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.