Somewhere in an alternate timeline, I bought a Spirit of Scotland rail pass on Tuesday and travelled through to Dundee, where I stayed for seven nights and took day trips to eat fish and chips in Anstruther and smokies in Arbroath, drink beer by the 18th fairway at St. Andrews, and visit Dunfermline Abbey. I visited parts of the country I had previously never seen, met scores of interesting new people in bars and in the hostel where I slept, and even found the time to pen the definitive travelogue on train travel along the east coast of Scotland. It was quite the adventure.
Of course, this being 2020/21, I came down with a cold just days before I had planned to set off on my journey. Even with a multitude of negative Lateral Flow Tests logged with NHS test and trace, it no longer seems the correct etiquette to be jumping on public transport with your nose streaming with mucus. Once upon a time, I wouldn’t have thought twice about jamming a couple of paracetamol into my mouth and a packet of tissues in the pocket of my chinos before getting on a train and spluttering my way through the rural Scottish countryside, but a lot of things have changed in the last couple of years, and maybe not all of them for the worse.
It is said that once a person has learned how to ride a bicycle they never forget, a phrase which was no doubt coined by someone who actually knows how to ride a bike, however, I’m not sure that the same can be said for being sick. When I awoke on Sunday morning and the first thing to happen was for me to sneeze into my pillow, my initial reaction was one of confusion. I felt the way a dog looks after it has sneezed. Following more than 18 months of lockdowns, social distancing, constant hand sanitising and mask-wearing, I was on a record-breaking streak of good health. I don’t think that I have ever felt as healthy. So when that first sneeze was rapidly followed by several more and my throat had me thinking that I might have swallowed some rusty nails in my Jameson the night before, I realised that not only had I failed to stock up on tissues during the great panic buying of March 2020, but I had also completely forgotten what it is like to be sick.
My worst days were on Sunday and Monday when my limited supply of tissue paper was really called into question. In the way of a 1995 Alanis Morissette song, my cold had largely cleared up by Tuesday morning, which was when I was scheduled to travel to Dundee. I wasn’t sneezing nearly as much, and the erratic headache I had been suffering from disappeared. What was most unusual about my bout of sickness was the way that I would become breathless and sweaty ten minutes into my relatively mild half-hour morning yoga routine, something that doesn’t ordinarily happen. My attempts at Ujjayi breathing, which is supposed to mimic the sound of the ocean when you exhale through your nose whilst your lips remain sealed, sounded more like a blockage in the kitchen sink. However, my LFTs continued to show me as being negative for Covid-19, and I never displayed any of the three symptoms that the government website suggests you have before booking a PCR test: a new cough, high temperature, or sudden loss of taste or smell. It was the latter symptom that I really put to the test, mainly because I don’t own a thermometer. For days I was sticking my nose into every fragrant item in my cupboards. Paprika, Dijon mustard, mixed herbs, coffee granules. Never has the phrase “wake up and smell the coffee” taken on such meaning in my life, and never have I been more thankful for the scent of Lidl’s Deluxe Colombian roast.
Although I had taken as much certainty that I don’t have Covid as one can from several negative tests, it still seemed decent manners to not bring whichever bug I was carrying onto public transport, so I postponed my break for a week and stayed at home instead. The period of self-imposed isolation would, if nothing else, allow me time to reflect upon a couple of the grievances I had been stewing over for a while.
Ever since I became a single occupant in Combie Street at the beginning of 2018, there has been a collection of brushes that have leaned against the wall by the bottom of the stairs in the close, usually next to an assortment of bicycles and buggies. Every other day I would take the soft-bristled brush and use it to sweep the floors in my flat since I could never trust the hard broom on my delicate Portland oak laminate flooring. It would only ever take me ten minutes or so and then the brush would be returned to the stairwell, my floor absolved of dust and the small specks of black rubber that seemed to be shedding from my yoga mat every day. As an arrangement, it could hardly be more convenient. So when I returned home from work one lunchtime a few weeks ago to find that my favourite brush had vanished, a sense of worry soon swept over me.
Of course, it was possible that another tenant in the building was using the broom at the time, or that someone had simply forgotten to put it back, so I didn’t let its disappearance get to me and reasoned that I would just do my floor another time. But days passed without sight of the silver-handled brush, and you could tell it from the state of my hallway. Who knows what had become of the thing, whether it was stolen, misplaced, or the victim of a terrible accident, but it reached a point where I had to comb my flat with a tiny dustpan and brush, which, really, is akin to painting a wall with a toothbrush. Inevitably over time I would pass my neighbours in the close or see them out on the street and glances of suspicion were exchanged; one of us knew something, but nobody knew who. It was the worst game of Cluedo being played out before our very eyes, only no one could find the brush to consider it a murder weapon.
Using a little dustpan and brush wasn’t a sensible long-term solution for keeping the floor in my flat free of debris, I accepted that much, but there was something about buying a replacement broom for the entire block that made me bristle. I was reluctant to splash out as much as £2 on a shared sweeper if it was only going to go the same way as the last one, so I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and found a space in my tiny hallway closet to store the thing. My original intention was to house it in a discreet corner of the kitchen, but I became disgruntled with the lime green plastic nib on the grey handle since the colour didn’t coordinate with anything else in my flat, and for my own sake I had to keep it out of my sight. After three years I am still coming to grips with the trials of being a homeowner, though at least now I have clean floors again.
A new broom seemed to be the order of things recently, and it was the same in Aulay’s last Friday when we learned that we were witnessing the moonlighting banker’s final shift behind the bar. From that night on he was simply going to be a banker. Although many of the emotions of the occasion were exaggerated by the heady intake of alcohol, it is true that the banker has been a mainstay of our Friday nights at the bar, sort of like the ornamental clock on a mantelpiece: you might not always look at it for the time, but it is always there. He was present for most of our failures, and I’m sure that if there had been any glorious triumphs the banker would also have been there to see them. This is the third beloved barman to have left the hospitality industry since the pandemic began, changing the face of our Fridays for good, if not for the better.
It wasn’t only the face of our Fridays that was changing, but also the voice – or more specifically on this Friday, the accent. While we are used to spending time at the bar with the Geordies, Pete & Dave, last weekend we found ourselves in the company of a Mackem for what I believe may have been the first time. Luke was visiting Scotland from Sunderland to travel the North Coast 500 scenic route, though we immediately questioned his direction of transit since most people don’t tend to start their journey in Oban to end up in Aberdeen. On first impressions, Luke seemed a pleasant guy. He had the appearance of a man who had just stepped off the set of a photoshoot for a high-end lumberjack catalogue, with his black and blue checked shirt, dark drainpipe jeans and a beard that was thick and lustrous and obviously recently groomed back from having been much longer.
Early in our interaction with Luke, we learned about why people from Sunderland are known as a Mackem and their counterparts in Newcastle are tackem – which is a term I had never heard before, not even from Geordie Pete. Seemingly this goes back to the shipbuilding days in the North East of England when the people of Sunderland would make the ships (Mackem) and the workers in Newcastle would take those ships for fitting (tackem). It was pretty cool to hear, the sort of thing that only truly makes sense when it is told in the local dialect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the last interesting contribution that Luke would make to the night. I don’t recall why it came up, having most likely blocked it from my memory, but the model lumberjack told us about how, in the anticipation of romantic discourse during his tour of Scotland, he stopped in Glasgow to buy some rope and a dildo. It was either the set-up to a particularly off-colour joke to be making in the company of three strangers at a bar, or it was an incredibly dark insight into the life of a lumberjack on the road.
Whilst indulging us with this information, Luke was scrolling through some of the many matches he had made on the dating app Tinder since his arrival in Oban. I found it galling that this guy had made multiple connections in such a short time when I probably average no more than three a year, and I’m lucky if any of those women even live close to town. The last time I matched with someone happened to be on the Friday previous to when we met Luke. ‘Joanne’ was actually only 18 miles away, which is practically local compared to some of my usual matches. I arrived home from a night out when after being paired we exchanged messages for around an hour. Things seemed to be clicking until ‘Joanne’ commented that: “You’re actually hilarious. Your humour is appreciated here [emoji]” at which point I immediately assumed she was a bot. Still, we kept in contact for a couple of days, until I made a chickpea remark at the end of August which has to date gone unanswered.
Luke apparently has a system that dictates how he interacts with women he meets from dating apps at home, where he might know them or somebody who knows them, and when travelling, when he is a stranger who will be leaving the next day. We observed this first hand when he discarded any notion of composing an endearing or witty opening line and messaged several women the same chivalrous inquiry: “Fancy a shag?”
We never found out if the lumberjacking Mackem received any kind of response to his question since he downed a glass of Oban malt whisky like it was a shot of apple juice and went outside to smoke a rollup cigarette, never to return. It’s possible, I suppose, that one of the women got back to him while he was away and he left to meet her, in which scenario I like to console myself by imagining that he invited his unsuspecting Tinder date back to his motorhome, where he swung open the door in dramatic fashion to reveal row after row of thick carpet. It was an investment gone wrong and he ended up with far more of the rugs than he anticipated, which he was finding difficult to shift in the current economic climate. He was forced into selling his home and travelling around the country in a caravan, where he would use his charming persona to sell the surplus shag carpet to women all over the UK while supplementing his income by modelling for lumberjack catalogues on the side. Of course, shag rugs are notoriously more difficult to keep clean than other types of rug, which means that I probably have more in common with Luke than I would care to admit. We’re essentially seeking the same thing. Tinder, but just for brushes.