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.

Umbrella

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.