hopes of finding love, it seemed that the answer was a resounding no.
Hazel is a Jehovah’s Witness. Her letter was making me aware of the fact that her organisation has produced an interactive bible course on their website. I have often joked that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t pay me a visit at my flat, but now it seemed to be the truth. The really bitter blow came later in the week when I received another envelope in my letterbox. It was penned in the same swooping writing, though this letter was intended for my neighbour across the landing, who was also given the name “the occupier.” Is nothing sacred anymore?
My correspondence from Hazel asked plenty of questions, but it didn’t contain the answers to the riddles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve grown older, such as why there has been a pair of boots standing on the wall at the end of my road all week, or why two bees suddenly appeared in my flat over the same weekend when I have lived here for more than four years without so much as one finding its way in. If the people at the Jehovah’s Witnesses could tell me why a bag of mixed leaf salad can often survive in my fridge two or three days beyond its ‘use by’ date, but a pint of milk starts to turn a day before the label suggests it should, I would consider signing up to their religion.
As I have aged, it has become increasingly clear that the answers to the questions I didn’t know that I needed resolving are not to be found in a church pew, but rather the barber’s chair. At this stage in my life, most of the knowledge I have accumulated has come from the wisdom of my barber. He has a different story every time you take a seat in there, and they always go in a direction you could never expect. This time he was telling me about a rival barber from a mid-Argyll town who used to run the shop for him on a Monday. He twice tried to set up his own business some years ago but struggled to attract customers, despite being the only barber in the town. The story goes that this guy had an irrational dislike of people who whistled in his presence. He couldn’t understand why anyone feels the need to whistle and it would drive him crazy if somebody walked into the shop with a jaunty tune emitting from their mouth. So the story goes that whenever a resident of this mid-Argyll town came to Oban to have their hair cut, the barber would ask them that once they return home they visit his rival’s business and simply walk into the premises whilst whistling before turning back on their feet and leaving. It was a mischievous scheme which seemed to please the barber greatly. As clumps of brown and grey hair cascaded all around me, all I could picture was the scene in a ghostly quiet salon in the middle of nowhere as a freshly-groomed man strolls in whistling the theme from The Addams Family.
Where the tale turned was when the barber vowed that after he told me what he was about to say, I would never be able to go anywhere again without noticing it happen. My eyebrows were raised – at least until he trimmed those, too. According to the barber’s observations, people cannot help but whistle when they are walking between two points, such as the bathroom and the bar in a pub, the entrance to a supermarket and the first aisle, or the door and seats in a barbershop. It’s a nervous tick, a sort of placeholder to fill the void until something occupies their mind. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and since I’m not yet ready to spend my time studying men as they enter and leave the toilets in Aulay’s I just have to trust the barber as the leading authority on the matter.
My entire purpose for going for a haircut in the middle of the week was the result of a chastening experience at the bar a few days earlier. On the face of it, it was just an ordinary Friday night. The Plant Doctor and I were talking to a guy who was telling us about how he’s teaching himself to play the guitar with the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon, which struck me as being the equivalent of learning how to paint by sketching the Mona Lisa. In time we were joined by several other experts in algae, although I believe they learned their craft the conventional way. At various points over a twenty-minute or so period, I noticed the four scientists as well as my brother and Geordie Dave conspiring over a piece of paper in the corner of the bar by the coat rack. I had no idea what they were up to until I was finally introduced to the sheet and asked to judge which of the six drawings they had each created was the best likeness of me, and to guess who had drawn which one. It was the first time I had ever seen myself in pen, while the portraits were a curious cross between touching and excruciating. I think, ultimately, I would have preferred it if they had spent their time in the corner whistling.
Despite the quality of the sketches, I failed to correctly identify any of the artists. Amanda who was working behind the bar, on the other hand, was able to guess four of the culprits. Some people have an eye for these things, I suppose. What the artwork demonstrated more than anything – more even than that the scientists had made the right career choice – was that I was in dire need of a haircut. A picture speaks a thousand words, after all, and I had six thousand of them telling me that my hair is a mess.
While the display of artistic endeavour was something that we would go on to talk about again and again, it turned out not to be the most remarkable thing we would see in Aulay’s that night. With the clock ticking towards closing time, the door swung open in the ominous way they do in horror films. In walked a couple of young guys who were effectively carrying a much older man with them. It was a slow, arduous walk from the door to the bar as the two men dragged their companion along the ground with them, as though they were moving a heavy piece of furniture. They shuffled towards the bar and struggled to manoeuvre the elderly man onto a barstool, all under the eye of a bemused barmaid. It was nothing short of a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario playing out before us. The barmaid immediately told the gentlemen that she couldn’t serve them on account of Bernie’s practically comatose condition, and they had to turn around and go through the entire charade in reverse. The scene was surreal to watch play out, and just like the theory of why people whistle as they walk between two points, the question of how these guys thought they were going to be able to buy drinks after carrying a drunk old man into the pub isn’t one that’s ever going to be answered in a pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay. If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would. As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model. I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea. Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer. In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.
“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her. I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water. Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.” I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more. Just in case.” So much for trust.
With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.
All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question. It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend. I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together. Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time. I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process. All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line. I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand. It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.
I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security. My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.
“Is there an iPad in this bag?” He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.
“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.
“Are you sure?” The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.
After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag. Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on. Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side? I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.
Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast. Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row. It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep. Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board. When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?
In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments. Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’. The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels. Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them. Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds. It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.
Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.
We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute. It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017. As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city. I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market. The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.
Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods. Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves. It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for. My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread. The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle. Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils. It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment: “who needs a shower?” Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that. You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.
Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.
From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners. Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell. The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions. Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.
Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one. We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall. Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure. Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior. We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time. I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same. Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.
As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend. Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time. Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing. There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that. I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling. The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer. It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.
In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.
There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first. Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win. This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making. We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street. My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.
Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery. Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder. Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.
“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”
She never got back to me. When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed. It was probably for the best, all things considered. There would have been no future in the relationship, after all. I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security. Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.
Life comes at you pretty fast sometimes. One night you are reading from your notebook in front of 110 people as the support act for a well-known Scottish comedian, and less than 24 hours later you are being soundly beaten by your six-year-old niece at ten pin bowling. I tried putting a brave face on the defeat. After all, it was my niece’s birthday and bowling was the activity she had chosen to help celebrate it. Besides, it’s not like I was the only one who was losing; she swept four of us aside as though we were hapless pins. Yet I couldn’t keep myself from feeling hard done by each time my ball was drawn into the right-hand gutter. I blamed everything, from the perceived slope in the hardwood floor which seemed to only have it in for me, to the fact that we were allowed to play wearing our own shoes and I hadn’t chosen my footwear that morning with bowling in mind. It maybe goes to show that you should always dress for all occasions.
In the hours before the charity comedy night, I was at my kitchen counter reading about the social hierarchy of dolphins. It wasn’t how I was expecting to be spending my time in the lead up to the most exciting thing I had ever been asked to do. I thought that I might be going through a last-minute rehearsal, drinking myself blind on Tennent’s Lager, or throwing up in the bathroom at the venue like I have done most of the other times when I have read in public. But the previous night I received a set of 11 questions that the high school students who I would be meeting the following Thursday in the Argyll Wellbeing Hub wanted to ask me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about one question in particular. What is your opinion on dolphins’ social hierarchy?
I had never considered that as being something I should have an opinion on; not like the rising cost of energy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued wearing of face masks, or which type of sauce goes best on a bacon roll. I didn’t know the first thing about the social structure of dolphins, let alone know what I thought about it, but I was going to have to find out quick. People talk about reliving their youth all the time, and here I was just like back in high school, doing everything I could to ensure I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of a group of fifteen-year-olds.
My Google search history was transformed as I read article after article about the way dolphins interact among their species. Much of what I learned didn’t come as any surprise considering what is commonly known about the mammal, but there were some interesting tidbits I picked up, such as the free spirit nature of dolphins as they swim from pod to pod without ever being permanently bound to one group. I read about the way that smaller groups of dolphins often have the objective of cooperating to ensure the mating of the others with a specific female, which made me think of a Friday night in Aulay’s – at least for the Plant Doctor and my brother, anyway. Bottlenose dolphins, meanwhile, are prone to establishing their dominance through aggression towards other species, often biting, striking and ganging up on others. Studies have shown that dolphins can have a preference for meeting with particular individuals and that they are remembered and recognised even after long periods of separation. I found it fascinating how similar their habits are to humans.
All of this information was swimming around in my head when I turned up at The View just before doors opened for the comedy night. People were already lining up to get in, and I walked right past them to the bar with all the poise of a dolphin – or so I imagined – where I met the headline comedian Gary Little and the organisers from the Argyll Wellbeing Hub. We were taken through the back to the green room, which was really the bar’s staff room but with a bucket of ice and a bottle of wine. It was here where I realised that the thing that was making me most anxious about the entire evening was being left alone in a room with professional standup comedians. I’m terrible when it comes to meeting new people under ordinary circumstances, never mind being put into an unfamiliar place – and, really, this was an environment where I had no business being. After all, I am not a comedian, and it was difficult to shake the feeling of being a fish out of water. I tried telling Gary Little about my own routine, which ordinarily consists of me sitting in a chair with a glass of Jameson whilst reading excerpts from my diary. He seemed distracted as I spoke, before eventually asking, “would you mind if I take a look at your watch?”
Initially, it sounded like the most passive-aggressive way possible of telling someone that their conversation is not the most scintillating, but when I pulled the sleeve of my shirt up over my wrist, it became clear that his interest was genuine. “I collect vintage watches,” the comedian explained as he examined the face of my timekeeping device. I nodded and thought about how this was not at all the way I had imagined the green room backstage at a comedy night being. “Just don’t look if you’re wanting to know what time it is,” I warned. “The battery has been dead for three months.” He immediately stepped back with a look on his face as if I had told him that the watch is liable to self-destruct at any moment. It would be impossible for him to know it, of course, but he was right to be affronted by my lack of care for my watch since I live next door to an electrics shop. My chances of breaking the ice were shattered.
When the main support act Iain Hume arrived, I had visions of standing back while two comedians effortlessly traded hilarious one-liners back and forth. Instead, the men were talking about walking their dogs on the beach and where they had parked their campervans. Iain said that his wife was in a bad mood when he left her in the van to come to the gig because they couldn’t get a signal on the television set. It was surreal, and not at all in keeping with the glamourous impression of comedy I’ve had from watching Billy Connelly or Jerry Seinfeld. Eventually, my mind started drifting to where it was that the bar staff in The View were having to go to take their breaks.
I had spent so much of my time in the 24 hours before the gig researching the social habits of dolphins that I had barely even thought to feel nervous about it. All that had changed by the time of the watch remark, however, and when the night finally got underway my legs were trembling like a thermometer in March. I took a seat at the back of the room as the MC for the evening, David Duncan, warmed up the sold-out audience. He was funny, and people seemed to be really enjoying his brutal takedown of the Information Oban Facebook group. Things were off to a good start, right up until he introduced Iain Hume as the first act of the evening and, as he left the stage, leaned forward to say something to the group of guys who were sitting in the front row and had been talking through the entire thing. All of a sudden things kicked off, and four or five guys followed David out of the room like a gang of bottlenose dolphins.
Necks were craning, struggling to get a look through the window while Iain tried to get some laughs with his material. I could scarcely believe what was happening. If this is what occurred following the opening remarks, I dreaded to think how people were going to react when I tried my joke about debating whether to ask the shop assistant in Waterstones for assistance to find the section carrying self-help books. Fortunately, the situation didn’t amount to anything beyond some verbal threats, with it transpiring that the group was part of a stag party from Newton Mearns. Ordinarily, violence only ever breaks out in that part of Glasgow when the prosecco hasn’t been chilled to the optimum temperature, so in reality, there wasn’t much chance that a punch would be thrown. By the time I stepped up to the stage things had settled down, and my 17-minute set went better than I could ever have dreamt.
I was still on a high when I turned up at my niece’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party the following morning. When I walked into my sister’s home, the place was a riot of shredded wrapping paper, popcorn, wizards, and delirious six-year-olds. Looking at the scene was more or less an insight into how I was feeling deep down inside, and in truth, losing at bowling wasn’t the humiliation I liked to make it seem. I had just experienced the greatest triumph I’ll probably ever have – for once I didn’t need a win at bowling to help soothe my bruised ego, while for my niece, beating her drunk uncles is only the start of what she can go on to achieve. At least, that’s the way I was starting to see it by the time we had reached the Holytree for some dinner on our way home from Fort William. In Oban, we stopped off outside Aulay’s for a novelty photograph after a birthday ice cream cone had been demolished as though it was a rack of pins. My sister took the picture of me, my brother and our niece standing on the steps in front of the pub as we imagined the same night twelve years in the future when our niece would walk in on her 18th birthday to find her two uncles slumped over the bar the way a jumper lies in the laundry basket. The same old songs would still be playing on the same jukebox, and we would probably be remonstrating about how it wasn’t fair because “she had the bumpers up.”
By the middle of the week, life was beginning to return to its usual mundanity. After the early spring sunshine and 16°C temperature, there were flurries of snow, while the mercury plunged below zero. As I was walking along the Esplanade on Wednesday evening, I observed a young boy clambering up the concrete steps from the shore onto the pavement. He was probably around 10 or 11-years-old, I guess, and on his back, he was carrying a large, presumably heavy, yellow plastic case. When he emerged, after first stumbling and almost falling back down the steps, I could see that there was a hole in the centre of the back of the case, and from it, a small puppy peered out. The boy climbed onto a bicycle and rode off into the distance, the dog’s fluffy black ears flapping in the breeze.
It got me to thinking about when I was this kid’s age and my parents would set me certain tasks around the house to earn my pocket money – things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging the washing on the line. All very dull and easy jobs, although now I am 38 and I don’t have a dishwasher or really even a washing line and I look back on those days as the high point in my household upkeep. No matter how simple they look now, they were the worst thing in the world back then, and I would do anything to get out of doing them. I couldn’t help but think that this young lad was of the same mind. I imagined that he had been set the chore of walking the family dog in order to be given his weekly pocket money, and the bicycle and carry case was his way of making the task easier.
I told this story the next afternoon to the high school students who attend the Argyll Wellbeing Hub in response to one of their questions, which was what are the things I like to look for on my walks. It’s difficult to know if commentary on the seemingly unusual behaviour of passing pedestrians is what the youngsters were expecting when I turned up. For reasons I would learn during the course of my visit, the group of 15-year-olds have a degree of admiration for me, which I was struggling to understand since nobody knew who I was when I was in high school, and yet here I am, seemingly a popular figure amongst at least a handful of school kids. There was an audible gasp when I walked into the room, although I couldn’t be sure that that wasn’t because I almost tripped over the step at the entrance.
The entire purpose of my going to the Hub was to read the material from my notebook that I had performed at the comedy night the week before, since age restrictions meant that most of the youngsters couldn’t attend – although one of them did perform a five-minute piece which practically stole the show. However, we got so deeply involved in conversations about our favourite bands, books, and the social hierarchy of dolphins that after more than an hour we hadn’t gotten round to it. The group was engaging, intelligent and funny, and as giddy as I felt after reading in front of 110 people, this was much more rewarding. Some of them even thought that U2 are cool. When it came to answering the dolphin question, it was probably the most relieved I have ever been to discover that the opinion I had only recently formed was the one that the students were hoping to hear. We all agreed that dolphins can behave like real bastards, just like any human, but their social dynamic is fascinating, and their fluid, free-spirited nature is admirable. In the end, not only was the afternoon more enjoyable than performing at the comedy gig, but it was even better than winning at bowling.
There were nigh upon 812 days between the last Let’s Make A Scene in November 2019 and the most recent rejuvenation of the event, and a lot had happened in the intervening months and years. Since I last read from my notebook in front of an audience, I have: become a man who frequently wears corduroy trousers; been told by an optician that my retinas are in perfect condition; learned that Chinese five spice is the secret ingredient to making a really good fried rice dish; visited Dundee; almost made my niece cry when I ‘won’ all of her favourite books in a family game of poker at Christmas since we didn’t have any chips to play with. Oh, and we have all lived through a global pandemic and multiple lockdowns of the country.
For a while, back in the early days of the original lockdown in 2020, there were discussions surrounding the possibility of hosting an open mic event over Zoom or a similar platform, since at that point in time practically every aspect of our lives was being conducted through a screen. An ‘Oban Lockdown Fest’ Facebook group had attracted more than 500 members and featured videos shared by at least a dozen local musicians, demonstrating that there was a keen appetite for the arts in the area. There was some initial enthusiasm for the idea of an online Let’s Make A Scene, but it faded as restrictions began to ease and we were at least allowed to leave our homes again. It was reckoned that an open mic night wouldn’t be the same without an audience in attendance anyway. You can’t truly gauge how well a piece of music or spoken word has been received without the applause of people telling you that they enjoyed it, while it is difficult to tell if a joke is funny when you don’t hear the sound of laughter following it. Personally, I would have been happy to proceed with an online event since it seemed just like every other performance I have ever given, but officially Let’s Make A Scene was on hiatus.
When Covid restrictions were rolled back almost to a level we hadn’t enjoyed since the last Let’s Make A Scene was held, we could finally get on with planning an open mic night in a new venue. I delved into the cupboard where I store my bottles of whisky and completed notebooks hoping to find some inspiration and enough material to cobble together a ten minute spoken word set. It was already decided in my mind that I wanted to read about some of my experiences during lockdown, given that most people in the audience could probably relate to the things I was saying. The trouble with that, however, was that I was going to have to force myself to read through all of my notebooks from during the pandemic years. I don’t enjoy reading back my old journal entries at the best of times, but this was especially gruelling. At more than one point I had to stop and ask myself: why are you writing 500 words about the contents of your cupboard? And the answer, of course, is that there was nothing better to be doing in April 2020.
Something I never used to do before my previous open mic performances was practice, which probably goes some way to explaining why on the night my dad came along he was heard to comment, “it was fine, but he went on a bit too long.” If there’s one thing that I dislike more than reading my own diarised notes it is hearing my voice speak them, and yet that is exactly what I was going to have to do if I wanted to take my set more seriously than before. Around two weeks before the return of Let’s Make A Scene was scheduled to take place, I was invited to be one of the support acts for the Scottish comedian Gary Little when he comes to Oban in March to headline a comedy night in aid of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub. I quickly learned that it is impossible to resist the opportunity of performing stand-up comedy alongside a professional comedian, no matter how ill-suited you know that you are for it. Writing a blog about your experiences as a single occupant and being asked to support a comedian would be like achieving a respectable score on the video game Guitar Hero and being plucked from the crowd to fill in for The Edge at a U2 concert; why would you say no? Knowing that the organisers of the comedy night were going to be attending Let’s Make A Scene to listen to me read from my notebook meant that I had to take it seriously and make sure that they didn’t realise they had made a terrible mistake.
Once I had settled on some of the excerpts I wanted to read from my journals, I prepared to host a few practice readings in my living room. The mood in the room was already perfect since the two expired lightbulbs in the chandelier meant that the remaining three combined to resemble the ambience of a dimly lit stage. I sat in an armchair facing the mantelpiece, trying not to become fixated on the cobweb which was dangling between two red candlesticks like a hammock, and set a stopwatch as I cleared my throat and took a sip from a cup of Earl Grey tea. Even with no one there I was tripping over my words in every other sentence, and it was difficult to get over the awkward feeling of reading aloud in an empty room. I tried convincing myself that I was at least heading to my houseplants, but in truth, they were yet another dead audience.
The night of Let’s Make A Scene found Oban caught between two winter storms. When it was reported that Eunice and Franklin were going to bring strong winds, heavy rain and snow to parts of the country, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland was being battered by a copy of the 1921 census. In a welcome change, I wasn’t feeling the same anxiety I had before all of the past open mic nights. At five o’clock in previous years, I would have been opening my third can of Tennent’s Lager and playing The Midnight Organ Fight for the second time before going to Aulay’s for a couple of hours and getting half-drunk by the time I was ready to read. There were occasions where I got myself so worked up with nerves that I was sick in the bathroom, which is the only time I have ever vomited in Aulay’s. However, at five o’clock last Saturday I was on my yoga mat going through a flow and practising some meditation. When I arrived at the Corran Halls I was still maintaining my calming breathing whilst reciting the same motivational words over and over again in my head, transforming my thoughts into some Instagrammable mindfulness meme. Having never felt confident about anything in my life, I can’t tell if it’s what I was experiencing in the moments before reading, but I do know that whatever it was, I liked it better than throwing up in a public toilet.
What was most noticeable about the studio theatre in the Corran Halls was the way that our brilliant organisers had managed to transfer the space into something resembling a side alley Hungarian speakeasy. There was maybe around six tables – each with a dainty tealight candle dancing in its centre – that were positioned across the room in a way that would have made for a terrible strategy in a game of Tetris, but in an auditorium, it worked. Meanwhile, the biggest debate before people started to arrive was whether or not we should turn the fairy lights on and at which setting. There were as many as a dozen different options to choose from, which when you think about it, is a lot of different ways of flashing the same red and green lights.
As eight o’clock neared, the studio theatre was filling with more people than we had ever seen before. At final count, there were more than sixty folks in attendance, which was probably around double the number who usually come to a Let’s Make A Scene. Amongst them were 19 acts who signed up to perform on the night, by far the most diverse range of artists we’ve had. We heard everything: an acoustic guitar-backed poetry presentation about the dread of feeling as though you’re falling in love with someone when you’re around the age I am, which had more than a shade of Arab Strap to it; K9 Kev’s standup set that veered into rap and then a story about an ill-begotten jobbie; a piece of poetry which called for the audience to howl like a pack of dogs at the mention of any word with a canine connotation; the witch gave birth to a frog; the ever-beautiful Lush Puppies.
Usually at an open mic night, you will get one artist who is a little more eccentric than everybody else, sort of like witnessing a juggler catch knives outside the London Palladium, but this time everyone was a star attraction. It was heartening to see such a wealth of talent pulsing in Oban. After two years during which we were all afraid to so much as breathe near another person, this was like the moments after blowing the candles out on a birthday cake, when all you’re left with is sweet, rich, delicious cake, and in that instant it is the best thing ever. By all possible metrics, the revived Let’s Make A Scene was a triumph. We even managed to collect enough donations to cover the cost of hiring the Corran Halls, as well as a receipt for £6.70 from Aulay’s Bar dated 18 September 2020 which it was suspected came from me. It said a lot when most people assumed that my wallet would be opened so little as to still contain a receipt from 17 months ago, but I couldn’t contend it.
I had cultivated my own set down to a smooth 9 minutes and 20 seconds, which I anticipated would leave enough time for apologies. Somehow they weren’t needed, though. People laughed at exactly the right points as I went about describing the loneliness of trying to recreate the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night during lockdown, and it felt anything but lonely. My journal reading went as well as I could have imagined, much better in front of an audience of people than houseplants. Everyone who I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and complimentary, while this time the only complaint I received was that I hadn’t worn a tie like I used to.
Often when I reflect on nights like this it invariably ends with a defeat that brings the universe back to its natural axis, such as me making a ridiculous attempt at talking to a woman, losing my phone by a furniture shop or falling asleep on the couch with an untouched can of Tennent’s Lager at my side whilst trying to watch The Spy Who Shagged Me for the thirteenth time. But not even a long walk home in the rain from the incoming storm could dampen the spirits of such a joyous night. 812 days had never been so worthwhile.
I will be reading some ‘Diaries of a Single Man’ excerpts in support of actual comedians Gary Little and Wray Thomson on Friday 25 March at The View, Oban. The evening is in support of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub, and ticket information can be found by following this link.
Our pub quiz team, The Unlikely Bawbags, recently suffered its worst-ever performance in The Lorne on a Wednesday night. We finished in seventh place out of around ten teams, far removed from our usual lofty position within the top three. It wasn’t even as though we had one terrible round that set us back, because for us the entire quiz was a shambles. Things were so bad that by the end of the night we almost celebrated ending up so high in the rankings, since for most of the way through we had been sitting bottom of the pile. It was a chastening experience, one which none of the three of us appeared to have an answer as to how it could have happened, which was seemingly in keeping with the night.
I went to Aulay’s to drown my sorrows, different from my usual visits there drowning my liver. The lounge bar was empty, which wasn’t unusual for a midweek night in February, and so the barman was forced to listen as I told him of all my woes. Would I ever get another general knowledge question right again? Did there really need to be an entire round about Germany? Why can we never remember who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon character? I imagined that he would much rather have been dusting the tops of the malt whisky bottles, but I had a lot to unload. To the relief of the barman, the pub gradually started to fill up, at least as much as three people can fill an alehouse.
First, the Plant Doctor arrived carrying a pool cue, which he propped up against the coat rack, similar to the way that someone who is out walking the dog stops into the pub for a pint and sits their pet at the end of the bar. A while later a local shellfish seller dropped in. Following some discussion over the froth of our lager, it was noticed that there were three people in the lounge bar on a Wednesday night and each of us was wearing a pair of corduroy trousers. Who knows for certain if such a thing had ever occurred before, but it’s difficult to imagine that it had. It was, quite emphatically, a parade of corduroy.
Naturally, we were eager to bring this anomaly of fashion to the attention of the two members of staff behind the bar, and even to Aulay himself. There were three distinctly different shades of corduroy on show. I was wearing a vibrant cherry, the Plant Doctor wore a neutral olive, while the shellfish seller’s legs looked like two hot dogs smeared with English mustard. We asked anyone who would listen for their thoughts on our respective cords, including one poor sap from Glasgow who was just wanting to enjoy a peaceful drink. All three of the opinions we canvassed came back with the same response: that the neutral olive was their favourite colour of corduroy and they wouldn’t be seen dead in the bold cherry. I’ve long become used to suffering a crushing defeat in the month of February, but this was two of them on the same night five days before Valentine’s Day had even arrived.
Hardly two days had passed before I and my pub quiz teammates were afforded a shot at redemption, just like in any big-budget Hollywood movie, only this was a charity quiz at The View with a prize of £100 in cash. The event was a joint effort to raise funds for Kilmartin Museum and Dunollie Museum, two local projects in Argyll, and I somehow ended up in the middle of a tug o’ war between my usual Wednesday night pub quiz team and my regular Friday night drinking partners. I had never honestly wondered what it would be like to be a child caught up in a dispute between two divorcing parents, but I reckon this was pretty close to how it must be, and on this occasion, The Unlikely Bawbags were awarded custody of me.
Following our all-time worst performance a few days previous, we recruited some reinforcements for the charity quiz to bring our numbers up to six; amongst them a Doctor of Scottish literature who had started the week off-piste in Glencoe and was looking to finish it on the piste in Oban. The theme of the night was anti-Valentines trivia, which we felt confident would suit us since the majority of our team seems to have an allergy to all things romantic. There were several different rounds throughout the quiz, including the standard music round, film and television bedrooms, one where we were invited to list ten given animals by the length of their penis, as well as a series of questions all about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was really hoping wouldn’t be the traditional picture round.
The quiz was so busy that people were being turned away at the door. There must have been no fewer than twenty teams taking part, and things were competitive from the very start. With so many points to tally, it would be impossible to ask one man to mark every answer sheet, so teams were asked to swap their papers with a neighbouring table at the end of each round. On the face of it, this seemed like a sensible solution, though it turned out to be like asking a couple of barmen for their opinion of corduroy trousers: problematic. In the very first question of the quiz, we were asked to name the winner of the 2021 series of the reality TV show Love Island. Being that we were a team of adults who have seen the better part of our thirties, we couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess at a name and left the space unfilled. Following the end of the general knowledge round, we exchanged sheets with the table adjacent to ours, whose team included a podcasting phycologist and a young woman who owns a vast wardrobe of scarves. Much to everyone’s surprise, our paper was returned to us with one point more than we were expecting, while the gap left at the first question had been filled with a careful, scientific scribe.
We didn’t think too much about the ill-begotten point at the time since we were in second place, but as the quiz developed it was becoming clear that there was a tight tussle at the top of the leaderboard between ourselves and my usual Friday night companions. Our cause was assisted by a full complement of marks in the round on sexually transmitted diseases, which had to be the first time anyone has been happy to correctly identify an STD. By the time the final piece of music had been played to bring the quiz to an end, the two teams were separated by the length of a flea’s penis – or one point as it’s sometimes known. We were delighted; the Plant Doctor, my brother and their team were devastated. It clearly hadn’t required a great deal of detective work on their part to recognise that the beautiful penmanship used for the first answer was entirely different from the scrawl seen at the other sixty-odd questions on the sheet. I mean, we had an actual GP in our team whose contributions to the sheet read like a prescription pad.
With a prize of a hundred pounds going to the winners and £50 to the runners-up, we could see why our competitors might have felt disappointed. Some of the people at their table had a look on their face that was similar to one I have seen around the pier when a tourist has treated themselves to a fresh prawn sandwich from the seafood shack and just as they’re ready to enjoy it, a sneaky seagull has swooped down and snatched it from their hands. A few of us were feeling some guilt about winning a charity quiz through nefarious means, even if strictly speaking it was only accidental cheating. We agreed that given the circumstances it would be the right thing to do if we came clean to the quizmaster, so we called him over to our table and explained what had happened. To say that he wasn’t interested would be an understatement. As far as he was concerned, the quiz was over and he had already declared us as the winners, which could probably be translated as him admitting that he hadn’t prepared a tie-break question. Maybe he was right. This was a Valentine’s quiz, after all, and it is said that all’s fair in love and war. Where love is concerned, it’s usually the case that one party is going to end up bitterly disillusioned. It just so happened that for once it wasn’t me this time.
Despite a fortuitous turn of events, we had already decided that we wanted the moral victory as well as the acknowledgement of being quiz winners, so we approached our rivals and proposed that we split the £150 prize fund between the two teams. They agreed, though somehow even that didn’t quench our thirst for redemption – or perhaps more accurately, clear us of our guilt. I was too busy trying to plead my innocence to the opposition to know who from our team made the suggestion, but it turns out that we went a step further than sharing the prize money and offered to donate our £75 to the charity. When I heard about our philanthropy, I couldn’t stop wondering how much more we had to do to have our names engraved on a plaque at Kilmartin Museum.
A few of us made the usual Friday pilgrimage to Aulay’s after proceedings had been brought to a close in The View. There were three members from the opposing team looking to spend their £75 in the final hour before closing time, and I saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of ‘our’ prize money. All manners of whisky and shots of Tequila were being added to the bar bill, meaning that the most straightforward quiz question of all was posed the following morning when I went for breakfast with the rest of my family and wondered why I felt as though I was still drunk. Along with the growing bar tab, there was significant jukebox abuse, and not only from us. I could have sworn that one group played the same Feargal Sharkey song three times in a row. I guess it’s true that sometimes a good song is hard to find.
It was difficult to say at the end of the week whether I had come out of it all on top or not. I lost a corduroy-off, though was at least part of a historic fashion event in Aulay’s. The Unlikely Bawbags had their all-time worst performance in the Lorne quiz, but followed it up by beating around twenty other teams to win a charity quiz, albeit with some controversy attached. Even now I still don’t know who won the 2021 edition of Love Island, but I think I have learned that in future quizzes when we don’t know the answer to a question, such as who provided the voice of Bugs Bunny, it is best to leave it blank.
Everybody seems to have a Wordle strategy these days. The web-based game where players are given six opportunities to solve a daily five-letter word puzzle is the hottest trend of 2022 so far, and for once I seem to be in tune with popular culture. My opening salvo is almost always HOUSE, I believe for as simple a reason as I am usually in my flat when I attempt the day’s challenge and it only has four letters. In my next guess, I like to use the remaining vowels, since I would have to shyly confess that I can’t think of any words that do not have at least one vowel in them.
The one time that I deviated from my game plan also happened to be the only occasion from 21 puzzles where I have failed to get the correct word. I had decided to switch from HOUSE to SOARE after reading an article by a language researcher who reasoned that the word for a young hawk is the best option for a first guess because it uses five of the six most common letters in the English language as well as being in a more strategic order than, say, AROSE. I couldn’t stop from wondering how it must be to be like some of the people I had spoken to who are much more free-spirited with their leading Wordle guess and type the first thing that comes into their head, varying their opening word from day-to-day. It was difficult to imagine having such spontaneity with words, but I figured I would give it a go with SOARE first and see how things went. As it turns out, I just couldn’t get the word that day. I think I was one letter away in the end, but it wasn’t coming to me. Mostly because the word was one I didn’t expect to encounter in such an inoffensive game. It was PRICK. What has life become when even Wordle is goading you?
My introductory Wordle pick has been the same ever since my 100% record was pricked. I’ve rarely thought about it, but I suppose I’m rigidly habitual like that; if something works I tend to stick with it and if it doesn’t I’ll usually avoid it. This is why I have cooked the same adventure-free pasta sauce recipe for the last five years, and it’s the reason why I haven’t accepted a shot of Sambuca since the stuff immediately had me vomiting on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday. On the other hand, it hasn’t stopped me from making jokes anytime I talk to a woman I have met, but there are some habits you just can’t change.
I solved Monday’s puzzle within a couple of attempts while I was taking the bus to Glasgow to see The Districts play that night. It was my first time at a gig since the summer of 2019, if I don’t consider the time the Edinburgh band Wrest played in The View in November 2021 whilst a 40th birthday celebration was taking place in the adjacent function space. It’s not that Wrest aren’t a decent act, but I found it hard to focus on the music when there was the sight of several enormous helium balloons emblazoned with the number ‘40’ rising to the ceiling at the back of the room as a member of the bar staff emerged with a buffet of party food.
Saint Luke’s is a repurposed music and arts venue in the east end of Glasgow. It was originally built in 1836 as a church, and when that was disbanded in 2012 the building underwent an elaborate refurbishment. There’s a temptation to suggest that the fact my first gig in over two years took place in a former church had some kind of a spiritual significance, but really, it was probably just a coincidence since the show was originally scheduled for May 2020 and was postponed twice due to a global pandemic that has caused millions of deaths.
Adjacent to the old church building is a bar and restaurant, The Winged Ox, where I ate a halloumi sandwich and drank some lager from the nearby Drygate Brewing Company. As far as I can remember, it is the first time I have eaten grilled Cypriot cheese in an establishment that has the statue of a saint perched on the shelf above its bar. Not long after my plate had been cleared away, I was surprised to look up from my pint and see that the four members of the band who I was about to see play on stage were standing at the end of my table, not but a chip’s throw away from me. They must have been there for several minutes. My heart was rattling all the way through my ribcage as soon as I recognised them, and I’m sure it wasn’t just from the Covid I had recently recovered from. I could hear the drummer tell a story about a flight he had missed one time in Germany before they stepped forward to the bar. Each member of The Districts was lined up along the front of the bar, taking it in turns to settle their individual bill. I could hardly believe it. That’s how my brother, sister and me pay for our breakfast on a Saturday morning if dad hasn’t come with us, but this was a touring rock band. Although they are far from the best known musical artists on the circuit, I had always imagined that the rock and roll lifestyle would be different; more glamorous. I never knew that they would have to queue up to pay for their own food at The Winged Ox.
One of the downsides of dining solo is that there isn’t anyone to tell when you see something remarkable occur in your vicinity. Worse still, if you want to engineer an opportunity to take a picture of a rock band who you have been listening to for six years standing near your table with bar bills in their hands, you are forced to make like you have a keen interest in photographing empty chairs. I felt ridiculous, especially when I couldn’t position my phone whilst the four men were standing side-on to me so I had to wait until their backs were turned when effectively I would have been as well snapping a picture of anybody.
Inside Saint Luke’s itself, a mirrorball hangs from the rafters above where the congregation once would have gathered. Part of me likes to imagine that it was there before the refurbishment, unlikely as it seems. I can never grow tired of gigs in former churches. This was my third such venue, and somehow they always sound brilliant. I met with a former Unlikely Lads pub quiz team-mate and her friend before The Districts took to the stage, though as happy as I was to have some great company for the gig, I found myself distracted by the tall man who was standing in front of me. It was impossible to stop myself from staring at the back of this guy’s head, which was covered with long, bedraggled hair the colour of a rabbit’s tail. I had only ever seen hair like it once before, but there was no way that the guy who used to own the Squeeze juice bar next door to Aulay’s was in Glasgow to see this little-known band who pay for their own meals. The resemblance was uncanny, however, and eventually, it was all I could do to unburden myself and ask Hannah if she recognised the man stood a few feet away from us as being someone who I had spoken to a maximum of four times in my life. She couldn’t be sure either, but when we heard his bellowing Northern Irish accent between songs it heightened our interest, and she had to approach him to ask if he had ever run a juice bar in Oban. It was just like being back at the Lorne pub quiz in the days when Hannah would pull out an answer that nobody was expecting, and in this instance, it turns out that the man in front of us was indeed the former owner of Squeeze, though he had no idea who The Districts are and was only there because his friend had offered him a free ticket. So little was the juice maker’s interest in the band that I could swear there was a point where he had fallen asleep on his feet for a few moments.
To the left of the man who once blended fruits for a living, my gig companions were in the midst of their own curiosity. They were observing a young couple who might well have been the only two people in the entire place who wore face masks the entire way through the gig. Most others we saw, including ourselves, would put them on whenever we went up to the bar, but these two only ever pulled theirs down for a moment to take a brief mouthful from their cans of cider before fitting them back in place. In a way, there was something to be admired about the couple’s resilience, and if that’s what they felt was necessary to allow them to enjoy a night out then it doesn’t seem right that anyone should judge them for it. But when they would bring their heads together and kiss by pressing the front part of their masks to one another, I was incredulous. Here I was, a man whose chances of receiving affection from a woman are as likely as solving a Wordle puzzle on the first attempt – ZILCH – and then there’s this couple who dared to just throw kisses away against a piece of dirty fabric like they were nothing. It was a toss-up to say whether the young couple was excellent at hygiene or exceptionally terrible with romance.
Back in Aulay’s on Friday, some of us were still feeling the effects from Wednesday night when we had been in to watch Celtic’s 3-0 victory over Rangers. The post-match libations were as unexpected as the nature of the win, and I felt thankful that I was at least sensible enough to stick to my principles and refuse the offers of Sambuca, even if I wasn’t quite as strong when it came to the Tequila. On this occasion, we came out to celebrate the 29th birthday of the town’s most elusive barmaid, a woman who seemingly has a different career-changing scheme each time you talk to her, sort of like a Marvel villain.
The Plant Doctor was already seated at a table with a man who I didn’t recognise when I arrived. We learned that Joe is a chef by trade who was visiting Scotland from North Yorkshire for five days with his wife and their young daughter, who is a year-and-a-half old. He is one of the few people any of us had heard describe a child’s age in that way rather than the more commonly used 18 months, and we welcomed it. Joe had left his wife and daughter in their campervan for the evening while he went out to watch his team, Manchester United, play in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough. He had been looking forward to seeing the football while enjoying a quiet pint in a local pub, but as the night progressed he was finding himself watching less and less of the game as he became involved in our nonsense discussions.
Manchester United were leading for much of the contest, though since Joe had fit into the group so seamlessly we suggested that he could message his wife to tell her that the match had gone into extra-time to give him an excuse for spending another half an hour in our company. He wasn’t convinced that his partner would believe that United were incapable of beating an opponent from a lower league, yet Middlesbrough went on to equalise as we were plotting and that’s exactly what happened. Joe was shocked at what he was seeing – although he hadn’t seen very much of it at all. We all laughed at the idea that the Yorkshire man’s wife would receive a text from her husband claiming that Manchester United had drawn 1-1 with Middlesbrough and immediately accuse him of lying to her. There would be no WiFi reception in the couple’s campervan, while the television signal wasn’t picking up ITV, so she coudn’t check the result for herself. Ultimately the supposed deception might prove destructive to their marriage, or at the very least Joe was going to be restricted to masked intimacy for a while.
Friday was one of those brilliant, bizarre nights that often occur in Aulay’s. It had just the right mix of Jameson, good tracks on the jukebox and eccentric out-of-town characters. As well as Joe, there was a middle-aged couple who were seated in the corner of the pub underneath the television who choked the jukebox with songs that the blonde woman danced her heart out to as her husband took videos. At one time there were four songs by Alanis Morissette queued up on the playlist. Meanwhile, when my selection of Be My Baby by The Ronettes played, the woman shrieked and beckoned me to join her in busting some moves. Her husband didn’t seem to care, although he became agitated when all nine minutes and thirteen seconds of Neil Young’s Down by the River came on. They didn’t stick around for very long after that, but Joe was there until closing time, several hours after he was supposed to leave. Something told me that it wouldn’t take much to guess the five-letter word that would best describe his wife’s mood when he returned to the campervan.
My 2022 has gotten off to what might best be described as a slow start. After bringing in the bells on Hogmanay by watching a spectacular firework display from McCaig’s Tower light up the sky over the New Look clothing store on George Street, I was forced into isolation for much of the following fortnight by a positive Covid test. The new year has been a real damp squib so far.
Rarely has something been both so momentous and utterly mundane as when I left my flat for the first time after my ten day quarantine. It was Friday morning and I was only walking to work, but I hadn’t been outside for any reason other than to take out the bins since I had been for my PCR test, so I guess it was something new for twenty twenty-two. I had a real spring in my step as I took to the pavement. It was the type of experience that catches in the back of the throat and takes hold of your breath, although much of that could surely have been attributed to the morning school run traffic.
Little had changed around town since I had last been outdoors. The Christmas tree in the square had been taken down but some of the festive street lights remained, albeit in darkness, sort of like the forgotten bauble you find underneath the sofa in March. Along the Esplanade, a familiar fragrance ascended from the shore at exactly the same spot it usually does across the road from the youth hostel. It was weed, only not the variety that had been coughed up by the sea. I found it strangely reassuring to know that life still goes on when you’re not around.
In most ways, it was an ordinary Friday, but by the afternoon of my first day back in existence, I was feeling sapped of all energy. Once I had done my evening yoga I was questioning my earlier assertion that I would be returning to Aulay’s at the first opportunity. At that point, I couldn’t imagine sitting and enjoying a pint of lager, and there have been times when that has been all I could imagine. During my bout of Covid I was fortunate that I never experienced any change to my sense of smell or taste, but the first couple of cans of lager I drank after work – my first beers since New Year’s Day – tasted dreadful, even accounting for them being Tennent’s. They left an unwelcome metallic aftertaste in my mouth, however, for the purposes of scientific advancement, I felt compelled to power through them and at least find out if a pint of lager was any better.
There was a noticeable tinge of emotion as I walked into the lounge bar of Aulay’s that night. That may have been because they were showing the disappointing Scottish Championship fixture between Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock, but I think overwhelmingly it was such a relief to be back. It is hardly as if I was desperately struggling with Covid and questioning whether I would ever see the inside of a bar again, but when you’ve been away from a place for ten days it can sometimes seem like an eternity.
My brother, the Plant Doctor and his girlfriend eventually joined me, and for the first time we engaged in a pub game of “how was your Covid?” Three quarters of us had contracted the virus since the turn of the year with a handful of days between each of our positive results. Our experiences were mostly mild, apart from the Plant Doctor, who suffered no symptoms at all and was testing negative again after five days, which made me wonder if the big pharmaceutical companies should be studying Newcastle Brown Ale as a potential vaccination against the illness. After a while, Covid became just another thing we would discuss, in the same way we talk about the latest Nick Cave album or the TV show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.
The pints of Tennent’s were going down a good bit easier than the cans did, and it was a great relief that my illness wasn’t going to affect my ability to enjoy alcohol, though the lager did still bring the usual side effect of needing to use the toilet. I was enjoying a quiet moment to myself at the urinal when one of the men who was sitting with the group at the table next to ours walked in. He had as much material covering his mouth as he did hair on his head and he was curious about why I was wearing a mask, asking “do you still have to wear those?” I explained that it’s still expected that folk wear masks in settings like pub urinals, but noted that it isn’t something people appear to be too bothered about anymore. For some reason, this prompted the maskless urinator to ask how old I am, as though consideration for public health during a pandemic is determined by the age of a person. I have never been fond of urinal interactions at the best of times, and already this one had me yearning for those days spent in isolation.
The talkative tinkler offered the information that he is 63-years-old, though he soon corrected himself and reduced his age to 62 and a half. It seems I wasn’t the only one who was having time taken off his life by this discussion. Soon he was talking about how he’s tired of all the rules and restrictions, how he’s had all his vaccines and that he’s 63 and just wants to be able to do whatever he likes. “I’m sick of masks and being told to wash my hands; wash behind my ears,” he wailed. I’ve heard of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, but never anti-hand washers. I assured the gentleman that I am greatly in favour of freedom but felt it would only be courtesy for me to wear a mask in the bathroom since I was recovering from the Covid I was still testing positive for the day before. The toilet fell silent, only the sound of the urine splashing against the steel as it trickled to a halt remained. Never has a pee been weighted with so much awkwardness. The vaccinated 62-and-a-half-year-old quickly zipped up and left after a brief sprinkle of his hands under the tap. For a moment, I allowed myself to think that being infected with Covid wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
By Saturday morning it was difficult to tell which I was suffering from most: the Omicron or the Tennent’s variant. My head was throbbing with all the vigour of a winter sunrise, and each time I moved I encountered a dizzying sound that would echo in my ears for a minute or two. Although it was uncomfortable, in a way it was nice to have something else to blame my weekend woes on besides a hangover. Another positive of having Covid, it seems. The aftermath of the virus continued into the following week and beyond, with the frequent brain fog sometimes making me question if certain things were actually happening or if I was watching myself in a dream. I’ve never felt anything like the sensation.
One afternoon as I was preparing a pot of soup for my lunch, I heard a knock at the front door, which isn’t a noise I typically associate with potato and leek soup. I opened the door to be encountered with a tall bearded man who was holding a large box of wine. He was attempting to deliver it to my neighbour across the landing but wasn’t getting any response from him, so he asked if I would be willing to accept the delivery rather than him being forced to take it all the way back to the depot in Edinburgh. As much as it is in my nature to be helpful, I really didn’t want to receive the box. It seemed like an awful lot of pressure to be left in charge of a box filled with expensive bottles of wine, and that’s before you consider living under the constant uncertainty of when my neighbour would come to the door to collect his goods. I had difficulty finding the words to express those concerns, however, and told the man that of course, I would be more than happy to help him.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. It was just my luck that I should take in a delivery that isn’t even for me from the world’s most talkative delivery driver. He spoke very fondly of Oban and how he often thinks about moving here with his girlfriend one day. As he was considering what those people who live in the really remote and tiny villages between Glasgow and Oban must do for a living, I could hear my soup bubbling from the kitchen. It was boiling the same way I was inside. All I could think was that if the delivery driver kept this up I wouldn’t have enough time left to eat the soup before I had to go back to work, let alone deal with the mess it was surely making. I briefly considered that I could probably get rid of him if I mentioned that I was happy to do my neighbour a favour since I haven’t seen many people after my recent isolation with Covid, although there was a risk that would only have given him something else to discuss. I probably wasn’t standing at the door for any longer than a few minutes, but these things always feel interminable.
Despite my fears that I would be spending the rest of my life waiting for a knock at the door, I was able to offload the box to my neighbour as soon as I arrived back home from work that same evening. As far as feelings of relief go, this was right up there with walking back into the pub for the first time after a ten day isolation or finding that you have the urinal to yourself. My year may have been slow out of the blocks, but it looks like things are finally starting to pick up.
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.