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.