Absolute Beginners

“I like the way you dress.  Where did you get your shoes?”  I’m never asked this sort of question when I’m on my way home from the pub by a woman, so it figures that recently when I was stopped on the bridge at Airds Crescent by someone who wanted to comment on my outfit, it was by a guy who was so wasted that it was impossible to say whether it was from alcohol or drugs.  He couldn’t stay still, as though he was being operated by a video game controller, and if I wasn’t already dizzy from Aulay’s then I might have been from trying to keep up with him.

My sartorial suitor complained that he can never find a good pair of shoes; that every pair he buys immediately becomes scuffed and eventually the sole falls apart within a few months.  Where he was going wrong, he seemed to believe, was that he wasn’t spending enough money on his footwear.  “How much should a good pair of shoes cost?”  I considered telling him about my experience in Rogersons a few months ago when I approached the counter with the brown shoes he was so admiring of and the saleswoman commended me on my choice.  She mentioned that the shoes had been treated with a special waterproof spray, as though she had done me a personal favour, and I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time.  But I could see what she was talking about on every rainy day since when the water would disappear from the tops of my feet virtually right away and they would appear as though I had never been outside at all.  Then I asked myself why this guy who was probably high on drugs would care about waterproof spray, and I realised that my idea of good shoes was probably different to his anyway.

These types of characters only ever seem to turn up in my life on a Friday night, and usually they disappear just as soon as they make themselves known.  Like the bloke we met in Aulay’s last Friday night, for example.  I was in a group with the Plant Doctor and some other marine biology types, as usual, when we were joined by an older gentleman who didn’t have anywhere else that he could sit.  This guy had a fluffy goatee that matched the nest of white hair contained beneath his flat cap.  Each ear had a silver ring hanging from the lobe, while we learned that he was originally from the town of St Helens in Merseyside.  Everything about him looked and sounded like a local radio DJ from the 1970s.

Whilst the Plant Doctor and I were trying to organise our gameplan for the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy on Sunday, the would-be radio DJ insisted that he had no interest in watching the football, instead claiming that the true biggest match to take place at Wembley Stadium this year would be the rugby league Challenge Cup final featuring Castleford Tigers and St Helens the following weekend.  He was very proud of his hometown and enjoyed speaking about how much the rugby meant to the place, though I was having some difficulty participating in the conversation since the would-be radio DJ was extremely hard of hearing in his right ear, which of course was the side I was sitting at.  Whenever I tried asking him a question about St Helens or rugby league he would shake his head and say that he couldn’t hear me, before craning his neck and cupping his hand around his good ear, the bar light reflecting off the earring making it look like a tiny fish dangling from the end of a line. 

Most of all he recalled some of the many famous musical acts he had seen perform in the Liverpool area back in the day:  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie.  Bowie was his favourite, “a real showman.”  The night when he played the song Space Oddity was clearly one of those life events that a person doesn’t forget, similar to your wedding day or the birth of a child – or at least I would imagine it is.  The most memorable event in my life recently was the discovery that I could wear my brown shoes in wet weather without the risk of the leather having an unsightly appearance of melted treacle. 

When the would-be radio DJ returned from placing his second order of the night, he was followed by a barman who was carrying two pints of Caledonian Best.  Apparently this is what he does when he knows that he has almost had enough for the night – he buys his last two drinks together.  I didn’t understand it, especially when the table service in Aulay’s is so prompt.  Leaving one of your drinks to warm to room temperature is one way of ensuring that your pint of Best wouldn’t be at its…finest.  While he was working his way through his pints of dark beer, we learned that the man’s wife had passed away a few years ago, and ever since he has just been travelling around the country to keep his mind off it.  The Plant Doctor had met him on his last trip to Oban, but this was my first encounter, and I was wondering how costly it was going to be when he pulled his phone from his pocket in an act of drunken confession.  He swiped his way through some screens before holding the device out across the table to show us that he had been pinged by the NHS Track and Trace app as a close contact of a positive Covid case five days ago in whichever town he had last been to during his travels.  

It was interesting to see the screen, more as a novelty than anything else since I had never seen what happens when a person is pinged by the contact tracing app.  There was a timer that counted down the days, hours and minutes remaining in your ten-day period of self-isolation, like when you click one of those online quizzes asking you to name all the players who have scored in European Championships finals.  “I can’t self-isolate,” he told us.  “I’m on holiday.”  Somehow in the back of my mind I could almost hear the next words to follow:  “and playing now we have Night Fever by the Bee Gees.”

It wasn’t a conscious decision for me to play some David Bowie the following morning, he simply featured on the most appealing of Spotify’s Daily Mix playlists as I was plotting a shopping trip to Lidl before meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Roxy’s coffee shop.  Bowie had never captured me in the way that he had the would-be radio DJ, though I usually enjoyed what little of his back catalogue I had heard.  Absolute Beginners, the full-length eight-minute version, was the third song to play from the playlist, meaning that I had made my way around the store and had reached the self-service checkouts by the time the dramatic opening of the song kicked in.  I was immediately hooked.  

As I was scanning the items from my basket – a bottle of orange juice, a pack of four Greek yoghurts, a jar of pickled gherkins – I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.  The line “as long as we’re together the rest can go to hell/I absolutely love you/But we’re absolute beginners” slayed me.  I was on the verge of being a wreck as I made my contactless card payment of £22.36, and by the time I reached the exit I felt as though I could cry.  I was short of breath, my heart was racing and my eyes were welling up.  I loved the song, but I hated how it made me feel, and as I was striding towards the bedding plants in the foyer it was easy to see me collapsing face-first into the Sweet Peas.  Of all the things to have happened in my life, this would be the most difficult to explain.  Fortunately, I was able to make it beyond the Begonias and into the great wide open where I removed my mask like the most hapless of superheroes and everything was suddenly washed away.  It was hard to know why I was affected by the song in such a way, especially when my Last.fm account shows that I have listened to it a further 24 times since the incident and I’ve felt nothing but peaceful enjoyment.  On reflection, the only explanation for the intense reaction seems to be that it was a manifestation of my concern over the supermarket being out of stock of one-pint bottles of semi-skimmed milk thus forcing me into buying the blue-topped variety.  I don’t dislike whole milk, but I’ve never responded well to change.

In keeping with the strategy the Plant Doctor and I had agreed on, I arrived in Aulay’s early on Sunday to make sure that we could get a table for the Euro 2020 final later that night.  He is almost always the first one of us to get to the pub, and he disputed my ability to get us a table when it really mattered, which had me determined to prove him wrong.  It was a game that everyone was going to want to see, and when I arrived at 3.30 there was just one table left by the bar in the public side of the pub, although some opened up in the lounge later and we were able to move.  The Wimbledon tennis final was on TV, so it’s not like I was just drinking to pass the time.  Some guy at the back of the bar announced that day’s Covid numbers in the way of a typical pub discussion where sporting statistics are casually thrown around, like Novak Djokovic winning 79% of his first-serve points, or being successful in 20 out of his 30 Grand Slam final appearances.

It was shortly after the Plant Doctor turned up that we were able to find a seat in our favourite side of the bar, at a well-aired table at the rear of the lounge.  There was quite a haughty feeling from having a position by the door where we could watch people come in, knowing full well that they were going to be turned away.  Around the bar, a palpable nervous tension was rippling through the atmosphere in the hours before the game, entirely different to the buzz of excitement felt before Scotland played England a few weeks earlier.  People were genuinely worried that England might win the tournament.  When we were joined just before kick-off by two young women who had featured in a couple of our recent drunken adventures it was all we could do to lighten the mood by making a wager on the game.  Each of us offered our predictions of what the final score would be, with the winner being given the opportunity to buy a round of drinks of their choosing for the table; sort of picking everybody else’s poison.  When England scored after two minutes, all bets were off.

England were still leading 1-0 at half-time when our group grew in size with the addition of two characters who do the bidding of Her Majesty – a VAT man and a postman.  It was possibly the first time that I’d watched a game of football in their company and we were all rooting for the same team.  Eventually Italy pulled themselves back into the contest, and the final was decided by a penalty shootout, an outcome which didn’t do anything for anybody’s nerves.  I had never appreciated before how watching a penalty shootout is like listening to the David Bowie song Absolute Beginners for the first time.  Even when Italy won, it wasn’t something that any of us could really enjoy; it was more of a relief, like when you have made it past the Begonias and you can breathe again. 

A chiropractor and a carpet fitter walk into a bar

My single occupancy has what might best be described as a ‘lived in’ scent to it.  It isn’t bad or good, neither a stench nor a fragrance, it just exists.  The flat is a small one, four little rooms crammed together into a tight space like a block of Shredded Wheat, and a whiff in one room will soon spread to all the others.  In the morning the place smells of shower gel and Joop! Homme; by afternoon the fumes of passing traffic have wheezed in through the open bedroom window, and at night the dominant aroma comes from whatever I have prepared for dinner.  It is a classic Potpourri, though ironically I have always had a deep mistrust of actual Potpourri.

For a while, I liked to burn heaps of incense that I had bought in jars from a specialist bookstore in London until a friend asked me why my flat smelled like there was a funeral service being conducted.  It is the kind of thing that is difficult to forget about once you’ve heard it, and matters weren’t improved by my failed attempts at keeping houseplants alive over the years.  Other than experimenting with some scented candles that had been gifted to me during the original lockdown, I just learned to live with the ‘lived in’ bouquet around my flat.  It wasn’t something I ever spent much time thinking about, at least not until Lidl had an offer on reed diffusers recently.  I didn’t really know what a diffuser is or how one functions, but since there is still a lot of time to be spent sitting around at home with nothing better to do while most of the country is in Coronavirus protection level 1, I decided to buy a couple and figure them out for myself.

The diffuser isn’t very much to look at.  You wouldn’t make it the centrepiece of your living room, which is why I ended up hiding mine by the side of the television.  The diffuser I bought resembles something you might see on a table in a craft gin bar:   a small glass jar with a clear liquid filling it and eight wooden sticks which are poking through a gap in the silver lid like straws.   Apparently the sticks – or reeds – are porous and act to draw the fragrant oil out of the jar until it reaches the tip, where it evaporates into the air in my living room.  Even as I stared at the thing from across the room, I just couldn’t see how it would work; but it clearly is since now when I inhale during my yoga practices it is like crawling open-mouthed through a field of lavender.  Now I wonder if the cotton variety is going to give me an insight into how it is to be suffocated with a pillow.

Basking in the brand new essence of my living room, I got to thinking about how the diffuser hadn’t really transformed my life in the ways I was hoping.  I mean, sure, the place no longer smells of a funeral mass, nor even of exhaust fumes or that evening’s garlicky pasta dish, but it was hardly like baking a loaf of bread or learning how to play an instrument.  Other people seem to have made some real use of their time during these various lockdowns.  At least a dozen of my contacts across social media appear to have become committed Munro baggers.  My sister has taken the leap of starting her own business and is finally teaching fitness classes in person again.  While it is difficult to imagine that I would ever have bought a diffuser in ordinary times, there’s just no way of convincing anyone that unscrewing the lid of a jar and dropping eight reeds into some pungent liquid is any kind of achievement, even if I can now tell them about how the droplets evaporate in the air to create a pleasant smell.  I don’t feel guilty about it or consider it a waste of time, however.  Apart from the ongoing threat of a deadly airborne virus, my life feels as close to normal as it ever has been, which is to say that it is simply an ongoing succession of events taking place between Sunday and Thursday while I am waiting to go back to Aulay’s again, and that’s just the way I like it.

When I returned to Aulay’s, it had been a week since some guy had threatened to bite my nose off during the Scotland versus England Euro 2020 game, and since then Scotland had been eliminated from the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Croatia.  I had put the dispute to the back of my mind by the time the following Friday had come around, only to walk into the pub and find the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete sitting in the company of the big bearded bloke’s companion from that fateful night.  What were the chances?  This guy seemed a decent lad, though, and he confided in us that his friend had received a piece of bad news before the football started and that as a result his behaviour during it was out of character.  These things happen, I suppose, but really, it sounded as though you wouldn’t want to be around this guy when he receives a parking ticket or if the bin men refuse to uplift his recycling because a glass bottle has found its way into the wrong bin.

Oban was shrouded with mist on Thursday morning

Geordie Pete vanished like a benevolent spectre through the night shortly after some distant members of his family had been turned away from the bar on account of there being no tables, presumably to go in search of them for a drink elsewhere.  After a while, the older couple who were sitting at the table next to ours called it a night, and the Plant Doctor moved into their seat before it had a chance to cool.  He wanted to save the space for Geordie Pete and his family in the event that they all came back, but it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be returning.  It’s the same with everybody – there comes a time when you have to accept that a loved one has gone and they aren’t coming back.  So when the Plant Doctor saw that a couple of guys were being turned away because there were no available tables, he vacated the space he was reserving and ceded it to the men, who were thankful to have a place to drink.  The two of them were fantastically handsome; so strikingly good looking that I almost felt ashamed to even be sitting near them.  Even in the gloomy light of the bar, they appeared to have a sickeningly healthy glow about them.  You could just tell that their home didn’t smell of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning.

In time we learned that they were visiting Oban for the weekend from the Borders – one of the men is a chiropractor of Taiwanese origin from Galashiels, and the other owns a floor fitting business in Hawick.  They have been using the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to discover more of Scotland, which seemed like a good idea to me.  I became involved in a conversation with Hawick about the Common Riding festivities which take place through many of the Scottish Border towns during the summer months.  The Common Ridings commemorate a practice from the 13th and 14th centuries in which an appointed townsperson would go out on horseback and ride the town’s boundaries to protect against raids from the English or rival clans.  Each town has its own little traditions, and I found it fascinating, not only to hear about how drunk people would get but also about the pageantry and colour of it all.

Meanwhile, across the table, I could hear as the Plant Doctor asked Galashiels how the two men had met.  It was a bold question, I thought, but not an unreasonable assumption.  Galashiels looked ready to respond with what was sure to be a powerful and romantic anecdote recounting the events leading to this handsome coupling when the perfect joke occurred to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting.  

“Let me guess!  Galashiels had an accident at work and asked Hawick to help him hide the body under the floorboards?”  

They both smiled, but it was a smile I recognised well; an uncomfortable sort of smile.   It was obvious that neither of them knew what to say to that.  Why is it that I can’t help myself from saying stupid things when I’m around beautiful people?  Galashiels later asked the Plant Doctor when it was that he first realised that he is gay, and he seemed surprised when the answer was that the Plant Doctor isn’t gay.  It could even have been disappointment.  Had the two men been under the impression for the entire time that we were talking that the Plant Doctor and I are a couple?  And if we were viewing Hawick and Galashiels as this magnificently handsome pairing, then how were they seeing us?  This is what happens when the Plant Doctor decides to wear a shirt as opposed to his usual holey t-shirts.

While cases of Covid continued to rise in Argyll like in the rest of Scotland, including the Borders, people around Oban were becoming concerned about the numbers.  As is usually the way in a small town, stories of the virus were spreading faster than the actual illness, and by the end of last week people were talking about there being hundreds of cases in Oban when the true figure was less than 40, which was still higher than we had maybe ever seen.  These things get whipped up quite quickly here.  After hearing of a couple of positive cases from some of the pubs I decided that it would be a good idea to get myself tested, as a precaution more than anything else.  Although I felt perfectly healthy after a Monday morning session of yoga during which I inhaled yet more evaporated droplets of lavender, by the time I was booking a PCR test online I was overwhelmed with dread.  Even though I didn’t feel sick or have any reason to believe that I was, I felt as though I could be.

The Covid test site at Mossfield Stadium car park effectively amounts to a series of tents.  This was the same place that I went to the shows as a child, where I would ride on the dodgems and eat pink candyfloss, but you wouldn’t have known it from looking at it now.  After you have had your appointment QR code scanned by a man who is shielded behind a plastic screen you have to sanitise your hands, and you practically sanitise them after every little thing you do while you’re in the various tents.  I was guided through the testing process by a friend who I had once described as being amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s, and while we had since joked about the remark, it was hard to escape the suspicion that he was quite enjoying this.  First you are handed an envelope which you open and are asked to carefully place the contents on the table in front of you.  Inside there was a swab, a test tube, a small plastic bag for rubbish, and a tissue.  Looking at them laid out before me was as though I had just been caught shoplifting from Boots and was being forced to own up to my crime.

You hold the cotton swab against your tonsils for ten seconds, which you have to count out in your head yourself, before being instructed to place it up your nostril “until you experience some slight resistance.”  I found that phrase incredible since ordinarily, the resistance comes before I even think of sticking something up my nose, but I suppose I should have considered it generous that I was at least offered the option of which nostril the swab went in.  After all that is done, you put the swab into the test tube, which has some kind of medical solution in it that didn’t look unlike the oil in my diffuser, and then seal it up in a bag.  I could scarcely believe that my life had brought me to this.

My nose was sensitive for hours after the test, and it was difficult to stop thinking about what would happen if the result came back positive, even if it was the most confident I was feeling about a test since my Higher Modern Studies exam.  I received the result by text message at eight o’clock the following morning, right after I had done my yoga.  My heart was racing when I heard my phone ping from the next room.  This was when I realised how bad an idea the message preview notification on the home screen of your phone is.  The words stopped right before the part of the message where it told me the outcome.  I felt a wreck having to open up my phone to get into my messages just to find out that I don’t have coronavirus.  The rest of the text is pretty bland, advising you that you should still wash your hands, adhere to social distancing, and wear a mask; all the things we’ve become accustomed to doing over the last sixteen months.  Would it have killed them to put a wee ‘congratulations’ in there, or even a ‘thank you for doing your bit to help protect society’?

I was given two boxes of seven lateral flow testing kits from the centre, and I’ve been testing myself fairly frequently since.  Not necessarily out of any worry that I could have the virus, but I figured that if I have the things then I might as well use them, similar to the attitude I have towards the jars of dried oregano or thyme I keep in the cupboard.  I quite like having that peace of mind before I go to the pub on a Friday or visit my dad, though there’s something that doesn’t sit right about poking a swab around my nose in the same space in my kitchen where I cut onions and prepare bowls of overnight oats.  It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when I don’t feel uncomfortable conducting one of these tests, or anxious as I wait 30 minutes for the result to show, but I suppose that it is just another of these things that we’re going to have to get used to in life, like a ‘lived in’ smell or a stupid joke made in the company of a beautiful person.

23 Years

I recently received a message from an ex who lives in the south of England.  She had been watching the BBC’s One Show on a Tuesday evening when they aired a feature about the black guillemots that nest in the drain pipes in the sea walls along Oban’s Esplanade.  The birds are extremely striking with their black and white plumage and shiny red feet, looking almost as though they are stepping out to a gala ball wearing their finest tuxedo.  They are quite tame little creatures, and I’ll often see them sitting in pairs along the edge of the pavement by the sea, just a few feet away from some people who have shoved an iPhone in their beaks.  My ex observed in her message that she didn’t notice me strutting about the place in the video, which was probably a good thing, even if I wouldn’t look out of place amongst a flock of guillemots.

It was interesting that she even thought to contact me about the feature considering that when we were together nigh upon ten years ago she had a dreadful fear of birds.  I have never seen anything like it, before or since.  She would shriek if a bird so much as flapped its wing within a couple of metres of her, and you could forget about walking through a park or a square with this girl.  I always hated how the spectacle made me look, especially when she would usually grab for my elbow and seek protection behind my not particularly intimidating torso, as though I could do something to warn off the birds.  I mean, really, what am I going to do about a flock of pigeons?  Birds are a law unto themselves.  I responded to the text the only way I knew how, commenting that “it turns out Guillemots are not only a semi-popular English musical act from the early noughties, they are also a very lovely sea bird.”  I haven’t heard from her since, and I suspect that there can no longer be any mystery as to why we are not together.

The black guillemots are most commonly seen early in the morning, and I had an unexpected opportunity to view them after our latest album club meeting on the weekend after they had been featured on television.  The gathering was more of a meeting about the club itself than it was any one album and most of the group left at a reasonable hour, though the Plant Doctor and I found a kindred spirit in our host’s husband and the three of us sat drinking beer and listening to music until six o’clock on Sunday morning.  We would probably have stayed out in the gazebo even longer if the family didn’t have a dog that needed walking, and besides, we had surely peaked around dawn when we were belting out Elbow’s One Day Like This.  I struggled to reason in my mind how it was possible that I could go home from the pub any other weekend and fall asleep on the couch leaving a quarter-drunk can of Tennent’s to go flat, and yet here I was walking away from an all-night drinking session, when the daylight appeared even brighter than it was when we had started thirteen hours earlier.   

The Plant Doctor and I took what we both agreed was the best walk around the perimeter of the North Pier we had taken together.  From the green on Corran Esplanade we saw that the bay was bathed in an exquisite blue, with only the tops of Mull in the distance holding what appeared to be a wizard’s wisp of clouds.  There was serene stillness about the place, the only sound heard was the gentle hum that comes with being a certain level of drunk.  Indeed, the only people who seem to come out at six o’clock on a Sunday morning are the dog walkers and drunkards.  A lone Innis & Gunn pint glass sat on a bench in front of the Columba Hotel, far from where it belonged, while berthed at the marina was a boat which had a mast that was nearly as tall as the sky.  I liked to think that the top of it had pricked a hole in the atmosphere and let the sunlight in.  Out in the bay, the guillemots had emerged from the drainpipes much like the way we had left the sewers of our drunken debauchery and dared to face the day, although they were handling it much better than we were.  They looked elegant and graceful atop the surface of the water, all the things we weren’t.  It was easy to see why the BBC had filmed a report about them.  I took a photograph which I intended on sending to my ex but thought better of it after I had been to bed.

June marked the start of the European football Championships – Euro 2020 – which had been delayed by a year due to the pandemic.  Ordinarily these bi-annual international football tournaments are simply an excuse to spend more time in the pub, with as many as two or three televised games a day, but this year Scotland are competing for the first time in my adult life – since the World Cup in 1998 – and there is a great deal of excitement around it.  I remember the thrill of rushing home from school to watch Scotland lose to Brazil in the opening match of that last tournament, the hype surrounding the game against England at Euro ‘96 where we eventually lost to one of the most famous goals of its generation, and I have vague recollections of wondering where Costa Rica even is after we were defeated by them in the 1990 World Cup.  All of my memories are of Scotland losing, but at least this time I will be old enough to drink.

One of the best things about these month-long festivals of football is that the more frequent visits to the bar often present an opportunity to meet people who you otherwise might not end up talking to, such as the Swiss student lawyer who was in favour of using spinach as a pizza topping that I spoke to for ninety minutes after her country had played in the World Cup three years ago.  I’m fairly sure that my brother first fell out with Brexit Guy during that same competition.  It would be different for the European Championships, however, with the restrictions that are still in place meaning that bars are extremely limited in the number of patrons they can have in at one time and everyone has to be seated at their own tables.  You can no longer just turn up in time for the national anthems and find a space at the bar to stand and watch the game; a night in the pub requires precise planning and a little bit of luck.  

Before the opening match, the Plant Doctor, my brother and I arrived in Aulay’s at least an hour earlier than we usually would in order to secure a table so that we could watch Italy playing Turkey.  In time we were joined by a wandering hotelier who we have seen around the bars many times in the past.  He asked if he could sit with us since there were no other tables available and he would otherwise be asked to leave, and we were happy to have another person to tell our stupid jokes to.  

The Wandering Hotelier had fluffy balls of white hair that resembled the clouds we had seen clinging to the peak of Mull at six o’clock the previous Sunday morning, and it was obvious that he would have made an excellent Santa Claus back in the days before he had lost all the weight.  He told us that his small guest house hasn’t been as busy as he was hoping since the season started and blamed it on the popularity of Airbnb rental properties, which seems to be a common complaint in the town these days.  It was interesting to hear about the different ways he and his wife have to run their business during these unusual times.  We learned that he can no longer show his guests to their bedrooms, instead “I point them upstairs and tell them that they’re in room number three.”  He isn’t allowed to cook breakfast for them and now hangs a package on the door handle in the morning.  I found this amazing.  In my mind’s eye, all I could see was the vision of a confused elderly couple wandering the upstairs corridor of a small guest house on the west of Scotland clutching their complimentary breakfast bag which contained a banana and some French pastries, eternally unable to leave.

Sometime during the second-half a couple of young ladies who we were vaguely familiar with received a knockback from the bar staff since there were no tables left.  We asked the barman if there was a limit to the number of people who could sit together, and when he told us it was eight we invited the women to join us.  We could see that they really had to think about it, but eventually they concluded that it was better to get their drink and put up with our shit than to not get their last drink of the night at all.  The four of us had been discussing who we each thought would win the tournament, and we extended this question to our new tablemates.  They both said emphatically that it would be Scotland, as though it was the stupidest question we could have asked, and my brother somehow convinced one of them to put their money where their mouth is and bet £10 on Scotland winning Euro 2020.  She had to lift the strict deposit limits she had set on her online gambling account to place the wager, and when she finally did she made it an “each way” bet, which seemed to make it a better idea.  I asked the second girl, who works in one of the hardware stores in town, what type of hammer she would recommend if I was in the market for tools.  I don’t think I have seen anyone drink a glass of vodka and cranberry juice as quickly as those two did.

By the time the second Friday of the tournament came around, Scotland had already lost their first game to the Czech Republic and were in a precarious position in the group.  Our second game in the competition was against England, and nobody was giving Scotland a chance.  According to the experts it was simply a matter of how many goals England were going to win by.  Nevertheless, we packed into Aulay’s as much as anyone can pack into anything these days, and it’s amazing how holding a pint of Tennent’s Lager can make you believe that anything is possible.  For some of us, there wasn’t as much trepidation about the game as there was about being in a pub at all, since cases of Coronavirus had been increasing rapidly in Oban during the week.  As far as we saw it, we were in just about the safest place we could be since the clientele of Aulay’s is usually so old that most people there would have been double jagged anyway.

One of the biggest talking points prior to kick-off, besides team selection and tactics, was the strategy of breaking the seal and when to go to the toilet.  It’s a delicate matter when watching a game of football, since you don’t want to go too early and let the flow of beer know that there is an easy way out, but you also want to beat the crowds and ensure that you see all of the game.  The Plant Doctor went early, around forty minutes before kick-off, which I felt was a risky move since he would surely need to go again before the match began.  I held on until just before the anthems were played, following my usual trusted gameplan.  Whilst I was standing at the urinal, feeling pretty chuffed with my success, the man who was finishing up approached the wash hand basin, though you could tell that it was all for show.  He placed his hand under the sensor long enough for it to release a sprinkle of water, barely enough to water a plant.  I think he used it to slick back his hair more than for any hygienic purposes, and he spent more time at the hand dryer.  It’s times like these where I really wonder if two vaccines will be enough.

People were being turned away from the bar all night, and I was thankful that the Plant Doctor had saved me a seat at six o’clock.  Shortly after the game kicked off I noticed that the two men who had been sitting at the table which is positioned beneath the television for at least two hours got up and left.  It is hard to believe that they weren’t interested in watching the football, because everyone was wanting to see Scotland versus England, which could only mean that after having occupied the spot for the entire night, they realised when the match began that they were in the only seat in the entire pub where they couldn’t see the television.  Imagine having that kind of luck.

As well as being in the company of two Aulay’s barmen and the Wandering Hotelier, the Plant Doctor and I watched the football with the two Geordie’s – Pete and Dave.  These are two guys who are from roughly the same neck of the woods and who had never met each other until they came from North East England to the west of Scotland, and more specifically to Aulay’s Bar, where they have since formed the Geordie community of the pub.  They had been looking forward to this game as much as the rest of us, and naturally, they were supporting their home nation as opposed to their adopted one.  There was some good-humoured banter between us all, which made the occasion that bit more fun.  The two Geordies were a bit more vocal about things as the match progressed, which seemed to offend one man in particular who was further back in the bar.  He would occasionally holler out:  “fuck off you English cunts” and at times seemed to be more interested in being anti-English than pro-Scottish.  

The Geordies never rose to the bait and continued to watch the game, but a couple of us at the table grew tired of it.  Peter and I turned and asked the guy to calm down and be more respectful of the fact that people have their own nations to support, not to mention the fact that the Geordies drink in Aulay’s all the time whereas this guy was presumably only there because he couldn’t get in anywhere else.  This fellow was big, broad and bearded, and he seemed to take exception to our intervention, turning his anger onto me.

“I’ll bite your nose off!”

I’d heard of biting your own nose off to spite your face, but never biting somebody else’s nose off.  I could maybe understand it if he had threatened to punch my lights out, break my glasses or perform almost any other act of violence, but what would he even do with my nose once he had bitten it off?  I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing a person makes a habit out of.  I told him that it was the most bizarre threat I had ever heard, especially during a game of football, although with hindsight I am not sure why I added the stipulation about the football.  It’s a bizarre threat to be issuing in any circumstance.  Although the xenophobic outbursts ceased, it was plain to see that Geordie Pete was a lot more withdrawn for the remainder of the game, which I felt sad about.  The big, broad and bearded bloke came over to me and apologised at full-time, blaming “football fever”, but it wasn’t me who he owed an apology.

Scotland played as well as I had ever seen them play in a game of football, and while everybody was delighted with the unlikely 0-0 final score which kept us in the tournament, there was a tiny part within us that was disappointed we hadn’t actually won.  Already thoughts were turning to the next match against Croatia on Tuesday, and the permutations that could have us qualifying for the knockout round of a tournament for the first time, as well as the permutations that would be needed to get us into a pub to see it.  

After the disappointment of Monday’s defeat to the Czech Republic, where waiting 23 years just to get a massive kick in the baws at the end of it seemed to me to be similar to what it would be like to finally have a woman show an interest in me only to find that she is as afraid of my jokes as she is of birds, things were suddenly very different on Friday.  Scotland had given us hope again.  When the pub closed at 11 pm, the Plant Doctor and I found ourselves drinking bottles of Budweiser in the flat which belongs to the podcasting phycologist and the girl with the scarf until five o’clock in the morning.  On this occasion there was no silence like there was a couple of weeks earlier as I walked home, not even a gentle drunken hum; the entire country was still rocking.

Dreams of vaccines and Swedish cider

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

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

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

Fingal’s Dog Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skimming the surface (part two)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Skimming the surface (part one)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An endless cycle

It isn’t often that I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in class during science lessons, but that was the case recently when I was taking a walk by the seafront and noticed that the tide was much lower than usual and didn’t know why.  Sometimes it would be nice to have the answer to a generic piece of trivia without having to remember to Google it when I get home.  It took me longer than I had hoped that weekend to find my way to a website detailing A Beginners Guide to Surfing in Newquay where I learned that in addition to the usual daily high and low tides, twice a month there is a variation in the size of these tides known as a spring tide which occurs around the full moon.  This went some way to explaining why there didn’t appear to be as much water around the bay as normal, but not some of the unusual items that had been revealed to have been washed ashore.  Cast amongst the usual pieces of driftwood, empty drinks cans and bottles, and polystyrene food containers was a red Vileda mop handle, as though a party cruise had run aground and the clean-up crew had gone with it.  Further along the shore, beyond a hillwalking boot that was abandoned on the slipway, and tangled in chains of seaweed, was a small plastic doll; stranded, helpless, stripped bare of all of its clothing.  It was difficult to ignore this doll as being the perfect metaphor for our collective experience in the continued lockdown.

Oban’s online community seemed to be occupied by the pungent stench of diesel fumes that was wafting up from the bay and across the town.  The smell was deeply embedded in the atmosphere and seemed to cling to the hairs of your nostrils all the way from one end of the Esplanade to the other.  Toxic rainbows could be seen gathered on the surface of the water.  For an entire week, there was great concern about where the diesel had come from and what was being done about it, but I don’t think that anybody ever got to the bottom of the mystery, and even now the stuff still seems to linger in the air like some misbegotten courtship.

The appearance of the diesel in the bay was not unlike the relentless sense of melancholy that had seemingly washed over me in the days leading up to Easter.  I didn’t know where it had come from or how I could shake it, though part of the feeling was undoubtedly due to a disappointing laundry experience during the week, which in truth wasn’t all that different to every other episode of laundry.  I can think of nothing more mundane than putting my clothes in the washing machine.  Some weeks I will need two separate loads of laundry just to clear the basket in my bedroom, but if I can get away with doing only one and still have enough clean underwear and a reasonable variety of coloured shirts to get me through the week, then I will. 

Part of the reason for the washing machine becoming my greatest nemesis of all the home appliances was the slow drying sock saga which plagued me for several months after I became a single occupant.  Despite being the smallest item of all the garments on my clothes airer, the socks hanging on the bottom tier always took longer than anything else to fully dry.  Sometimes it would be days before I could put them back in their drawer, and I could never understand what the reason for that was.

As I mentioned my concerns to people, more of them were suggesting that I should try running two spin cycles after the main wash instead of one.  It seemed to make a bit of a difference, and I felt pretty sheepish for not thinking of the life hack myself.  With hindsight, it was so simple, though I tried telling myself that it’s the sort of thing you could never know for yourself without a little guidance, just like nobody knows the meaning of the word ‘ambedo’ or why the tide is so low at the end of March without Googling it.

Last week was shaping up to be a two-load week of laundry since it seemed to be a good idea to take advantage of the long Easter weekend and start afresh with a full wardrobe the following week.  I followed my usual routine and filled the washing machine with clothes before I left for work on Thursday morning; ran the first spin cycle during my lunch hour and the second when I arrived home in the evening.  As my dinner was cooking I went to unload the clean clothes; and one by one I pulled the garment from the machine, slowly realising that they were no wetter than when I threw them in that morning.  Some of the shirts still had the smell of my aftershave on the collar.  I couldn’t understand why the clothes were so dry – or why I was still pulling them out of the washing machine and hanging them on the airer.  By the end of it all, the airer with the unwashed clothes was resembling the most depressing looking mannequin known to man, standing there in the centre of the kitchen modelling my disappointment.  The only explanation I could think of for the dry clothing was that the washing machine was broken, which was surely the worst thing that could happen to a person at Easter.  I furiously cursed my rotten luck.  It wasn’t so much a Hotpoint as it was a boiling point.

For the entire weekend the mannequin stood fully dressed in my kitchen, where I stepped around it and yearned for the days when my socks wouldn’t dry.  There was nothing to be gained by leaving the clothes out on display on the airer, but I didn’t know what else I could do with them.  It would have been ridiculous to hang them in the wardrobe amongst the other clothes which had already been through a successful wash, while returning them to the laundry basket felt like it would have been akin to admitting that the whole weekend was already a failure; the only plan I had made for the Easter break turning to a complete farce.  Besides, there was a part of me that was questioning if there even was a farce at all.  I couldn’t stop from wondering if I had set the clothes to wash in the first place.  It seemed like classic denial, but the more I thought about it I couldn’t remember actually pushing the button on Thursday morning – though I couldn’t remember not doing it, either.  There was no way of knowing for sure if I had programmed the machine correctly.  Over the weekend I managed to talk myself into believing that the washing machine might not be broken after all, with the result being that I decided to give the load a second attempt on Easter Sunday morning.  I pressed the ‘start’ button with more conviction than I had ever pushed any other button in my life, as though I was John Locke in the hatch, and when I stepped back and watched the drum fill up with water it was the most joy I had felt in a long time.

Two years earlier I had witnessed an Easter miracle as my brother and his then pub nemesis Brexit Guy exchanged a handshake at the bar in Aulay’s, though it seemed like a different lifetime altogether when reminisced against the backdrop of a second Easter spent in lockdown.  Good Friday was a beautiful day in Oban, and the whole weekend was forecast to enjoy wall-to-wall sunshine.  In times gone by such a thing would have seen tourists flock into the town.  Pubs and beer gardens would have been a pulsing mass of life, cafes and restaurants would have been busier than ever, and the local shops and attractions would surely have done a roaring trade.  It was difficult not to think about the way things used to be, particularly when the highlight of my own weekend was promising to be a 59p packet of six hot cross buns from Lidl and a jar of strawberry jam.  

When my washing machine dilemma suddenly made things seem much bleaker on Thursday night, I decided that I would join the Plant Doctor and the owner of the Arctic Fox for some al fresco beverages on the picnic table at the grassy area by the sailing club the following evening.  Considering that it was a sunny bank holiday, the scenic spot was far quieter than I was expecting it to be.  For most of the time we spent at the location there was only one other group who were seated at the table further down the shore.  There were around four girls, who we presumed were in their late teens from the bottle of wine they were sharing, and a tall male who was fashionably outfitted.  I immediately envied the scarf he had draped luxuriously around his neck, especially when the bitter breeze crawling up from the sea announced itself shortly after we had arrived.  The group had a Bluetooth speaker which was loudly playing modern hip-hop music, the sort of sound that was completely lost on a trio in their thirties.  I imagined how differently things could have been if we had brought a wireless stereo of our own and played the songs of Elliot Smith, for example.  The sort of duelling musical tastes that you see in the movies.  It seems unlikely that we would have won the youths over, however.  They appeared to be too drunk – the happy sort of drunk – to truly enjoy Elliot Smith, and besides, what chance would there have been of seeing another Easter miracle so soon after the handshake in the pub?

We had alternative forms of entertainment at our disposal all the same, such as the tennis ball Arctic Fox had in her backpack.  Where some other people like to carry a book of Sudoku puzzles or a hairbrush wherever they go, Arctic Fox always has a fresh tennis ball in her possession.  She told us once that she mostly carries it in the hope of finding a dog who she can play with, but on this occasion the Plant Doctor and I were more than happy to be thrown the ball.  The three of us gleefully kicked the tennis ball around the slope of grass, using a bench as a makeshift set of goalposts, and nothing made us happier than when one of us could head the ball, although the nearby teenagers appeared to be unmoved.  When we weren’t displaying our athletic prowess we were back at the table creating quizzes based on the pub snacks the Plant Doctor had brought with him, challenging each other to arrange packets of beef jerky, pork scratchings and bacon fries by salt content, expiration date or which didn’t contain MSG.  I believe that we each won a round, though it was difficult to see any of us as winners.  

Despite us not being at the sailing club long enough to even get notably drunk, we did somehow manage to agree that we would all take a trip to the island of Kerrera the next afternoon since it was forecast to be another beautiful day.  Ordinarily I would have made any excuse to get out of an outdoor excursion of this sort, but when the alternative was spending a Saturday at home with an airer of unwashed clothing it was difficult to say no.  We decided that we would convene at 12.15 pm so that the Arctic Fox could drive us around the coast to Gallanach, where the passenger ferry was scheduled to set sail at 12.30, since she would be the only one of the three of us who would be sober, or who can legally drive a car.  It was a bit of a rush to get prepared in the morning after the Plant Doctor and I had been involved in one of our Zoom recreations of the pub until 3am, but we somehow managed to make it for the designated time; not especially bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, but carrying bags filled with beer all the same.  After waiting several minutes for the Arctic Fox to arrive downstairs, we discovered that she wasn’t even nearly ready to leave since she didn’t believe that we would actually go through with the plan when we were sober.  Given the lessons of history we couldn’t blame her for not having much faith in the pair of us, and we decided to catch the next ferry instead, though we would have to wait until two o’clock for it.  Looking back on it, it should have been a foreboding sign of things to come, but the Plant Doctor and I just walked along to the sailing club and opened our first beer of the day without a care.

The crossing to Kerrera takes less than five minutes and there were maybe another five passengers on the small ferry, which can carry a maximum of twelve people the short distance between the two slipways.  We noticed that one of the passengers was accompanied by a small dog that rather sadly only had three legs, and watched as it bounded off the vessel with more poise and assurance than the Plant Doctor and I had, despite us only being two or three beers in by that stage.  All of the other pedestrians took a turn to the left of the classic red telephone box while the three of us headed for the hills.  It wasn’t long before we were presented with a fork in the single-track path, and the responsibility of deciding which direction we would take was bestowed upon me, which seemed to me to be like the point in a low budget horror film when a quiet stroll in the hills leads to the unsuspecting group being massacred, all because they listened to the least experienced person in the group.

Fortunately for us, the only vaguely horrific sight was that of a duck that appeared to have a badly deformed spine, but it seemed to be happily quacking away and didn’t look to have any intentions of killing us.  As we continued on our way up our chosen path we also saw some pigs, rabbits and cows to add to our nature checklist alongside the couple of red squirrels we had encountered by the side of the road in Oban.  And, of course, we saw plenty of sheep.  There are surely many more sheep than there are people living on the island of Kerrera, though curiously for all their numbers we didn’t hear them baa all that often.  The Plant Doctor enjoyed trying to talk to the sheep, frequently addressing them as Sheila or Barbara.  It was difficult to tell how the animals felt about this, though most of the time they would simply stand there and urinate or shit in the grass soon as they heard his voice.  I had never seen such an effect, and it caused me some concern to think about how things might go once we are finally able to socialise with other people.

Our decision to follow the path we did was eventually rewarded when we reached the top of the hill and were treated with an exceptional view across Mull and Lismore and to the hills which produce a breathtaking backdrop to Oban.  It could hardly have been a clearer day and we could see it all.  The sea was an unspoiled marvellous blue, resembling a bucket of marbles that have been strewn across a big blue carpet.  Lismore Lighthouse looked as though it could have been sketched onto the horizon with a piece of chalk.  Apart from the sound of the wind rasping through the blades of grass, it was absolute serenity up there.  For a moment, as we stood and drank it all in along with a swig of lager from our cans, it was almost as though the world had stopped and the last year hadn’t happened at all:  there was no pandemic, no lockdown, no broken down washing machine. 

As we continued our trek around the island we were able to add yet more creatures to our wildlife checklist:  some guillemots, a boisterous bullfinch and a couple of Canadian geese who were basking in the still sea.  I was busy wondering how the Plant Doctor and Arctic Fox, who are both marine biologists, could tell where the geese had come from when I noticed the water ripple with disturbance in the distance.  The scientists knew immediately that the commotion was being caused by an otter, which greatly excited us since it was the first time that any of the three of us had seen one in the wild.  We watched as the otter tried its best to be discreet in sizing up the geese, hanging out in the background, waiting for the right moment to make its move.  It had gotten it all wrong, however, as the birds seemed to catch wind of the impending trouble and squawked their way to the safety of the shoreline.  The otter continued to linger in the background, but it was more out of hope than expectation.  It was a scene I was quite familiar with.

While the otter sighting was probably the most thrilling thing we saw during our time on Kerrera, there were many interesting discoveries along the way.  It was almost disconcerting the number of bones or pieces of bone that we found around the island, yet it is impossible to see a bone on the sand and not feel a desire to pick it up and examine it and question what type of mammal it had come from or which part of its body it used to belong to.  As far as quizzes go, it was a level above guessing the salt content of a packet of pork scratchings – yet all things considered, not markedly different.  On the beach at the south end of the island we also stumbled upon an old wooden shipwreck which looked to be in pretty good condition considering that it had probably been there for some time.  Off the coast, the back end of Mull was shrouded by a cloak of mist as the ocean spray from the tide was caught in the sunlight.  It made for quite an impressive visual, even if the scenic view was similar to viewing a beautiful photograph through smudged glasses lenses.

Navigating our way around the island wasn’t always easy.  The terrain in some parts was tricky to negotiate, particularly as we were rounding the southern loop, where the path became less obvious or was sometimes over-run with water and mud.  The grass verges were often deceiving, and if you weren’t careful you could easily lose a foot in there.  What looked like steady ground would turn out to be a soggy ditch that challenged our balance, especially for the Plant Doctor and me, when we were essentially handicapped by the fact that we had a beer in one hand the whole way round the place.  We fell on our posterior a couple of times apiece, though fortunately the evidence of our failures would quickly dry in the sun.  It was in those moments when we were gathering ourselves back to our feet, beer can held aloft, protected from coming to any harm like it was the most valuable thing in the world, that we understood why that one couple we had passed on our travels a couple of hours earlier were dressed for the serious pursuit of walking.  They were in athletic wear and had sensible footwear; their rucksacks with water bottles cradled in the side pockets as opposed to the cans of Tennent’s Lager that weighed down my New Yorker tote bag.  Arctic Fox said that I was dressed like a professor who is on the run from some tremendous scandal, while the Plant Doctor resembled a well-educated biker with his leather jacket and sunglasses, and with the benefit of hindsight and a pair of dirty jeans, it is easy to see why it wasn’t the wisest decision to dress the way we did.

After those many traumas we could finally see Gylen Castle on its rocky peninsula in the distance, which was the ultimate aim of our trip.  From afar, the architecture of the old ruin appeared to have some unusual quirks, not least of all the odd-looking tower on the side of the structure that looked so out of place with the rest of the design that it gave the impression of being an afterthought, sort of like adding a pink pocket square to a brown tweed suit.  We were debating whether we had enough time to climb the steep hill to reach the castle considering that the last ferry back to Oban was leaving at 5.55pm, but it seemed foolish to come all this way and not see the one thing we had planned on seeing, so we agreed to make it quick.  As we were making our way up the hill we discussed which part of our body usually begins to hurt first after a sustained period of physical exertion, which had a similar kind of purpose as participating in a sponsored fast and entering into an argument about your favourite pizza topping; it wasn’t helping anybody.  Gylen Castle was built in 1582 by Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie but was only occupied for around seventy years before it was attacked and left a ruin by Covenanter forces.  On our way up the side of the hill, with my calves making more noise than the local sheep and my beer can clutched precariously in my right hand, I wondered why anybody would have the idea to build their home on such high and remote ground, but I guess it turned out that the castle wasn’t high enough.

Having accomplished our goal of seeing the castle, we meandered back down the hill buoyed by our achievement and began making our way back to the jetty where we would catch the ferry home.  It was after five o’clock and we had no way of knowing how far away we were or how long the route back would take, but at that point we were only interested in toasting our success with another of our beers, which were becoming as warm as our foreheads.  As we were strolling past one of the few houses we saw on the day a man shouted out after us from the garden, his face obscured by shrubbery and the glare of the sun.  “Are youse on the way to the ferry?”  He was presumably able to tell from our inappropriate footwear and the state of the Plant Doctor’s and my jeans that we weren’t residents of the island, and we confirmed that to be the case.  “Youse had better start running!  You only have forty-five minutes, and it won’t wait for you!”  We thanked the kind stranger as our panic began to set in, knowing that he most likely wouldn’t have felt it necessary to warn us in this way if we were a ten or even a thirty-minute walk from our destination.

As we picked up the pace from a dawdle we began discussing our contingency options if we failed to make it to the slipway in time to catch the last ferry.  We would have to beg one of the locals to put us up for the night, likely the same man who had warned us about the fading time, probably to avoid such a situation from arising.  It was suggested that we could send a scout to run ahead and somehow convince the ferryman to hold the sailing for us, but what good would that really have done us considering our athletic display with the tennis ball at the sailing club the previous evening and our ill-footing throughout the day on this trip?  What could we reasonably say to the ferryman when two of the three of us had the appearance of drunks who have wandered into a wind tunnel, looking no different to the airer of unwashed clothes in my kitchen?  No matter how hard we power walked, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the jetty, and even the upturned wooden boat that we spied on the shore was being considered as an option to get us home.

Despite all of the great things we had seen:  the red squirrels, the Canadian geese, the otter, the chirping bullfinch, Gylen Castle, and all of the stunning scenery; in addition to the laughs we enjoyed along the way, it was accepted that the entire success of the day would be determined by whether or not we could make the ferry.  It was exactly the same question as was posed in the opening track from Blondie’s 2017 album Pollinator, a song that was playing in a loop in my head as we made that desperate push.  In the end, we reached the slipway with exactly seven minutes and no beers to spare.  The feeling of relief was the sort of thing you would pay good money to a dealer for.  Back in the car at the other side of the crossing in Gallanach we spoke about how we would wake up in the morning hungover with our jeans wet and our shoes reeking of sheep shit and we’d have no recollection of what had happened last night.  It would be just like any other Sunday, and I was going to have yet another load of laundry to get through.

Enjoy every sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If you feel like you’re alone

No, no, no, you are not alone.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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