The Vesuvius Question

It wasn’t often that I would arrive home to find anything waiting for me other than an escape from the world outside, but as I was approaching the front door to my flat I could see that there was a piece of paper protruding from the gap between the frame and the door, the way a shirttail comes loose from your trousers and hangs over the hip, like a hostage who has made a daring break for freedom.  The paper was no bigger than the palm of my hand, about a fifth of a sheet of A4, and it was folded onto itself with no greeting on the outside.  It was the most exciting thing I had encountered in my doorway since the time a sandwich artist dropped off a six-inch Sub on her way home.

My first reaction was to consider why the person who had delivered the note hadn’t used the mailbox which was on the wall adjacent to the door.  It struck me that walking all the way to my front door and shoving a sheet of paper into the narrow crack rather than easing it into the slot in the mailbox was a lot like taking a rod to the railway pier and spending hours fishing for a little kipper when there is a seafood hut selling freshly caught langoustine a few yards away.  It was an admirable commitment to the old fashioned way of communicating in our block of flats, following on from the two-foot-long scroll of paper which was stuck to the back of the entrance after a stranger wandered upstairs and fell asleep outside the home of a young family, but if the author of the note was really wanting to pay homage to a time before mailboxes had been invented then I would have been expecting to come home to be met by their message carved into the wall outside my door, or at least drawn with chalk symbols.

After gently prising the paper from its point of delivery my next concern was the question of who might have gone to such an effort as to handwrite a note and leave it dangling in the doorway like an apple from a tree, waiting to be picked.  A member of my family, perhaps wanting to discuss dinner arrangements for Saturday night, would have just sent a message to our group chat, whereas a friend who was needing to talk to me would have known to go straight to Aulay’s.  I clutched the paper in my hand, as though it was a winning betting slip, as I walked across the threshold into my flat, all the while considering the admittedly ludicrous possibility that I might have had a secret admirer.  I continued through to the kitchen with thoughts in my head of a woman who was finally letting her long-suppressed admiration of my liking of notebooks over Macbooks be known.  Perhaps she had seen me scribbling in my small pocket notebook at the bar, or she had even heard me read from my notebook at the Let’s Make A Scene open mic events.  I had a sense of anticipation I hadn’t felt in a long while as I unfolded the written note.

On the torn sheet of paper, my upstairs neighbour was advising me that the mains water supply would be switched off from eight o’clock the following morning.  Immediately my thoughts were turned to the havoc that could be wreaked upon my daily routine.  I was thinking about how I would probably have to get out of bed earlier than normal, rather than pull my usual stunt of hitting snooze on my alarm and turning in my sheets as I thought about which pair of trousers I would wear and how futile it all was anyway.  I considered the merits of switching things up and showering before shaving, imagining that it would be better to be caught mid-trim rather than mid-stream if the water was to go off.  A part of my thought process even became concerned with the effects it might have on me if I had to swallow my daily allergy relief tablet with a mouthful of milk.  It seemed unlikely that it would have done anything other than making the pill taste a little different, but I couldn’t face taking the risk.

A postcard view of Oban from Kerrera

As fortune would have it, I was able to rouse myself from my bed at a reasonable hour and the water supply remained active until I had left the flat, allowing me to both enjoy a hot shower and rinse the trimmings of my stubble from the bathroom sink.  Leaving my flat a few minutes earlier than usual enabled me to enjoy a longer morning walk, and I started the day feeling refreshed.  By the time I arrived in Aulay’s later in the night I was keen to discover if the surprisingly successful early start I had made to the day would translate into a pleasant night when I met with the plant doctor and his work colleague at the bar.

I had met the plant doctor’s colleague previously at The Rockfield Centre, where I was already nervous before a reading, but the hut was dimly lit and my leaf-like features and lack of eye contact probably weren’t so noticeable.  Here I was forced to work harder to hide my natural anxiety when talking to a woman because the bar lights in Aulay’s were so much brighter, and like a Smiths song, it was written all over my face.  Even if my body language was capable of masking my insecurity, it was inevitably betrayed by my words, which tumbled from my tongue one after another like lemmings walking off a cliff and collided on the bar in front of me as I pointed out that the last time we were talking, it was in a small dimly lit room where I was feeling nervous but “at least it couldn’t be seen.”

My mouth was dropping lemmings at a rate of around one stupid joke or observation every three or four minutes, which is often the way these things go when my social awkwardness either forces me into silence or forms a chemical romance with the pints of lager I’ve been drinking to convince me that it would be a good idea to blurt out every daft idea which comes to mind, and even though I was successful in my favourite past-time when meeting a new person with an exotic foreign accent of identifying their country of origin, albeit at the second time of asking, it seemed likely that the marine biologists had labelled me with the scientific term land-dwelling idiot.

As they did at the same time every year, my sister and brother’s birthdays fell a day apart in early August.  When I was a kid it was often difficult to wrap my head around the idea that my sister, who was the youngest child, would have a birthday on the 11th of August which would make her a year younger than my brother, and then the following day my brother’s birthday would once again make him two years older than my sister.  The confusion was enhanced by our parents, who would take great amusement from the tantrums it would cause when they began the act around early August time of pretending that they couldn’t remember which sibling’s birthday fell on the 11th, and whose was the 12th.  We always figured that this was how grown-ups got their kicks before the internet became a thing, and I felt a measure of luck that my own birthday was on a standalone date in October.  However, as I grew older I began to appreciate that maybe they weren’t always fooling around, and it really was difficult to tell whose birthday was when, and even how old people were getting.

For the most recent couplet of birthdays it was decided that we would do something different for the family meal which traditionally marks such events, and we took the small ferry which sails from the North Pier to the island of Kerrera, where we ate at the Waypoint Bar & Grill.  The evening was warmer than it had been in the preceding days, seducing most of our party into leaving home without a jacket.  My brother and I met for a pint in the beer garden of the Oban Inn, whilst unbeknownst to us, our father had made his way by bus to the slipway no fewer than forty minutes before our scheduled departure.  Our sister arrived with her partner and their daughter shortly afterwards, and from the pavement she spotted dad in the distance, when it occurred to me that we might have been better off exchanging handwritten messages after all.

The thing I had been spending years searching for was at the marina all along.

The short wooden benches around the perimeter of the small passenger ferry were so low down that you could almost stretch out and touch the sea if the mood took you.  As the vessel motored out into the bay everyone on board was reaching for their smartphone as we were treated to a view which was rarely seen by us, the postcard view of Oban which probably lands in scores of mailboxes every year.  It was a beautiful summer’s night.  My sister was thrilled to be able to see her new home from the water, whilst my father enthused about the stunning scenery of the west coast.  Then suddenly the pint of Guinness which I had drunk much quicker than is normally advisable was swimming in my stomach, and all I could think about was using the toilet.  I had almost forgotten all about the family meal we were heading towards Kerrera to enjoy; all I wanted was to reach dry land so I could make a urinal wet.

Reaching The Waypoint Bar & Grill was a short walk from the marina where the ferry berthed, and inside, the restaurant had the appearance of an Austrian ski lodge, with its warm timber walls and cosy ambience.  A nautical theme was prominent around the place, with buoys and various news articles and photographs relating to the sea decorating the walls, although nobody could quite figure out why a model fighter airplane was suspended over the bar.  I had managed to convince myself that the bathroom could wait through at least fifteen minutes of menu chat, but there reached a point after a certain number of mouthfuls of Twisted Thistle IPA that relief couldn’t wait much longer, and I had to go off in search of the toilet.  The location of the facility had featured in the discussion around the table, and although it was only a very brief journey down a path away from the restaurant, it wasn’t until I had taken the plunge to find it that others decided that they too needed to use the toilet.  As I was returning to the table, my dad and brother were both on their way to the restroom, and although it wasn’t quite someone writing a blog about motherhood, it felt nice to once again be the inspiration for a movement.

By the time the waitress had made her way back to our group to take another drinks order, dad was ready to break his sobriety, which it seemed he was only ever willing to do after seven o’clock on a Saturday night.  He ordered two bottles of red wine for the table, although when the rest of us had already started on the beer and, in my sister’s case, the vodka, it seemed likely that the phrase “for the table” was being used liberally, like when a friend invites you to the pub for a drink and you know it’s going to be three or four.

My sister looked at me across the table, which the six of us had somehow subconsciously managed to arrange ourselves around by age on either side.  “Can dad swim?”

It seemed like something that three people in their thirties should know about the man who helped bring them into the world.  We knew all of his other vital details:  the year he was born, the year he was married, his favourite film and musical artist, his career history and his shoe size.  And yet it occurred to us that in the period between 1983 and 2019 we had never seen our father swim. 

Even over the starters the three of us were still speculating over dad’s swimming ability.  The tones were hushed, as though we were discussing some matter of great sensitivity and we couldn’t risk the table behind us hearing.  A mob meeting over plates of pasta in the corner of a Sicilian restaurant, businessmen bartering over a multi-million-pound local investment, or a spy passing on new information to his bosses.  The reality was that we were three grown-up children who were questioning whether or not our father could swim whilst we were getting drunker by the minute.  What had given us the right to be so smug and confident about our own swimming ability in the event that it was one of us who would stagger overboard on the ferry home?

The service in the Waypoint was very attentive and considerate, which contributed to our tremendously enjoyable experience on Kerrera.  One of the waitresses went as far as to source a box of Lego for my three-year-old niece, who was the only person at the table whose swimming could not be called into question.  When the main courses arrived, it was difficult to tell which would have been the more intimidating sight at our table for a young server:  the three-year-old with the brightly coloured blocks spread out across the floor, or the 6’8” Slovak with the booming laugh.  I ordered the special of tempura scallops, having been attracted by the idea of eating seafood that had been disguised in a seasoned batter.  The scallops were meaty and delicious, though by the third one the fishy taste was creeping through the batter and I was reminded that I was eating seafood.

By the time we were nearing the end of our meal, the sun was beginning its descent into its cradle behind the island’s darkening green hills.  From our table, the terraced outdoor seating area appeared to be bathed in a beautiful warm glow.  Eventually we were enticed into taking our drinks outside to enjoy the view across the marina in the setting sun.  The scene was splendid, although it wasn’t long before the breeze coming in from the sea was causing an uncomfortable chill, and all of a sudden, as we glanced inside to see our table being cleared away, the decision by most of us to leave our jackets at home became foolhardy.  We couldn’t return to the restaurant, it would be too much like an admission of defeat, so we suffered the cold through gritted teeth and pretended that we were having a good time, which was ironic considering that oftentimes that can be the case with social occasions, yet on this night we actually were having a good time.  In a bid to create some warmth for myself, I engaged my niece in a game of chase around the pathways in the area surrounding the restaurant.  We were having a ball running in circles.  On the final straight back up to our table on the terrace, my young niece called out to me as she challenged me once more.

“I’ll be the tiger and you can be the grandma.”

She bared her claws, which were really tiny little fingers moulded into the shape of a large cat’s paw, and I let out the kind of hollow shriek that I could only imagine a terrified grandmother would elicit when confronted with such a ferocious creature.  The cry was tinged with the anguish that came with the realisation that my niece had seen my running style as being like that of an elderly woman and not a man who was in the prime of his thirties, or even a grandpa or another, lesser, wild animal such as a fox or a ferret.  Eventually the young tiger caught the elderly grandma, as it always did, and it used its tiny claws to maul the hapless, oddly-running pensioner.

When we arrived back on dry land after the ten-minute crossing from Kerrera we stumbled upon a folded page from a notebook which was sitting undisturbed on the pavement across the road from the Oban Inn, at almost exactly the location where my sister had spotted dad waiting for us hours earlier.  I was more excited than anyone else by the discovery, and I reached down with a flexibility that belied my role as the grandmother to pick up the note, eager to find if it was a lost love letter or some other artefact of interest.  The group huddled beneath a streetlight, almost like star-crossed teenagers reading forbidden communication by torch under the duvet, as I opened up the paper, which had been carefully folded twice.

The first line was written in a clear and concise manner, the letters were unjoined and elegant.  The word oregano was circled, and below it was several more words which had been crossed off.  Lemons, frozen broccoli, raspberries, 0% yoghurt (x2), kidney beans.  It was a shopping list, presumably for a family, or at least for a couple, and I could barely hide my disappointment.

It was nearing midnight when my brother and I were about to call it a night and leave Aulay’s for home when I noticed that somebody had filled the jukebox with nine songs by the Dublin four-piece U2.  This was all the reason I needed to stay for another pint of Guinness.  I never wanted to be the guy who put U2 on the jukebox, but I was always happy when another person took the risk.  Looking around the emptying bar it was difficult to tell who would have made such a sacrifice, but I considered them to be like a mystery benefactor, the kind of generous soul who anonymously donates a large sum of money to a charity or a person in need and then quietly disappears into the shadows, or drops a couple of pound coins into the jukebox and stocks it with several U2 deep cuts.  My brother left sometime between the second and the third track, while I was sitting in my own company with a pint of Guinness, All I Want Is You playing in the background and somebody else’s shopping list folded into my pocket.

Despite the enjoyment of the weekend’s celebrations, by the time The Lorne’s pub quiz came around on Wednesday I had been spending the past week feeling like a broken roller coaster, the type that only ever goes down and the engineers are busy working on the haunted house.  The raven-haired quiztress and I assembled once again in our breakaway team with the goal of getting the better of the Bawbags.  We were joined by a young woman who had spent the day fermenting fish scales and yet still only ever smelled like cigarettes and violets.  Compared to some of the other teams around us we were feeling underwhelmed in numbers, and we weren’t feeling confident about our chances.

However, after two rounds we were in first place, ahead of nine or ten other teams, and going into the final two rounds of questions we were involved in a three-way tie for the £25 bar voucher prize.  We were on a high, elated with the effort of our fledgeling three-person team, and excited to be in with a real chance of actually winning the quiz.  Despite all of this, one question from the earlier round on Italy was looming over us, threatening to erupt and spoil all of our good work.

“Which is the only active volcano in mainland Europe?”

I had no idea, my knowledge on active volcanoes being comparable to my expertise in the fields of medicine or romance.  The ladies had a good feeling about Vesuvius and wrote it on the answer sheet, although neither of them were certain about it.  It was a question we kept returning to through the round in the hope of finding some clarification.  From nowhere, the name of the only volcano I could think of came to mind, and as soon as I said the words “could it be Mount Etna?” the seed had been planted.  After a period of consideration, Vesuvius was scored out on our paper, like frozen broccoli on a shopping list, and Etna became our oregano.  Of course, the correct answer was Vesuvius.

There was an air of tension, trepidation and sheer electric thrill at the end of the music round as the teams awaited the final scores for the night.  There was a point and a half separating the top three competitors, and the slim margin of half a point came between second place and the eventual winners.  Regardless of the outcome, the three of us were chuffed with our performance, which had us competing until the very end with the two most experienced and skilled teams in the quiz.  

When it was announced that the Bawbags had finished third, it was confirmation that our breakaway outfit had at least achieved its original aim.  It was a minor victory, though when Redneck Riviera were crowned as the quiz winners for the week, beating us by half a point, our delight turned to despair.  Immediately the immortal words “fucking Vesuvius” were uttered. In future times to come, the answer to the question of the only active volcano in mainland Europe would never have us scratching our heads again.  No-one could forget Vesuvius.  Whether or not dad could swim was another question altogether.

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