“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.  

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.

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.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 9 & 10

Day nine:

Under ordinary circumstances, I don’t care very much for bin collection day, least of all the six-weekly uplift of all six recycling and general waste bins from our block.  It might not seem like very much, but I have always resented the five minutes it adds onto my morning routine to bring the emptied receptacles in from the pavement.  My responsibilities were even doubled recently when the upstairs neighbours who would put the bins out the evening before collection moved away before Christmas.  None of this mattered, though, seeing that bin collection day presented me with the opportunity I had been waiting for since my isolation began more than a week ago.

Shielded by the cover of darkness and beneath a thin cloud of drizzle, I was able to leave my flat under the guise of taking the bins out; though unfortunately it wasn’t just a ruse and I did have to actually take the bins out.  Still, it felt great to breathe in the fresh night air – even when it was tinged with the stench of rubbish that had been sitting in the bulging waste bins for weeks.  Doing my civic and environmental duty had never been so invigorating.  It felt similar to when I was walking to and from work during the strict original lockdown in April 2020 or, further back, in the days when I was smoking cigarettes:  although what I was doing wasn’t wrong, I didn’t especially want to be spotted doing it and I would feel as though I had to almost sneak around to prevent any disapproving glances.

Isolation, like everything in life, brings with it its own set routine, and when you can break out of it, even for something as simple as seemingly mundane as putting the bins out, it is utterly freeing and thrilling.  My daily routine while in isolation hasn’t been much to speak of.  I’ve been tending to waken at what I’d consider a normal hour, when I’ll get up and eat my usual breakfast of overnight porridge oats with no fewer than 25 blueberries mixed in.  Most mornings I have awoken with at least one affection from my mixed bag of Covid symptoms.  Today it was nasal congestion and a headache.  Since I’ve still been having some difficulty falling asleep at night and wake up feeling very fatigued, I’ve been going back to bed and playing a Spotify playlist whilst I doze off for another three or four hours.  Even when I finally emerge again in early afternoon, I haven’t felt fully awake in more than nine days.

My days have mostly been spent watching dozens of YouTube travel vlogs on Sarajevo, Mostar and Belgrade.  I can’t get enough of them, and when I’m not taking the bins out to the pavement, it’s the closest I can get to feeling like I’ve left my flat.  As much as possible I’ve been trying to journal my experience in isolation, but it isn’t always easy when attempting to focus on something for more than twenty minutes or so tends to invoke the brain fog.  That’s usually when I’ll listen to the Beatles album Let It Be once again.  I must have played it about a dozen times by now.  In the early evening, I have set aside 45 minutes for yoga and meditation, which has become a great deal easier – and cleaner – than it was in the early days of my sickness.  

After eating dinner, I repeat my afternoon activities with some Netflix streaming thrown in, usually a handful of episodes of Seinfeld, before spending several hours repeating the charade of trying to fall asleep. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that my time in isolation could have been more productive, but the alternatives have been fairly limited. Sometimes taking the bins out is the best you can do, and that’s fine.

The most risible positive test ever recorded was on day 10 of my isolation

Day ten:

I registered yet another positive lateral flow test today, and it really had to be the most pathetic positive result ever recorded.  It just might be the most feeble thing I’ve seen.  The line was threadbare, best described as a ghost of Covid – which by tomorrow it effectively will be.  Even if an LFT shows me as being positive tomorrow I will be free to leave my self-containment providing that I don’t have a fever, and not before long.  Ten days have never felt as protracted as they have this year.

There has been much to learn from and reflect over during this last week-and-a-bit.  For example, I used to be concerned that I didn’t know how to take a lateral flow test properly when I was returning negative results despite suffering from a heavy cold, but now I can be sure following seven positive outcomes that not only have I been doing the LFTs correctly, but I really did just have a cold – at least until recently.  It’s strangely reassuring to know that I have been swabbing my nostrils in the right manner all along.

I believe that after this experience I can comfortably offer the advice to anyone who will listen that it is a good idea to make a sensible meal plan before being forced into isolation.  I hadn’t done this, but my failure to have a Covid meal plan in place did result in me learning that mince can be a more versatile meat than I had ever allowed myself to imagine.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned during this whole ordeal is that – no matter what it is – if you can breathe through it, it can’t be that bad. Even if your breathing is pretty fucked up.

A stock image from January 2019

For ten days all I have been able to think about is being allowed to leave my flat again.  Not just for a brief walk around the communal garden or to haul the bins through the close and out to the pavement for them to be emptied.  I’ve been craving a social interaction beyond the last one I enjoyed ten days ago when the young woman at the test centre calmly explained how I was to put my nasal swab into the solution so that it could be sent off for diagnosis.  

In my mind, there are grand plans to take advantage of my newfound freedom from tomorrow.  I’m going to arrange a trip to Bosnia and Serbia as soon as I can.  It likely won’t be the full train trek around the Balkans I was planning for prior to the pandemic, on account of the arduous testing that would be involved when going from country to country, but I figure I can split it up over a couple of separate trips.  In the meantime, I can see myself walking all over the place and participating in all sorts of different social activities.  It will be life like I’ve never lived it before.  Of course, the reality is that I will be back to striding to and from the war memorial with my earphones in every day.  And since tomorrow is Friday I will be in Aulay’s at the first opportunity, toasting the freedom I haven’t had in ten long days.  Things will quickly return to the way they were before I ever had Covid.  And I can hardly wait for it.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 7 & 8

Day seven:

Until a week ago, I had gone through the entire pandemic without seeing a positive Covid test, now I have received four of them in quick succession.  The latest one, which I took whilst waiting for a tin of tomato soup to cook on the hob, means that my hopes of returning to the outside world early from my isolation are practically dashed.  Although the second line on the test cassette has been getting fainter by the day, so too have my chances of leaving the flat before Thursday.

At times during this period of isolation, it would be easy to allow myself to feel the same way Ringo Starr looks in the opening scenes of episode two of the Get Back documentary when he glumly glances around an empty studio the morning after George Harrison has left the band and realises that neither of the other two Beatles has turned up for rehearsal.  In my quieter moments – the much quieter moments – I’ll think back to my last face-to-face interaction with another human being at the test centre, where the young woman instructed me on how to take a swab of my tonsils.  Right now it’s still all I have to look back on from my 2022 to date.

Most of the time, though, I’ve tried to remain mindful by focussing on things such as the meditation practice I listened to this afternoon which encouraged me to picture all the colours in a rainbow, which was useful since my Facebook feed was filled with people who had photographed an actual rainbow that appeared over Oban yesterday.

Much like it has been more than a week since I last tested negative for Covid-19, when I got out of bed today it had also been over seven days since I last trimmed my stubble.  This was out of sheer carefree laziness more than any consideration of a future facial fashion statement, particularly when as unruly strands of hair appeared they seemed to be overwhelmingly salt in colour rather than pepper.  There was some curiosity, I’ll admit, not least because of the high regard men who have beards seem to be held in by the opposite sex.  But when I looked at my rugged and ragged face in the mirror this morning, I just couldn’t see it.  Of course, it was only a week of growth, so not even close to being a proper beard, but I couldn’t help from thinking that my face resembled an unfinished drawing by a child.

Even if I’m not going to be able to go anywhere for another few days yet, I figured that it’s time to grow up rather than grow out and get myself ready for the outside world again. So I trimmed the hairs back down to their usual 1.0mm stubble, leaving a trail of clippings in the sink that gave the impression of an atrocity in a condiment factory. A weight has been lifted from my cheeks, if not my shoulders, and my face now looks like 1969 John Lennon – even if I’m yearning to get up and walk out like George.

A felt tip line on my day 8 test

Day eight:

I accidentally read a thread on Twitter earlier today about the long-term effects of Covid. It’s hard to go from reading something like that to brushing the oak flooring in my flat, but it hadn’t been done since I began isolating and I need to get a grip. One thing I don’t understand is where all the dust and debris on my floor has come from. I haven’t left the place in over a week, save for the thirty seconds I spent out at the recycling bins on Thursday, and goodness knows when anybody was last in here. There were indistinguishable strands of thread, shards of paper, tiny grains of dirt, and spent pieces of discarded sellotape all over the place. My flat looked like the aftermath of the world’s most underwhelming craft fair. All I’ve been doing for eight days is travelling from my bed to the couch, to the kitchen, to the couch, and back to bed again in some robotic trance. It’s implausible to consider where all the dirt had come from, and in the end, I don’t want to think about it any more than I’d like to know what being infected with Covid will do to my lungs and heart six months from now.

A stock image from January 2021 since I am still unable to leave the flat

I woke up this morning feeling more symptoms at once than I have for several days.  A pitiful cough, the frustrating brain fog and an exaggerated difficulty breathing all rolled out of the revolving door at once.  I felt better as the day went on, however, it came as no surprise when I registered my fifth positive test in a row in the afternoon.  The line was the faintest it has been yet, appearing as though it had been drawn on by a red felt tip pen that has almost run dry.  All of which means I have another two days of isolation to keep my stubble trimmed and my flooring free of dust before I can be reintroduced into society.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 5 & 6

Day five:

Aside from a bit of fatigue, I woke up this morning feeling virtually free of Covid symptoms for the first day since Monday.  Due to my decision to refrain from drinking alcohol last night, it’s probably the first Saturday that I’ve had a clear head in a very long time.  I’m not sure that I like it.  Of course, with the tiredness from my inability to sleep for much of the night, I turned over and dozed off for another four hours.  I still don’t know what a Saturday morning actually looks like.  

In a turn of events that can only be described as being one of the worst things that could have happened to me this week, I discovered today that the battery in my watch has stopped working.  On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much importance in wearing a watch when I’m stuck in isolation.  I can’t go anywhere for another three days yet and my sleep pattern has been turned upside-down and back-to-front by Covid.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s 6:50 pm, as it currently is at the time of writing, or half-past ten, as my watch seems to be under the impression it is.  In isolation, I have all the time in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from my watch.

I have always worn a watch.  I think I prefer the theatre of glancing at a timepiece on your wrist to simply reaching into a pocket to fish out your smartphone.  It’s great for indicating your boredom with a situation, even if there is sometimes a risk that you are misinterpreted as giving that impression.  I enjoy how wearing a watch feels, the way that it’s sort of like underwear for the wrist when it covers the modesty of an ill-advised tattoo.

Despite being into my fifth day of isolation, I am still wearing my watch around the flat. At this point, as the second hand staggers back and forth between two numbers in a manner strikingly similar to a drunk who is unsure of which door will take him out of the pub, it is nothing short of galling to look at my struggling watch and be reminded that I can’t even travel the short distance to the electrical shop next door for a new battery. From the mantelpiece, the clock ticks tauntingly in the background, for it knows that unlike my watch, it is there only for decorative purposes – but I am now relying on it.

This is an archived image on account of the fact that I am unable to leave my flat

Day six:

If I could give one piece of advice based on the previous six days, it would be to prepare a meal plan and shop for it long in advance of receiving a positive result and the subsequent period of isolation.  I ate pretty well last week, practically as normal, but there was scant thought for what I would do once I reached the latter part of my quarantine.  I’ve been quite fortunate and incredibly touched by the fact that since I became sick I have received offers from no less than six different people to do some shopping for me, though I have to date turned them down since my cupboards are fairly well stocked – it’s just that I am discovering that the ingredients I have can’t really be brought together into a coherent and edible recipe.

I took inventory of my kitchen supplies this afternoon when it became clear that I didn’t know what I could eat for dinner tonight, not to mention because I don’t have anything better to be doing.  I was surprised to find that I have four different shapes of pasta in my cupboard; I don’t remember buying so many different varieties of pasta, let alone cooking them.  Alongside those, I found several cans of tuna, many tins of soup, baked beans, haggis, wholegrain rice, flour, porridge oats, straight to wok noodles, and the chickpeas that I panic bought in March 2020.  I still have 250g of mince, two lemons, some eggs, and all of the herbs and spices you could name if presented with a thirty-second challenge to list things you might find on a spice rack.  In the freezer, there are frozen vegetables, some other random items, as well as a few pieces of unidentified meats.  There are meals to be found in my kitchen, I’m just not quite sure what yet.

Today is the first day I have looked forward to this year.  Under the Scottish Government’s updated guidance, anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 can cut their 10 day isolation period short to seven days if they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven.  This is the day that would effectively determine whether I would be allowed to leave the flat on Tuesday or be forced to isolate for at least another day.  Considering my virtually symptom-free Saturday, I have never been as excited by the prospect of sticking a cotton swab up my nostrils as I was on this occasion.

As tends to be the case before taking most tests, however, nerves and anxiety kick in.  I woke up this morning and coughed for the first time since Friday, while the brain fog and accompanying headache has returned.  It was reminiscent of standing in front of the bathroom mirror on the morning of a Standard Grade exam and discovering that you have a massive plook on your face – only, of course, I have one of those today, too.

Last night, so enthused was I by the lack of Covid symptoms I was experiencing, I was intending that I would take the lateral flow test as soon as I got out of bed, kind of like a kid on Christmas morning.  But given the plook, I put it off until after I had eaten some poached eggs.  After taking my sample, I set the timer on my smartphone for fifteen minutes and went off to clean the bathroom.  The alert sounded and I returned to the kitchen to read the result, my heart pounding away in my chest – either through nerves or yet another Covid symptom.  There was the faintest of lines visible across the ‘T’ panel of the cassette, indicating that I am still testing positive for the virus.  I couldn’t believe it; I felt certain that I’d be getting out on Tuesday.  As it turns out, time is moving very slowly, and I still have a lot of it on my hands.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 3 & 4

Day three:

My positive PCR test result was confirmed by text message at 9.11 pm last night.  I can’t recall the last time I ever received good news in an SMS at nine o’clock at night.  Indeed, I don’t remember the last time anybody sent me a text at that hour.  The result wasn’t a surprise, of course.  I already knew from the lateral flow test I took on Tuesday afternoon and the way that I had been feeling for most of the week that I have Covid.  I hadn’t been more confident of a test outcome in my life, not even when I sat my Higher Modern Studies and History exams.  But I suppose it’s always nice to have administrative confirmation of these things.

I treated myself to a rare bit of fresh air today when I went outside to the recycling bins with a bag full of empty 500ml Highland Spring water bottles.  It’s the first time I have been outdoors since I went for my PCR on Tuesday, though the novelty very quickly wore off once I had tipped my recycling into the blue bin.  The communal garden at the back of our block of flats isn’t very much to look at.  It’s a small area, with enough space for a clothes rotary, while the grass has all the appearance of winter about it.  You could easily walk around it without having to stop to catch a breath, even if at present that says more about me than the size of my garden.  On the other side of the fence, the garden looks onto a handful of parking spaces and behind those stands the back of a solicitors office.  In hindsight, I could have done with a bigger garden and a better view, but then when people were in the property market back in January 2018 nobody was thinking about what would happen if they needed to isolate during a global pandemic.

To compensate for the shortage of space in my surroundings, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the trip to the Balkans that I’ve missed out on making during these last two years.  I have long been hopeful that if international travel becomes less complicated in 2022 then I will be able to go on my cross-country rail journey, and having a ‘Covid recovery’ on my vaccine passport might even go some way to making me look good.  Specifically, I have been researching Bosnia, which has quickly become the country I am most interested in seeing.  Even though tensions seem to be simmering again in the region, it is still quite a bit more appealing than the view from my garden.

Reading TripAdvisor reviews of bars in Sarajevo and taking out the recycling can’t fill an entire day in isolation, however, so to add a bit of excitement to my afternoon I decided to put on a load of washing. Filling the washing machine has never been an activity that I would describe as being thrilling, but when even so much as walking from one room to another seems to be running the gauntlet of another episode of sneezing or a coughing fit, it brings an element of adventure to the chore. I don’t even have that much of a need for all of the freshly-laundered clothing I now have considering that I won’t be going anywhere for another five days and I’m not exactly dressing in my finest corduroy to sit amongst dying houseplants, but it passed another day and at the moment that’s all that counts.

The communal garden isn’t very much to look at

Day four:

Tonight is the first Friday I haven’t spent in a pub since the restrictions in Scotland were eased to allow indoor hospitality to resume last June, as well as being the first Friday that I can remember where I haven’t had a single beer, which is ironic since I don’t remember most of the Fridays when I do drink beer.  Despite having a fridge full of lager and nothing better to do, it seems that it would be fairly foolish to load my body up with alcohol when my immune system is already busy trying to fight off something it has never dealt with before.  So instead of sitting in Aulay’s and having the Plant Doctor make fun of my new-found fondness for corduroy, listening to Geordie Dave address me as Penfold, or hearing all about whether the barmaid who has a talent for naming business ventures has done better with her resolution to stop drinking than she was when I last saw her on Hogmanay, I am guzzling water and watching the second – 2 hours and 57 minutes long – episode of the Beatles documentary Get Back.  For the first time, I am experiencing regrets over having ever joked about a hangover as being me “suffering from the Tennent’s variant.”

All things considered, my experience with Covid to date hasn’t been as terrible as it might have been.  I’m determined not to become one of those bores who tells people that the virus is no worse than the common cold but, really, my own symptoms have not been all that different to the cold – it just isn’t any cold I have ever had before.  Covid shares many of the same symptoms, only they’ve all been jammed into a revolving door and you can’t be sure which one is going to fall out and introduce itself next.  I began to try and keep track of them in my notebook, but my head started spinning even more than it already was with the Covid fog by doing so:

  • When I awoke on Monday morning, I felt as though I had something small and fairly insignificant sitting on top of my chest; a throw cushion or a library book, something like that.  It meant that I had to work a little harder to regulate my breathing, which isn’t the kind of effort you want to be making first thing in the morning.
  • Additionally, I had a persistent cough and a steady sneeze.  I felt certain that it was Covid, but I tested negative on the final lateral flow test in my box.  Monday was probably the day where my symptoms were at their worst, yet I didn’t show as being positive until the following afternoon after I got my hands on another box of LFTs from the test centre.
  • This is a virus that seems to be all about producing sounds:  the sound of the phlegm trembling at the top of my chest each time I inhaled before coughing on Monday; the way my breathing went from resembling a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory to the slow opening of a bottle of soda water.  It is fairly normal today.
  • Subsequently, the coughing and sneezing have tapered off.  I had recently bought a packet of 10 packs of pocket tissues and a box of 225 facial tissues, and with the way I was feeling on Monday, I was concerned that I might not have enough paper to see me through my isolation.  But as of today, I have blown my way through about half of one pack of pocket tissues.
  • On Tuesday I couldn’t do more than 15 minutes of yoga without my nose dripping all over the mat.  By Wednesday I had developed into something of a shy sneezer.  I could go several hours without so much as a sniffle, then I would stand up to walk through to the kitchen and I would suddenly fire off eight sneezes in a row.  It made me think of the one guy in a group who never says very much until he’s had a couple of beers in the pub and then you can’t shut him up.  A shy sneezer.
  • Many of my symptoms seem to come out at night.  During the day I can be sitting around eating the potato and leek soup I made while I thought I was still healthy and feel almost nothing, making a mockery of the idea that I am confined here until next Tuesday.
  • There is pretty much a constant dull sensation in my head – a sort of brain fog – that only ever becomes a headache at night, or first thing in the morning, or if I’m trying to focus on something.  This is by far the worst of my symptoms.
  • I struggle to sleep at night and often I have had to get up two or three times within an hour or so to use the toilet.  It’s hard to say if this is a symptom of Covid or of getting older.
  • I haven’t experienced any fever, but there have been times when my hands have become pretty cold.  However, my flat is notoriously chilly, so it could be that.
  • My ribs felt a little sensitive on Wednesday morning, which was likely from all the coughing the night before.
  • My thighs were sore on Thursday, but I think that was from the yoga I tried on Wednesday.
  • There is definitely muscle fatigue, and a 39-minute yoga video is about the limit of what my body can do at the moment, although today I managed it without once falling over and I was so happy about it that I could have wept.
  • The constant brain fog is like trying to find the right radio frequency, back in the days when people still had to turn a dial to tune into radio stations.  I’m looking forward to when it finally finds a song I like.

With the exception of the brain fog and accompanying headache as well as the occasional pitiful cough, I feel I’m more or less over the worst of my Covid symptoms.  Having said that, given the option, I would much rather be waking up tomorrow with the Tennent’s variant.

When the chips are down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oban gang foiled in Maryburgh meat raffle scheme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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