During the first couple of weeks in September, before new restrictions were introduced on the tenth which limited the number of people who could gather anywhere to six from two different households, I found myself sitting at a table in Aulay’s with a couple who were keen to know if I had started primary school at the same time as their identical twin boys. I had no recollection of going to school with identical twins, but as the wife of the couple went through a mental checklist of the sort of questions one might be asked when you have forgotten your password for the website of an online retailer, the evidence became indisputable. It was a certainty that I was in the same class at St. Columba’s primary school as her two sons, at least until the family left for Africa partway through primary two.
I felt quite a deep sense of guilt that I couldn’t remember the children. After all, how many times through life does a person encounter identical twins? And yet right there, sitting at the opposite side of the table from me in the pub, was the mother of two such people who not only did I begin my journey into education at the same time as, but who it emerged grew up in Burnbank, around the corner from our home on Dunollie Road. We all played amongst the same group of children in the neighbourhood, attended the same birthday parties and quite possibly even went to the same nursery. I remembered nothing of the Bowen boys. The mother vowed to return home that night and seek out the traditional first day of school photographs she would have taken to mark the event, and I agreed that I would do the same and we would bring our findings back to the pub the following week. Since mum was no longer around, dad was the only person I could ask about the whereabouts of any school photographs in the family home. While you could ask him where any Bob Dylan LP from the sixties was in the house and he would know exactly where to find it, there would have been no hope with a photograph.
Not only could I not remember the twins, but as I thought about it over the subsequent days, the only part of the story which seemed familiar was the woman’s husband, who I felt as though I recognised due to his distinct facial tick, which resembled the actions of a man who every so often remembers that there is a chunk of liquorice stuck to the roof of his mouth. But the more I contemplated it, the more difficult it was to be sure if I was recalling the man from my childhood or from Friday night in Aulay’s.
The couple had an impressive recall for bygone events. They had grown up locally and raised their children here for a short time before moving to Africa and then on to Edinburgh, and the woman in particular seemed to enjoy regaling us with tales of the school trips the Catholic church would organise to take them to the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes. She described how the priests would spend the entire trip getting blind drunk, vividly remembering one specific morning where the bus was ready to depart for the next stop but the driver had to wait for the priests, who were lined up on the pavement alongside the vehicle in their sleeping bags, to waken up. The woman’s husband bristled at the mention of Bishop Wright, whom he had a particularly strong dislike for since he had banished the man from mass because he had previously been divorced and so “there isn’t any point in you being here” but who himself was exiled from the Catholic church after his liaisons with a parishioner were exposed by the gutter Sunday tabloid the News of the World. The scandal didn’t trouble me at the time when it broke, but as I grew older it was frequently a source of frustration that the Bishop of the diocese who conducted my Confirmation into the church had boasted a better record with women than I did.
I wondered what it was about certain types of people that enabled them to remember events from forty, fifty years ago with such clarity while others struggled to think about daily occurrences. I got to thinking about the way that my own mind worked, and the meaningless things I would observe and note on a daily basis, yet I couldn’t remember something as significant as going to school with a set of identical twins, albeit briefly. For example, on Wednesday morning, as I was returning the rain-soaked recycling receptacles from the pavement to the garden, I was struck by the contrast between the two bicycles which were stacked against the bottom of the stairway. The black bike at the back was bigger and its tyres were thick with dried mud, while flashes of dirt were streaked across the well-worn bodywork. Clearly the bike had seen a lot of off-road riding. Slightly in front of it, nearest the door, was a white bicycle which was smaller and practically spotless in comparison and could easily have been a display model in a shop window. Every time I left my flat my attention would go straight to the two bikes, and for days I was thinking about the variation in their use.
It was a similar situation when I opened the bathroom door at around ten o’clock the previous night, when the breeze that greeted me reminded me that I had left the window open all day. Summer had stormed straight into autumn, bypassing the usual few weeks of indecision in September. A daddy longlegs was flailing around the ceiling above the shower in that hapless way that that the spider does, its agitated gait forcing me to think about how it must have been to watch me on the dancefloor in Markie Dans back when people could dance in pubs. Meanwhile, a moth took the opportunity to flea the scene. I couldn’t imagine what had been going on in there before my interruption. When I got out of bed the next morning the moth was sitting patiently on the small glass panel that was carved into the wall above the door to my bedroom. I never really understood the purpose of that window, and neither did the moth, I suppose.
When I returned home from work in the evening, I was expecting to find that the moth would have moved from its position on the glass to go and do the things that moths do, but to my surprise, it was still assuming its lofty perch, despite my bedroom door being ajar all day. Presumably something had attracted the insect to the window, to peer into the room, but there was a reluctance from it to venture inside my bedroom. I concluded that the moth was most likely a female of the species on account of this behaviour, and it became quite comforting to know that it wasn’t going to be disturbing my sleeping chambers. By the time it came to the business of cleaning the flat on Friday, I had forgotten all about the moth. Things were dusted and polished and wiped in the usual manner, before I came to realise that on the windowsills throughout the place was a total of around seven dead moths. I couldn’t fathom when my home had become a necropolis for departed winged creatures. It felt as though there should have been a plaque somewhere. I fetched the dustpan and brush, but not before briefly considering the merits of leaving the moths where they were as some kind of deterrent, a way of letting other beasties know that nothing ever thrives here and they would be better off leaving on their own accord. In the end I thought better of it, worrying about the untidiness as well as the reputation I might gain.
Distractions such as memorials to moths, pristine bicycles and photographs of twins who I never knew existed were put to the back of my mind when The Unlikely Lads returned to the Lorne pub quiz for the first time since early March, finally making use of the weekly reminder I had optimistically set into my phone at the beginning of the year. Our ensemble cast of quizzers had been trying to triumph in The Lorne for nigh upon fifteen months, coming desperately close on a couple of occasions, but ultimately always falling short. With one of our founding members due to leave for university at the end of September, we knew that we only had two more opportunities to earn the win we had put so much blood, sweat and Tennent’s into, lest the original trio of Unlikely Lads ends their tenure winless.
When our team of five arrived in the pub for dinner before the quiz, we soon realised that we were the only regulars who were taking part, and one of the few teams of locals. Most of the other tables appeared to be made up of visitors. I couldn’t be entirely sure why, but this filled us with a sense of confidence. The fact that we didn’t recognise anybody else in the pub had us believing that we had a better chance of winning. I suppose that we already knew that we couldn’t beat the other regulars – the Bawbags, I-95, ‘Mon The Fish – but with a bunch of jokers that we had never seen in our lives and didn’t know anything about in terms of their ability to handle general knowledge trivia, anything could be possible.
We made a strong start, scoring 9 in the opening picture round on well-known ‘baldies’, despite some of our group misinterpreting the heading on the paper as asking us to identify famous baddies, which only made the inclusion of Sinead O’Connor all the more baffling. Our general knowledge round was also decent, leaving us a point short of the early leaders The Pink Flamingos, who were destined to become our rivals due to them not being as inept as we had been hoping, and because they clashed with my own colour scheme.
There were some rocky moments for our quintet: a disagreement over the colour which represents the District Line on the map of the London Underground, and basically the entire third round which consisted of questions where the answers would all feature the letter B in some form, during which we lost our way and answered at least four of them with Blantyre, which earned a rebuke from the silver-haired host. During the round on Germany, we missed the date of reunification by a year, which in retrospect we were really frustrated with ourselves over. Most people, I think, know that the timeline went: 1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall began; 1990 – the year of reunification; 1991 – U2 released their album Achtung Baby.
An uncanny knowledge of whisky, due in part to one of our team having spent some time working in the local distillery, and an otherwise stellar performance answering questions about the nation of Germany put us in contention for the trophy of a £25 bar voucher, though there was a tightly-packed field of teams around the top of the board. At the end of the final picture round, we were feeling pretty good about our efforts through the night. We were confident that we had done enough to win the quiz, and there was a heightened sense of excitement around the table. As the silver-haired host announced the scores in ascending order, it became clear that it was going to come down to us and The Pink Flamingos. In the end it did, and the quiz was going to be decided by a tie-break question. It was the worst possible outcome for us, since historically as a team our attempts at answering questions which required us to guess “to the closest number” the population of a country, the number of peanuts in a jar of peanut butter, or the distance between two points had been risible. Often our responses to such bonus questions had drawn ridicule and we featured at either end of the “answers ranging from” scale, usually miles away from the actual answer – both literally and figuratively. It was even the case earlier in the evening, when the bonus question asked us to determine the distance of the borders around Belgium and we were wildly inaccurate. We felt defeated. They would have been as well just giving the bar voucher to the flamingos.
Nevertheless, we had to be grown ups about the thing, and we dusted down our disappointment and readied ourselves for the tie-break question. The silver-haired host read aloud a list of celebrity names whose birthday it was – or would have been if they were still alive – on that day, the ninth of September, and asked us to tell him, to the closest number, the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé. We took a studious approach to the task, forensically analysing each individual figure in our collective mind and trying to accurately guesstimate their ages, adding them together to reach a total which was probably going to be several decades out anyway. It was revealed that the winning team had come up with a number that was only two years away from the correct combined total. The Pink Flamingos, their name now taunting me in my pink tie and socks, had given an answer of 276, whereas we had calculated 288. We were on the edges of our seats, which as far as we knew wasn’t breaching any government health guidelines. It transpired that even though we had reached an incorrect age for every one of the five famous names, the combined total of incorrect guesses was within two of the number the silver-haired host was looking for, which was 286. The Pink Flamingos were left red-faced; we had finally won the quiz.
It was a real moment to savour. We rightfully basked in the glory of the unlikeliest of pub quiz victories. The barmaid approached our table with a £94 bill for our food and drinks, setting in motion a cavalcade of chaos as we each tried to make individual card payments which were being hampered by a weak wifi signal and a reluctant chip and pin reader. In many ways, waiting to pay for my portion of the bill was like being a bus driver in France who is waiting for a bunch of drunk Scottish priests to wake up on the side of the road. Nothing was going to detract from our triumph, though. In years to come I might not remember the identical Bowen twins from my primary one class, but I wasn’t likely to forget the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.