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. 

The night I fell asleep wearing a brown tweed suit

The night I fell asleep wearing a brown tweed suit

When I returned home from Perth on Sunday night, I found that two pink flower buds had sprouted from the cactus plant on my mantle place, beaming like pimples on the end of a nose.  I was surprised by the discovery because I didn’t know that my plant was capable of producing beauty.  In the days previous I had been feeling a lot like the Roy Orbison bridge in the Traveling Wilburys song “Handle With Care”, and until the following morning, when I awoke with fresh and sober eyes, I couldn’t be sure that the flowers weren’t a drunken creation of my imagination’s desire for company.   

The pink buds were still present on Monday, and although I felt happy to see them, I was questioning why they were there.  I hadn’t watered the plant in months, believing that the cactus enjoys the drought a relationship with me brings, yet it was still capable of producing new life.  My instincts were telling me to pour a little water into the soil, to help nurture whatever was happening amongst the leaves, but I worried that showing affection now might cause more harm than good, as is the case any time I try and approach a woman in public spaces, and I decided to continue to neglect the plant.

The arrival of new life wasn’t the only recent transformation in the living conditions in my flat.  The change in climate, and the early onset of winter weather, has brought with it a realisation of how cold my small living space can become.  Seemingly any heat which is generated is drawn upwards to the high Victorian ceilings, like a snow globe turned on its head and left there, helpless.  Each night when I return home after work, there is a quiet voice within me which wonders whether I am going to open the door to the living room and find a polar bear sprawled across the brown leather sofa, giving the impression of a fluffy throw.  I’m quite sure that nobody wants to encounter a polar bear in their property – particularly in Scotland, where the arctic animal would presumably have undertaken a long journey to travel to and may be in a tetchy mood – yet I can’t help but feel that I would at least welcome the warmth generated by snuggling up to a polar bear when getting my nightly Netflix fill, and if nothing else, it would be something to talk to.

In search of company and warmth, and as a means of avoiding any potential Halloween guisers, I went to Aulay’s to watch the football on Wednesday.  The night was shaping up to be a rather uneventful one: the bar was mostly empty, Celtic were winning 4-0 before it was even half-time, and it turns out that, unlike small children going out dressed as skeletons, nobody gives you a free beer as a ‘treat’ for matching your black tie to your socks.  

After a while, a drunk man was refused service in the adjoining public bar, an occurrence which is not unusual in a pub. Several minutes later, there was an exclamation from one of the scatterings of men in the lounge bar that someone was urinating against the outside of the door.  When someone in the pub is so animated about a going on it is difficult to avoid turning around to see for yourself, and sure enough, the man was accurate with his description of events.  As soon as I swiveled on my barstool, my eyes met the penis which was grasped in the drunk’s hand, its appearance disfigured by the blurred effect of the stained glass.  Clouds of steam were visible around the cascading pee, making the gland appear as though it were a zombified tortoise emerging from a misty darkness in a scene from a horror movie.

None of us present in the bar thought to go out and confront the drunken urinator, presumably because it was so cold, and there was the consideration in the back of my mind that if this is how he would treat a perfectly acceptable piece of stained glass, what would he do to anyone who dared to question his actions?  I turned my attention back to the football, although it was a struggle to concentrate and my thoughts were distracted.  I was appalled by what I had just witnessed, yet there was a part of me which couldn’t help but feel a faint admiration for the guy outside.  The autumn had been a cold one, and the temperature was continuing to drop, so for a man to be exposing his penis to such elements when throughout the week I had been feeling nervous about walking around town without wearing gloves seemed like a brave thing to be doing.

By five o’clock on Friday evening, the clouds above the bay were the shade of a slice of bread which has been left in the toaster for a minute too long, like they had been most other nights through the week, and when it came time for me to go out some hours later, they were releasing drops of rain the size of monkey nuts which had been broken from their shell, and they soaked my brown tweed suit.  The bars were mostly quiet, as they had been since the end of the summer.  Upstairs in the Oban Inn, George Noble was playing disco music to as much enthusiasm as there were people.  It was the saddest Halloween party anyone had seen, and I was feeling uncomfortable watching it all.  We decided to leave for Markie Dans, the walk along the seafront adding several more splashes to my teal shirt. When I arrived, I had received a text message from the moonlighting banker, the upshot of which was that at least one more person was drinking in the bars that night.

It had been a while since I was last drinking with the banker who is occasionally seen on the other side of the bar.  We ended the night in The Lorne, which is often the way these meetings go.  With a glass of Jack Daniels in my hand, I was approached by a girl whose hair was bleached blonde, giving her the stature of a lighthouse at sea on a stormy night.  Her lips were painted a rambunctious red, the colour of a traffic light, but all they were saying was “go”.

The girl with the bright red lips was making her intentions obvious, even to someone like me, whose understanding of female body language is as fluent as my understanding of Mandarin.  She was standing unnecessarily close to me and spoke as much with her hands as she did her mouth.  At one moment she breathlessly confided in me that she likes a man who wears a suit, and it was all I could do to respond that I am a man who knows how to wear a suit.  In spite of my senseless way of communicating, she continued talking to me, and it was becoming clear that this was a situation even my words couldn’t spoil.  I was beginning to imagine where I might take her on our first date:  what I would order to eat and the outfit I would wear.  Ordinarily, it probably wouldn’t seem appropriate to wear a suit on a first date, but if it’s what attracted her to me then how could I not?

The bar lights flickered back to life, and suddenly the room was as bright as her bleached blonde hair.  Closing time was nearing, though it felt that the night was only opening up its possibilities, like a pink flower bud on the end of a cactus.  Who knows how it got there, but it was exciting.

From a crowd of people soon emerged a baby-faced homosexual who turned out to be a long lost friend of the girl with the bright red lipstick.  They reacquainted themselves, and I waited patiently for their reunion to be concluded with the promise of a phone call or a cup of coffee. After an agonising passage of time, the young woman and I left the bar and returned to my flat for some drinks, along with the friend she had come out with, the moonlighting banker and the baby-faced homosexual.  We all gathered in the kitchen with our drink of choice, with the exception of the two long lost friends, who sat down for a heart to heart in my bedroom, on the end of the bed I had been hoping for a crotch to crotch on.

It was some time around five o’clock on Saturday morning when everyone started to leave my flat.  The absentee gay friend left in a taxi first, but by then it was too late.  The others left a short while later when the friend of the girl with the bleached blonde hair had passed out on the kitchen floor and was unresponsive to her name being called out in a loud, drunken fashion.  There was a measure of concern about her wellbeing and talk of phoning for an ambulance.  As I held my phone in the palm of my hand, scenes from the Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction played in my head.  Within these scenes I was trying to get my story straight, thinking about how I would explain to the medical crew that my measures of vodka were almost within reason and that as far as I knew the tube of Pringles didn’t contain any opiates.

I was about to dial for help when the girl whose name I had only learned in the midst of panic moments earlier came to, and she was able to leave with the assistance of her friends.  The relief I was feeling was tempered by the confusion over how there were six glasses in various stages of emptiness for five people.  No fewer than seven bottles of Budweiser sat along the kitchen counter, none of them finished, and broken Pringles were strewn throughout the flooring of my flat, as though someone had left a trail to remind them of how to get out.  I shuffled through to my bedroom, defeated by the night, and fell asleep on top of my bed in my brown tweed suit, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely.

A lion’s roar (aka First Aid Kit @ Perth Concert Hall, Perth)

It had been eight days since a woman at the bar called me a geek, and when I boarded the morning train to Glasgow, destined ultimately for Perth, I was still unable to get the incident out of my mind.  I could not be entirely certain over how the situation arose in the first place, but I could clearly recall the educated and voluptuous brunette speaking of her surname, which sounded elegant and born of the middle ages, and remarking something along the lines of:  “Of course, you’ll know where that name comes from.  You look like a geek.”

I remember that I nodded my head in agreement with the first part of the woman’s statement, in exactly the way I do whenever I haven’t fully heard what a person has said to me but don’t want to appear impolite by asking them to repeat the vital piece of information they were attempting to communicate.  I also agreed with her observation that I looked like a geek, and it ranked amongst the nicest things I have ever been told in Aulay’s, and probably in my adult life.

As the days passed my internal monologue became increasingly involved in a fervent debate with itself over whether the word ‘geek’ was used by the woman with the old-fashioned name as a compliment or in an intended insult.  Was she commenting on my carefully crafted outfit with its silver tie, pocket square, and socks triumvirate, or on the fact that I had an awkward nature which meant that I was avoiding making eye contact with her in the way that a lamb instinctively avoids walking into a wolf’s den?

On the train, I was hoping to catch up on some much-needed sleep.  I had thought when I went out on Friday night that I could live a Keith Richards lifestyle, but by Saturday morning I felt like I was a Morphy Richards kitchen appliance – I was blowing steam.  Knowing that I had an early train to catch, my intention was to enjoy a few sensible drinks with the plant doctor and go home earlier than I normally would, but at one thirty in the morning I was having Jameson bought for me by a man who was wearing pink trousers and who earlier in the day had scattered the ashes of both of his parents on the island of Lismore.

When I first arrived at the bar I viewed the man as a foolish figure of fun.  He was sitting at a table in the corner of the room, his trousers were as pink as the cheek of a newborn baby, and his navy blue jumper was holding a belly so large that it looked like it had been drawn onto him.  The company he was with, presumably strangers he had become involved in conversation with, left, and he got up to refresh his drink. I was standing at the bar alone, and as the man waited to be served we exchanged complimentary words on each other’s outfits.  He confided in me that his parents had recently passed away within a short period of time of one another, and I expressed sympathy for his loss. He thanked me and commented that it is rare for another person to be so nice, which struck me as being odd, as I thought I was only saying what anybody in my position would have said.  When the man with the pink trousers bought me a whisky, I began to feel remorse for my original observation when I walked into the bar, and we spent the rest of the night discussing death and Brexit, and it was difficult to tell where one subject ended and the other began.

Despite suffering from the type of headache which narrows a person’s eyes, and with the taste of whisky still sitting around the back of my throat, I couldn’t bring myself to sleep on the train.  At the table across the aisle from me was a younger woman who was wearing eyeshadow that was the colour of midnight. She unwrapped an oaty wholefood bar, and when I lifted the top of my roll to squeeze a sachet of brown sauce onto some bacon, all I could see was a pig rolling around in wet mud.  In an attempt to make myself feel better I reached into my bag for the banana I had packed, and I sat it on the table in front of me, although I think she could tell that I had no intention of eating it.

My interest in sleeping wasn’t just as a means of appeasing a hangover.  Recently it has seemed that the only way I am able to see my best friend is in my dreams.  She has been appearing in them frequently of late: at least two or three times a week, which is considerably more than the zero times I am able to talk to her when I’m awake.  In one of those sleep scenarios, I found myself in dispute with my subconscious. It was a day or two following my family birthday dinner, and in my dream, I was trying to describe to my friend where we had eaten our meal.  I gave very precise directions as to where the restaurant was located, although I couldn’t remember its name. She believed that I was describing The Seafood Temple, an assertion I agreed with, and I continued to elaborate on the evening, even though my lucid self was screaming out that the dinner had taken place at BAAB.  In my dream, I could hear myself say this, but the dream version of me ignored my pleas and continued to talk about a meal I had not eaten in a restaurant I had not been.

Unable to sleep, I sought to amuse myself by imagining the conversations other passengers around me were having.  With my earphones playing music at a moderate level, observing my fellow commuters was like watching a silent movie, and when their lips moved it was up to me to work out what they were saying.  As the train rattled through quiet little villages which were surrounded by rolling green fields, fluffy clouds of grazing sheep and calm blue streams, my attention was caught by a table of three people who I speculated were probably aged in their fifties.  Their conversation was constant and animated.

“It’s really beautiful and peaceful out here,” the first woman would have said as she leaned across the table in her knitted yellow top.  “We could happily live around here when you retire.”

“The dogs would really enjoy the space,” her husband agreed with a wistful look out of the window.  His hair was neatly combed and looked the way flour does when it becomes wet.

“You could probably build, like Edward and Barbara did.”  The third of the trio was female and was either the sister of the woman with the sunflower top, or one of those people who likes to befriend others who have a similar physical appearance.

“It’s so remote.  I bet you probably wouldn’t have to see anybody for days.  How perfect!”

“That’s a point,” the husband chimed in, sipping from his coffee cup as he considered retirement in rural Argyll.  “How would the boy from the bottom of the road get us the cocaine?”

By the time I arrived in Perth, autumn had put on its winter jacket.  I disembarked from the train and immediately played the U2 song Where The Streets Have No Name, which is a habit I have any time I visit somewhere new and unfamiliar, when I know I am going to get lost.  It took me longer than necessary to find my hotel for the night, and when I eventually did my hands were raw and my hangover had all but gone.  Although Perth is an old and historic city which is hugged by the River Tay, I only had eyes for its bars.  Drinking beer down by the river put me in mind of a Neil Young song, but I couldn’t place which one.  At three o’clock I met with my brother and a work colleague who resides in the area to watch the football scores come in.  We pored over our respective betting coupons, and at half-time, they were looking quite promising.  With great excitement we were discussing what we might do with the tremendous fortunes we were each destined to win in the coming hour, though by the time we walked the short distance from The King James to The Foundry we had lost more than our sobriety.

All manner of ghoulish characters were stalking the short streets of the city centre when night fell.  Whilst I initially thought that the people of Perth didn’t care as much for their appearance as those in more trendy places like Glasgow or Edinburgh, and I was verging on accusing the cleaning staff in the watering holes I visited of slacking on the job when it came to dusting the cobwebs which were dangling from the ceiling, I soon remembered that it was the weekend before Halloween and this probably wasn’t a regular sight.

On the plaza of the Concert Hall, a spectacular light show was taking place to celebrate the holiday.  Families of witches and vampires and the Predator from the Alien vs Predator movie filled the streets.  This made for quite a scene as hundreds of people dressed in plaid shirts of varying colours made their way into the venue to see the popular Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit.  The auditorium was more compact than I was expecting, which made for an intimate setting where every spot on the floor felt close to the stage. The Swedish sisters serenaded the sold-out audience with their beautiful harmonies, their voices sounding the way a great piece of art looks.  Every note stirred an emotion within me, although a level of drunkenness contributed to what I was feeling. The set passed very quickly and was a musical triumph.

After the gig, I drank in the Green Room, which seemed larger than a room and would probably be more appropriately classed a hall.  The bar was decorated in keeping with the Halloween theme, and amongst the spooky monsters and bloodied figures around the place were some spirits I was interested in.  I sampled a blend of whisky from the Isle of Jura and found that it didn’t burn my throat the way a malt usually does, so I continued to order it until the bar closed.  As I was walking back to my hotel, my breath was warm with whisky, and it escaped into the frozen night air, making me feel like a mighty dragon.  It was not long after one o’clock, although I couldn’t be sure if the time had already gone back an hour to mark the end of British Summer Time.  I spilled myself into the luxuriously comfortable hotel bed and slept well into the morning.  My dreams were as silent as a conversation on the train, though the hangover was like a lion’s roar.