“Who needs a shower?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social hierarchy of dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audience participation

There were nigh upon 812 days between the last Let’s Make A Scene in November 2019 and the most recent rejuvenation of the event, and a lot had happened in the intervening months and years.  Since I last read from my notebook in front of an audience, I have:  become a man who frequently wears corduroy trousers; been told by an optician that my retinas are in perfect condition; learned that Chinese five spice is the secret ingredient to making a really good fried rice dish; visited Dundee; almost made my niece cry when I ‘won’ all of her favourite books in a family game of poker at Christmas since we didn’t have any chips to play with.  Oh, and we have all lived through a global pandemic and multiple lockdowns of the country.

For a while, back in the early days of the original lockdown in 2020, there were discussions surrounding the possibility of hosting an open mic event over Zoom or a similar platform, since at that point in time practically every aspect of our lives was being conducted through a screen.  An ‘Oban Lockdown Fest’ Facebook group had attracted more than 500 members and featured videos shared by at least a dozen local musicians, demonstrating that there was a keen appetite for the arts in the area.  There was some initial enthusiasm for the idea of an online Let’s Make A Scene, but it faded as restrictions began to ease and we were at least allowed to leave our homes again.  It was reckoned that an open mic night wouldn’t be the same without an audience in attendance anyway.  You can’t truly gauge how well a piece of music or spoken word has been received without the applause of people telling you that they enjoyed it, while it is difficult to tell if a joke is funny when you don’t hear the sound of laughter following it.  Personally, I would have been happy to proceed with an online event since it seemed just like every other performance I have ever given, but officially Let’s Make A Scene was on hiatus.

When Covid restrictions were rolled back almost to a level we hadn’t enjoyed since the last Let’s Make A Scene was held, we could finally get on with planning an open mic night in a new venue.  I delved into the cupboard where I store my bottles of whisky and completed notebooks hoping to find some inspiration and enough material to cobble together a ten minute spoken word set.  It was already decided in my mind that I wanted to read about some of my experiences during lockdown, given that most people in the audience could probably relate to the things I was saying.  The trouble with that, however, was that I was going to have to force myself to read through all of my notebooks from during the pandemic years.  I don’t enjoy reading back my old journal entries at the best of times, but this was especially gruelling.  At more than one point I had to stop and ask myself:  why are you writing 500 words about the contents of your cupboard?  And the answer, of course, is that there was nothing better to be doing in April 2020.

Something I never used to do before my previous open mic performances was practice, which probably goes some way to explaining why on the night my dad came along he was heard to comment, “it was fine, but he went on a bit too long.”  If there’s one thing that I dislike more than reading my own diarised notes it is hearing my voice speak them, and yet that is exactly what I was going to have to do if I wanted to take my set more seriously than before.  Around two weeks before the return of Let’s Make A Scene was scheduled to take place, I was invited to be one of the support acts for the Scottish comedian Gary Little when he comes to Oban in March to headline a comedy night in aid of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub.  I quickly learned that it is impossible to resist the opportunity of performing stand-up comedy alongside a professional comedian, no matter how ill-suited you know that you are for it.  Writing a blog about your experiences as a single occupant and being asked to support a comedian would be like achieving a respectable score on the video game Guitar Hero and being plucked from the crowd to fill in for The Edge at a U2 concert; why would you say no?  Knowing that the organisers of the comedy night were going to be attending Let’s Make A Scene to listen to me read from my notebook meant that I had to take it seriously and make sure that they didn’t realise they had made a terrible mistake.

Once I had settled on some of the excerpts I wanted to read from my journals, I prepared to host a few practice readings in my living room. The mood in the room was already perfect since the two expired lightbulbs in the chandelier meant that the remaining three combined to resemble the ambience of a dimly lit stage. I sat in an armchair facing the mantelpiece, trying not to become fixated on the cobweb which was dangling between two red candlesticks like a hammock, and set a stopwatch as I cleared my throat and took a sip from a cup of Earl Grey tea. Even with no one there I was tripping over my words in every other sentence, and it was difficult to get over the awkward feeling of reading aloud in an empty room. I tried convincing myself that I was at least heading to my houseplants, but in truth, they were yet another dead audience.

Photo courtesy of Stevo Finlayson

The night of Let’s Make A Scene found Oban caught between two winter storms.  When it was reported that Eunice and Franklin were going to bring strong winds, heavy rain and snow to parts of the country, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Scotland was being battered by a copy of the 1921 census.  In a welcome change, I wasn’t feeling the same anxiety I had before all of the past open mic nights.  At five o’clock in previous years, I would have been opening my third can of Tennent’s Lager and playing The Midnight Organ Fight for the second time before going to Aulay’s for a couple of hours and getting half-drunk by the time I was ready to read.  There were occasions where I got myself so worked up with nerves that I was sick in the bathroom, which is the only time I have ever vomited in Aulay’s.  However, at five o’clock last Saturday I was on my yoga mat going through a flow and practising some meditation.  When I arrived at the Corran Halls I was still maintaining my calming breathing whilst reciting the same motivational words over and over again in my head, transforming my thoughts into some Instagrammable mindfulness meme.  Having never felt confident about anything in my life, I can’t tell if it’s what I was experiencing in the moments before reading, but I do know that whatever it was, I liked it better than throwing up in a public toilet.

What was most noticeable about the studio theatre in the Corran Halls was the way that our brilliant organisers had managed to transfer the space into something resembling a side alley Hungarian speakeasy.  There was maybe around six tables – each with a dainty tealight candle dancing in its centre – that were positioned across the room in a way that would have made for a terrible strategy in a game of Tetris, but in an auditorium, it worked.   Meanwhile, the biggest debate before people started to arrive was whether or not we should turn the fairy lights on and at which setting.  There were as many as a dozen different options to choose from, which when you think about it, is a lot of different ways of flashing the same red and green lights.  

As eight o’clock neared, the studio theatre was filling with more people than we had ever seen before.  At final count, there were more than sixty folks in attendance, which was probably around double the number who usually come to a Let’s Make A Scene.  Amongst them were 19 acts who signed up to perform on the night, by far the most diverse range of artists we’ve had.  We heard everything:  an acoustic guitar-backed poetry presentation about the dread of feeling as though you’re falling in love with someone when you’re around the age I am, which had more than a shade of Arab Strap to it; K9 Kev’s standup set that veered into rap and then a story about an ill-begotten jobbie; a piece of poetry which called for the audience to howl like a pack of dogs at the mention of any word with a canine connotation; the witch gave birth to a frog; the ever-beautiful Lush Puppies.  

Usually at an open mic night, you will get one artist who is a little more eccentric than everybody else, sort of like witnessing a juggler catch knives outside the London Palladium, but this time everyone was a star attraction.  It was heartening to see such a wealth of talent pulsing in Oban.  After two years during which we were all afraid to so much as breathe near another person, this was like the moments after blowing the candles out on a birthday cake, when all you’re left with is sweet, rich, delicious cake, and in that instant it is the best thing ever.  By all possible metrics, the revived Let’s Make A Scene was a triumph.  We even managed to collect enough donations to cover the cost of hiring the Corran Halls, as well as a receipt for £6.70 from Aulay’s Bar dated 18 September 2020 which it was suspected came from me.  It said a lot when most people assumed that my wallet would be opened so little as to still contain a receipt from 17 months ago, but I couldn’t contend it.

I had cultivated my own set down to a smooth 9 minutes and 20 seconds, which I anticipated would leave enough time for apologies.  Somehow they weren’t needed, though.  People laughed at exactly the right points as I went about describing the loneliness of trying to recreate the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night during lockdown, and it felt anything but lonely.  My journal reading went as well as I could have imagined, much better in front of an audience of people than houseplants.  Everyone who I spoke to afterwards was very supportive and complimentary, while this time the only complaint I received was that I hadn’t worn a tie like I used to.

Often when I reflect on nights like this it invariably ends with a defeat that brings the universe back to its natural axis, such as me making a ridiculous attempt at talking to a woman, losing my phone by a furniture shop or falling asleep on the couch with an untouched can of Tennent’s Lager at my side whilst trying to watch The Spy Who Shagged Me for the thirteenth time.  But not even a long walk home in the rain from the incoming storm could dampen the spirits of such a joyous night.  812 days had never been so worthwhile.

I will be reading some ‘Diaries of a Single Man’ excerpts in support of actual comedians Gary Little and Wray Thomson on Friday 25 March at The View, Oban. The evening is in support of the Argyll Wellbeing Hub, and ticket information can be found by following this link.

The Love Island controversy

Our pub quiz team, The Unlikely Bawbags, recently suffered its worst-ever performance in The Lorne on a Wednesday night.  We finished in seventh place out of around ten teams, far removed from our usual lofty position within the top three.  It wasn’t even as though we had one terrible round that set us back, because for us the entire quiz was a shambles.  Things were so bad that by the end of the night we almost celebrated ending up so high in the rankings, since for most of the way through we had been sitting bottom of the pile.  It was a chastening experience, one which none of the three of us appeared to have an answer as to how it could have happened, which was seemingly in keeping with the night.

I went to Aulay’s to drown my sorrows, different from my usual visits there drowning my liver.  The lounge bar was empty, which wasn’t unusual for a midweek night in February, and so the barman was forced to listen as I told him of all my woes.  Would I ever get another general knowledge question right again?  Did there really need to be an entire round about Germany?  Why can we never remember who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon character?  I imagined that he would much rather have been dusting the tops of the malt whisky bottles, but I had a lot to unload.  To the relief of the barman, the pub gradually started to fill up, at least as much as three people can fill an alehouse.  

First, the Plant Doctor arrived carrying a pool cue, which he propped up against the coat rack, similar to the way that someone who is out walking the dog stops into the pub for a pint and sits their pet at the end of the bar. A while later a local shellfish seller dropped in. Following some discussion over the froth of our lager, it was noticed that there were three people in the lounge bar on a Wednesday night and each of us was wearing a pair of corduroy trousers. Who knows for certain if such a thing had ever occurred before, but it’s difficult to imagine that it had. It was, quite emphatically, a parade of corduroy.

Naturally, we were eager to bring this anomaly of fashion to the attention of the two members of staff behind the bar, and even to Aulay himself.  There were three distinctly different shades of corduroy on show.  I was wearing a vibrant cherry, the Plant Doctor wore a neutral olive, while the shellfish seller’s legs looked like two hot dogs smeared with English mustard.  We asked anyone who would listen for their thoughts on our respective cords, including one poor sap from Glasgow who was just wanting to enjoy a peaceful drink.  All three of the opinions we canvassed came back with the same response:  that the neutral olive was their favourite colour of corduroy and they wouldn’t be seen dead in the bold cherry.  I’ve long become used to suffering a crushing defeat in the month of February, but this was two of them on the same night five days before Valentine’s Day had even arrived.

Hardly two days had passed before I and my pub quiz teammates were afforded a shot at redemption, just like in any big-budget Hollywood movie, only this was a charity quiz at The View with a prize of £100 in cash. The event was a joint effort to raise funds for Kilmartin Museum and Dunollie Museum, two local projects in Argyll, and I somehow ended up in the middle of a tug o’ war between my usual Wednesday night pub quiz team and my regular Friday night drinking partners. I had never honestly wondered what it would be like to be a child caught up in a dispute between two divorcing parents, but I reckon this was pretty close to how it must be, and on this occasion, The Unlikely Bawbags were awarded custody of me.

Following our all-time worst performance a few days previous, we recruited some reinforcements for the charity quiz to bring our numbers up to six; amongst them a Doctor of Scottish literature who had started the week off-piste in Glencoe and was looking to finish it on the piste in Oban.  The theme of the night was anti-Valentines trivia, which we felt confident would suit us since the majority of our team seems to have an allergy to all things romantic.  There were several different rounds throughout the quiz, including the standard music round, film and television bedrooms, one where we were invited to list ten given animals by the length of their penis, as well as a series of questions all about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was really hoping wouldn’t be the traditional picture round.

The quiz was so busy that people were being turned away at the door.  There must have been no fewer than twenty teams taking part, and things were competitive from the very start.  With so many points to tally, it would be impossible to ask one man to mark every answer sheet, so teams were asked to swap their papers with a neighbouring table at the end of each round.  On the face of it, this seemed like a sensible solution, though it turned out to be like asking a couple of barmen for their opinion of corduroy trousers:  problematic.  In the very first question of the quiz, we were asked to name the winner of the 2021 series of the reality TV show Love Island.  Being that we were a team of adults who have seen the better part of our thirties, we couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess at a name and left the space unfilled.  Following the end of the general knowledge round, we exchanged sheets with the table adjacent to ours, whose team included a podcasting phycologist and a young woman who owns a vast wardrobe of scarves.  Much to everyone’s surprise, our paper was returned to us with one point more than we were expecting, while the gap left at the first question had been filled with a careful, scientific scribe.

We didn’t think too much about the ill-begotten point at the time since we were in second place, but as the quiz developed it was becoming clear that there was a tight tussle at the top of the leaderboard between ourselves and my usual Friday night companions.  Our cause was assisted by a full complement of marks in the round on sexually transmitted diseases, which had to be the first time anyone has been happy to correctly identify an STD.   By the time the final piece of music had been played to bring the quiz to an end, the two teams were separated by the length of a flea’s penis – or one point as it’s sometimes known.  We were delighted; the Plant Doctor, my brother and their team were devastated.  It clearly hadn’t required a great deal of detective work on their part to recognise that the beautiful penmanship used for the first answer was entirely different from the scrawl seen at the other sixty-odd questions on the sheet.  I mean, we had an actual GP in our team whose contributions to the sheet read like a prescription pad.

With a prize of a hundred pounds going to the winners and £50 to the runners-up, we could see why our competitors might have felt disappointed. Some of the people at their table had a look on their face that was similar to one I have seen around the pier when a tourist has treated themselves to a fresh prawn sandwich from the seafood shack and just as they’re ready to enjoy it, a sneaky seagull has swooped down and snatched it from their hands. A few of us were feeling some guilt about winning a charity quiz through nefarious means, even if strictly speaking it was only accidental cheating. We agreed that given the circumstances it would be the right thing to do if we came clean to the quizmaster, so we called him over to our table and explained what had happened. To say that he wasn’t interested would be an understatement. As far as he was concerned, the quiz was over and he had already declared us as the winners, which could probably be translated as him admitting that he hadn’t prepared a tie-break question. Maybe he was right. This was a Valentine’s quiz, after all, and it is said that all’s fair in love and war. Where love is concerned, it’s usually the case that one party is going to end up bitterly disillusioned. It just so happened that for once it wasn’t me this time.

Despite a fortuitous turn of events, we had already decided that we wanted the moral victory as well as the acknowledgement of being quiz winners, so we approached our rivals and proposed that we split the £150 prize fund between the two teams.  They agreed, though somehow even that didn’t quench our thirst for redemption – or perhaps more accurately, clear us of our guilt.  I was too busy trying to plead my innocence to the opposition to know who from our team made the suggestion, but it turns out that we went a step further than sharing the prize money and offered to donate our £75 to the charity.  When I heard about our philanthropy, I couldn’t stop wondering how much more we had to do to have our names engraved on a plaque at Kilmartin Museum.

A few of us made the usual Friday pilgrimage to Aulay’s after proceedings had been brought to a close in The View.  There were three members from the opposing team looking to spend their £75 in the final hour before closing time, and I saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of ‘our’ prize money.  All manners of whisky and shots of Tequila were being added to the bar bill, meaning that the most straightforward quiz question of all was posed the following morning when I went for breakfast with the rest of my family and wondered why I felt as though I was still drunk.  Along with the growing bar tab, there was significant jukebox abuse, and not only from us.  I could have sworn that one group played the same Feargal Sharkey song three times in a row.  I guess it’s true that sometimes a good song is hard to find.

It was difficult to say at the end of the week whether I had come out of it all on top or not.  I lost a corduroy-off, though was at least part of a historic fashion event in Aulay’s.  The Unlikely Bawbags had their all-time worst performance in the Lorne quiz, but followed it up by beating around twenty other teams to win a charity quiz, albeit with some controversy attached.  Even now I still don’t know who won the 2021 edition of Love Island, but I think I have learned that in future quizzes when we don’t know the answer to a question, such as who provided the voice of Bugs Bunny, it is best to leave it blank.

Jagged Little Wordle

Everybody seems to have a Wordle strategy these days.  The web-based game where players are given six opportunities to solve a daily five-letter word puzzle is the hottest trend of 2022 so far, and for once I seem to be in tune with popular culture.  My opening salvo is almost always HOUSE, I believe for as simple a reason as I am usually in my flat when I attempt the day’s challenge and it only has four letters.  In my next guess, I like to use the remaining vowels, since I would have to shyly confess that I can’t think of any words that do not have at least one vowel in them.

The one time that I deviated from my game plan also happened to be the only occasion from 21 puzzles where I have failed to get the correct word.  I had decided to switch from HOUSE to SOARE after reading an article by a language researcher who reasoned that the word for a young hawk is the best option for a first guess because it uses five of the six most common letters in the English language as well as being in a more strategic order than, say, AROSE.  I couldn’t stop from wondering how it must be to be like some of the people I had spoken to who are much more free-spirited with their leading Wordle guess and type the first thing that comes into their head, varying their opening word from day-to-day.  It was difficult to imagine having such spontaneity with words, but I figured I would give it a go with SOARE first and see how things went.  As it turns out, I just couldn’t get the word that day.  I think I was one letter away in the end, but it wasn’t coming to me.  Mostly because the word was one I didn’t expect to encounter in such an inoffensive game.  It was PRICK.  What has life become when even Wordle is goading you?

My introductory Wordle pick has been the same ever since my 100% record was pricked. I’ve rarely thought about it, but I suppose I’m rigidly habitual like that; if something works I tend to stick with it and if it doesn’t I’ll usually avoid it. This is why I have cooked the same adventure-free pasta sauce recipe for the last five years, and it’s the reason why I haven’t accepted a shot of Sambuca since the stuff immediately had me vomiting on the night of my thirty-fifth birthday. On the other hand, it hasn’t stopped me from making jokes anytime I talk to a woman I have met, but there are some habits you just can’t change.

I solved Monday’s puzzle within a couple of attempts while I was taking the bus to Glasgow to see The Districts play that night.  It was my first time at a gig since the summer of 2019, if I don’t consider the time the Edinburgh band Wrest played in The View in November 2021 whilst a 40th birthday celebration was taking place in the adjacent function space.  It’s not that Wrest aren’t a decent act, but I found it hard to focus on the music when there was the sight of several enormous helium balloons emblazoned with the number ‘40’ rising to the ceiling at the back of the room as a member of the bar staff emerged with a buffet of party food.

Saint Luke’s is a repurposed music and arts venue in the east end of Glasgow.  It was originally built in 1836 as a church, and when that was disbanded in 2012 the building underwent an elaborate refurbishment.  There’s a temptation to suggest that the fact my first gig in over two years took place in a former church had some kind of a spiritual significance, but really, it was probably just a coincidence since the show was originally scheduled for May 2020 and was postponed twice due to a global pandemic that has caused millions of deaths.

Adjacent to the old church building is a bar and restaurant, The Winged Ox, where I ate a halloumi sandwich and drank some lager from the nearby Drygate Brewing Company. As far as I can remember, it is the first time I have eaten grilled Cypriot cheese in an establishment that has the statue of a saint perched on the shelf above its bar. Not long after my plate had been cleared away, I was surprised to look up from my pint and see that the four members of the band who I was about to see play on stage were standing at the end of my table, not but a chip’s throw away from me. They must have been there for several minutes. My heart was rattling all the way through my ribcage as soon as I recognised them, and I’m sure it wasn’t just from the Covid I had recently recovered from. I could hear the drummer tell a story about a flight he had missed one time in Germany before they stepped forward to the bar. Each member of The Districts was lined up along the front of the bar, taking it in turns to settle their individual bill. I could hardly believe it. That’s how my brother, sister and me pay for our breakfast on a Saturday morning if dad hasn’t come with us, but this was a touring rock band. Although they are far from the best known musical artists on the circuit, I had always imagined that the rock and roll lifestyle would be different; more glamorous. I never knew that they would have to queue up to pay for their own food at The Winged Ox.

One of the downsides of dining solo is that there isn’t anyone to tell when you see something remarkable occur in your vicinity.  Worse still, if you want to engineer an opportunity to take a picture of a rock band who you have been listening to for six years standing near your table with bar bills in their hands, you are forced to make like you have a keen interest in photographing empty chairs.  I felt ridiculous, especially when I couldn’t position my phone whilst the four men were standing side-on to me so I had to wait until their backs were turned when effectively I would have been as well snapping a picture of anybody. 

Inside Saint Luke’s itself, a mirrorball hangs from the rafters above where the congregation once would have gathered. Part of me likes to imagine that it was there before the refurbishment, unlikely as it seems. I can never grow tired of gigs in former churches. This was my third such venue, and somehow they always sound brilliant. I met with a former Unlikely Lads pub quiz team-mate and her friend before The Districts took to the stage, though as happy as I was to have some great company for the gig, I found myself distracted by the tall man who was standing in front of me. It was impossible to stop myself from staring at the back of this guy’s head, which was covered with long, bedraggled hair the colour of a rabbit’s tail. I had only ever seen hair like it once before, but there was no way that the guy who used to own the Squeeze juice bar next door to Aulay’s was in Glasgow to see this little-known band who pay for their own meals. The resemblance was uncanny, however, and eventually, it was all I could do to unburden myself and ask Hannah if she recognised the man stood a few feet away from us as being someone who I had spoken to a maximum of four times in my life. She couldn’t be sure either, but when we heard his bellowing Northern Irish accent between songs it heightened our interest, and she had to approach him to ask if he had ever run a juice bar in Oban. It was just like being back at the Lorne pub quiz in the days when Hannah would pull out an answer that nobody was expecting, and in this instance, it turns out that the man in front of us was indeed the former owner of Squeeze, though he had no idea who The Districts are and was only there because his friend had offered him a free ticket. So little was the juice maker’s interest in the band that I could swear there was a point where he had fallen asleep on his feet for a few moments.

To the left of the man who once blended fruits for a living, my gig companions were in the midst of their own curiosity.  They were observing a young couple who might well have been the only two people in the entire place who wore face masks the entire way through the gig.  Most others we saw, including ourselves, would put them on whenever we went up to the bar, but these two only ever pulled theirs down for a moment to take a brief mouthful from their cans of cider before fitting them back in place.  In a way, there was something to be admired about the couple’s resilience, and if that’s what they felt was necessary to allow them to enjoy a night out then it doesn’t seem right that anyone should judge them for it.  But when they would bring their heads together and kiss by pressing the front part of their masks to one another, I was incredulous.  Here I was, a man whose chances of receiving affection from a woman are as likely as solving a Wordle puzzle on the first attempt – ZILCH – and then there’s this couple who dared to just throw kisses away against a piece of dirty fabric like they were nothing.  It was a toss-up to say whether the young couple was excellent at hygiene or exceptionally terrible with romance.  

Back in Aulay’s on Friday, some of us were still feeling the effects from Wednesday night when we had been in to watch Celtic’s 3-0 victory over Rangers. The post-match libations were as unexpected as the nature of the win, and I felt thankful that I was at least sensible enough to stick to my principles and refuse the offers of Sambuca, even if I wasn’t quite as strong when it came to the Tequila. On this occasion, we came out to celebrate the 29th birthday of the town’s most elusive barmaid, a woman who seemingly has a different career-changing scheme each time you talk to her, sort of like a Marvel villain.

The Plant Doctor was already seated at a table with a man who I didn’t recognise when I arrived. We learned that Joe is a chef by trade who was visiting Scotland from North Yorkshire for five days with his wife and their young daughter, who is a year-and-a-half old. He is one of the few people any of us had heard describe a child’s age in that way rather than the more commonly used 18 months, and we welcomed it. Joe had left his wife and daughter in their campervan for the evening while he went out to watch his team, Manchester United, play in the FA Cup against Middlesbrough. He had been looking forward to seeing the football while enjoying a quiet pint in a local pub, but as the night progressed he was finding himself watching less and less of the game as he became involved in our nonsense discussions.

Manchester United were leading for much of the contest, though since Joe had fit into the group so seamlessly we suggested that he could message his wife to tell her that the match had gone into extra-time to give him an excuse for spending another half an hour in our company.  He wasn’t convinced that his partner would believe that United were incapable of beating an opponent from a lower league, yet Middlesbrough went on to equalise as we were plotting and that’s exactly what happened.  Joe was shocked at what he was seeing – although he hadn’t seen very much of it at all.  We all laughed at the idea that the Yorkshire man’s wife would receive a text from her husband claiming that Manchester United had drawn 1-1 with Middlesbrough and immediately accuse him of lying to her.  There would be no WiFi reception in the couple’s campervan, while the television signal wasn’t picking up ITV, so she coudn’t check the result for herself.  Ultimately the supposed deception might prove destructive to their marriage, or at the very least Joe was going to be restricted to masked intimacy for a while.

Friday was one of those brilliant, bizarre nights that often occur in Aulay’s.  It had just the right mix of Jameson, good tracks on the jukebox and eccentric out-of-town characters.  As well as Joe, there was a middle-aged couple who were seated in the corner of the pub underneath the television who choked the jukebox with songs that the blonde woman danced her heart out to as her husband took videos.  At one time there were four songs by Alanis Morissette queued up on the playlist.  Meanwhile, when my selection of Be My Baby by The Ronettes played, the woman shrieked and beckoned me to join her in busting some moves.  Her husband didn’t seem to care, although he became agitated when all nine minutes and thirteen seconds of Neil Young’s Down by the River came on.  They didn’t stick around for very long after that, but Joe was there until closing time, several hours after he was supposed to leave.  Something told me that it wouldn’t take much to guess the five-letter word that would best describe his wife’s mood when he returned to the campervan.

Life’s fine whine

My 2022 has gotten off to what might best be described as a slow start.  After bringing in the bells on Hogmanay by watching a spectacular firework display from McCaig’s Tower light up the sky over the New Look clothing store on George Street, I was forced into isolation for much of the following fortnight by a positive Covid test.  The new year has been a real damp squib so far.  

Rarely has something been both so momentous and utterly mundane as when I left my flat for the first time after my ten day quarantine.  It was Friday morning and I was only walking to work, but I hadn’t been outside for any reason other than to take out the bins since I had been for my PCR test, so I guess it was something new for twenty twenty-two.  I had a real spring in my step as I took to the pavement.  It was the type of experience that catches in the back of the throat and takes hold of your breath, although much of that could surely have been attributed to the morning school run traffic.  

Little had changed around town since I had last been outdoors.  The Christmas tree in the square had been taken down but some of the festive street lights remained, albeit in darkness, sort of like the forgotten bauble you find underneath the sofa in March.  Along the Esplanade, a familiar fragrance ascended from the shore at exactly the same spot it usually does across the road from the youth hostel.  It was weed, only not the variety that had been coughed up by the sea.  I found it strangely reassuring to know that life still goes on when you’re not around.

In most ways, it was an ordinary Friday, but by the afternoon of my first day back in existence, I was feeling sapped of all energy. Once I had done my evening yoga I was questioning my earlier assertion that I would be returning to Aulay’s at the first opportunity. At that point, I couldn’t imagine sitting and enjoying a pint of lager, and there have been times when that has been all I could imagine. During my bout of Covid I was fortunate that I never experienced any change to my sense of smell or taste, but the first couple of cans of lager I drank after work – my first beers since New Year’s Day – tasted dreadful, even accounting for them being Tennent’s. They left an unwelcome metallic aftertaste in my mouth, however, for the purposes of scientific advancement, I felt compelled to power through them and at least find out if a pint of lager was any better.

There was a noticeable tinge of emotion as I walked into the lounge bar of Aulay’s that night.  That may have been because they were showing the disappointing Scottish Championship fixture between Partick Thistle and Kilmarnock, but I think overwhelmingly it was such a relief to be back.  It is hardly as if I was desperately struggling with Covid and questioning whether I would ever see the inside of a bar again, but when you’ve been away from a place for ten days it can sometimes seem like an eternity.

My brother, the Plant Doctor and his girlfriend eventually joined me, and for the first time we engaged in a pub game of “how was your Covid?”  Three quarters of us had contracted the virus since the turn of the year with a handful of days between each of our positive results.  Our experiences were mostly mild, apart from the Plant Doctor, who suffered no symptoms at all and was testing negative again after five days, which made me wonder if the big pharmaceutical companies should be studying Newcastle Brown Ale as a potential vaccination against the illness. After a while, Covid became just another thing we would discuss, in the same way we talk about the latest Nick Cave album or the TV show It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.  

The pints of Tennent’s were going down a good bit easier than the cans did, and it was a great relief that my illness wasn’t going to affect my ability to enjoy alcohol, though the lager did still bring the usual side effect of needing to use the toilet.  I was enjoying a quiet moment to myself at the urinal when one of the men who was sitting with the group at the table next to ours walked in.  He had as much material covering his mouth as he did hair on his head and he was curious about why I was wearing a mask, asking “do you still have to wear those?”  I explained that it’s still expected that folk wear masks in settings like pub urinals, but noted that it isn’t something people appear to be too bothered about anymore.  For some reason, this prompted the maskless urinator to ask how old I am, as though consideration for public health during a pandemic is determined by the age of a person.  I have never been fond of urinal interactions at the best of times, and already this one had me yearning for those days spent in isolation.

The talkative tinkler offered the information that he is 63-years-old, though he soon corrected himself and reduced his age to 62 and a half.  It seems I wasn’t the only one who was having time taken off his life by this discussion.  Soon he was talking about how he’s tired of all the rules and restrictions, how he’s had all his vaccines and that he’s 63 and just wants to be able to do whatever he likes.  “I’m sick of masks and being told to wash my hands; wash behind my ears,” he wailed.  I’ve heard of anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers, but never anti-hand washers.  I assured the gentleman that I am greatly in favour of freedom but felt it would only be courtesy for me to wear a mask in the bathroom since I was recovering from the Covid I was still testing positive for the day before.  The toilet fell silent, only the sound of the urine splashing against the steel as it trickled to a halt remained.  Never has a pee been weighted with so much awkwardness.  The vaccinated 62-and-a-half-year-old quickly zipped up and left after a brief sprinkle of his hands under the tap.  For a moment, I allowed myself to think that being infected with Covid wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

By Saturday morning it was difficult to tell which I was suffering from most: the Omicron or the Tennent’s variant. My head was throbbing with all the vigour of a winter sunrise, and each time I moved I encountered a dizzying sound that would echo in my ears for a minute or two. Although it was uncomfortable, in a way it was nice to have something else to blame my weekend woes on besides a hangover. Another positive of having Covid, it seems. The aftermath of the virus continued into the following week and beyond, with the frequent brain fog sometimes making me question if certain things were actually happening or if I was watching myself in a dream. I’ve never felt anything like the sensation.

One afternoon as I was preparing a pot of soup for my lunch, I heard a knock at the front door, which isn’t a noise I typically associate with potato and leek soup.  I opened the door to be encountered with a tall bearded man who was holding a large box of wine.  He was attempting to deliver it to my neighbour across the landing but wasn’t getting any response from him, so he asked if I would be willing to accept the delivery rather than him being forced to take it all the way back to the depot in Edinburgh.  As much as it is in my nature to be helpful, I really didn’t want to receive the box.  It seemed like an awful lot of pressure to be left in charge of a box filled with expensive bottles of wine, and that’s before you consider living under the constant uncertainty of when my neighbour would come to the door to collect his goods.  I had difficulty finding the words to express those concerns, however, and told the man that of course, I would be more than happy to help him.  

That wasn’t the end of it, though.  It was just my luck that I should take in a delivery that isn’t even for me from the world’s most talkative delivery driver.  He spoke very fondly of Oban and how he often thinks about moving here with his girlfriend one day.  As he was considering what those people who live in the really remote and tiny villages between Glasgow and Oban must do for a living, I could hear my soup bubbling from the kitchen.  It was boiling the same way I was inside.  All I could think was that if the delivery driver kept this up I wouldn’t have enough time left to eat the soup before I had to go back to work, let alone deal with the mess it was surely making.  I briefly considered that I could probably get rid of him if I mentioned that I was happy to do my neighbour a favour since I haven’t seen many people after my recent isolation with Covid, although there was a risk that would only have given him something else to discuss.  I probably wasn’t standing at the door for any longer than a few minutes, but these things always feel interminable.

Despite my fears that I would be spending the rest of my life waiting for a knock at the door, I was able to offload the box to my neighbour as soon as I arrived back home from work that same evening.  As far as feelings of relief go, this was right up there with walking back into the pub for the first time after a ten day isolation or finding that you have the urinal to yourself.  My year may have been slow out of the blocks, but it looks like things are finally starting to pick up.

When the chips are down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clocks back; washback

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stumbled.  “Michael Alan Ross.”

“Ah-ha!  So Mikey isn’t your name!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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