Clocks back; washback

Sunday the 31st of October was undoubtedly the spookiest day of the year.  Not only was there the rare occurrence of Halloween falling on the same day as the end of British Summer Time and the loss of an hour of daylight, but in our wisdom, a group of friends and I had booked a tour of the Oban Distillery for 11.30 in the morning.  Like on any other Sunday, a hangover on Halloween is just a haunting by the ghosts of last night’s whisky, and I wasn’t sure that I was ready to mess with yet more spirits by taking a trip to the distillery. 

Of all the ways I thought I would spend my extra winter hour, a Distillery tour complete with three drams of whisky hadn’t featured near the top of my list. I could have caught up with some reading, tended to some of the repairs needing doing around my flat, made a hearty pot of soup for the cold days ahead or done something else equally as productive. The reality is that I would have laid in bed until around eleven thinking of all the useful things I could have been doing with that time, before getting up and spending hours on the couch watching old episodes of Seinfeld, but at least there was the potential for productivity. As it was, by the time my bleary eyes screamed open sometime after nine, it took me all of my energy trying to determine which of my timepieces was telling me the correct information, since my watch and iPhone were showing a difference of an hour, whilst the clock on my mantelpiece was frozen at a couple of minutes to seven, the thin golden second hand dancing back and forth around the IX marker, as though suspended in an eerie memorial to time passed. The fading houseplants on either side of the clock completing the deathly scene. If only I’d had the time to water them.

We had good reason for booking a Distillery tour at 11.30 on a Sunday morning; it wasn’t just a spur of the moment act of madness.  Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, was visiting Oban for potentially the last time before departing Argyll to be with his wife in the west of Wales, and a trip to the Oban Distillery seemed a nice milestone following the experience our group had at Deanstoun in August.  Apart from all of that, the tours were fully booked on Saturday, so we had no option but to go the next morning.  In a cruel twist of fate, our guest of honour wasn’t able to imbibe any of the samples along the way since he was driving home afterwards, an outcome that was devilishly reminiscent of Deanstoun, when Adam had to bottle his tasting glasses on account of him driving us from Stirling to the distillery.  People have often asked me why I have never learned how to drive; this serves as a pretty good reason why not.

Our group of seven whisky explorers agreed that we would meet outside the Distillery on Stafford Street at 11.20, and it was remarkable to watch as each one of us arrived at 11.25.  The Oban Whisky website states that the Distillery is 208 steps from the sea, but they probably weren’t accounting for visitors in the condition we were in.  Brexit Guy was last on the scene.  We looked down George Street and caught sight of him sprinting along the pavement at what we presumed was full speed, his dirty blonde hair flopping in the breeze.  It was like watching the nineties television series Baywatch, if instead of the show being set on a Malibu beach and starring David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson it originated from a rainy and blustery town on the west coast of Scotland and featured a fifty-year-old oncologist with a taste for single malt whisky.

When we lined up on the cobbles opposite our destination, seven dreadfully hungover souls still haunted by the spirits of Saturday night, it was difficult not to view us as a tremendously underwhelming Halloween parade.  We were pale, eyes hollow, each of us carrying the demeanour of a basket of unwashed laundry, and caught in the uncertainty of two different times.  I could swear that if we didn’t go inside when we did, some passer-by who didn’t know any better would have handed us a bag filled with sweets and monkey nuts and we would have been invited to dook for apples.

The only time I had previously been in the Oban Distillery was back in September 2019 when I was invited to read from my notebook in the bar prior to local band The Blue Moon Travellers performing as part of their album launch event. On that occasion, I smuggled a bottle of Chilean merlot into the place as a prop for my set and didn’t touch a drop of our home produced golden goods the entire night, which is something I always felt a touch guilty about. Think of going to New York City and not seeing the Statue of Liberty, visiting the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa, or Campbeltown and whatever they have there.

It was interesting being a tourist in one of the town’s most popular attractions and the producer of its world-renowned export. I have lived here for all of my 38 years without knowing that the Distillery was opened in 1794 before the town even existed. We are, quite literally, a town built around whisky. Our guide on the tour happened to be Mike, who I know as one-half of our Lorne pub quiz rivals “Texas Denied.” He was knowledgeable and funny, though I was reluctant to laugh with too much enthusiasm out of respect for Erin, our delightful Deanstoun director. Often Mike would pose our tour group some pieces of whisky trivia, and I was becoming increasingly irritated by my inability to answer them since I knew that he would be marking it down as an area of weakness for the weekly quiz. It’s damaging enough not knowing which mainline train station in London you would go to take a train to Gatwick Airport, but if the silver-haired quiz host ever decided to use any of this whisky stuff on a Wednesday, our chances of winning would soon evaporate as quickly as the Angel’s Share Mike told us about.

We were taken through the different parts of the whisky making process, guided by Mike and the intoxicating fragrance that lingers around the place. The operation is a lot bigger than I had imagined, although Oban’s production is restricted by the distillery’s location which has no capacity for expansion, and the equipment is vast. The four wooden washback containers had to be around twelve feet wide and at least twenty deep, which is a lot of wood. This is where all of the alcohol is produced, and you can really tell it from the atmosphere. We were all invited to stick our heads into the container and have a sniff, which is one of those things you should always be dubious about when it is suggested, but we all took the plunge. Your nose barely had to pass into the hatch before it was hit with the warm, putrid stench from the wash, which at this stage in the fermentation is said to be something resembling beer. Mike asked if anyone felt that they could drink the washback. Ordinarily, I would have expected that at least one person from our group would admit to having so little restraint around alcohol that they would down the stuff, but I think we were all too spooked by our hangovers to entertain the hypothetical offer.

A Sunday afternoon truly takes on a different look when you have had three whiskies before midday.  I suppose it isn’t a surprise that tasks such as filling the washing machine or blending a broccoli and goats cheese soup seem less arduous once your hangover has been displaced by the radiant sensation of whisky in your belly.  It seemed silly that I hadn’t done this before.  With my trivial chores done for the day, I retired to the couch with a cup of coffee and some television streaming services.  I glanced over at my living room clock and wondered where all the time had gone. 

October

Everything changes in October. One day you are basking in the breathless autumn air admiring the way that it is so clean, so fresh and so clear that you feel as if you could reach out and shake it with your hands, as you would the blocks of ice in a whisky glass, and the next you have been caught in a downpour of rain so heavy that you are left feeling wet in places that haven’t been wet in years. Even the sight of a rainbow looping across the front of McCaig’s Tower wasn’t enough to take my mind off the fact that my underwear was saturated and my shoes squelched with every step that night. On the darker evenings, the headlights of approaching cars can give the impression of a hurried search party, and the sky wheezes with the whiff of chimney smoke, no doubt people burning what fuel they have while they can still afford to.

While the weather has undergone a striking change in appearance, my own wardrobe also recently went through a seasonal transformation.  For as long as I’ve been a single occupant I have gone to the pub after work on a Friday night wearing a suit.  The colour of the accoutrements – the tie and pocket square – would match the shade of my socks, and after a while, the technicolour triumvirate became the most memorable thing about me.  It was always the first thing a person would ask upon seeing me:  “What are you so dressed up for?”   Most of the time the question never troubled me, since apart from anything else it got people talking to me, but the pandemic seems to have stifled my patience in such situations.  Curious drinkers would ask the same question now and it would be as if there was something weird about wanting to look your best to drink in the lounge bar in Aulay’s.  Within a few months of things opening up after the last of the various lockdowns, and following several Fridays spent under the spotlight, I decided to adopt a more casual look on my Friday nights in the pub, mostly out of the hope of putting an end to the interrogation over my fashion.

Amongst the tweed suits and silk ties hanging in my floor-to-ceiling wardrobe, which is so tall that the top shelf can scarcely be reached from a stepladder, was a solitary pair of beige chinos that I would break out on occasional Saturdays if I was going for a more smart-casual guise than the usual jeans offer.  It struck me that if I wanted to sport such a look more regularly I would need to invest in a greater range of bottoms, so I took to the internet for inspiration.  I shopped for chinos and cords in all sorts of colours:  plum, watermelon, kiwi, cherry, banana.  If the colour was a fruit and the trouser began with a ‘c’ I was in the market for putting my legs through them.

My decision to change out of my suit and into something looser for my Friday nights was made all the easier by the soaking I suffered earlier in the day on that first instance. If I was being forced to remove everything after being drenched to my delicates, then it seemed to make sense that my entire outfit should be revitalised. I wore a pair of chinos not too dissimilar in shade to a blueberry in Aulay’s that night, and there wasn’t a tie or a pocket square in sight. Yet I could never feel at ease. Neither could Geordie Dave, who sat on the opposite end of the table and gazed upon me with a gimlet eye. Eventually, he cracked, querying “weren’t you at work today?”

It wasn’t any different when I decided to wear my first ever pair of corduroy trousers when Scotland played Israel in a FIFA World Cup qualifying match on a Saturday afternoon.  The bar was packed, busier than at any point since the pandemic began, and although all eyes were on the television screen, it felt as though everyone had seen my ginger cords.  One person commented that I was dressed like a maths teacher.  Having removed the pocket square from my jacket, people were suddenly seeing a protractor.  It’s uncanny how often I have been told that I look like a teacher; although it is always a different subject each time, as if everyone has gotten together and agreed that I couldn’t possibly specialise in one area.  

In keeping with the season of change, Scotland defeated Israel to take an enormous step to securing a play-off for the 2022 World Cup.  It was the fourth consecutive game of football the country has won, which is something that hadn’t happened since 2007 – practically an entire lifetime ago.  The tension was palpable as the match swung back and forth.  Israel scored within five minutes of the kick-off; Scotland equalised, though we were only level for a matter of minutes before Israel scored again; Scotland missed a penalty kick right before half-time but made it 2-2 ten minutes after the re-start.  The bus driver standing at my right elbow complained that he had left the bar for a cigarette twice and on both occasions Scotland scored, to which the only sensible suggestion I could offer was that he should go back outside and stay there.  He laughed, but I wasn’t entirely joking.

My nerves were as shredded from watching the game as my feet were from the new pair of shoes I had been breaking in during the week.  If there’s one thing you can guarantee about autumn it is that you will quickly learn which of your shoes are leaking.  Scott McTominay scored the winning goal for Scotland in the 94th minute of the contest and the pub exploded into disbelieving bedlam.  There were limbs and pints in every direction.  People who had socially distanced for 18 months were suddenly thrust into the arms of a stranger.  It isn’t often that followers of the Scottish national team have something to celebrate, besides the occasional draw with England, so this victory was a welcome change.

When I was next in Aulay’s it was a week later, I was a year older, and the atmosphere was significantly less raucous. A guy no older than me who had all the makings of a bad acid casualty was plying the jukebox with coins and filling the playlist with 90s boy band hits and the occasional Britpop classic. Even after he had been refused service for another Bloody Mary he continued to pump pounds into the machine. Back and forth he would go between the bar and the jukebox, selecting three songs at a time and returning to his spot, where he would once again ask for another drink. It was fascinating to watch. He must have been turned down at least half a dozen times. I just wanted somebody to put him out of his misery and tell him about YouTube.

At the table directly behind the Britpop binger sat an older couple who appeared unperturbed by the saga which was unfolding in front of them.  The gentleman bore a striking resemblance to a famous figure, follically at least, but we couldn’t reach an agreement on who it was.  Brexit Guy, my brother and I each came up with names for whom the slicked-back grey locks reminded us of:  Rod Stewart, Denis Law, Christopher Walken, but we couldn’t settle on a definitive answer.  All I really knew was that at 38 I could only dream of having hair like this guy in his sixties or seventies had.

Our trio was later joined by a fourth man who I initially assumed was an acquaintance of Brexit Guy due to him taking a barstool and engaging Liam in conversation, but who it turned out was a complete stranger.  At first glance he was fairly nondescript, not unlike any other man who walks into a pub on a Saturday night.  He was dressed in jeans, a jacket and a t-shirt, a look I couldn’t attribute to any kind of teacher.  Apparently he was still struggling with a tequila hangover from the previous night, although that didn’t stop him from ordering a shot of the stuff on my round.  It was suggested that we all take a shot of tequila, but I was still coming to terms with being a guy who wears corduroy without also becoming someone who drinks distilled Mexican agave before nine o’clock on a Saturday.  I turned down the opportunity of buying myself a tequila, citing the fact that drinking it usually results in me losing my mind – a statement that I would come to think of later in the night.

When Brexit Guy and my brother both got up to go to the toilet, I was left to make conversation with the stranger.  He seemed amiable enough, even when he told me that he is from Bridge of Weir and I jumped in with a mistaken comment about it being near Stirling.  Of course, I was thinking of Bridge of Allan, which is a small town north of Stirling, rather than the village of Bridge of Weir, which I was told is close to Paisley.  The transient tequila drinker spoke about how he likes to visit Oban twice a year for the peace and quiet he can enjoy in the area, allowing him to get away from the pressures of life back home for a few days.  It seems to be a fairly common reason folk have for coming here, and most of the time you can see why – even amidst a low-volume flurry of songs by Westlife and Backstreet Boys.

The bloke didn’t stick around for very long before he moved on, and it was only after he had left that Brexit Guy revealed how the visitor had told him earlier that he had served eight years in prison for killing a man.  I believe the story was that his home had been burgled and as he sought retribution against the perpetrator some time later he ended up killing him and stabbing two other people.  It sounded like the plot for a movie you might find on Channel 5 on a Sunday afternoon.  Upon being told about this development, it was all I could do picture the next scene in the script, where after rehabilitating his life and becoming a pillar of the community, the ex-convict takes a weekend break in Oban which suddenly turns sour when a local at the bar he visits rejects his offer of a shot of tequila because it makes him lose his mind.

Brexit Guy went on to confess that although he didn’t particularly like or dislike the transient tequila drinker, he offered the gentleman his mobile phone number anyway because “I didn’t want him to think bad of me.”  I was incredulous.  I mean, this I really couldn’t get my head around.  How is it that a convicted killer can walk into Aulay’s and receive a phone number almost immediately when I’ve been going there every Friday night after work for more than five years and not been given so much as a digit?  I poured a bottle of ginger ale into my Jameson and watched as the bubbles frolicked around the cubes of ice at the top of the glass, the entire drink changing before my eyes.  Like everything else in October, I was going to have to hope that the change from wearing a suit to chinos or cords was going to lead to a wider change in my life.  Such as being offered a phone number in the pub, or even just something as simple as an agreement on the school subject I could specialise in.

Jute, jam, journalism, high-jinx & Joop!

There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street.  The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in.  It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there.  I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book.  Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar.  On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind.  As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie.  She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.

My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.

Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic.  Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”.  People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country.  A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.  

Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.

Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan.  How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to.  There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.

Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football. It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park. It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin. It never seems to matter that I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.

Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind.  Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company.  It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.

My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.

It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away.  Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites.  The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in.  There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices.  You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.

One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing.  He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face.  Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with.  The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people.  It was uncanny.  He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it.  I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations.  Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same.  That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.

The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.”  It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule. 

As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift.  He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor.  Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay.  I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice.  He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure?  Not even bi?”  In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex.  Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.

Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink.  Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city.  Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.

“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.”  I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.

“Mikey?  Are you sure that’s your birth name?”

“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”

Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me.  “What’s your full name?”

I stumbled.  “Michael Alan Ross.”

“Ah-ha!  So Mikey isn’t your name!”

I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.

Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service.  You could tell he knew it was coming.  This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman.  He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt.  His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast.  The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one.  She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.

As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember.  The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing.  I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them.  He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet.  “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage.  When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken.  That’s what people are like here.”  This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him.  It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.

After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”

The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh.  It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way.  The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee.  One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home.  In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it.  Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.

Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.

Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been.  To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s.  I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about.  After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd.  I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd.  We returned to our respective drinks.  The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.

“I killed my last one.  The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”

I could tell that this guy is an animal lover.  He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another.  But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.  

Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf.  Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words.  Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack.  People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk.  It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.

The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living.  He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it.  Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison.  “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine.  I was quite happy.  And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”

I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into.  He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave.  Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for.  As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name.  “They call me Hawkeye.”  There wasn’t much more that could be said.

My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.

The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland.  Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling.  I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van.  Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.

As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”

I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed.  For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside.  I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me.  A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot.  There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum.  There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside.  Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.

Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company.  The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer.  It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen.  If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.

The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?

My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved.  Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash.  I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars.  My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet.  It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.

Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar.  Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint.  As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments.  When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success.  Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.

Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on.  I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing.  I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet.  Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down.  I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought.  She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.

Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.

When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me.  There was no need for improvisation this time.  I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it.  The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee.  Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way.  I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation.  The place has a rich history with many quirks.  More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters.  Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.

A new broom

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.

Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday.  For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year.  When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.

Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running.  Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week.  We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.

Stirling Castle

Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.  

Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them.  The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs.  My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else.  The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances.  From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.

After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs.  There was a wide range of abilities in our group:  from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t.  Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game.  It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves.  Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game:  best described as a lost cause.

It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love.  On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place.  It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building.  The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland.  It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.

Doune Castle

We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen.  Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water.  A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter.  The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs.  We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed.  In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through.  Doune was a quaint wee village, though.  Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace.  On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.

The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry.  From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery.  If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery.  We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand.  Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky.  Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing.  I could barely contain myself.  My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming.  I looked straight into Erin’s eyes:  “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.”  She hardly flinched.  It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it.  “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.”  It was ever thus.

During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group.  This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky.  The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us.  I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.

Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument.  I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history.  Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure.  Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves.  It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge.  The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning:  “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball.  Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.

There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them.  The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations.  I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while.  I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day.  It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.

After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building.  The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle.  Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing.  The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018.  In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves.  The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat.  We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley.  From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge.  Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group.  Somehow I resisted.

The crown at the top of the Wallace Monunent

Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling.  I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times.  Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces.  Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae.  Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory.  The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us.  This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.  

We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass.  This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us.  The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get.  I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos.  Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.

As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers.  For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help.  At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth.  In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs.  Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.

The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma.  The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group.  My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers.  From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest.  The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale.  He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg.  It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.  

I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference.  I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting.  None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend.  Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal.  I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story.  To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.

Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn.  As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar.  When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s.  It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into.  They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery.  Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into.  It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out.  The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.

Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around.  We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday.  I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for.  He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too.  I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans.  You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.

On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well.  One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player.  As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning.  I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”  

Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept.  Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening.  We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing.  I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them.  If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is.  “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.

Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink.  At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off.  It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure.  What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.

Revenge of the sheep

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.

Lights out

The light in my bathroom went out one morning recently right while I was in the middle of showering.  It sounds like the worst thing that could happen to a person at such a delicate point in the morning routine, but really it was fine since I’ve become quite familiar with the surroundings and I was able to feel my way around.  

What was most remarkable about the episode was that I had actually been thinking a day or two earlier about how unusual it seemed that I had changed the lightbulbs in every room in my flat over the course of the three years I have been living here, but I’ve never had to replace the bulb in the bathroom.  What are the chances of that happening – first that there would be one room where the light never goes out, and then that the light would expire just as the thought has occurred to me?  These are the sort of questions that you ask yourself when you are living as a single occupant and there is nothing much else happening in your life, in the same way that you become fascinated with diffusers or are suddenly concerned about why there was a pair of walking boots seemingly abandoned by the railings along the Esplanade.  

You usually see one item from a pair discarded by the side of the road:  a shoe, a slipper, a glove; or you come across singular objects which you can understand how they have become separated from their owner:  a hat, a child’s toy, a pacifier, or most commonly these days, a face mask.  These are things you can forget about seeing, but it’s difficult to stop yourself from thinking about the possibility that somebody walked away without realising that they weren’t wearing their boots, especially when they were still laying in the same spot 24 hours later.

It took me several days to get around to changing the lightbulb in my bathroom.  This was mostly because I kept forgetting that the light wasn’t working, though there was undoubtedly a little laziness involved too.  During the height of summer, sunlight pours through the four windows in my flat when the curtains are opened, giving each room a natural light that could fool anybody into thinking that they can get away with living without halogen lighting.  It was only when I flicked the switch outside the bathroom door and nothing happened that I would remember my plight, and on those few mornings, I was subsequently faced with the decision of whether to pull the blind down over the window as I normally would or leave it up for the additional light that was being offered.  There was an inherent gamble involved in not drawing the shade, especially with the back door to our flat’s communal garden being situated right outside my bathroom window.  But the way I saw it, sometimes in life you have to live a little and take a risk if you’re wanting a thrill, even if that thrill is only a hot shower in the morning.

When I did finally replace the bulb it took me all of two minutes, and most of that was figuring out how to stand the stepladder around the bathtub.  Geometry was never my strong point in school and this was even worse than the unusual puzzles the textbooks would ask you to solve.  I could just see myself sitting in Mr Adair’s Higher Maths class, sighing as I was faced with yet another arduous question about an implausible situation that could never actually crop up in real life.  Why would I possibly need to know what ‘x’ is in the following scenario?  A single-occupant (s) leaves a lightbulb (lb) unchanged for 3 days.  He is 37-years-old.  The light fitting (f) hangs 1.67M above the ground and 13 inches from the edge of the tub (t).  t is 47cm from the point where the door (d) touches the bathroom wall.  s’s ladder (l) is 43cm wide and 83cm tall, and s’s reach ( r ) is 2 feet.  If it is a Saturday afternoon and h is hungover as hell (h²), and s wants to finally get around to changing lb, x is the angle at which he must position l between t and d to r the lf.  What is ‘x’?

In fact, there was an elderly man in Aulay’s one Friday night who needed more time to get up from his seat than it took for me to substitute the lightbulb in my bathroom.  It was the gentleman’s birthday and he had been in the pub celebrating it for most of the day, though from the condition he was in you could be forgiven for believing that he had been drinking since his previous birthday.  And really, who could blame him?  We’ve all been having a year of it.  He decided that he’d had enough shortly after I arrived and took one of the spare seats at the table he was sharing with another man he had never met, Nathan the wind farm engineer from Manchester.  Before leaving, he had to first get up to go to the toilet, and this is where his trouble started.

He placed his large bear-like paws on the two tables that were either side of him, one paw on each, and pushed down with all his might.  Beneath his blue trilby hat, the old man’s face was pink as a watermelon, while his eyes were like steely pinballs; the most determined I had ever seen.  He tried and tried to prise himself from the patterned cushion, but it just wasn’t happening; his body presumably weighed down by all the Tennent’s Lager he had consumed.

Meanwhile, on the television in the corner of the bar, the BBC highlights of the day’s Olympics action was being played.  I would occasionally feign an interest in the Men’s 200m individual medley, but it was difficult to peel my eyes away from the Olympian effort which was taking place before me as the birthday boy made yet another attempt to wrestle himself out of his seat.  Each time he failed to get up he insisted to me and Nathan that he would be fine once he was on his feet.  All he had to do was get there.  It must have been at least the seventh attempt when he finally managed to steady himself, his paws gripping the two tables the way I hold onto a pint glass.  The first thing he did after rising to full prominence was to ask the barman to phone a taxi for him, and when he returned from the toilet we had to implore him not to sit down again as he reached for his nearly empty pint.  The taxi wasn’t long in appearing, and when the barman wrapped his arm around the birthday boy’s waist to support him, it was like watching a victorious athlete being carried around the running track by his jubilant countrymen.

With the old man safely escorted to his taxi, I felt obliged to make conversation with Nathan since he could just as easily have refused my request to sit on the spare stool at his table.  It seemed we should have had a common bond since we were both so impressed with the feat of perseverance we had just witnessed, but our conversation fell into silence when he asked if I had been watching any of the Rugby sevens and I was forced into confessing that I wasn’t even aware it is an Olympic sport.  We both glanced up at the TV screen as though the Men’s 10000m athletics final was suddenly the most compelling thing in the world, and in a way it was.  We could have run the entire thing ourselves, so interminable did that silence seem.

Eventually, my newfound interest in athletics faded and I made another attempt at conversing with Nathan shortly before my brother joined us.  I learned that he is in the area working on a wind farm project down in either Tarbet or Tarbert – I can never tell which is which, and it only confuses matters if you ask.  He couldn’t find accommodation in whichever village he is employed, so he had to travel all the way to Oban for a place to stay.  The life of a wind farm engineer sounded pretty fantastic once Nathan got into it.  Since there is such a high demand for renewable energy these days he is basically travelling all around the world helping to install wind turbines.  It is delicate work, however, and there are certain conditions in which Nathan can’t do his job.  On these days he is forced to sit in a hotel room or a pub, where he likes to sample a whisky from whichever town he has ended up in.  It seemed fortunate that he landed in Oban, where our whisky is terrific.  I was curious to know what type of event would cause a wind turbine installation to be halted, and Nathan obliged by telling me that he isn’t able to work when the temperature is too hot or too cold, or when it is especially windy.  I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.  The one thing that a wind turbine lives for is the thing that can stop it from functioning altogether.  It is exactly like me and sex, I thought.

Nathan was reeling off a list of the places where he would ordinarily be working when my brother turned up.  In the last year, due to the circumstances around Covid, he has spent more time in the UK than ever before, when usually his job takes him to places like France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, the Gulf, and Japan, amongst others.  My brother asked him if he goes wherever the wind takes him, but he didn’t seem to flinch.  This got me to wondering if Nathan ever gets tired of hearing people making wind-based puns.  He must get them all the time.  How could you expect to be in his line of work and not be inundated with wind puns?  I decided to ask Nathan if there comes a time where he’s sick of everyone he meets insisting on making puns based on the fact he works with wind turbines or if it eventually all blows over.  He took a gulp of his Oban Malt and crooked his neck to look up at the television.  “I don’t like to have too many of these in case I need to work in the morning.”

It is difficult to say whether I was more inspired or shamed by the birthday boy into replacing the faulty lightbulb in my bathroom on Saturday afternoon.  I had awoken with an unusually fresh sense of purpose that morning, which was all the more remarkable considering the Plant Doctor, my brother and I had reintroduced the tough paper round drink into our Friday night.  As well as getting my large weekly shopping trip out of the way, I also found time to make a visit to the barbershop.  It was my second haircut since Covid restrictions were eased enough to allow the barber to reopen, and I was glad to get it out of the way in advance of the lifting of the last remaining restrictions on 9 August and some upcoming adventures.

The barber’s was completely empty, a rare sight on a Saturday morning, which allowed me to enter my name into the appointment book and immediately take a seat in the big chair.  As I removed my glasses and settled in, the barber was in the midst of an internal struggle over how much longer he was going to keep the shop open.  He wasn’t seeing the kind of trade he usually does on a Saturday, with there being particularly fewer tourists coming in than he would expect.  I was surprised to hear that people go for a haircut when they are away on holiday, since I’d imagine that’s one of the first things anyone would do before a big event, but apparently the barber makes at least £300 a week from visitors.  

According to him, many small towns in England don’t have a traditional barbershop, only a unisex hairdresser, so one of the first things they do when they arrive in a place like Oban is to get a haircut.  Then he also gets a lot of American and Australian tourists, his theory being that they tend to take longer trips around Europe of up to a month, meaning that by the time they reach Scotland they are due to have their hair cut again.  It was all very fascinating to hear about, even if I’m not sure that I believed that small English towns only have unisex hairdressers.  I feel like I always learn something when I’m in the barber’s, although I never know how useful the information actually is.  It’s all well and good hearing about the hairstyling habits of holidaymakers, but what I really need to know is why light bulbs last much longer in some rooms than they do in others, and where I was going to position my stepladder to change the bulb in my bathroom.

Absolute Beginners

“I like the way you dress.  Where did you get your shoes?”  I’m never asked this sort of question when I’m on my way home from the pub by a woman, so it figures that recently when I was stopped on the bridge at Airds Crescent by someone who wanted to comment on my outfit, it was by a guy who was so wasted that it was impossible to say whether it was from alcohol or drugs.  He couldn’t stay still, as though he was being operated by a video game controller, and if I wasn’t already dizzy from Aulay’s then I might have been from trying to keep up with him.

My sartorial suitor complained that he can never find a good pair of shoes; that every pair he buys immediately becomes scuffed and eventually the sole falls apart within a few months.  Where he was going wrong, he seemed to believe, was that he wasn’t spending enough money on his footwear.  “How much should a good pair of shoes cost?”  I considered telling him about my experience in Rogersons a few months ago when I approached the counter with the brown shoes he was so admiring of and the saleswoman commended me on my choice.  She mentioned that the shoes had been treated with a special waterproof spray, as though she had done me a personal favour, and I didn’t really pay much attention to it at the time.  But I could see what she was talking about on every rainy day since when the water would disappear from the tops of my feet virtually right away and they would appear as though I had never been outside at all.  Then I asked myself why this guy who was probably high on drugs would care about waterproof spray, and I realised that my idea of good shoes was probably different to his anyway.

These types of characters only ever seem to turn up in my life on a Friday night, and usually they disappear just as soon as they make themselves known.  Like the bloke we met in Aulay’s last Friday night, for example.  I was in a group with the Plant Doctor and some other marine biology types, as usual, when we were joined by an older gentleman who didn’t have anywhere else that he could sit.  This guy had a fluffy goatee that matched the nest of white hair contained beneath his flat cap.  Each ear had a silver ring hanging from the lobe, while we learned that he was originally from the town of St Helens in Merseyside.  Everything about him looked and sounded like a local radio DJ from the 1970s.

Whilst the Plant Doctor and I were trying to organise our gameplan for the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy on Sunday, the would-be radio DJ insisted that he had no interest in watching the football, instead claiming that the true biggest match to take place at Wembley Stadium this year would be the rugby league Challenge Cup final featuring Castleford Tigers and St Helens the following weekend.  He was very proud of his hometown and enjoyed speaking about how much the rugby meant to the place, though I was having some difficulty participating in the conversation since the would-be radio DJ was extremely hard of hearing in his right ear, which of course was the side I was sitting at.  Whenever I tried asking him a question about St Helens or rugby league he would shake his head and say that he couldn’t hear me, before craning his neck and cupping his hand around his good ear, the bar light reflecting off the earring making it look like a tiny fish dangling from the end of a line. 

Most of all he recalled some of the many famous musical acts he had seen perform in the Liverpool area back in the day:  The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, David Bowie.  Bowie was his favourite, “a real showman.”  The night when he played the song Space Oddity was clearly one of those life events that a person doesn’t forget, similar to your wedding day or the birth of a child – or at least I would imagine it is.  The most memorable event in my life recently was the discovery that I could wear my brown shoes in wet weather without the risk of the leather having an unsightly appearance of melted treacle. 

When the would-be radio DJ returned from placing his second order of the night, he was followed by a barman who was carrying two pints of Caledonian Best.  Apparently this is what he does when he knows that he has almost had enough for the night – he buys his last two drinks together.  I didn’t understand it, especially when the table service in Aulay’s is so prompt.  Leaving one of your drinks to warm to room temperature is one way of ensuring that your pint of Best wouldn’t be at its…finest.  While he was working his way through his pints of dark beer, we learned that the man’s wife had passed away a few years ago, and ever since he has just been travelling around the country to keep his mind off it.  The Plant Doctor had met him on his last trip to Oban, but this was my first encounter, and I was wondering how costly it was going to be when he pulled his phone from his pocket in an act of drunken confession.  He swiped his way through some screens before holding the device out across the table to show us that he had been pinged by the NHS Track and Trace app as a close contact of a positive Covid case five days ago in whichever town he had last been to during his travels.  

It was interesting to see the screen, more as a novelty than anything else since I had never seen what happens when a person is pinged by the contact tracing app.  There was a timer that counted down the days, hours and minutes remaining in your ten-day period of self-isolation, like when you click one of those online quizzes asking you to name all the players who have scored in European Championships finals.  “I can’t self-isolate,” he told us.  “I’m on holiday.”  Somehow in the back of my mind I could almost hear the next words to follow:  “and playing now we have Night Fever by the Bee Gees.”

It wasn’t a conscious decision for me to play some David Bowie the following morning, he simply featured on the most appealing of Spotify’s Daily Mix playlists as I was plotting a shopping trip to Lidl before meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Roxy’s coffee shop.  Bowie had never captured me in the way that he had the would-be radio DJ, though I usually enjoyed what little of his back catalogue I had heard.  Absolute Beginners, the full-length eight-minute version, was the third song to play from the playlist, meaning that I had made my way around the store and had reached the self-service checkouts by the time the dramatic opening of the song kicked in.  I was immediately hooked.  

As I was scanning the items from my basket – a bottle of orange juice, a pack of four Greek yoghurts, a jar of pickled gherkins – I was beginning to feel overwhelmed.  The line “as long as we’re together the rest can go to hell/I absolutely love you/But we’re absolute beginners” slayed me.  I was on the verge of being a wreck as I made my contactless card payment of £22.36, and by the time I reached the exit I felt as though I could cry.  I was short of breath, my heart was racing and my eyes were welling up.  I loved the song, but I hated how it made me feel, and as I was striding towards the bedding plants in the foyer it was easy to see me collapsing face-first into the Sweet Peas.  Of all the things to have happened in my life, this would be the most difficult to explain.  Fortunately, I was able to make it beyond the Begonias and into the great wide open where I removed my mask like the most hapless of superheroes and everything was suddenly washed away.  It was hard to know why I was affected by the song in such a way, especially when my Last.fm account shows that I have listened to it a further 24 times since the incident and I’ve felt nothing but peaceful enjoyment.  On reflection, the only explanation for the intense reaction seems to be that it was a manifestation of my concern over the supermarket being out of stock of one-pint bottles of semi-skimmed milk thus forcing me into buying the blue-topped variety.  I don’t dislike whole milk, but I’ve never responded well to change.

In keeping with the strategy the Plant Doctor and I had agreed on, I arrived in Aulay’s early on Sunday to make sure that we could get a table for the Euro 2020 final later that night.  He is almost always the first one of us to get to the pub, and he disputed my ability to get us a table when it really mattered, which had me determined to prove him wrong.  It was a game that everyone was going to want to see, and when I arrived at 3.30 there was just one table left by the bar in the public side of the pub, although some opened up in the lounge later and we were able to move.  The Wimbledon tennis final was on TV, so it’s not like I was just drinking to pass the time.  Some guy at the back of the bar announced that day’s Covid numbers in the way of a typical pub discussion where sporting statistics are casually thrown around, like Novak Djokovic winning 79% of his first-serve points, or being successful in 20 out of his 30 Grand Slam final appearances.

It was shortly after the Plant Doctor turned up that we were able to find a seat in our favourite side of the bar, at a well-aired table at the rear of the lounge.  There was quite a haughty feeling from having a position by the door where we could watch people come in, knowing full well that they were going to be turned away.  Around the bar, a palpable nervous tension was rippling through the atmosphere in the hours before the game, entirely different to the buzz of excitement felt before Scotland played England a few weeks earlier.  People were genuinely worried that England might win the tournament.  When we were joined just before kick-off by two young women who had featured in a couple of our recent drunken adventures it was all we could do to lighten the mood by making a wager on the game.  Each of us offered our predictions of what the final score would be, with the winner being given the opportunity to buy a round of drinks of their choosing for the table; sort of picking everybody else’s poison.  When England scored after two minutes, all bets were off.

England were still leading 1-0 at half-time when our group grew in size with the addition of two characters who do the bidding of Her Majesty – a VAT man and a postman.  It was possibly the first time that I’d watched a game of football in their company and we were all rooting for the same team.  Eventually Italy pulled themselves back into the contest, and the final was decided by a penalty shootout, an outcome which didn’t do anything for anybody’s nerves.  I had never appreciated before how watching a penalty shootout is like listening to the David Bowie song Absolute Beginners for the first time.  Even when Italy won, it wasn’t something that any of us could really enjoy; it was more of a relief, like when you have made it past the Begonias and you can breathe again. 

A chiropractor and a carpet fitter walk into a bar

My single occupancy has what might best be described as a ‘lived in’ scent to it.  It isn’t bad or good, neither a stench nor a fragrance, it just exists.  The flat is a small one, four little rooms crammed together into a tight space like a block of Shredded Wheat, and a whiff in one room will soon spread to all the others.  In the morning the place smells of shower gel and Joop! Homme; by afternoon the fumes of passing traffic have wheezed in through the open bedroom window, and at night the dominant aroma comes from whatever I have prepared for dinner.  It is a classic Potpourri, though ironically I have always had a deep mistrust of actual Potpourri.

For a while, I liked to burn heaps of incense that I had bought in jars from a specialist bookstore in London until a friend asked me why my flat smelled like there was a funeral service being conducted.  It is the kind of thing that is difficult to forget about once you’ve heard it, and matters weren’t improved by my failed attempts at keeping houseplants alive over the years.  Other than experimenting with some scented candles that had been gifted to me during the original lockdown, I just learned to live with the ‘lived in’ bouquet around my flat.  It wasn’t something I ever spent much time thinking about, at least not until Lidl had an offer on reed diffusers recently.  I didn’t really know what a diffuser is or how one functions, but since there is still a lot of time to be spent sitting around at home with nothing better to do while most of the country is in Coronavirus protection level 1, I decided to buy a couple and figure them out for myself.

The diffuser isn’t very much to look at.  You wouldn’t make it the centrepiece of your living room, which is why I ended up hiding mine by the side of the television.  The diffuser I bought resembles something you might see on a table in a craft gin bar:   a small glass jar with a clear liquid filling it and eight wooden sticks which are poking through a gap in the silver lid like straws.   Apparently the sticks – or reeds – are porous and act to draw the fragrant oil out of the jar until it reaches the tip, where it evaporates into the air in my living room.  Even as I stared at the thing from across the room, I just couldn’t see how it would work; but it clearly is since now when I inhale during my yoga practices it is like crawling open-mouthed through a field of lavender.  Now I wonder if the cotton variety is going to give me an insight into how it is to be suffocated with a pillow.

Basking in the brand new essence of my living room, I got to thinking about how the diffuser hadn’t really transformed my life in the ways I was hoping.  I mean, sure, the place no longer smells of a funeral mass, nor even of exhaust fumes or that evening’s garlicky pasta dish, but it was hardly like baking a loaf of bread or learning how to play an instrument.  Other people seem to have made some real use of their time during these various lockdowns.  At least a dozen of my contacts across social media appear to have become committed Munro baggers.  My sister has taken the leap of starting her own business and is finally teaching fitness classes in person again.  While it is difficult to imagine that I would ever have bought a diffuser in ordinary times, there’s just no way of convincing anyone that unscrewing the lid of a jar and dropping eight reeds into some pungent liquid is any kind of achievement, even if I can now tell them about how the droplets evaporate in the air to create a pleasant smell.  I don’t feel guilty about it or consider it a waste of time, however.  Apart from the ongoing threat of a deadly airborne virus, my life feels as close to normal as it ever has been, which is to say that it is simply an ongoing succession of events taking place between Sunday and Thursday while I am waiting to go back to Aulay’s again, and that’s just the way I like it.

When I returned to Aulay’s, it had been a week since some guy had threatened to bite my nose off during the Scotland versus England Euro 2020 game, and since then Scotland had been eliminated from the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Croatia.  I had put the dispute to the back of my mind by the time the following Friday had come around, only to walk into the pub and find the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete sitting in the company of the big bearded bloke’s companion from that fateful night.  What were the chances?  This guy seemed a decent lad, though, and he confided in us that his friend had received a piece of bad news before the football started and that as a result his behaviour during it was out of character.  These things happen, I suppose, but really, it sounded as though you wouldn’t want to be around this guy when he receives a parking ticket or if the bin men refuse to uplift his recycling because a glass bottle has found its way into the wrong bin.

Oban was shrouded with mist on Thursday morning

Geordie Pete vanished like a benevolent spectre through the night shortly after some distant members of his family had been turned away from the bar on account of there being no tables, presumably to go in search of them for a drink elsewhere.  After a while, the older couple who were sitting at the table next to ours called it a night, and the Plant Doctor moved into their seat before it had a chance to cool.  He wanted to save the space for Geordie Pete and his family in the event that they all came back, but it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be returning.  It’s the same with everybody – there comes a time when you have to accept that a loved one has gone and they aren’t coming back.  So when the Plant Doctor saw that a couple of guys were being turned away because there were no available tables, he vacated the space he was reserving and ceded it to the men, who were thankful to have a place to drink.  The two of them were fantastically handsome; so strikingly good looking that I almost felt ashamed to even be sitting near them.  Even in the gloomy light of the bar, they appeared to have a sickeningly healthy glow about them.  You could just tell that their home didn’t smell of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning.

In time we learned that they were visiting Oban for the weekend from the Borders – one of the men is a chiropractor of Taiwanese origin from Galashiels, and the other owns a floor fitting business in Hawick.  They have been using the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to discover more of Scotland, which seemed like a good idea to me.  I became involved in a conversation with Hawick about the Common Riding festivities which take place through many of the Scottish Border towns during the summer months.  The Common Ridings commemorate a practice from the 13th and 14th centuries in which an appointed townsperson would go out on horseback and ride the town’s boundaries to protect against raids from the English or rival clans.  Each town has its own little traditions, and I found it fascinating, not only to hear about how drunk people would get but also about the pageantry and colour of it all.

Meanwhile, across the table, I could hear as the Plant Doctor asked Galashiels how the two men had met.  It was a bold question, I thought, but not an unreasonable assumption.  Galashiels looked ready to respond with what was sure to be a powerful and romantic anecdote recounting the events leading to this handsome coupling when the perfect joke occurred to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting.  

“Let me guess!  Galashiels had an accident at work and asked Hawick to help him hide the body under the floorboards?”  

They both smiled, but it was a smile I recognised well; an uncomfortable sort of smile.   It was obvious that neither of them knew what to say to that.  Why is it that I can’t help myself from saying stupid things when I’m around beautiful people?  Galashiels later asked the Plant Doctor when it was that he first realised that he is gay, and he seemed surprised when the answer was that the Plant Doctor isn’t gay.  It could even have been disappointment.  Had the two men been under the impression for the entire time that we were talking that the Plant Doctor and I are a couple?  And if we were viewing Hawick and Galashiels as this magnificently handsome pairing, then how were they seeing us?  This is what happens when the Plant Doctor decides to wear a shirt as opposed to his usual holey t-shirts.

While cases of Covid continued to rise in Argyll like in the rest of Scotland, including the Borders, people around Oban were becoming concerned about the numbers.  As is usually the way in a small town, stories of the virus were spreading faster than the actual illness, and by the end of last week people were talking about there being hundreds of cases in Oban when the true figure was less than 40, which was still higher than we had maybe ever seen.  These things get whipped up quite quickly here.  After hearing of a couple of positive cases from some of the pubs I decided that it would be a good idea to get myself tested, as a precaution more than anything else.  Although I felt perfectly healthy after a Monday morning session of yoga during which I inhaled yet more evaporated droplets of lavender, by the time I was booking a PCR test online I was overwhelmed with dread.  Even though I didn’t feel sick or have any reason to believe that I was, I felt as though I could be.

The Covid test site at Mossfield Stadium car park effectively amounts to a series of tents.  This was the same place that I went to the shows as a child, where I would ride on the dodgems and eat pink candyfloss, but you wouldn’t have known it from looking at it now.  After you have had your appointment QR code scanned by a man who is shielded behind a plastic screen you have to sanitise your hands, and you practically sanitise them after every little thing you do while you’re in the various tents.  I was guided through the testing process by a friend who I had once described as being amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s, and while we had since joked about the remark, it was hard to escape the suspicion that he was quite enjoying this.  First you are handed an envelope which you open and are asked to carefully place the contents on the table in front of you.  Inside there was a swab, a test tube, a small plastic bag for rubbish, and a tissue.  Looking at them laid out before me was as though I had just been caught shoplifting from Boots and was being forced to own up to my crime.

You hold the cotton swab against your tonsils for ten seconds, which you have to count out in your head yourself, before being instructed to place it up your nostril “until you experience some slight resistance.”  I found that phrase incredible since ordinarily, the resistance comes before I even think of sticking something up my nose, but I suppose I should have considered it generous that I was at least offered the option of which nostril the swab went in.  After all that is done, you put the swab into the test tube, which has some kind of medical solution in it that didn’t look unlike the oil in my diffuser, and then seal it up in a bag.  I could scarcely believe that my life had brought me to this.

My nose was sensitive for hours after the test, and it was difficult to stop thinking about what would happen if the result came back positive, even if it was the most confident I was feeling about a test since my Higher Modern Studies exam.  I received the result by text message at eight o’clock the following morning, right after I had done my yoga.  My heart was racing when I heard my phone ping from the next room.  This was when I realised how bad an idea the message preview notification on the home screen of your phone is.  The words stopped right before the part of the message where it told me the outcome.  I felt a wreck having to open up my phone to get into my messages just to find out that I don’t have coronavirus.  The rest of the text is pretty bland, advising you that you should still wash your hands, adhere to social distancing, and wear a mask; all the things we’ve become accustomed to doing over the last sixteen months.  Would it have killed them to put a wee ‘congratulations’ in there, or even a ‘thank you for doing your bit to help protect society’?

I was given two boxes of seven lateral flow testing kits from the centre, and I’ve been testing myself fairly frequently since.  Not necessarily out of any worry that I could have the virus, but I figured that if I have the things then I might as well use them, similar to the attitude I have towards the jars of dried oregano or thyme I keep in the cupboard.  I quite like having that peace of mind before I go to the pub on a Friday or visit my dad, though there’s something that doesn’t sit right about poking a swab around my nose in the same space in my kitchen where I cut onions and prepare bowls of overnight oats.  It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when I don’t feel uncomfortable conducting one of these tests, or anxious as I wait 30 minutes for the result to show, but I suppose that it is just another of these things that we’re going to have to get used to in life, like a ‘lived in’ smell or a stupid joke made in the company of a beautiful person.

23 Years

I recently received a message from an ex who lives in the south of England.  She had been watching the BBC’s One Show on a Tuesday evening when they aired a feature about the black guillemots that nest in the drain pipes in the sea walls along Oban’s Esplanade.  The birds are extremely striking with their black and white plumage and shiny red feet, looking almost as though they are stepping out to a gala ball wearing their finest tuxedo.  They are quite tame little creatures, and I’ll often see them sitting in pairs along the edge of the pavement by the sea, just a few feet away from some people who have shoved an iPhone in their beaks.  My ex observed in her message that she didn’t notice me strutting about the place in the video, which was probably a good thing, even if I wouldn’t look out of place amongst a flock of guillemots.

It was interesting that she even thought to contact me about the feature considering that when we were together nigh upon ten years ago she had a dreadful fear of birds.  I have never seen anything like it, before or since.  She would shriek if a bird so much as flapped its wing within a couple of metres of her, and you could forget about walking through a park or a square with this girl.  I always hated how the spectacle made me look, especially when she would usually grab for my elbow and seek protection behind my not particularly intimidating torso, as though I could do something to warn off the birds.  I mean, really, what am I going to do about a flock of pigeons?  Birds are a law unto themselves.  I responded to the text the only way I knew how, commenting that “it turns out Guillemots are not only a semi-popular English musical act from the early noughties, they are also a very lovely sea bird.”  I haven’t heard from her since, and I suspect that there can no longer be any mystery as to why we are not together.

The black guillemots are most commonly seen early in the morning, and I had an unexpected opportunity to view them after our latest album club meeting on the weekend after they had been featured on television.  The gathering was more of a meeting about the club itself than it was any one album and most of the group left at a reasonable hour, though the Plant Doctor and I found a kindred spirit in our host’s husband and the three of us sat drinking beer and listening to music until six o’clock on Sunday morning.  We would probably have stayed out in the gazebo even longer if the family didn’t have a dog that needed walking, and besides, we had surely peaked around dawn when we were belting out Elbow’s One Day Like This.  I struggled to reason in my mind how it was possible that I could go home from the pub any other weekend and fall asleep on the couch leaving a quarter-drunk can of Tennent’s to go flat, and yet here I was walking away from an all-night drinking session, when the daylight appeared even brighter than it was when we had started thirteen hours earlier.   

The Plant Doctor and I took what we both agreed was the best walk around the perimeter of the North Pier we had taken together.  From the green on Corran Esplanade we saw that the bay was bathed in an exquisite blue, with only the tops of Mull in the distance holding what appeared to be a wizard’s wisp of clouds.  There was serene stillness about the place, the only sound heard was the gentle hum that comes with being a certain level of drunk.  Indeed, the only people who seem to come out at six o’clock on a Sunday morning are the dog walkers and drunkards.  A lone Innis & Gunn pint glass sat on a bench in front of the Columba Hotel, far from where it belonged, while berthed at the marina was a boat which had a mast that was nearly as tall as the sky.  I liked to think that the top of it had pricked a hole in the atmosphere and let the sunlight in.  Out in the bay, the guillemots had emerged from the drainpipes much like the way we had left the sewers of our drunken debauchery and dared to face the day, although they were handling it much better than we were.  They looked elegant and graceful atop the surface of the water, all the things we weren’t.  It was easy to see why the BBC had filmed a report about them.  I took a photograph which I intended on sending to my ex but thought better of it after I had been to bed.

June marked the start of the European football Championships – Euro 2020 – which had been delayed by a year due to the pandemic.  Ordinarily these bi-annual international football tournaments are simply an excuse to spend more time in the pub, with as many as two or three televised games a day, but this year Scotland are competing for the first time in my adult life – since the World Cup in 1998 – and there is a great deal of excitement around it.  I remember the thrill of rushing home from school to watch Scotland lose to Brazil in the opening match of that last tournament, the hype surrounding the game against England at Euro ‘96 where we eventually lost to one of the most famous goals of its generation, and I have vague recollections of wondering where Costa Rica even is after we were defeated by them in the 1990 World Cup.  All of my memories are of Scotland losing, but at least this time I will be old enough to drink.

One of the best things about these month-long festivals of football is that the more frequent visits to the bar often present an opportunity to meet people who you otherwise might not end up talking to, such as the Swiss student lawyer who was in favour of using spinach as a pizza topping that I spoke to for ninety minutes after her country had played in the World Cup three years ago.  I’m fairly sure that my brother first fell out with Brexit Guy during that same competition.  It would be different for the European Championships, however, with the restrictions that are still in place meaning that bars are extremely limited in the number of patrons they can have in at one time and everyone has to be seated at their own tables.  You can no longer just turn up in time for the national anthems and find a space at the bar to stand and watch the game; a night in the pub requires precise planning and a little bit of luck.  

Before the opening match, the Plant Doctor, my brother and I arrived in Aulay’s at least an hour earlier than we usually would in order to secure a table so that we could watch Italy playing Turkey.  In time we were joined by a wandering hotelier who we have seen around the bars many times in the past.  He asked if he could sit with us since there were no other tables available and he would otherwise be asked to leave, and we were happy to have another person to tell our stupid jokes to.  

The Wandering Hotelier had fluffy balls of white hair that resembled the clouds we had seen clinging to the peak of Mull at six o’clock the previous Sunday morning, and it was obvious that he would have made an excellent Santa Claus back in the days before he had lost all the weight.  He told us that his small guest house hasn’t been as busy as he was hoping since the season started and blamed it on the popularity of Airbnb rental properties, which seems to be a common complaint in the town these days.  It was interesting to hear about the different ways he and his wife have to run their business during these unusual times.  We learned that he can no longer show his guests to their bedrooms, instead “I point them upstairs and tell them that they’re in room number three.”  He isn’t allowed to cook breakfast for them and now hangs a package on the door handle in the morning.  I found this amazing.  In my mind’s eye, all I could see was the vision of a confused elderly couple wandering the upstairs corridor of a small guest house on the west of Scotland clutching their complimentary breakfast bag which contained a banana and some French pastries, eternally unable to leave.

Sometime during the second-half a couple of young ladies who we were vaguely familiar with received a knockback from the bar staff since there were no tables left.  We asked the barman if there was a limit to the number of people who could sit together, and when he told us it was eight we invited the women to join us.  We could see that they really had to think about it, but eventually they concluded that it was better to get their drink and put up with our shit than to not get their last drink of the night at all.  The four of us had been discussing who we each thought would win the tournament, and we extended this question to our new tablemates.  They both said emphatically that it would be Scotland, as though it was the stupidest question we could have asked, and my brother somehow convinced one of them to put their money where their mouth is and bet £10 on Scotland winning Euro 2020.  She had to lift the strict deposit limits she had set on her online gambling account to place the wager, and when she finally did she made it an “each way” bet, which seemed to make it a better idea.  I asked the second girl, who works in one of the hardware stores in town, what type of hammer she would recommend if I was in the market for tools.  I don’t think I have seen anyone drink a glass of vodka and cranberry juice as quickly as those two did.

By the time the second Friday of the tournament came around, Scotland had already lost their first game to the Czech Republic and were in a precarious position in the group.  Our second game in the competition was against England, and nobody was giving Scotland a chance.  According to the experts it was simply a matter of how many goals England were going to win by.  Nevertheless, we packed into Aulay’s as much as anyone can pack into anything these days, and it’s amazing how holding a pint of Tennent’s Lager can make you believe that anything is possible.  For some of us, there wasn’t as much trepidation about the game as there was about being in a pub at all, since cases of Coronavirus had been increasing rapidly in Oban during the week.  As far as we saw it, we were in just about the safest place we could be since the clientele of Aulay’s is usually so old that most people there would have been double jagged anyway.

One of the biggest talking points prior to kick-off, besides team selection and tactics, was the strategy of breaking the seal and when to go to the toilet.  It’s a delicate matter when watching a game of football, since you don’t want to go too early and let the flow of beer know that there is an easy way out, but you also want to beat the crowds and ensure that you see all of the game.  The Plant Doctor went early, around forty minutes before kick-off, which I felt was a risky move since he would surely need to go again before the match began.  I held on until just before the anthems were played, following my usual trusted gameplan.  Whilst I was standing at the urinal, feeling pretty chuffed with my success, the man who was finishing up approached the wash hand basin, though you could tell that it was all for show.  He placed his hand under the sensor long enough for it to release a sprinkle of water, barely enough to water a plant.  I think he used it to slick back his hair more than for any hygienic purposes, and he spent more time at the hand dryer.  It’s times like these where I really wonder if two vaccines will be enough.

People were being turned away from the bar all night, and I was thankful that the Plant Doctor had saved me a seat at six o’clock.  Shortly after the game kicked off I noticed that the two men who had been sitting at the table which is positioned beneath the television for at least two hours got up and left.  It is hard to believe that they weren’t interested in watching the football, because everyone was wanting to see Scotland versus England, which could only mean that after having occupied the spot for the entire night, they realised when the match began that they were in the only seat in the entire pub where they couldn’t see the television.  Imagine having that kind of luck.

As well as being in the company of two Aulay’s barmen and the Wandering Hotelier, the Plant Doctor and I watched the football with the two Geordie’s – Pete and Dave.  These are two guys who are from roughly the same neck of the woods and who had never met each other until they came from North East England to the west of Scotland, and more specifically to Aulay’s Bar, where they have since formed the Geordie community of the pub.  They had been looking forward to this game as much as the rest of us, and naturally, they were supporting their home nation as opposed to their adopted one.  There was some good-humoured banter between us all, which made the occasion that bit more fun.  The two Geordies were a bit more vocal about things as the match progressed, which seemed to offend one man in particular who was further back in the bar.  He would occasionally holler out:  “fuck off you English cunts” and at times seemed to be more interested in being anti-English than pro-Scottish.  

The Geordies never rose to the bait and continued to watch the game, but a couple of us at the table grew tired of it.  Peter and I turned and asked the guy to calm down and be more respectful of the fact that people have their own nations to support, not to mention the fact that the Geordies drink in Aulay’s all the time whereas this guy was presumably only there because he couldn’t get in anywhere else.  This fellow was big, broad and bearded, and he seemed to take exception to our intervention, turning his anger onto me.

“I’ll bite your nose off!”

I’d heard of biting your own nose off to spite your face, but never biting somebody else’s nose off.  I could maybe understand it if he had threatened to punch my lights out, break my glasses or perform almost any other act of violence, but what would he even do with my nose once he had bitten it off?  I can’t imagine that it’s the sort of thing a person makes a habit out of.  I told him that it was the most bizarre threat I had ever heard, especially during a game of football, although with hindsight I am not sure why I added the stipulation about the football.  It’s a bizarre threat to be issuing in any circumstance.  Although the xenophobic outbursts ceased, it was plain to see that Geordie Pete was a lot more withdrawn for the remainder of the game, which I felt sad about.  The big, broad and bearded bloke came over to me and apologised at full-time, blaming “football fever”, but it wasn’t me who he owed an apology.

Scotland played as well as I had ever seen them play in a game of football, and while everybody was delighted with the unlikely 0-0 final score which kept us in the tournament, there was a tiny part within us that was disappointed we hadn’t actually won.  Already thoughts were turning to the next match against Croatia on Tuesday, and the permutations that could have us qualifying for the knockout round of a tournament for the first time, as well as the permutations that would be needed to get us into a pub to see it.  

After the disappointment of Monday’s defeat to the Czech Republic, where waiting 23 years just to get a massive kick in the baws at the end of it seemed to me to be similar to what it would be like to finally have a woman show an interest in me only to find that she is as afraid of my jokes as she is of birds, things were suddenly very different on Friday.  Scotland had given us hope again.  When the pub closed at 11 pm, the Plant Doctor and I found ourselves drinking bottles of Budweiser in the flat which belongs to the podcasting phycologist and the girl with the scarf until five o’clock in the morning.  On this occasion there was no silence like there was a couple of weeks earlier as I walked home, not even a gentle drunken hum; the entire country was still rocking.