Diaries of an isolating man: days 1 & 2

Day one:

After nigh upon 707 days, my unbeaten run against Covid-19 has finally come to a shuddering and sniffling halt.  A positive lateral flow test four days into 2022 is the sort of turn of events that makes the drunken wishes of a “happy new year” on Hogmanay sound preemptively ironic.

In reality, with the reported increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, avoiding sickness over the Christmas period always seemed to be like Road Runner’s constant effort to outrun Wile E. Coyote: every so often the bird would be caught, but it never ended up quite as terribly for him as the coyote intended.

Aside from the obvious downside of experiencing an unpleasant illness, the worst part about testing positive for Covid is the requirement to isolate for 10 days.  My self-containment happens to be coming after a 13-day break from work over Christmas and New Year, which was an isolation of a different sort.  Boredom had already set in with that one around the same time as the first festive hangover started to wear off on the 27th.  I was looking forward to getting back into a normal routine with healthy habits and social interactions that don’t just take place across the bar.  The difference between this isolation and the one over Christmas, and indeed those through various lockdowns, will be that I can’t leave my flat to go for a walk, buy some milk or sit in a beer garden.  This is proper isolation, where the last person I will have had any interaction with for the next 10 days was the young woman at the test centre this afternoon who explained how I had to stick a swap up my nostril and make ten rotations.  I thought I was lightening the mood when I asked if I could at least pick which nostril, but it turns out that’s all I’m going to be thinking of for the next week and a half.

Since I am going to be stuck inside the modest four walls of my single occupancy for 10 days with nowhere to go, I have resolved to at least try and do some yoga to keep myself exercised.  I thought that a low impact, slow flow working on my hips would be something I could handle in the circumstances, but I was forced to give up after no more than fifteen minutes.  Not only was the flow of snot from my nose impossible to contain, but I struggled with stretching my legs as wide as the video demanded.  Though that was less to do with Covid and more an indictment of my own flexibility.  It was the same when I attempted a breathing exercise yesterday, when my symptoms had first developed, although on that occasion it probably was Covid that was making me sound like a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory.

Day two:

The Scottish Government today reduced the isolation time for positive cases to 7 days provided they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven, so without even trying I have already gone through a chunk of the isolation I was expecting to be subjected to yesterday.  It is a Pyrrhic victory, but in this situation, I believe in grasping any small successes.

Despite my efforts to focus on the tiny triumphs, I’ve been finding it difficult to fill the time during my first two days of isolation and I can’t help from feeling that I might have made a mistake by watching all of the films that I had been saving for the Christmas break. If I’d thought that I would have another 7 days at the end of it all I might have spread them out a bit more evenly so that I could savour them over time, like a carton of Celebrations. But, really, who lives life like that? So I was quite relieved when I remembered about the new three-part Beatles documentary Get Back that I had been putting off from watching because it is so long. Each episode clocks in at an average of 150 minutes, which should mean that by the time I have managed to watch them all, my isolation will be over with.

The preemptively ironic New Year celebrations

After sleeping longer than I have ever slept on a Wednesday, I got out of bed today and sought to reaffirm my commitment to continue with my yoga practice every day.  Following my troubles yesterday I wanted something a bit more mindful, as well as less likely to make my nose run.  The brain fog meant that some of my transitions weren’t exactly graceful, but I was able to last all the way through the 39 minutes of my chosen video.  It felt like a big deal, even more than waking up to find that my isolation had been cut by three days.  My Ujjayi breathing was a mess, of course.  Every time I exhaled through my nose it sounded like when you open a bottle of soda water very slowly.  But there was no snot nor a sneeze.  Today has been a good day.

When the chips are down

A thick mist hung over Oban for several days in the week before Christmas, which if nothing else had the benefit of hiding the town’s thin display of festive lights from view.  It made for quite an eerie spectacle around the area when all you could see was the distant islands wrapped up in a veil of fog, their vaguely visible lumps resembling the appearance of my own crudely papered gifts, or the way the tree in Argyll Square would suddenly emerge from the haze the way a cocktail stick does from a cloudy alcoholic concoction.  The entire weekend was as though we were existing within the pages of a Stephen King novella, though it was impossible to say which one.

Nowhere was this more true than out in Pennyfuir Cemetery, where we took a family trip shortly after Santa had visited The Happy Wee Health Club. Graveyards are spooky places by their very nature, often found in remote locations surrounded by dark, bare trees, usually with an old church nearby; and the cold, low-lying mist on this occasion only added to that atmosphere. Just inside the gates at Pennyfuir sits a set of public toilets alongside an enclosed seating area which is described by a sign above its entrance as a “waiting room.” It’s hard not to be struck by the rich black comedy of there being a waiting room by the cemetery gates. Those benches are surely the least worn anywhere in Argyll. They could have labelled it anything else and it would have been better: seated area, benches, shelter, living room. Once I saw it I couldn’t stop from wondering if it was deliberate; a disgruntled council employee’s idea of fun on their last day in the job, or did they really name this little hut at the entrance of the cemetery the “waiting room” without realising the connotation?

After we accompanied dad to lay some flowers at mum’s grave, we all took a wander around the rest of the site on our way out.  Some of the headstones around the place are majestic, particularly the much older ones from the turn of the last century that are as big as a fully-grown adult.  It was fascinating to read many of the tributes engraved on these stones.  You felt as though you were getting a small insight into the life the person lived.  Not quite the full story, but something akin to reading the back cover of a book.  A handful of the inscriptions were a little more on the disturbing side, though.  I read one on the stone of an infant child that mentioned the cause of death being a hospital procedure, which is the first time I can remember seeing such a thing.  Closeby, a headstone stated how the poor soul below had died in the Royal Hotel in 1927, whilst another made it known that the deceased had passed in number 33 Combie Street.  I have always known that it’s only natural that over the years people will have died on the street where I live, and even in the very same flat I’m currently residing in, but it isn’t something I have ever given any thought to.  Something about seeing the name of my street on a gravestone sent a chill down my spine, and I suppose it would have in mid-July, let alone a misty afternoon the week before Christmas.  It seemed so final.  I couldn’t help from thinking that a hundred years from now someone else would be wandering around Pennyfuir, their hair badly combed and troubled by the breeze, and from looking at my own headstone they might know me only by the fact that I once lived across the street from the Oban Grill House.

As well as visiting mum’s grave around the anniversary of her death on 17 December and what would have been her birthday on the 19th, another tradition our family has that is perhaps more in keeping with the festive spirit is when we get together for an evening of mulled wine consumption.  Most other years we have done this on the night when the town’s Christmas lights have been switched on, but because we were in Inverness this year, we saved it for the last Saturday before Christmas.  Since it had been agreed that we would all spend the big day at my brother’s flat, he and I ventured out to Benderloch for mulled wine at my sister’s place.  I’m always impressed by the spread of food she lays out for guests.  We enjoyed mince pies, cheese of all varieties, grapes of every shade, crackers, and venison burgers.  I hosted the mulled wine night once, in 2018, and was questioned as to why I had prepared the bottle of wine in a pot with a whole, unpeeled orange sitting in the drink.  The only downside this time was my inability to savour as much of the cheese as I ordinarily would have on account of being challenged to eat an entire cheese plate by a waitress at Soroba House the previous evening.  I believe that I won the dare, although nothing about how I was feeling afterwards suggested that I was a successful man.

While the usual songs of the season streamed from a nearby Alexa device, a pack of playing cards was produced and it was suggested that we should entertain ourselves with a round of poker.  I had never played a hand of any card game more complicated than snap, whilst at five years of age my niece had yet to be introduced to casino contests, so it was going to be up to my siblings to coach the youngest and oldest participants at the table.  The first problem we faced was that we didn’t have any chips to place our bets with.  We thought about dividing the stems of grapes amongst us, but they were much too juicy to last through more than a couple of hands.  Our next best alternative was to use my niece’s collection of small, glossy, paperback books.  There had to have been around sixty of these things, each one brightly coloured and depicting popular children’s stories.  We shared the substitute chips out evenly between the four of us and embarked on a quick run through the basics of the game before playing it for real.

The first few hands were quite cagey, with more folding than is seen in the Mandarin Laundry.  We each won a hand to add to our pile of books, but the truth is that as novices neither my niece nor I had any idea what we were doing.  It quickly occurred to me that the skills needed to be successful at poker – a good poker face, the ability to refrain from going “all in” at the first time of asking, as well as having a great deal of luck – are exactly the ones I am lacking when it comes to interacting with women.  Somehow, though, it didn’t matter that most of them were missing from my poker game since a lot of the time I was able to bluff and wing my way through.  

Despite not having any idea of the value of the cards we were holding in relation to the ones being turned over on the table, my niece and I embarked on a strategy of recklessly raising the stakes on every move.  Sometimes by as many as three or four books at a time.  It was a real test of nerves, but it’s easy to hold your nerve when you have no clue what you’re doing.  When the final card was turned and fortune decreed that whatever cards I was holding were better than my niece’s, I won a tremendous bundle of books.  My five-year-old competitor became upset.  Not only did she hate losing, but she also realised that she had lost her favourite book.  From the next round forward we had to wait an eternity as she leafed through her collection to determine which tale it was safe to gamble.  There was a valuable life lesson in there somewhere, but I was too busy trying to figure out why I had won to realise what it was.

Either side of the high-stakes poker game, the days were clouded with the fog of alcohol as well as the meteorological phenomenon of condensed water vapour. Hours after my mulled wine win, across the bar in Aulay’s, I was asked by the podcasting phycologist how I was doing. When I told her that I was feeling kinda rough, she took a couple of steps back, despite already being a decent social distance away from me. It was then that I remembered that in 2021 we have to be more expansive when telling others about our physical wellbeing lest the situation is misinterpreted and a round of lateral flow tests need to be ordered. I immediately sought to soothe the situation. “Don’t worry, it’s only the Tennent’s variant,” I insisted to a look questioning what on earth I was talking about. “I’m hungover, basically.”

A group of us went out to watch the Scottish League Cup final between Celtic and Hibernian the following afternoon when I was still in recovery from the aforementioned ailment.  It was an entertaining game which Celtic won 2-1, ensuring that they went home with a more palpable prize than the books I was forced to hand back to my niece earlier in the weekend.  Most of the guys in our company were on a self-imposed curfew for the night.  The Plant Doctor left at seven for an evening of port and cheese with his girlfriend, whilst Brexit Guy had a date with a Chinese – which on this occasion was a takeaway dinner rather than the Colombian women he was due to be socialising with after Christmas.  I insisted to my brother that I would be staying out no later than eight o’clock since we both had a few more days of work to get through before the festive break.  This noble intention quickly crumbled as soon as I realised that the new barmaid was working on the other side in the public bar.  I had talked to her a week earlier and discovered that she has the most remarkable knack for naming business ventures.  She has started three or four different businesses of various natures, and although the ideas hadn’t worked out, it was difficult not to admire the creativity that went into the names as well as the determination to try again.

Aulay’s was much quieter than you might expect for the last Sunday before Christmas.  With cases of the new Omicron variant on the rise, the Scottish Government had gone to great lengths to deter people from gathering in places like pubs and restaurants without introducing any real measures to compensate the hospitality industry for the loss in trade.  At times we virtually had the entire bar to ourselves.  There was one large group who briefly appeared alongside us.  They had come over to Oban for the weekend from one of the nearby islands, either Islay or Jura, and they had the dialect to prove it.  The men were at a level of drunkenness that suggested there was going to be no curfew on their good time.  Of the group of four, the senior figure was the most talkative.  He frequently leaned across the bar and blurted out a series of words, some of them in the right order, though the only one I could make any sense of was when he kept referring to me as Rupert.  It was presumably an attempt at likening me to the long-running cartoon character Rupert Bear, on account of the yellow and black checked shirt I was wearing.  

The nickname bothered me. Not because I found it insulting, or even when the pedant within me reasoned that it is Rupert’s trousers that are yellow and black, and not his shirt. It troubled me that so many other people seem to possess the uncanny ability to summon catchy names for folk they barely know when it takes me all my time to come up with a retort, if I can at all. I am struck by how much more useful a skill it is to have than my own quality of asking the most inept questions imaginable, such as when the young man next to the islanders introduced himself as being the captain of the Bulgarian rugby team and I sought to ask him about the worst injury he has suffered on the field. In the last six months alone I have been christened Penfold, Joe 90 and now Rupert. I have little idea of who I am meant to be these days, and evidently, neither does the barmaid who herself has a talent for naming things since she only came to realise on Christmas Eve that my name isn’t actually Rupert.

With hindsight, I suppose the weekend was always likely to be lost in the fog.  It all started on Wednesday when we lost the quiz to a tie-break question.  It was going well until we reached the food and drink round, which is up there amongst our worst pub quiz subjects.  You can hear the groan from our table when that particular round is announced.  We completely flopped in the ten questions, allowing Quadrophenia Alley to surge ahead of us, and although we ultimately clawed them back to take the quiz to a tie-break, our chances had been done for by the food and drink round.  It’s ironic, really, that the same thing that keeps us alive in day-to-day life is what kills us in the quiz.

The Friday before our family mulled wine poker game was the office Christmas lunch, which in line with the decree from the Scottish Government was most definitely not a party, although it was the source of me picking up the Tennent’s variant.  A small handful of us started the day in the Oban Inn before moving on for lunch.  In the corner of the bar, someone began streaming the broadcast of the day’s Coronavirus update from the First Minister to parliament.  There was an element of the surreal about sitting in a pub listening out to hear whether there would be an announcement of any further restrictions on hospitality venues.  In a way, it was no different to sitting on a bench in a cemetery waiting room.  Although the restrictions didn’t come that day, it was only a matter of time.  You could have bet all your books on it.

Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme

In the sort of occurrence that can really make a person step back and take stock of how their life is going, I was recently on the receiving end of a diss from a garden centre Santa.  It wasn’t a cruel jibe or a personal insult per se, but until that moment I had never been dissed by a man who impersonates Santa Claus for a living in the approach to Christmas, and these things only ever give pause for reflection.  In the days since the incident, I have been doing little else but think back on the events immediately leading up to Santa’s slam and trying to determine for myself whether or not there was something in his words.  In my quieter moments, towards the end of my morning meditation, for example, I would convince myself that the faux Father Christmas had gotten it all wrong; that an old man who operates out of a shed at the back of a garden centre couldn’t possibly know enough about me to make the kind of judgment he did.  But something about it was still haunting me, and in the back of my mind, I couldn’t help from thinking that he might have had a point.

On the last Friday in November, my sister drove my brother and me up to Inverness so that we could all take my niece to the virtual reality sleigh ride at Simpsons Garden Centre on Sunday morning.  At least, we were telling anybody who would listen that we were going to see Santa for our five-year-old niece, but the truth is that we were just as excited about it as she was.  We used to travel up north to visit mum’s side of the family quite often when we were growing up, but I hadn’t made the trip since we went to the Belladrum Tartan Heart music festival in the summer of 2014.  The drive on this occasion made me think a lot of those journeys as kids when dad would play the same mixtape on repeat every time.  Without even looking you could almost map where we were on the route by which song was playing:  Sit Down by James, Radio Wall of Sound by Slade, Joyride by Roxette.  In an attempt to recreate the memory, we synched a phone to the car’s SatNav system and streamed a 90s playlist from Spotify.  It seems to be that nostalgia and Christmas go together like mulled wine and mince pies; pine trees and fairy lights; the eighties Swedish pop duo Roxette and a family car journey to Inverness.

It was funny to think back on those trips and how I would struggle to make it as far as Fort William – or through one play of dad’s mixtape – without feeling car sick. I had a terrible stomach for travel sickness. It’s something that I appear to have grown out of, and this time the journey was a breeze – even with the conditions outside the car being far from a breeze, as 65 miles per hour winds from Storm Arwen raged across the country. If I hadn’t already given up my lunch by the time we stopped in Fort William then it was a near certainty that I would find myself on the shore of Loch Ness in Drumnadrochit with Urquhart Castle in the distance. There aren’t many more picturesque places to be sick, as the tour buses at the side of the road would attest. The old ruin wasn’t visible this time due to the thick veil of mist that was drawn across it by the winter storm, but I could picture it all the same. Back in those childhood days of weak-stomached travel there is a case that could have been made for the role played by Smarties in my car sickness, whilst as adults we were all snacking on oranges, Royal Gala apples and those mini cheese bites with the herbs on top. Time, as well as Covid, has changed us.

While my sister stayed outside the city with her friend Hannah for the weekend, my brother and I took residence in a city centre flat along the bank of the River Ness.  It was an ideal location for sampling some of Inverness’s watering holes.  Just a ten minute walk away was Glenalbyn Bar, whose sign advertised it as being “the oldest pub on the west of the river.”  It seems that these days every pub has to claim that it’s the oldest in some category.  The place wasn’t particularly busy for a Friday night, but it seemed friendly enough, and it was difficult to argue against the accuracy of the sign once you had seen the interior decor and the clientele.  We were advised by the barmaid that it would be best not to take a seat in the large leather chairs by the corner of the bar since many people seemingly have a habit of falling asleep in them, but such was my brother’s and my confidence in our youth and the proximity of the seats to the bar that we felt we could risk it.  As it turned out, the leather chairs were fantastically comfortable and it’s likely that the only reason we didn’t doze off in them was because someone had put a Slipknot song on the jukebox.  In my list of places where I would least expect to hear heavy metal music, Glenalbyn Bar is right up there with Monster Fish & Chips, where we stopped in Fort Augustus earlier in the day and could hear the drumbeat from the car park.

The music was considerably better in MacGregor’s on Academy Street, where a man who was wearing a cream straw hat and a white tie with black musical notes played classic rock songs on the piano.  It was impossible to imagine that anybody ever comes to MacGregor’s just to hear this guy play, but there was at least a table of women who were seated in the corner near the door who lapped it up and I believe even convinced him to come back for an encore.  My favourite part of his performance was when he segued from Space Oddity into Rocket Man, a transition that was almost as smooth as the Cromarty beers on tap.  I told a couple of locals I met the next day about the pianist and they immediately knew who I was talking about.  That being said, they spoke of a chap who “looks scruffy but plays better than he dresses” which was not at all the impression I had of him.  Maybe the tie was a bit gimmicky, but as someone who has been known to match his pocket square to the colour of his socks, I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. 

By the time we returned back along the river at the end of the night, Storm Arwen had really taken hold. My blue corduroy jacket couldn’t be pulled tightly enough around my body to shield it from the biting winds, which according to reports had already forced the closure of much of the rail network in the north and east of the country. Small snowflakes were seemingly suspended in mid-air, caught up in a struggle between gravity and the storm force winds. It could have made for the perfect festive scene, against the backdrop of Christmas lights and the sight of the moon peeking out from behind black clouds over the shoulder of Inverness Castle, had it not been for the fact that the wind was reaching into the very core of my body and tormenting my bladder the way it was ScotRail’s timetable, which was making it dangerous to stop and admire the view.

Although the snow seemingly never did make it all the way to the ground in Inverness, the roads and towns on the outskirts of the city were full of it, adding to my niece’s excitement when we all visited Smyths toy store the next morning.  The shelves in this place were stacked so high that even if you craned your neck the way you would gaze up at the stars in the sky, you still wouldn’t see the very top.  Every shelf down every aisle was greeted with a breathless “oh wow!” from my niece. I could just about relate to how she was feeling:  Smyths is very much to a five-year-old toy lover as Oban Beer Seller is to a grown-up craft beer drinker.  

Even when we were sitting in the popular coffee chain next door recovering over a cup of extravagantly priced froth and she spied a young man walking in wearing a Smyths uniform it provoked a great deal of animation.  At the time I wondered at what age we lose that wide-eyed wonder for absolutely everything, but really, I don’t think that we actually do lose it – we just have to work harder at it.  Following the multiple lockdowns of 2020/21, I’ve been finding that I get a thrill from doing all the simple things that I probably took for granted before, such as standing at the bar in Aulay’s on a Friday night or going out for dinner with friends.  I was ecstatic upon finding a pair of green chinos when I was browsing in Next having arrived in Inverness to the realisation that I had only brought the trousers I was wearing.  It was the same twelve hours earlier in MacGregor’s when the pianist eased from Space Oddity into Rocket Man.

With a fresh head of steam gained from our mugs of milk and steam, we ventured forth to the Eastgate Shopping Centre, which was resplendent in Christmas lights and decorations of all shapes and sizes. There was an enormous sleigh suspended above the escalator, gift-wrapped presents dangling wherever you looked, stars, reindeer, and baubles the size of your head. As we approached the old part of the building, we were suddenly reminded of the Noah’s Ark clock which dominates the back wall. It is one of only six such automation clocks of its kind in the UK. Each hour a monkey climbs up to the top of a tree and chimes a bell in order to tell those shoppers who aren’t carrying smartphones what time of day it is, while a piece of organ music plays and some of the windows of the ark open out to showcase a different animal every hour. I think we got a pair of reindeer, which I don’t remember featuring in the original Biblical tale, but I suppose Christmas is a time for indulgence. At midday each day the clock embellishes us with an even more dramatic display when all of the windows are opened and the entire diorama operates. As children visiting the Eastgate Centre with our parents all those years ago we would sit patiently on the nearby benches for up to thirty minutes before the hour waiting to watch this event, as though waiting for the lights to come down at the theatre, and on a good shopping trip we might even see it a second time. In some ways, I think we were probably more excited about the clock than my niece was.

When my sister and Hannah carried on to go shopping at one of the larger outlets outside the city centre, it left my brother and me with the unplanned opportunity to go to the pub and watch the football scores on television, in a turn of events that I can only imagine as being similar to rounding a corner and finding a display full of L.O.L. Surprise dolls.  With the addition of a rare treble coming in for a grand winning of £11.35, it was just about the best Saturday ever.  

Those additional digits in my online betting account proved useful when my brother and I took a £30 taxi from Inverness out to the Cottage Bar & Restaurant in the village of Maryburgh, where we had reserved a table for dinner with my sister and the rest of our family.  Our driver was a friendly and talkative young fellow who professed that he had once driven the 66 miles from Inverness to Fort William in under an hour and a half.  Having never been behind the wheel of a car myself it was difficult to know how to react to such a claim, but I think we were supposed to be impressed.  If nothing else, we at least knew that we were probably going to arrive at the pub well before six o’clock, although it is probably the uneasiest my stomach has felt in the back seat of a car without having a bellyful of Smarties.

The Cottage is a cosy little family-run bar with further tables for dining out in the conservatory.   It was the perfect setting for catching up with family who we hadn’t seen for too many years.  I learned that my uncle is a huge fan of the four-piece Irish band U2, which for some reason surprised me.  It seems like the sort of thing you should know about a close relative, especially when we had seen them play on the same tour, albeit on different dates.  At the bar, over a pint of Cromarty’s wonderful local pale ale Happy Chappy, we even met a man who had left Oban more than forty years ago and worked with our grandfather in the hydro.  People from Oban have a habit of getting everywhere.  My attention was caught by an A4 poster on the wall behind the bar which was advertising the drawing of the monthly “meat raffle” due to take place that night.  I wondered what the letters M.E.A.T stood for, presuming that it must be an acronym for some cause benefitting the surrounding area, and thought of how funny it would be if customers were buying tickets for this lottery without realising that the prizes on offer were, in fact, entirely cuts of meat.

As I discovered when the barmaid arrived at the table during our meal with a book of raffle tickets, a meat raffle is exactly that – a drawing where the winners each receive a different piece of meat. I couldn’t believe it, though since my luck seemed to be in for the day I paid a pound for one ticket. If I had thought it through I would have realised that transporting any winnings back down the road on a three-hour car journey on Monday would have been ridiculous, but a pound stake for a steak seemed too good a deal to pass up. The draw was being held back in the main bar, and my sister took her daughter through to watch the ceremony. To my niece’s delight, she was invited to assist with the raffle – an important job that was seemingly no less exciting than an entire shop filled with toys. Within minutes she appeared back in the conservatory clutching a green ticket and the whole chicken that evidently my uncle’s wife had won. The same act was repeated moments later when Donna had the winning number for a joint of beef, at which point I began hoping that no one else from our table would win a prize. I worried how the whole scene might look to the regulars in the pub when this five-year-old was just so happening to pull out all of the tickets that were bought by the adults at her table. It was all I could do to imagine the front page of the following Monday’s edition of the Press & Journal: “Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme.” It would be impossible for us to show our faces at any fête or fundraising gala ever again. We were innocent, of course, but then everybody says that.

Sunday was the big day, the one in which we were scheduled to meet Santa, and it began with an unusual request.  We were due to meet our sister in the city centre sometime after 10:30 en route to making our way to Simpsons Garden Centre, however, our niece had awoken with a desire to wear a Christmas party dress like my sister and Hannah were kitted out in, and my brother and I were given the task of venturing across the river to Primark to pick one out.  Whilst I have amassed plenty of experience in shopping for chinos and corduroy trousers, I’m not as familiar with what I’m looking for in terms of dresses for a five-year-old girl.  I had never knowingly been in a Primark before, but it struck me as being the retail equivalent of international waters; a place transcending boundaries and laws.  There were some people who had clearly wandered in there without knowing where they were going and they couldn’t find their way back out.  Who knows how long they had been there.  Typically, the girls clothing section was as far away from the entrance as you could get.  To our surprise, there wasn’t an abundance of Christmas party dresses, and it took a bit of effort to find the two they had left in stock.  It didn’t take very long for me to become aware that we were two men in our late thirties wearing black masks, a dazed look in our eyes and doubtless the fragrance of stale Happy Chappy still clinging to my corduroy jacket, wading our way through the girls section of Primark at 10.30 on a Sunday morning.  I couldn’t help but feel that we were attracting curious glances from passing mothers, and not the sort of looks we’re usually hoping for.  Suddenly Monday’s Press & Journal was looking worse and worse.

Fortunately, of the two dresses Primark had one of them was in our niece’s size, and she was so delighted to receive it that she conducted an outfit change in the car park of Simpsons Garden Centre.  You don’t want to meet Santa without wearing your party dress, after all.  Before we could see the man in red we were taken through the virtual reality sleigh ride experience, though only after we had resolved some confusion caused by the fact that we had somehow booked tickets for two different dates.  We arrived at the right time but three-and-a-half weeks early for one slot and thirty minutes late for the second.  The elves were thankfully very understanding of our predicament and helped rearrange Santa’s entire schedule to accommodate us.  Our group of six was led through to sit in the large mechanical sleigh, where we were each handed a sanitised set of yellow goggles that felt as heavy as an Argos catalogue.  If I’d thought that I was going to be wrapping something like this around my head then I probably wouldn’t have spent so much time combing my hair before we left the flat.

The ride itself was probably more enjoyable for the adults amongst us, with the presentation taking us through the skies of cities such as London and New York City and then out into orbit, looking back down on planet Earth before guiding us to Santa’s workshop in the North Pole.  It was pretty cool, though it ended with one of Santa’s animated helpers informing us that we had failed the trial to join his team on Christmas Eve and that they were just going to carry on delivering presents themselves.  I don’t know, I felt like I could have done without a virtual reality failure being added to all of the real ones.  From there we walked through Santa’s living room, which had a human-sized taxidermied owl and an enormous bear dressed in a three-piece tweed suit sitting on a golden throne.  As far as feng shui goes, Santa’s energy is all over the place.

Meeting Santa was always a magical experience, I seem to remember.  It didn’t matter if one week he was big and jolly when dropping in to the primary school Christmas party and the next he had gone through a remarkable weight loss programme to greet children in the Caledonian Hotel, or if his whiskers had a distinct whiff of tobacco.  Our capacity for suspending disbelief when young is incredible.  The Simpsons Garden Centre Santa was on the short side, had little festive cheer to speak of around the stomach department and was clean-shaven on his cheeks, with only an explosion of fluffy white covering the front of his face like an oversized surgical mask.  He was very pleasant, though, and seemed to be following the How To Be Santa Claus manual to the letter.  Santa asked the usual questions about what my niece would like to receive from him on the 25th of December, what she would be leaving out for him to eat and drink when he visits on Christmas Eve and whether or not her house has a chimney.  Upon hearing that there is no chimney in my sister’s home, Santa showed us the key he uses to enter any house in the world that doesn’t have a fireplace for him to flop down into.  It was pretty big, probably as long as a good-sized television remote control – the sort of thing that would be a nightmare to find a replacement for in Timpsons if it was ever lost.  

Santa asked my niece about everyone who had come along with her to meet him, and when she reached my brother and me at the end of the room he paused.  On the desk before him were a few different sheets of paper, which Santa reached for.  He repeated our names and announced that, as he suspected, both of us were on his naughty list.  My niece found this greatly amusing and laughed out loud, whereas on the inside I was seething.  It seemed like an unnecessary slight on my character, particularly when one of my most proficient failures is my effort to get on anybody else’s naughty list.  I couldn’t understand where the garden centre Santa got off making such a statement, especially when he doesn’t have the powers to see everything as the actual Santa has.  Maybe if he had witnessed my part in the suspected ruse to defraud the Cottage Bar’s meat raffle of its two main prizes I could concede my place on the naughty list, but then nothing was ever proven, and by rights our entire family should have been struck from the nice list if that was the standard Santa was holding. 

Usually garden centres are a place of boundless optimism, filled with all of these beautiful plants that you look at and imagine how much colour and life they could bring to your home.  It is easy to believe that I might one day get around to taking care of a plant like the ones you see there, even if in reality it never happens.  My optimism was being stifled by Santa’s barbed comments, however, and I was finding it difficult to concentrate on anything else.  Even when Simpsons had an assortment of Christmas decorations as far as the eye could see and every fragrance you could think of, from scented candles to bath bombs to chocolate, I could think of nothing but the fake Santa’s announcement that I was on his fake naughty list.  Word was beginning to spread around that my niece had confided in my sister that Santa had probably put my brother and me on the naughty list due to all the wine we drink, which was the moment I realised that we were probably going to be stuck on his list forever, despite being told by him that we had around twenty-seven days to change our ways and be transferred to the nice list.

The episode was still playing on my mind when we went out for a couple of games of bowling at the Inverness Rollerbowl later in the afternoon.  Bowling, like seeing Santa, isn’t something that I had done since being much younger, and I could only hope that it would go better than that particular event.  Somehow the red and blue bowling shoes complimented my navy corduroy attire quite well, which made me feel more at ease with things.  I had never considered what a bowling look should be, but I think I pulled it off.  The shoes were actually so comfortable that I walked out of the place at the end of the night with them still on my feet and didn’t realise until my uncle pointed out my mistake.  Imagine adding the theft of a size 12 pair of bowling shoes to the shame of rigging a meat raffle and being caught wandering around the girls clothing section in Primark.  The woman behind the counter didn’t seem too perturbed when I walked back inside and confessed to my crime.  Apparently they see this sort of thing all the time, and often people will phone the alley when they get home and realise that they are still wearing the bowling shoes.

Away from the catwalk and onto the actual sport, my niece opened our game by knocking down nine pins with the very first bowl of her life.  Despite having the advantage of the bumpers that are available to children, she didn’t even need them on her second round when she rolled the ball straight down the middle of the lane and hit a strike.  Things were going so well for her that she was developing her own wee victory dance after every round she played.  I threw two gutters in my first round; the pins weren’t even close to being troubled, and everyone else was fairly terrible, too.  It was gutting.

I went up to the bar hoping that another beer would be the thing to help improve my hand-eye coordination.  It’s my experience that alcohol at least gives the illusion of developing better physical qualities.  The young woman who was tending bar had hair that was as dark as a stormy winter night, and as she poured my drinks I thought to ask if she could see the spectacle that was unfolding on lane 22.  I described the way that my five-year-old niece was giving us all a bowling lesson and how I had to get myself out of there after completely missing the pins with my first two attempts.  She laughed as I explained how all this had come after I was mercilessly dissed by the garden centre Santa.  “It sounds like you’re having a pretty bad day,” she said with the kind of sympathy that only a barmaid can have for a drunk bowler.  It is difficult to say with any certainty whether it was the beer or the sound of someone laughing at my jokes, but I returned to our game and found that I could suddenly bowl.  Within minutes I actually smashed a strike.  Throughout my life, I have become used to striking out, but this was different altogether.  

Although it was probably only in my head, things were beginning to heat up in a competitive sense. I could tell that my niece was starting to tire of the game as it reached the later rounds, as is always likely to happen when you’re five and there’s an arcade full of games to explore. The closer the margin between our scores narrowed, the more desperate I became to win. Perhaps the best thing for an uncle to do when it became clear that a competent final round would snatch a comeback win right out of the hands of his niece would be to roll the ball into the gutter and allow her to have the glory. Maybe anybody else would have done that. But the way I saw it, my niece would have forgotten all about whether she won or lost her first game of bowling by the time she fell asleep that night. It wasn’t like meeting Santa, exploring the vast aisles of Smyths toy store, drawing the tickets for a meat raffle, or even listening to a mixtape on a long car journey.

For me, on the other hand, winning a game of bowling – even against my five-year-old niece – was everything.  It would probably be the achievement I would remember years from now when everybody else I know is proudly talking about their career, their wife and their children.  So I picked up the medium-sized purple ball which had become my weapon of choice in this battle, strode up to the line and bowled a strike to win the game.  The garden centre Santa might have been right about me all along, but at least now I could justify it.

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.