I’m currently sitting on a train bound ultimately for Stirling via Glasgow, the first time I have travelled out of Oban since late 2019, and it’s too early to say how I feel about it. When I was last on the train I expect that I had a four-pack of Budweiser and some snacks to keep me nourished through the journey, and the only suspicion I had about my fellow passengers was whether one of them was going to interrupt my solitude by sitting in the empty seat next to me. Today I brought a 500ml bottle of Highland Spring still water, which I was annoyed with myself for having forgotten to put in the fridge yesterday, and a 50ml tube of antibacterial hand gel. Most people are wearing masks, except for one woman who has fallen asleep with hers clinging to her chin and her sunglasses perched atop her head. It’s like nobody ever showed her how to wear these things in the proper way but she’s quite pleased with herself for almost getting it. The others who aren’t wearing face coverings seem to be either a generation older than I am, English, or eating a sandwich. It is possible that some are all three, but if they are they at least have the consideration to not speak with their mouths full.
Virtually all of the few remaining Covid restrictions in Scotland were lifted on Monday 9 August, meaning that life is beginning to feel a lot more like it did back in 2019 before any of us knew anything about a novel coronavirus. Many of the things that we were only able to do over Zoom during the last 18 months, or in strictly reduced terms, we can now enjoy almost without limit. Pubs are back to operating under their usual hours and you can finally drink at the bar again, people can gather in large groups where the only cap on numbers now seems to be how popular you are, travel – at least within the country – is firmly back on the agenda, and The Lorne pub quiz is up and running. Other than the advice that people should still wear a face mask in certain settings and the ongoing threat of a highly contagious respiratory virus, things are pretty much as normal as they have ever been.
On the final weekend before those last restrictions were eased, when Scotland was still in what was commonly being referred to as “level 0.5”, the Plant Doctor was visited in Oban by his brother David and his partner Laura. I had met Dave once before a few years ago, on a night where the Plant Doctor lured us back to his flat after the pub and tricked the two of us into eating mushrooms which had been hidden in a large omelette. Whenever I tell people that story they usually react with shock and horror, commenting on how dangerous it was for the Plant Doctor to secretly feed us halloucanagenics in an egg dish, until I am forced to correct them and confess that it was only closed cup mushrooms we were eating and Dave and I just don’t like them. It’s amazing how quickly you become the dick after people who initially had sympathy for you when they believed that you had been drugged learn that you simply don’t like to eat mushrooms.
After many months where the only contact we had was through our ‘Beer Club’ Zoom meetings every Friday night, I met the Plant Doctor, Dave and Laura in Aulay’s, where they were sitting with my brother and the man who the previous Friday was so drunk from celebrating his birthday that it took him several minutes to be able to get up from his seat. This guy was in a jovial mood once again – his face was blazing with it – and he looked at me from across the table with curiosity in his eyes as he sipped from his pint of Tennent’s, his surgical mask tucked underneath his chin. I wondered if he had recognised me from our last encounter, when I was so in rapture with his heroics, but it turns out that I remind him of somebody else and he was struggling to place who that person is. He was putting almost as much effort into trying to summon the name of the famous figure whom I resembled in his mind as he did rising out of his seat seven days earlier. In the meantime, all I was interested in was finding out more about the hat he was wearing, but all he could tell me was that he had bought it in Croatia some years ago and hadn’t taken it off since being told how well he suited it.
The question of my appearance was evidently plaguing our companion. Every so often he would interject into the conversation the five of us were having amongst ourselves to give us another piece of trivia in an effort to jog his and our collective memories. It was said that I look like a character from a television show. A show from the 1960s. An animated character, or maybe a puppet. We are all in our thirties and had no idea who he was thinking of. Eventually, in the same way that he was able to push himself from the very same seat a week before, he dug in and found the name he was searching for. It came out of nowhere when he extended his right index finger and pointed in my direction. Suddenly, in the manner of someone who might suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, he loudly exclaimed:
“Joe 90! That’s who you look like.”
I am familiar with Joe 90. At least I remember dad referencing the character when we were younger. Initially I wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, whether it was insulting or flattering. I suppose it is difficult to be insulted by the prospect of being a 9-year-old prodigy who is recruited as one of the world’s leading spies; whose glasses are the source of all of his powers. Coming from a man who had already so impressed me, I decided that I would accept being told that I look like Joe 90 as a compliment, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear.
Although the weather forecast for Saturday was looking very unsettled and threatened some thunderstorms, the five of us arranged to meet at eleven o’clock to walk the mile-and-a-half out to Gallanach so we could catch the 11.30 ferry to Kerrera. We had barely crossed the railway bridge when it began to rain heavily and we learned that not only did my brother bring the fewest beers with him out of any of us, but his jacket also didn’t have a hood. I usually take some comfort in knowing that I am not the most ill-prepared person in a group, though my relief on this occasion was quite short-lived when I discovered that my boots are not even nearly waterproof. Thankfully the rain shower was brief, and we had as good as forgotten about it by the time we reached the ferry car park.
As fate would have it, we overestimated our ability to walk to Gallanach carrying backpacks filled with beer in the time we had set ourselves and arrived a few minutes after 11.30, so we resigned ourselves to sitting on some rocks drinking beers until the next advertised sailing an hour later. To keep us amused in the meantime we questioned one another on which of the many boats in the bay we would rather own, judging each one on its size, shape and colour, as though any of us would ever have the means to buy a yacht or be sober enough to sail it. Our eyes meandered around the busy shoreline, drinking in the floating vessels as well as our lagers, the 55 minutes we were waiting to pass feeling like they might as well have been an eternity. In a fit of pithy, my eyes catching sight of a little black boat that was slightly longer than all the others and the only one moving across the narrow passage of water, I asked the others: “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were just sitting here getting drunk and that was the ferry coming back?”
We quickly gathered ourselves together and came to realise that when it is busy they tend to operate more sailings to get everybody across to the island, meaning that we were able to pocket our beers and get over to Kerrera close to our original schedule. The day was gloomier than when the Plant Doctor and I had been in April; the sea looking less like a blue marble and more similar to a curling stone, while the lambs who were on the cusp of being born back then were growing and had obviously well established how the different parts of their body work, judging by the carpet of shit on the grass. After stopping at the top of a hill to take a photograph of the five of us around a dishevelled and broken down old digger – the end result looking like it could be the cover of our debut album if we hadn’t missed our slot in the recording studio and sat on the pavement outside getting drunk – we ventured down towards the beach, where we spread out across the rocks and ate our lunch.
Around us there were a couple of different groups who were seemingly interested in taking a dip in the water, and the Plant Doctor was considering it too. Once the first man had gone in, a succession of swimmers followed, with the Plant Doctor stripping down behind a rock that presumably provided some kind of modesty, at least for a moment anyway. Soon he was striding into the sea, a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale clenched in one hand, the other serving as something akin to a modern fig leaf. Amongst us we were discussing how the scene was as compelling as a car crash: horrific, something nobody wants to see, but yet impossible to take your eyes off. He swam about twenty or so feet out, and before long the Plant Doctor was involved in a conversation with the three other swimmers, who were from Bristol. It was funny to us knowing that he was completely naked in the water, compared to the rest who were swimming in their underwear. There was no way of knowing if they could see from their perspective what we had seen. We could only hope for the sake of the mother, son and daughter triumvirate that they couldn’t.
A foreboding cloud was rolling across the sky from the west, swiftly suffocating any colour that was once there. It wasn’t long after the Plant Doctor had shaken himself dry and gotten dressed again that the cloud carried out its bleak threat and erupted into rainfall. The stuff was crackling off the ground like an explosion in a joke toy shop, drenching us instantly. The next hour was a miserable, sodden traipse around the northern loop of Kerrera conducted in a seemingly endless barrage of rain. It touched me in places I haven’t been touched in years; every part of me was wet. At one point we encountered a herd of around five wild goats who were sheltering from the storm under a large rock face, even staring down a couple of sheep who attempted to join them. In the adjacent field there were dozens of sheep who were standing perfectly still. We watched in awe for several minutes, wondering what they were doing. They didn’t move an inch the entire time, almost looking like they were participating in some satanic ritual. If the scene was taking place in a horror movie, this would be the point where the group of bedraggled hillwalkers should flee with all of their energy, but we were too soggy to run, and they would surely have identified us from the sound of our squelching anyway.
Further along the track, once the rain had stopped, we encountered a new problem when the Plant Doctor dropped his rucksack after one of the straps had snapped. We stopped by the side of the road not far from the ferry as he investigated the damage inside, trying to ascertain whether any of the bottles had broken. Having presumably spied the spectacle from his window with some suspicion, a man appeared at the end of his garden path and peered at us over the top of his fence. We greeted him with a hello and were met with stony silence in return, as though we were sheep trying to nudge in under a cliff. I explained that the buckle on the Plant Doctor’s bag had broken, and then quickly followed it up with the line: “the buckle buckled.” Still nothing. We quickly picked ourselves up and carried on our way, but even now I wonder what he thought we were up to and if he would ever have told us.
Straddled either side of the trip to Kerrera was the return of the Lorne pub quiz, which was being held for the first time since The Unlikely Lads finally won the thing in September after more than a year of coming up short. Our original trio had reduced by a third in the meantime with one unlikely lad moving to Edinburgh for university, meaning that the Trig Bagging Quiztress and I were in the market for new members to join our team. On the first quiz back we had a pair further complement our outfit, one of them a lone Bawbag who didn’t yet have the rest of his team ready to return. We did alright considering it was our debut outing as a team, finishing inside the top three places, but we knew that we were going to need to do better if we were going to avoid waiting another year before this team wins a £25 bar voucher.
Our smorgasbord of trivia knowledge was added to the following week by a bird watching accountant, and from the opening two rounds, we were leading the pack. However, it was beginning to look as though we were getting ahead of ourselves when our initial run through the geography round produced only three answers from ten questions that we could be confident were right. The rest we had no real clue for and were going to have to take a stab in the dark at answering before the silver-haired host came round to collect our paper. When the answer sheets were returned to each team, we found to our amazement that we had scored something like 11 from the 14 available points and even my completely blind insistence that Carson City is the state capital of Nevada proved to be correct. Our ragtag collection of Unlikely Bawbags went on to win the pub quiz by two points – largely thanks to our guesswork, but we weren’t caring about that. We even won the bonus round bottle of wine with another wild guess at the combined total of Subway, McDonald’s and Starbucks chains worldwide. It was a spectacular double triumph.
I went round to Aulay’s after The Lorne closed since I was still on a high from the quiz victory and I wasn’t travelling through to Stirling until midday the following afternoon. When I walked into the pub it was as though the door to the lounge bar was a portal to another time long since forgotten; something taken straight out of a sci-fi movie. The bar was packed with so many people that I had to wade through the crowd just to get to my usual cool spot by the ice bucket. There was a chattering buzz about the place, and I had to assume that not everybody had heard of what had just taken place in The Lorne. Music filled the room as I fought my way to the bar, although it was an unfortunate coincidence that the song which was playing as I walked in was Dude (Looks Like A Lady) by Aerosmith. Brexit Guy was propped up by the bar, a row of half-drunk measures of Quntro strung out like fairy lights in front of him and the Plant Doctor. He had returned to Colombia shortly after the pandemic began last year and nobody was expecting to see him back in town, yet here he was. It was like a Saturday night in 2019 all over again.
In the company of Brexit Guy and the Plant Doctor at the bar was Marco, the director of an Italian menswear company who was holidaying around Scotland. He was immediately charming and it was easy to see why he was attracting so much attention. It didn’t take long for Marco to turn his focus onto the way I was dressed, and more specifically onto fixing the casual look I have been attempting to fashion for the midweek quizzes since they started again. He began pulling at the sleeves and shoulders of my light jacket, fluffing it like it was a throw cushion on a sofa, before telling us that in Italy men leave the top two buttons of their shirt undone if they have visible chest hair. Marco demonstrated this by asking me first to unfasten my second button and then he began manoeuvring the collar of my shirt so that it sat over the lapels of my jacket, while finally some random button partway down the jacket was closed over. For those few minutes, I was effectively reduced to the role of a mannequin modelling the summer 2021 casual drunk collection.
I didn’t really know what was happening – to me, it seemed the fashion equivalent of taking wild guesses at the geography round of a pub quiz – but I was happy to go with it. Marco explained that the collar was opened out over the jacket to display the shirt, whilst the whole thing was done to “frame the chest hair,” which was the first time I have heard body hair spoken about as though it is a da Vinci. It was impossible to tell how the proper way to dress casually looked in the mirror of the bottle gantry behind the bar, but in a way, it didn’t even matter. It had been so long since I could stand at the bar after a pub quiz with a pint in my hand and without a mask on my face, being dressed by a complete stranger while the jukebox provided a soundtrack to the night, that nothing could detract from it, not even being told that I look like Joe 90.