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.

A chiropractor and a carpet fitter walk into a bar

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

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

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

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

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

Oban was shrouded with mist on Thursday morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

23 Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll bite your nose off!”

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

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

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

Dreams of vaccines and Swedish cider

Any time I have ever been part of a conversation where another person is talking in great detail about a dream they have recently had, I always listen on in awe and with some degree of envy.  I can very rarely if ever remember the content of my unconscious movies, and it seems unfair to me that people who are already living more interesting lives than mine when they are awake should also be having it better when they are asleep.  Things seem to have picked up in the weeks since I received my coronavirus vaccination, however.  I seem to be having a memorable dream every other night at the moment.  There’s no way of knowing if it’s just a coincidence that I’ve been having these vivid dreams since I got the jag or if the conspiracy theorists were right all along and Bill Gates has successfully installed some kind of a programme into my subconscious, but it’s the most activity my bed has seen in some considerable time.

The dreams I’ve been experiencing haven’t been anything that would keep an oneirologist occupied for too long.  They haven’t been signifying anything unusual as far as I can tell, nor have they been terrifying in any way.  One night I had visions of running into a long-lost friend in WH Smith, by the greeting cards, I think.  On another, I awoke in a panic after realising that I had drastically under-ordered cases of Nescafé coffee for a sales promotion in the Co-op and customers were getting riled up because they couldn’t get their favourite granules at a discount price, even though it has now been more than six years since I worked in the supermarket.  I saw myself go on a bicycle ride with a woman who I once liked, only for her to drop her bike to the ground and turn back because she had forgotten to wear a helmet.  

Most recently I turned up to a venue that I couldn’t identify for a meeting of the album club I am part of, only to discover that I had gotten my dates mixed up and there was a wedding dance taking place instead.  I wandered around the vast complex until I happened upon two guys that I recognised.  Even though they were two of the most boring people I know, I sat and had some drinks with them anyway.  One of the men bought me some Swedish cider with an unpronounceable name, which seemed like a slam since they know that I drink beer.  The cider was the colour of beetroot juice, and I could tell that I wasn’t enjoying it.  Someone questioned why I was wearing my new brown shoes and then I woke up, and all I could do was wonder why the fuck they had to bring my shoes into it.

Fingal’s Dog Stone

When bars and restaurants were finally able to resume serving alcohol indoors from 17 May, I could hardly stop thinking about returning to Aulay’s.  Outdoor drinking is all well and good, but you’re always liable to get caught in a shower as we did outside Bar Rio, and cocktail umbrellas are never going to be enough to help you.  May is usually one of the finest months of the year on the west coast of Scotland; thirty-one hazy days straddling spring and summer that are full of promise for the season ahead.  It is the chapter in the calendar that gets our hopes up for a summer heatwave, and although May often turns out to be as good as it gets, you can never know that at the time.  This year, however, when we could really have done with a May to get excited about, Scotland has experienced what is reckoned to be its coldest May in more than 40 years.  Recently there was even snow seen on the hills, and I’ve still been making pots of soup for my lunches.

Oban was becoming increasingly busy once further restrictions were lifted and people could travel to the town again.  One morning I saw around a dozen bicycles sitting against the wall of Costa Coffee, which seemed quite daring to me.  I’m reluctant to drink anything within an hour of making any kind of journey.  Things seemed just as busy on the water as on land.  There were seven people kayaking in the bay, and the sailing club had nine boats taking part in their Round Lismore race.  I watched as they made their way towards Maiden Island, looking so majestic and yet so fragile, just like us all, I suppose.  It seemed as though the vessels could topple over at any moment, but I imagined that the people who built them probably know what they’re doing.  I decided then that I enjoy watching things occur at sea, but I don’t really like being on the water.

I was looking forward to Friday night drinks in Aulay’s more than ever.  The bar had been closed since October, and for all that I loved our Zoom beer clubs, there is nothing like the feeling of being with friends in the pub.  I dressed in the burgundy suit that I could barely squeeze into in December 2019 but was now a perfect fit.  A few people had told me lately that I’m looking “lean” and I didn’t believe them.  I find it hard to hear anything positive about myself.  But it was hard even for me to ignore the fact that I didn’t have to take a sharp intake of breath as though I had witnessed something shocking every time I fastened the button of those burgundy trousers.  A year of lockdown yoga seemed to be paying off, and I felt good for being able to wear a suit that was similar in shade to a summer fruits cider.  My brother and I went to Aulay’s at the usual time, around eight o’clock, and I could see as soon as I walked in that the place was pretty busy.  We were told that there were no tables available, so we turned back and left.  It was a nightmare scenario, the sort I ordinarily wouldn’t even see in my dreams, but here it was in front of me.  A knockback from Aulay’s on a Friday night was somehow worse than all of the other knockbacks I have had.

We went down to the Oban Inn instead, and although they also didn’t have any tables inside the pub, we were able to grab one outside.  It was a cold night and the breeze from the sea made it uncomfortable.  Suddenly the pride I had been feeling over the burgundy suit seemed stupid and I felt ridiculously under-dressed for the conditions.  While it was worth it for a pint of Budweiser, I spent most of my time wondering how long it would take for my hands to turn the same shade as my cobalt blue tie.  The cold air and the crisp lager conspired to send me to the bathroom, where I took the urinal on the far-left of a set of three.  It was hard to know which I was enjoying more:  the relief of emptying my bladder or the relief from being inside for a few moments.  The sensation wasn’t something I was able to enjoy on my own for very long, as soon another guy entered the bathroom.  He took the middle urinal next to me, not the free spot on the other side.  I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  What would possibly drive anyone to make that decision?  

As I was pissing I could hear the man breathing loudly through his face covering.  I imagined that the scene is probably how it would have sounded if they had urinals on The Executor.  The man’s breathing was so emphatic that I worried there might have been something terribly wrong with him and it was going to fall on me to assist him when he collapsed to the floor of the toilet.  I couldn’t think of anything worse.  Was it really worth getting the vaccine just to go back to the pub and be forced into helping the kind of person who takes the middle urinal?  It’s amazing how quickly you can pee when you really want to.  When I returned outside, my brother was talking to two strangers about Scottish independence.  It’s true that so very little has changed since the last time the pubs were open.

I worried that the sailing boats looked so fragile they could topple over

On Saturday evening our luck changed and we were able to get a table in Aulay’s along with the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete.  Geordie Pete was having a real day of it.  He had been in watching the football earlier in the day and then left to go to the bookies and take care of some other things.  On his way back, he fell down the steps outside Aulay’s.  He wasn’t hurt any worse than a little scrape on his hand, and really, nobody would have known about it if he hadn’t confessed to it.  The two of us had a glasses swap when my brother went to the toilet in a bid to find out whether or not he would notice the change when he came back.  I could see nothing out of Pete’s glasses, which I think were varifocals, and he said that wearing mine was like looking through the bottom of a pint glass.  Everything the Plant Doctor and I said to my brother for the next couple of minutes was an eye pun, which eventually brought our shenanigans into focus.

The bar wasn’t as busy as it appeared the previous night, though it was somehow louder.  One table in particular was boisterous, their voices filled the bar and everything they were saying to each other was obviously hilarious going by how frequently and loudly they laughed.  It seemed unlikely that anything could be that funny.  Usually people are loud in the pub because they have to compete with the sound from a game of football on TV or the jukebox to be heard, but those things aren’t playing in the post-Covid world.  We wondered what it must be like to live with people like that.  It must be a constant wall of noise where words are just said and never understood in a continuous battle for volume.  We didn’t miss them when they left.

At another table was a pair of older women who struck an uncanny resemblance to the former Prime Minister Theresa May and the popular TV comedienne Jo Brand.  Jo Brand was probably the most striking lookalike of the two, and all I could do when I looked at the woman was remember how vocal dad was with his criticism of Jo Brand when we were kids in the 90s.  He would usually change the channel whenever she appeared on our television, and glancing across the bar at the lookalike made me wonder how he would have reacted if he had been there with us.  Closer to us was seated an elderly married couple who are often in Aulay’s.  Judging by their ages I would guess that they have been together for maybe thirty or forty years.  The wife always looks to be having a better time than her husband, who just seems to wish he was at home.  He commonly becomes upset whenever his wife talks to another man, and there are times when I’ve lost count of how often she calls him a “fucking bastard.”  It’s hard to imagine what their married life is like when they are sitting at the dinner table eating a meal, or on the sofa reading their newspapers.  I can’t believe that it’s anything like what we see.

We had a fun night back in Aulay’s.  It was almost as though the last seven months hadn’t happened at all and we were just carrying on from the weekend before.  Nothing had changed, other than the fruit machine being removed from the lounge bar to make space for another table, and the coat rack is now standing in front of the lifeless jukebox where we would once have stood.  If you hung a burgundy suit jacket on the rack it could have made a pretty good lookalike of me.  In these days of reduced capacity and shorter opening hours, it requires organisation and planning to have a drink in a pub, which kind of takes away the impromptu, throwing caution to the wind nature of a night out that I enjoy, but nobody really complains about that when they have a pint in their hand.  Going home at 10.30 almost makes you feel that you’ve gained a few free hours, that there is still time to do something useful, such as watching a film.  But it never works out that way.  I’ve fallen asleep every time I’ve tried watching something after the pub.  I just can’t stay awake.  The good thing, at least for now it seems, is that I’m having some dreams to make it worthwhile.

Umbrella

It is difficult to imagine that anything interesting or controversial ever happens in the car park of our local Lidl store.  The concrete space sits off the busy Soroba Road and is opposite a Londis filling station and the Lorn Medical Centre, with the Black Lynn burn running along its back; an ordinary rural supermarket car park.  Surely nothing remarkable occurs in these types of places –  unless you are the guy who recently completed his six-year quest to park in all 211 spaces in the car park of the Bromley branch of Sainsbury’s whilst compiling a spreadsheet ranking each of them.  Until I read that particular story when it came to national attention in April, I often worried that I was spending too much time worrying about the pointless minutiae of life.  Things like the length of time it would take for my socks to dry on a clothes airer, the pollen count, or the procedure for changing lightbulbs in a Victorian-era height light fitting.  I thought about how best to organise my tie rack, how I could use the can of chickpeas I had panic bought at the beginning of the first lockdown, and the hygiene of using a pedal bin versus a swing bin.  But it turns out that I’m not alone, and in a way I felt vindicated.

I don’t know if there is anyone in Oban who is keeping a spreadsheet of all of the spaces in the Lidl car park, but if there isn’t then it seems reasonable to assume that there is nothing of consequence taking place there.  That is until my own clandestine meeting there last week.  I received a text message from the Plant Doctor asking me if I would be available to meet him and the owner of the Arctic Fox car in the Lidl car park at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening since Arctic Fox was leaving for a new job in Edinburgh at the end of the week and she was wanting to present me with a leaving gift.  Traditionally it is the person who is leaving that receives gifts, not those who are left behind, but it seemed as though all norms had been thrown out the window by this point in 2021.  I spent the day wondering what Arctic Fox was going to hand over in Lidl car park.  A brightly coloured pair of socks, perhaps, since we had spoken about the importance of socks to me on occasion.  Maybe a selection of beers after witnessing how protective I was of my cans when I fell in the mud on Kerrera without spilling a drop, or a bag filled with tennis balls that the Plant Doctor and I could entertain ourselves with in her absence.

The car park was practically empty at 7pm, making it even less remarkable than usual, though at one point, as I was standing talking to Arctic Fox and the Plant Doctor, a shoe did come flying out of the passenger side window of an oncoming car, soon followed by a girl of primary school age who ran out to chase after it.  Arctic Fox was carrying an Amazon Prime box which was open at the top.  Inside I could see not socks or beers or even tennis balls, but six houseplants of various types.  She handed the box to me, a leaving gift that was effectively a box of mass murder.  It’s not as though Arctic Fox didn’t know about my dire history of failing to keep houseplants alive for any significant time:  on the flap of the box she had inscribed the words “it is okay if they all die.”

She and the Plant Doctor tried to employ scientific reason to make me feel better about the grave responsibility I had inherited.  They speculated that the plants might have a chance of survival since they will have safety in numbers, and that statistically at least one out of the six should be able to live, but I didn’t believe it.  It’s not like I was purposefully killing all of my houseplants or that I took any kind of enjoyment from their demise, it’s just something that happens when they come into my guardianship.  Over my life as a single occupant, I have learned that I am no better at knowing how to properly care for houseplants than I am at knowing what to do with a can of chickpeas.

I lined the six plants across the edge of my mantelpiece, alongside a couple of cactus plants that have been gathering dust for a while and the Crassula ovata succulent I had bought from Lidl last September just to bring my shopping to £25 so that I could use a £5 off coupon and which was grimly clinging on to life.  I was quite impressed with how the collection looked.  My favourite was the plant that Arctic Fox had been growing inside a bottle.  It was pretty cool, though most things that come in bottles tend to appeal to me.  Seemingly the plants would only need to be watered once a week, and while that news should have been welcomed by my lackadaisical approach to horticulture, in my mind it somehow made things more difficult.  You can get into a routine when you’re doing something every day, such as feeding a child or a cat.  Having to remember to water your plants one day every week seemed awkward, the sort of thing that would be best done by keeping a spreadsheet.  And who wants to be that kind of guy?

The health of my new houseplants has been on my mind quite a bit in the days since I was gifted them, though occasionally I have been distracted.  Every night on the Esplanade, at exactly the same point, I passed a pair of pigeons who were sitting on the sea wall, always doing nothing but just staring at one another.  It was impossible to say for certain that they were the same two birds, but they looked the same anyway.  The pigeons were absolutely lovestruck, and I found myself wishing that there was someone who would look at me the way these pigeons were gazing at each other.  I’ve heard of a doe-eyed look, but I had never seen this kind of doo-eyed look before.

Nearby, a few metres away from the romancing pigeons, an elderly couple were sitting on one of the benches which face out onto the bay.  Their shopping bags were spread out on the ground by their feet, Marks & Spencer, I think, and the woman’s walking stick was balanced against the arm of the bench.  She was leaning back into the chest of her partner, as though they were at home on their couch watching a film, and her right arm was stretched out in front of them holding a mobile phone.  Presumably she was taking a selfie of the two of them.  It was quite nice that they still felt that way about each other at their age, but it made me feel sad too.  The Esplanade is full of couples strolling side-by-side these days, and sometimes it gets tiring to see.  I think I preferred it when the only people who would be out were the joggers; even the guy who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in winter.  Apart from anything else, I think what bothered me most was the knowledge that the woman’s photograph won’t even have captured the beautiful sea view with the sunlight exploding off the water in front of them.  Instead it will just be the two of them cuddled together with the Corran Halls car park in the distance behind.  Though I guess, like the pigeons, they didn’t really care about what else was around them.

It wasn’t until I got my hair cut on Saturday morning that I was able to shed some of my cynicism, along with more hairs than I had ever had on my head.  A sign on the door of the barbershop says that customers have to phone a number to make an appointment in line with government guidelines, but it turns out that the number is for a phone that the barber only uses when he is away on holiday and it is never answered and you simply go inside and write your name and the time in a large book.  Business had seemingly been slowing down now that most people have had their first cut since restrictions eased, while some people are still cropping their own hair at home, and the barber reckoned that he probably wouldn’t really get busy again until weddings were allowed with more substantial numbers and women would insist that their partners get a proper haircut for the event.  It never ceases to amaze me how much wisdom there is to be heard in the barber’s chair.  I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on keeping houseplants, but I was meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Poppies and I didn’t think that I had the time to get into it.

With my new haircut and wearing my favourite pair of beige chinos, I felt a lot like a garden chair that is retrieved from the shed and dusted down in spring after spending the winter in storage when I went out for drinks with my brother and the Plant Doctor.  143 days had come and gone since I last had a pint of lager poured from a pub tap, and nothing tasted better.  There wasn’t a table to be had outside Markies or the Oban Inn, so we settled for a seat at Bar Rio, which looked quite nice with its new wooden plant boxes enclosing the outdoor drinking area from the rest of the pavement.  It was a good spot for people-watching.  The weather wasn’t especially inviting for a beer garden with overcast skies, though it was dry and reasonably mild and we had spent the best part of five months indoors.  We deserved a drink.

Barely an hour had passed when a drop of rain fell from the sky and landed on the knee of my chinos.  Such is the way of these things it was swiftly followed by a crescendo of the stuff.  There was nothing we could do about it, not when we had bought another round of drinks, though the guy at the table next to us went inside the restaurant and ordered two cups of tea since they could be consumed indoors.  From our vantage point we could see everyone across the street in the Oban Inn desperately trying to squeeze under the canopy.  The Plant Doctor quipped that we should be drinking cocktails so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas, and when it came time for me to order our next round of beers I couldn’t help but steal his joke when the barmaid arrived at our table.  With her mask it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually get when I try to make a woman laugh, but her eyes suggested that she enjoyed the line.  A few moments later, the barmaid returned to our table with a small plastic box of the wee cocktail umbrellas and offered us our choice, which made us very happy.

The rain didn’t last terribly long, though the shower was heavy enough to leave us soaked and to water my Tennent’s Lager down from a 4% to a 3.9% ABV.  Ordinarily such an experience might have left us feeling miserable, but after a year of almost nothing but misery, it was hard to be upset over a little rain.  We dried out pretty quickly, and once we started drinking White Russians along with our beers, the whole world seemed to be singing and all the colours had come out.  I couldn’t believe that I had lived for 37 years without trying one of those before.  Seemingly when I arrived home after the ten o’clock curfew I planted the pink cocktail umbrella in the soil of one of my houseplants.  It’s funny trying to decipher the crazy way that the heavily intoxicated mind works.  The little umbrella wasn’t likely to make it any easier for me to remember to water the plants, and it wouldn’t protect them from the shower that probably isn’t going to come any better than it kept the rain out of my lager.  But still, it was nice to look at.

Skimming the surface (part one)

Even after a thrilling Easter weekend escapade on the island of Kerrera and even after discovering that, despite my worst fears, my washing machine is in perfect working order, I haven’t been feeling especially happy of late.  It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but I figured that it’s due to a combination of lockdown fatigue and the annual reminder that I suffer from hayfever.  It’s amazing the way that it always takes me by surprise when around the same time every April my eyes start to itch and my nose is streaming more than an addictive docuseries on Netflix.  It’s reminiscent of going into Lidl and picking up a jar of paprika because of a nagging feeling in the back of the mind that says you are out of it, only when you take it home and open the kitchen cupboard there is already a full one on the shelf and you are left with two of them, their powder as red as your eyeballs.

Around the middle of April, I started checking the pollen count every morning as part of my daily routine, mostly out of boredom but also because I was interested to know which days I was likely to suffer the most.  The Met Office website forecasted that it was ‘high’ during that week, though I still didn’t really understand what a high pollen count is or how people actually measure such a thing.  Most days it said that the main type of pollen in the air was birch and some willow, which was only useful for telling me that I was going to have to go and figure out which type of tree it is I am allergic to.  It seemed an inescapable truth that sometimes life is a birch.

My gloomy outlook wasn’t helped by yet another failed foray onto the smartphone dating application Tinder.  It is extremely rare that my use of the app ever results in me being matched with another woman, but on one afternoon in April I received notification of two separate matches.  The first young lady immediately messaged me with a red heart emoticon, to which my natural response was to comment on how I could “remember when those used to come as little candies with messages on them.”  She unmatched me right away.  The second young woman, who was named Kerys, had all of the physical attributes that I like in a person:  a symmetrical face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth.  I sent Kerys a message expressing my surprise at being matched with someone like her, though the truth was that I was surprised to be matched with anyone at all.  

She responded by saying that “U look like an interesting person :)” and I wondered what that meant.  What makes someone look like an interesting person?  It bothered me.  Was I interesting in the same way that I visited the Museum of Ireland – Archeology when I was in Dublin in 2017 because it was a rainy afternoon and it looked like an interesting way to pass the time?  A man who has tattoos and piercings all over his face looks interesting, but it was difficult to see how my Tinder profile picture could be in the same category.  I thanked Kerys without really knowing what I was thanking her for and told her that we would see if I could maintain her interest beyond two messages to back that up.  “Don’t be silly!  I’m interested in getting to know you xx” she swooned.  Her attitude towards me seemed unusually positive, and I figured that I would try and learn a little more about her by asking about the fact that her Spotify anthem was the song Dreams by Fleetwood Mac.  I haven’t heard from her since.

The Tinder snub didn’t bother me that much, but it was a small symptom of a larger malaise.  During one of my walks along the Esplanade after work, I observed as a seagull stood patiently on the pavement by the side of a parked car, its little head tilted upwards towards the passenger door.  I wondered what it was up to.  As I neared it became clear that there was a couple eating their chip shop dinner in the car, such is the way of ‘eating out’ in the lockdown age, and the seagull was behaving the way a dog does when it sits at the foot of its dining owner.  Even when I approached to within a metre or two of the bird it remained unmoved.  It never flinched.  Rather than the seagull being scared off by my approaching footsteps, I was the one worrying about why the gull was not intimidated by my gait.  What does it say about me when even a seagull isn’t taking any notice of my existence?

More than ever I was craving the lifting of lockdown restrictions.  It was obvious that I was spending too much time in my own company thinking about seagulls and pollen counts, and maybe the fucking seagulls are spreading the pollen.  I was worried that if things went on this way for much longer my eyes would grow used to the gloom.  Though the same was probably true of everybody.  All over Oban, people were preparing for the 26th of April when the country would move into level 3 and non-essential shops and outdoor hospitality could open for the first time in 2021.  Everywhere you looked buildings were receiving a fresh coat of paint and beautiful flower baskets were being hung, ready to woo the expected influx of visitors to the town.  It felt like the day of the high school Christmas Jingles when people would spend their time fretting about their clothes and hair ahead of the big night.  Though just like at the Jingles, where there was always one kid who wore a truly horrendous outfit that everyone would talk about for days, Oban’s spring reawakening had its own visual atrocity in the form of the newly purchased and renovated Regent Hotel.  

The 1930s art deco architecture of the hotel had always made it one of my favourite buildings in Oban and it was sad seeing it fall into a state of disrepair when the pandemic forced it and a few other hotels in town out of business last year.  Encouragingly it has recently come under new ownership, and like many other properties, it was repainted in advance of the 26th.  Unfortunately the classic understated light cream shade was replaced with a sickly yellow coat with red flashes between the windows.  One poster on the Information Oban Facebook group described it as “looking like a dirty tampon” but in my mind it was more similar to a plate of undercooked oven chips which have been smothered in ketchup in an effort to make them more palatable.  Either way, it wasn’t a good look.

Safety was very clearly the message of the moment in the week leading up to the next phase in the lifting of restrictions.  Around town – in the North Pier car park, at the station and along the Esplanade – there were large boards warning people to “avoid crowds” and reminding folk that they were to maintain a two-metre distance from one another.  Some of them were wrapped around lamposts like a dress.  There were also much smaller public information items found on most lamposts that were illustrated with two stick figures who were walking at a pace, presumably, two metres apart with the wording “keep a safe space”.  The same posts were already fashioned with Scottish National Party colours ahead of the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections.  All around town the message was clear:  Vote SNP, but form an orderly and socially distanced queue to do so.

On the final Saturday of lockdown as we knew it, it was a perfectly sunny day and evening, the sort that would perfectly illustrate why someone should visit Oban during spring – only no one could yet.  With the new rule of six people from different households being able to meet up outdoors already in action, we took the opportunity to hold the next edition of our album club in the garden of a bird enthusiast.  His residence near McCaig’s Tower had an almost unobstructed view of the entire bay if you were tall enough to see over the branches from the trees, which fortunately I was.  When the sun began to set behind Kerrera it turned a regal purple, a colour I can’t remember seeing so vividly before.  It was the most scenic album club we had put together.  If hosting these meetings on Zoom over the past year was like watching a poorly shot indie film that didn’t have the budget to hire a hairstylist, then this was the Oscars.  It wasn’t our first Jingles.  We sat drinking beers, gin and whisky in the garden until close to two in the morning, kept warm by a fire bucket that had been lit and maintained so expertly by the bird enthusiast and a doctor of words that we could easily have been discussing a popular song by Keith Flint’s former band.

I had walked to the album club meeting with the doctor of words, and we were surprised by the almost total absence of noise from the surrounding gardens in the area, especially considering that it was such a glorious night and larger groups could now socialise outdoors.  Near the Tower we passed the marine biology student who before the pandemic was occasionally a barmaid in Aulay’s.  I stopped to talk to her for a few minutes, always delighted for an opportunity to tell somebody about our geeky club.  The doctor of words said that the marine biology student seemed excited to see me and suggested that I should pursue something, but I didn’t believe her.  I think that it’s just been so long since all of us have seen other people that it’s exciting to see anyone and to be able to talk to them face-to-face.  It could also have been the fact that I was carrying my cargo of beers in a New Yorker tote bag.  I don’t take the bag out often, but whenever I do it usually seems to attract compliments, as though other people see it and automatically assume that I must be intelligent and funny and someone who is worth talking to, when the truth is that my brother had once gifted me with a one-year digital subscription to the magazine and the tote bag came as a reward.  Still, I quite liked the fact that people noticed the bag and seemed to appreciate it.  I’m considering taking a photograph of the tote bag and using it as the main picture on my Tinder profile.

With non-essential retail open again, I was finally able to go shopping for a new pair of brown shoes.  I had been in desperate need of one since my favourite pair had begun to fall apart before Christmas.  Having only black shoes in my wardrobe severely limited my options when it came to deciding which outfit to wear on a daily basis.  It was hard not to see how being unable to wear my brown tweed suit, for instance, wasn’t contributing to the gloom I had been feeling.  The shoe shop seemed reasonably busy – there were maybe two or three other customers – and it didn’t feel any different to any other time.  I went straight upstairs to browse the men’s footwear, where being met by row after row of neatly buffed smart dress shoes was everything I could have hoped it would be.  I don’t know if it’s possible to immediately fall in love with a pair of shoes the first time you see them, but there was one particular pair of Josef Seibels that I at least wanted to take out for a drink to find out if there was something there.

I took the shoes downstairs to pay for them, though my route to the till was obstructed by an elderly man who was preparing to try on a pair of his own.  He had as many as three different sets sprawled out across the ground in front of him, and his legs were as thick as tree trunks, making it impossible to walk around him as he sat there on the chair.  I stood with my new shoes dangling from the index and middle fingers of my right hand, watching as this large old man used a cane to help him rise from the seat.  Everything seemed to be happening in agonising slow motion.  His foot looked to be wider than any foot I had ever seen and it was difficult to see how it was going to fit into any of the shoes he had chosen.  Sure enough, the first shoe he managed to get his foot into was said to be too tight.  “Should I try the other one anyway?”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Why would you think to try on the left shoe when you already know that the right doesn’t fit?  It was all I could do to keep from inviting him to try on my shoes as well.  I couldn’t help but think that the old man was worse than the seagull I had seen on the Esplanade, completely unmoved by my presence.  Fortunately the shop assistant recognised my plight after not too long, and she cleared the shoes aside to give me enough space to pass.  As she was processing my purchase I noticed an A4 sign behind the counter advising the shoe store employees of all the occasions when they should wash their hands:  before starting their shift, before making a sale, after making a sale, that sort of thing.  It filled the entire page.

There was something almost inevitable about the dramatic drop in temperature and the return of overcast skies in the week that pubs could serve alcohol outdoors for the first time since December.  Although it was cloudy and not nearly as warm as the previous week, it was at least still dry when our Zoom beer club met up in person for the very first time.  Folk had come from Campbeltown and Glasgow for the occasion, which coincided with the scientist from Swansea University who has strong opinions on shoelaces celebrating his fortieth birthday.  Since the town’s beer gardens and restaurants were packed out with people taking advantage of the May bank holiday weekend, we were happy to take our beers and sit on the grassy area overlooking the RNLI lifeboat station, which would have been a fortuitous location should any of us have fallen into distress from the magnitude of the event.  Despite the cool night we never seemed to find it too cold up on the hill, though some of us did spend as much time kicking a football around the area as we did drinking our beers, so we might have been warm from that.  It’s remarkable how much joy playing with a football brings to a group of thirty-something-year-old men.

We spent several hours up there, just drinking beers, eating Space Raiders and punting the football, and it wasn’t really any different to when we would talk online; just better.  After a while, we were joined by three young ladies who were looking for somewhere to go after the beer gardens had closed.  I liked the fact that after hearing all about my ineptitude with the opposite sex every Friday for the last year the other members of the beer club could witness me conjuring these three young women to join us, even if it didn’t really mean anything more than them wanting a place to drink their Smirnoff Ice.  Two of the women were already known to the Plant Doctor and me after our last night out in The Lorne before Christmas.  We had grown into a large group, but it was fun, reminiscent of the days when you could go to the pub and meet different people.  On a bench further along the hill two guys were sitting playing guitar and smoking cigarettes.  They joined us later in the night after admitting that they were initially sceptical because they believed that we looked and sounded like a group of socialists from Glasgow University.  When you saw me in the tweed outfit that I was finally able to wear for the first time in months and the scientist with the strong opinions on shoelaces looking resplendent in a brilliant tweed blazer, the type which just demands a smoking pipe, it was easy to see how they came to that conclusion.

It turned out that the guys were former heroin addicts who have since found God, though they were reluctant to take song requests on their guitar.  They did at least allow the red-haired biologist in our group who actually is from Glasgow to strum a few notes, however.  One of the chaps seemed to take something of a shine to me and I spent a bit of time talking to him, though it was more of a wandering monologue than an actual conversation.  Some of his experiences and stories belonged in a book, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest that I have the stomach to write such a thing.  At the end of the night, after we cleared away our cans and debris, we went our separate ways from the guests who had briefly joined us and made our way home.  The streets were calm and still, allowing us the opportunity to play football on the road, as though we were kids in the 1970s.  We agreed that whatever expectations we had for the night couldn’t have been anything like the Friday we actually experienced.  Things immediately seem a lot less gloomy when you’re amongst good company, drinking beers and booting a football around the grass, meeting new people and hearing campfire tales you otherwise wouldn’t have if you were at home reading the pollen forecast.  We parted with the promise that we would all meet up again the following afternoon to take a trip down to Easdale Island, where a whole new set of experiences would be had. 

The second part of this story will be published in a week or so.

An endless cycle

It isn’t often that I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in class during science lessons, but that was the case recently when I was taking a walk by the seafront and noticed that the tide was much lower than usual and didn’t know why.  Sometimes it would be nice to have the answer to a generic piece of trivia without having to remember to Google it when I get home.  It took me longer than I had hoped that weekend to find my way to a website detailing A Beginners Guide to Surfing in Newquay where I learned that in addition to the usual daily high and low tides, twice a month there is a variation in the size of these tides known as a spring tide which occurs around the full moon.  This went some way to explaining why there didn’t appear to be as much water around the bay as normal, but not some of the unusual items that had been revealed to have been washed ashore.  Cast amongst the usual pieces of driftwood, empty drinks cans and bottles, and polystyrene food containers was a red Vileda mop handle, as though a party cruise had run aground and the clean-up crew had gone with it.  Further along the shore, beyond a hillwalking boot that was abandoned on the slipway, and tangled in chains of seaweed, was a small plastic doll; stranded, helpless, stripped bare of all of its clothing.  It was difficult to ignore this doll as being the perfect metaphor for our collective experience in the continued lockdown.

Oban’s online community seemed to be occupied by the pungent stench of diesel fumes that was wafting up from the bay and across the town.  The smell was deeply embedded in the atmosphere and seemed to cling to the hairs of your nostrils all the way from one end of the Esplanade to the other.  Toxic rainbows could be seen gathered on the surface of the water.  For an entire week, there was great concern about where the diesel had come from and what was being done about it, but I don’t think that anybody ever got to the bottom of the mystery, and even now the stuff still seems to linger in the air like some misbegotten courtship.

The appearance of the diesel in the bay was not unlike the relentless sense of melancholy that had seemingly washed over me in the days leading up to Easter.  I didn’t know where it had come from or how I could shake it, though part of the feeling was undoubtedly due to a disappointing laundry experience during the week, which in truth wasn’t all that different to every other episode of laundry.  I can think of nothing more mundane than putting my clothes in the washing machine.  Some weeks I will need two separate loads of laundry just to clear the basket in my bedroom, but if I can get away with doing only one and still have enough clean underwear and a reasonable variety of coloured shirts to get me through the week, then I will. 

Part of the reason for the washing machine becoming my greatest nemesis of all the home appliances was the slow drying sock saga which plagued me for several months after I became a single occupant.  Despite being the smallest item of all the garments on my clothes airer, the socks hanging on the bottom tier always took longer than anything else to fully dry.  Sometimes it would be days before I could put them back in their drawer, and I could never understand what the reason for that was.

As I mentioned my concerns to people, more of them were suggesting that I should try running two spin cycles after the main wash instead of one.  It seemed to make a bit of a difference, and I felt pretty sheepish for not thinking of the life hack myself.  With hindsight, it was so simple, though I tried telling myself that it’s the sort of thing you could never know for yourself without a little guidance, just like nobody knows the meaning of the word ‘ambedo’ or why the tide is so low at the end of March without Googling it.

Last week was shaping up to be a two-load week of laundry since it seemed to be a good idea to take advantage of the long Easter weekend and start afresh with a full wardrobe the following week.  I followed my usual routine and filled the washing machine with clothes before I left for work on Thursday morning; ran the first spin cycle during my lunch hour and the second when I arrived home in the evening.  As my dinner was cooking I went to unload the clean clothes; and one by one I pulled the garment from the machine, slowly realising that they were no wetter than when I threw them in that morning.  Some of the shirts still had the smell of my aftershave on the collar.  I couldn’t understand why the clothes were so dry – or why I was still pulling them out of the washing machine and hanging them on the airer.  By the end of it all, the airer with the unwashed clothes was resembling the most depressing looking mannequin known to man, standing there in the centre of the kitchen modelling my disappointment.  The only explanation I could think of for the dry clothing was that the washing machine was broken, which was surely the worst thing that could happen to a person at Easter.  I furiously cursed my rotten luck.  It wasn’t so much a Hotpoint as it was a boiling point.

For the entire weekend the mannequin stood fully dressed in my kitchen, where I stepped around it and yearned for the days when my socks wouldn’t dry.  There was nothing to be gained by leaving the clothes out on display on the airer, but I didn’t know what else I could do with them.  It would have been ridiculous to hang them in the wardrobe amongst the other clothes which had already been through a successful wash, while returning them to the laundry basket felt like it would have been akin to admitting that the whole weekend was already a failure; the only plan I had made for the Easter break turning to a complete farce.  Besides, there was a part of me that was questioning if there even was a farce at all.  I couldn’t stop from wondering if I had set the clothes to wash in the first place.  It seemed like classic denial, but the more I thought about it I couldn’t remember actually pushing the button on Thursday morning – though I couldn’t remember not doing it, either.  There was no way of knowing for sure if I had programmed the machine correctly.  Over the weekend I managed to talk myself into believing that the washing machine might not be broken after all, with the result being that I decided to give the load a second attempt on Easter Sunday morning.  I pressed the ‘start’ button with more conviction than I had ever pushed any other button in my life, as though I was John Locke in the hatch, and when I stepped back and watched the drum fill up with water it was the most joy I had felt in a long time.

Two years earlier I had witnessed an Easter miracle as my brother and his then pub nemesis Brexit Guy exchanged a handshake at the bar in Aulay’s, though it seemed like a different lifetime altogether when reminisced against the backdrop of a second Easter spent in lockdown.  Good Friday was a beautiful day in Oban, and the whole weekend was forecast to enjoy wall-to-wall sunshine.  In times gone by such a thing would have seen tourists flock into the town.  Pubs and beer gardens would have been a pulsing mass of life, cafes and restaurants would have been busier than ever, and the local shops and attractions would surely have done a roaring trade.  It was difficult not to think about the way things used to be, particularly when the highlight of my own weekend was promising to be a 59p packet of six hot cross buns from Lidl and a jar of strawberry jam.  

When my washing machine dilemma suddenly made things seem much bleaker on Thursday night, I decided that I would join the Plant Doctor and the owner of the Arctic Fox for some al fresco beverages on the picnic table at the grassy area by the sailing club the following evening.  Considering that it was a sunny bank holiday, the scenic spot was far quieter than I was expecting it to be.  For most of the time we spent at the location there was only one other group who were seated at the table further down the shore.  There were around four girls, who we presumed were in their late teens from the bottle of wine they were sharing, and a tall male who was fashionably outfitted.  I immediately envied the scarf he had draped luxuriously around his neck, especially when the bitter breeze crawling up from the sea announced itself shortly after we had arrived.  The group had a Bluetooth speaker which was loudly playing modern hip-hop music, the sort of sound that was completely lost on a trio in their thirties.  I imagined how differently things could have been if we had brought a wireless stereo of our own and played the songs of Elliot Smith, for example.  The sort of duelling musical tastes that you see in the movies.  It seems unlikely that we would have won the youths over, however.  They appeared to be too drunk – the happy sort of drunk – to truly enjoy Elliot Smith, and besides, what chance would there have been of seeing another Easter miracle so soon after the handshake in the pub?

We had alternative forms of entertainment at our disposal all the same, such as the tennis ball Arctic Fox had in her backpack.  Where some other people like to carry a book of Sudoku puzzles or a hairbrush wherever they go, Arctic Fox always has a fresh tennis ball in her possession.  She told us once that she mostly carries it in the hope of finding a dog who she can play with, but on this occasion the Plant Doctor and I were more than happy to be thrown the ball.  The three of us gleefully kicked the tennis ball around the slope of grass, using a bench as a makeshift set of goalposts, and nothing made us happier than when one of us could head the ball, although the nearby teenagers appeared to be unmoved.  When we weren’t displaying our athletic prowess we were back at the table creating quizzes based on the pub snacks the Plant Doctor had brought with him, challenging each other to arrange packets of beef jerky, pork scratchings and bacon fries by salt content, expiration date or which didn’t contain MSG.  I believe that we each won a round, though it was difficult to see any of us as winners.  

Despite us not being at the sailing club long enough to even get notably drunk, we did somehow manage to agree that we would all take a trip to the island of Kerrera the next afternoon since it was forecast to be another beautiful day.  Ordinarily I would have made any excuse to get out of an outdoor excursion of this sort, but when the alternative was spending a Saturday at home with an airer of unwashed clothing it was difficult to say no.  We decided that we would convene at 12.15 pm so that the Arctic Fox could drive us around the coast to Gallanach, where the passenger ferry was scheduled to set sail at 12.30, since she would be the only one of the three of us who would be sober, or who can legally drive a car.  It was a bit of a rush to get prepared in the morning after the Plant Doctor and I had been involved in one of our Zoom recreations of the pub until 3am, but we somehow managed to make it for the designated time; not especially bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, but carrying bags filled with beer all the same.  After waiting several minutes for the Arctic Fox to arrive downstairs, we discovered that she wasn’t even nearly ready to leave since she didn’t believe that we would actually go through with the plan when we were sober.  Given the lessons of history we couldn’t blame her for not having much faith in the pair of us, and we decided to catch the next ferry instead, though we would have to wait until two o’clock for it.  Looking back on it, it should have been a foreboding sign of things to come, but the Plant Doctor and I just walked along to the sailing club and opened our first beer of the day without a care.

The crossing to Kerrera takes less than five minutes and there were maybe another five passengers on the small ferry, which can carry a maximum of twelve people the short distance between the two slipways.  We noticed that one of the passengers was accompanied by a small dog that rather sadly only had three legs, and watched as it bounded off the vessel with more poise and assurance than the Plant Doctor and I had, despite us only being two or three beers in by that stage.  All of the other pedestrians took a turn to the left of the classic red telephone box while the three of us headed for the hills.  It wasn’t long before we were presented with a fork in the single-track path, and the responsibility of deciding which direction we would take was bestowed upon me, which seemed to me to be like the point in a low budget horror film when a quiet stroll in the hills leads to the unsuspecting group being massacred, all because they listened to the least experienced person in the group.

Fortunately for us, the only vaguely horrific sight was that of a duck that appeared to have a badly deformed spine, but it seemed to be happily quacking away and didn’t look to have any intentions of killing us.  As we continued on our way up our chosen path we also saw some pigs, rabbits and cows to add to our nature checklist alongside the couple of red squirrels we had encountered by the side of the road in Oban.  And, of course, we saw plenty of sheep.  There are surely many more sheep than there are people living on the island of Kerrera, though curiously for all their numbers we didn’t hear them baa all that often.  The Plant Doctor enjoyed trying to talk to the sheep, frequently addressing them as Sheila or Barbara.  It was difficult to tell how the animals felt about this, though most of the time they would simply stand there and urinate or shit in the grass soon as they heard his voice.  I had never seen such an effect, and it caused me some concern to think about how things might go once we are finally able to socialise with other people.

Our decision to follow the path we did was eventually rewarded when we reached the top of the hill and were treated with an exceptional view across Mull and Lismore and to the hills which produce a breathtaking backdrop to Oban.  It could hardly have been a clearer day and we could see it all.  The sea was an unspoiled marvellous blue, resembling a bucket of marbles that have been strewn across a big blue carpet.  Lismore Lighthouse looked as though it could have been sketched onto the horizon with a piece of chalk.  Apart from the sound of the wind rasping through the blades of grass, it was absolute serenity up there.  For a moment, as we stood and drank it all in along with a swig of lager from our cans, it was almost as though the world had stopped and the last year hadn’t happened at all:  there was no pandemic, no lockdown, no broken down washing machine. 

As we continued our trek around the island we were able to add yet more creatures to our wildlife checklist:  some guillemots, a boisterous bullfinch and a couple of Canadian geese who were basking in the still sea.  I was busy wondering how the Plant Doctor and Arctic Fox, who are both marine biologists, could tell where the geese had come from when I noticed the water ripple with disturbance in the distance.  The scientists knew immediately that the commotion was being caused by an otter, which greatly excited us since it was the first time that any of the three of us had seen one in the wild.  We watched as the otter tried its best to be discreet in sizing up the geese, hanging out in the background, waiting for the right moment to make its move.  It had gotten it all wrong, however, as the birds seemed to catch wind of the impending trouble and squawked their way to the safety of the shoreline.  The otter continued to linger in the background, but it was more out of hope than expectation.  It was a scene I was quite familiar with.

While the otter sighting was probably the most thrilling thing we saw during our time on Kerrera, there were many interesting discoveries along the way.  It was almost disconcerting the number of bones or pieces of bone that we found around the island, yet it is impossible to see a bone on the sand and not feel a desire to pick it up and examine it and question what type of mammal it had come from or which part of its body it used to belong to.  As far as quizzes go, it was a level above guessing the salt content of a packet of pork scratchings – yet all things considered, not markedly different.  On the beach at the south end of the island we also stumbled upon an old wooden shipwreck which looked to be in pretty good condition considering that it had probably been there for some time.  Off the coast, the back end of Mull was shrouded by a cloak of mist as the ocean spray from the tide was caught in the sunlight.  It made for quite an impressive visual, even if the scenic view was similar to viewing a beautiful photograph through smudged glasses lenses.

Navigating our way around the island wasn’t always easy.  The terrain in some parts was tricky to negotiate, particularly as we were rounding the southern loop, where the path became less obvious or was sometimes over-run with water and mud.  The grass verges were often deceiving, and if you weren’t careful you could easily lose a foot in there.  What looked like steady ground would turn out to be a soggy ditch that challenged our balance, especially for the Plant Doctor and me, when we were essentially handicapped by the fact that we had a beer in one hand the whole way round the place.  We fell on our posterior a couple of times apiece, though fortunately the evidence of our failures would quickly dry in the sun.  It was in those moments when we were gathering ourselves back to our feet, beer can held aloft, protected from coming to any harm like it was the most valuable thing in the world, that we understood why that one couple we had passed on our travels a couple of hours earlier were dressed for the serious pursuit of walking.  They were in athletic wear and had sensible footwear; their rucksacks with water bottles cradled in the side pockets as opposed to the cans of Tennent’s Lager that weighed down my New Yorker tote bag.  Arctic Fox said that I was dressed like a professor who is on the run from some tremendous scandal, while the Plant Doctor resembled a well-educated biker with his leather jacket and sunglasses, and with the benefit of hindsight and a pair of dirty jeans, it is easy to see why it wasn’t the wisest decision to dress the way we did.

After those many traumas we could finally see Gylen Castle on its rocky peninsula in the distance, which was the ultimate aim of our trip.  From afar, the architecture of the old ruin appeared to have some unusual quirks, not least of all the odd-looking tower on the side of the structure that looked so out of place with the rest of the design that it gave the impression of being an afterthought, sort of like adding a pink pocket square to a brown tweed suit.  We were debating whether we had enough time to climb the steep hill to reach the castle considering that the last ferry back to Oban was leaving at 5.55pm, but it seemed foolish to come all this way and not see the one thing we had planned on seeing, so we agreed to make it quick.  As we were making our way up the hill we discussed which part of our body usually begins to hurt first after a sustained period of physical exertion, which had a similar kind of purpose as participating in a sponsored fast and entering into an argument about your favourite pizza topping; it wasn’t helping anybody.  Gylen Castle was built in 1582 by Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie but was only occupied for around seventy years before it was attacked and left a ruin by Covenanter forces.  On our way up the side of the hill, with my calves making more noise than the local sheep and my beer can clutched precariously in my right hand, I wondered why anybody would have the idea to build their home on such high and remote ground, but I guess it turned out that the castle wasn’t high enough.

Having accomplished our goal of seeing the castle, we meandered back down the hill buoyed by our achievement and began making our way back to the jetty where we would catch the ferry home.  It was after five o’clock and we had no way of knowing how far away we were or how long the route back would take, but at that point we were only interested in toasting our success with another of our beers, which were becoming as warm as our foreheads.  As we were strolling past one of the few houses we saw on the day a man shouted out after us from the garden, his face obscured by shrubbery and the glare of the sun.  “Are youse on the way to the ferry?”  He was presumably able to tell from our inappropriate footwear and the state of the Plant Doctor’s and my jeans that we weren’t residents of the island, and we confirmed that to be the case.  “Youse had better start running!  You only have forty-five minutes, and it won’t wait for you!”  We thanked the kind stranger as our panic began to set in, knowing that he most likely wouldn’t have felt it necessary to warn us in this way if we were a ten or even a thirty-minute walk from our destination.

As we picked up the pace from a dawdle we began discussing our contingency options if we failed to make it to the slipway in time to catch the last ferry.  We would have to beg one of the locals to put us up for the night, likely the same man who had warned us about the fading time, probably to avoid such a situation from arising.  It was suggested that we could send a scout to run ahead and somehow convince the ferryman to hold the sailing for us, but what good would that really have done us considering our athletic display with the tennis ball at the sailing club the previous evening and our ill-footing throughout the day on this trip?  What could we reasonably say to the ferryman when two of the three of us had the appearance of drunks who have wandered into a wind tunnel, looking no different to the airer of unwashed clothes in my kitchen?  No matter how hard we power walked, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the jetty, and even the upturned wooden boat that we spied on the shore was being considered as an option to get us home.

Despite all of the great things we had seen:  the red squirrels, the Canadian geese, the otter, the chirping bullfinch, Gylen Castle, and all of the stunning scenery; in addition to the laughs we enjoyed along the way, it was accepted that the entire success of the day would be determined by whether or not we could make the ferry.  It was exactly the same question as was posed in the opening track from Blondie’s 2017 album Pollinator, a song that was playing in a loop in my head as we made that desperate push.  In the end, we reached the slipway with exactly seven minutes and no beers to spare.  The feeling of relief was the sort of thing you would pay good money to a dealer for.  Back in the car at the other side of the crossing in Gallanach we spoke about how we would wake up in the morning hungover with our jeans wet and our shoes reeking of sheep shit and we’d have no recollection of what had happened last night.  It would be just like any other Sunday, and I was going to have yet another load of laundry to get through.