“Who needs a shower?”

On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay.  If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would.  As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model.  I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea.  Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer.  In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.

“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her.  I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water.  Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.”  I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more.  Just in case.”  So much for trust.

With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.

All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question.  It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend.  I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together.  Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time.  I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process.  All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line.  I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand.  It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.  

I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security.  My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.  

“Is there an iPad in this bag?”  He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.  

“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.  

“Are you sure?”  The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.

After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag.  Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on.  Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side?  I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.

Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast.  Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row.  It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep.  Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board.  When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?

In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments.  Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’.  The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels.  Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them.  Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds.  It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.

Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.

We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute.  It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017.  As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city.  I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market.  The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.  

Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods.  Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves.  It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for.  My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread.  The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle.  Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils.  It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment:  “who needs a shower?”  Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that.  You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.

Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.

From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners.  Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell.  The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions.  Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.

Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one.  We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall.  Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure.   Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior.  We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time.  I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same.  Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.

As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend.  Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time.  Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing.  There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that.  I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling.  The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer.  It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.

In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.

There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first.  Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win.  This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making.  We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street.  My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.

Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery.  Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder.  Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.  

“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”  

She never got back to me.  When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed.  It was probably for the best, all things considered.  There would have been no future in the relationship, after all.  I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security.  Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.  

The social hierarchy of dolphins

Life comes at you pretty fast sometimes.  One night you are reading from your notebook in front of 110 people as the support act for a well-known Scottish comedian, and less than 24 hours later you are being soundly beaten by your six-year-old niece at ten pin bowling.   I tried putting a brave face on the defeat.  After all, it was my niece’s birthday and bowling was the activity she had chosen to help celebrate it.  Besides, it’s not like I was the only one who was losing; she swept four of us aside as though we were hapless pins.  Yet I couldn’t keep myself from feeling hard done by each time my ball was drawn into the right-hand gutter.  I blamed everything, from the perceived slope in the hardwood floor which seemed to only have it in for me, to the fact that we were allowed to play wearing our own shoes and I hadn’t chosen my footwear that morning with bowling in mind.  It maybe goes to show that you should always dress for all occasions.

In the hours before the charity comedy night, I was at my kitchen counter reading about the social hierarchy of dolphins.  It wasn’t how I was expecting to be spending my time in the lead up to the most exciting thing I had ever been asked to do.  I thought that I might be going through a last-minute rehearsal, drinking myself blind on Tennent’s Lager, or throwing up in the bathroom at the venue like I have done most of the other times when I have read in public.  But the previous night I received a set of 11 questions that the high school students who I would be meeting the following Thursday in the Argyll Wellbeing Hub wanted to ask me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about one question in particular.  What is your opinion on dolphins’ social hierarchy?

I had never considered that as being something I should have an opinion on; not like the rising cost of energy, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the continued wearing of face masks, or which type of sauce goes best on a bacon roll. I didn’t know the first thing about the social structure of dolphins, let alone know what I thought about it, but I was going to have to find out quick. People talk about reliving their youth all the time, and here I was just like back in high school, doing everything I could to ensure I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of a group of fifteen-year-olds.

My Google search history was transformed as I read article after article about the way dolphins interact among their species.  Much of what I learned didn’t come as any surprise considering what is commonly known about the mammal, but there were some interesting tidbits I picked up, such as the free spirit nature of dolphins as they swim from pod to pod without ever being permanently bound to one group.  I read about the way that smaller groups of dolphins often have the objective of cooperating to ensure the mating of the others with a specific female, which made me think of a Friday night in Aulay’s – at least for the Plant Doctor and my brother, anyway.  Bottlenose dolphins, meanwhile, are prone to establishing their dominance through aggression towards other species, often biting, striking and ganging up on others.  Studies have shown that dolphins can have a preference for meeting with particular individuals and that they are remembered and recognised even after long periods of separation.  I found it fascinating how similar their habits are to humans.

All of this information was swimming around in my head when I turned up at The View just before doors opened for the comedy night.  People were already lining up to get in, and I walked right past them to the bar with all the poise of a dolphin –  or so I imagined – where I met the headline comedian Gary Little and the organisers from the Argyll Wellbeing Hub.  We were taken through the back to the green room, which was really the bar’s staff room but with a bucket of ice and a bottle of wine.  It was here where I realised that the thing that was making me most anxious about the entire evening was being left alone in a room with professional standup comedians.  I’m terrible when it comes to meeting new people under ordinary circumstances, never mind being put into an unfamiliar place – and, really, this was an environment where I had no business being.  After all, I am not a comedian, and it was difficult to shake the feeling of being a fish out of water.  I tried telling Gary Little about my own routine, which ordinarily consists of me sitting in a chair with a glass of Jameson whilst reading excerpts from my diary.  He seemed distracted as I spoke, before eventually asking, “would you mind if I take a look at your watch?”

Initially, it sounded like the most passive-aggressive way possible of telling someone that their conversation is not the most scintillating, but when I pulled the sleeve of my shirt up over my wrist, it became clear that his interest was genuine.  “I collect vintage watches,” the comedian explained as he examined the face of my timekeeping device.  I nodded and thought about how this was not at all the way I had imagined the green room backstage at a comedy night being.  “Just don’t look if you’re wanting to know what time it is,” I warned.  “The battery has been dead for three months.”  He immediately stepped back with a look on his face as if I had told him that the watch is liable to self-destruct at any moment.  It would be impossible for him to know it, of course, but he was right to be affronted by my lack of care for my watch since I live next door to an electrics shop.  My chances of breaking the ice were shattered.

When the main support act Iain Hume arrived, I had visions of standing back while two comedians effortlessly traded hilarious one-liners back and forth.  Instead, the men were talking about walking their dogs on the beach and where they had parked their campervans.  Iain said that his wife was in a bad mood when he left her in the van to come to the gig because they couldn’t get a signal on the television set.  It was surreal, and not at all in keeping with the glamourous impression of comedy I’ve had from watching Billy Connelly or Jerry Seinfeld.  Eventually, my mind started drifting to where it was that the bar staff in The View were having to go to take their breaks.

I had spent so much of my time in the 24 hours before the gig researching the social habits of dolphins that I had barely even thought to feel nervous about it.  All that had changed by the time of the watch remark, however, and when the night finally got underway my legs were trembling like a thermometer in March.  I took a seat at the back of the room as the MC for the evening, David Duncan, warmed up the sold-out audience.  He was funny, and people seemed to be really enjoying his brutal takedown of the Information Oban Facebook group.  Things were off to a good start, right up until he introduced Iain Hume as the first act of the evening and, as he left the stage, leaned forward to say something to the group of guys who were sitting in the front row and had been talking through the entire thing.  All of a sudden things kicked off, and four or five guys followed David out of the room like a gang of bottlenose dolphins.

Necks were craning, struggling to get a look through the window while Iain tried to get some laughs with his material. I could scarcely believe what was happening. If this is what occurred following the opening remarks, I dreaded to think how people were going to react when I tried my joke about debating whether to ask the shop assistant in Waterstones for assistance to find the section carrying self-help books. Fortunately, the situation didn’t amount to anything beyond some verbal threats, with it transpiring that the group was part of a stag party from Newton Mearns. Ordinarily, violence only ever breaks out in that part of Glasgow when the prosecco hasn’t been chilled to the optimum temperature, so in reality, there wasn’t much chance that a punch would be thrown. By the time I stepped up to the stage things had settled down, and my 17-minute set went better than I could ever have dreamt.

I was still on a high when I turned up at my niece’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party the following morning.  When I walked into my sister’s home, the place was a riot of shredded wrapping paper, popcorn, wizards, and delirious six-year-olds.  Looking at the scene was more or less an insight into how I was feeling deep down inside, and in truth, losing at bowling wasn’t the humiliation I liked to make it seem.  I had just experienced the greatest triumph I’ll probably ever have – for once I didn’t need a win at bowling to help soothe my bruised ego, while for my niece, beating her drunk uncles is only the start of what she can go on to achieve.  At least, that’s the way I was starting to see it by the time we had reached the Holytree for some dinner on our way home from Fort William.  In Oban, we stopped off outside Aulay’s for a novelty photograph after a birthday ice cream cone had been demolished as though it was a rack of pins.  My sister took the picture of me, my brother and our niece standing on the steps in front of the pub as we imagined the same night twelve years in the future when our niece would walk in on her 18th birthday to find her two uncles slumped over the bar the way a jumper lies in the laundry basket.  The same old songs would still be playing on the same jukebox, and we would probably be remonstrating about how it wasn’t fair because “she had the bumpers up.”

By the middle of the week, life was beginning to return to its usual mundanity.  After the early spring sunshine and 16°C temperature, there were flurries of snow, while the mercury plunged below zero.  As I was walking along the Esplanade on Wednesday evening, I observed a young boy clambering up the concrete steps from the shore onto the pavement.  He was probably around 10 or 11-years-old, I guess, and on his back, he was carrying a large, presumably heavy, yellow plastic case.  When he emerged, after first stumbling and almost falling back down the steps, I could see that there was a hole in the centre of the back of the case, and from it, a small puppy peered out.  The boy climbed onto a bicycle and rode off into the distance, the dog’s fluffy black ears flapping in the breeze.  

It got me to thinking about when I was this kid’s age and my parents would set me certain tasks around the house to earn my pocket money – things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging the washing on the line.  All very dull and easy jobs, although now I am 38 and I don’t have a dishwasher or really even a washing line and I look back on those days as the high point in my household upkeep.  No matter how simple they look now, they were the worst thing in the world back then, and I would do anything to get out of doing them.  I couldn’t help but think that this young lad was of the same mind.  I imagined that he had been set the chore of walking the family dog in order to be given his weekly pocket money, and the bicycle and carry case was his way of making the task easier.

I told this story the next afternoon to the high school students who attend the Argyll Wellbeing Hub in response to one of their questions, which was what are the things I like to look for on my walks.   It’s difficult to know if commentary on the seemingly unusual behaviour of passing pedestrians is what the youngsters were expecting when I turned up.  For reasons I would learn during the course of my visit, the group of 15-year-olds have a degree of admiration for me, which I was struggling to understand since nobody knew who I was when I was in high school, and yet here I am, seemingly a popular figure amongst at least a handful of school kids.  There was an audible gasp when I walked into the room, although I couldn’t be sure that that wasn’t because I almost tripped over the step at the entrance.

The entire purpose of my going to the Hub was to read the material from my notebook that I had performed at the comedy night the week before, since age restrictions meant that most of the youngsters couldn’t attend – although one of them did perform a five-minute piece which practically stole the show.  However, we got so deeply involved in conversations about our favourite bands, books, and the social hierarchy of dolphins that after more than an hour we hadn’t gotten round to it.  The group was engaging, intelligent and funny, and as giddy as I felt after reading in front of 110 people, this was much more rewarding.  Some of them even thought that U2 are cool.  When it came to answering the dolphin question, it was probably the most relieved I have ever been to discover that the opinion I had only recently formed was the one that the students were hoping to hear.  We all agreed that dolphins can behave like real bastards, just like any human, but their social dynamic is fascinating, and their fluid, free-spirited nature is admirable.   In the end, not only was the afternoon more enjoyable than performing at the comedy gig, but it was even better than winning at bowling.