Sarajevo (part one)

I was only meant to stay in Bosnia & Herzegovina for two or three nights. Late in 2019, I began toying with the notion of travelling through the Balkans by train; I would spend a couple of nights in Ljubljana, move on to Zagreb and Split in Croatia before heading for Sarajevo, and ultimately to Belgrade, Serbia – which for a while was the place I most wanted to visit. The entire trip was mapped out in my head, and just as I was readying myself to book it at the beginning of 2020, a large number of people in China developed a cough for undetermined reasons, and the world stood still for the better part of two years. Since the bars and pretty much everything else was closed, I had nothing better to do with my time than to watch YouTube travel vlogs and consume every article conceivable on the adventure I was forced to postpone. The more I watched and read, the clearer it was becoming that Bosnia would demand more of my attention.

For the last few months, I have been met with quizzical expressions whenever I have told someone about my intention to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina for eleven days, as if either to ask why I would want to go there or where the country even is.  It is a part of the world that was torn apart by war between the years of 1992 and 1995, after all, and until recently all I knew about Sarajevo was from hearing the besieged city referenced in television news reports from my childhood.  I have a vague recollection that we may also have put together food parcels or mentioned the Bosnian people in our prayers at St. Columba’s primary school.  If I was being truthful, I would admit to people that I felt a little anxious about making the trip, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  Depending on where you look, things in Bosnia are fairly fragile, and it was only recently that a new law was passed that banned the practice of denying the acts of genocide perpetrated by the Serbian army during the war, a move that ruffled the feathers of the secessionist Bosnian Serbs in Republic Srpska.  Even on the day I left Oban for an overnight stay in London before my flight, I was checking online to ensure that nothing had changed.  But, deep down, after almost two years of isolation and restrictions, I’m not sure that anything would have stopped me from getting on that plane.  Life can’t always be black and white, and if you don’t live in the grey, you will never know what colours are out there. 

Whilst sitting in Luton airport at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning,  I was asking myself why anybody would want to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina.  I had been there since at least 5.45 and was feeling the most tired I had ever been.  The line in the security hall was like a game of snake that lasts for infinity; the same as when you pick up your phone and decide to play one game before bed and you’re still there an hour later trying to beat your score – it kept going and going.  In a welcome change, I passed through the scanner without a hitch.  Of course, that had to happen when I didn’t have my brother and sister there capturing it all on camera.

The airport, as anybody knows, is where time goes to die. I was left with almost two hours to wait until boarding for my flight to Sarajevo commenced; it would have been as well being two days. In that time, I browsed the books in three different WH Smith outlets – they were all the same, and none of them stocked the new release I was hoping to find – shopped for aftershave, and ate the worst English breakfast a person has ever encountered. I believe it had the biggest mushroom they could find, planted right in the middle of the plate, while the orange juice was almost the same temperature as the coffee, which wasn’t a compliment for either of them. When the gate number for the flight was finally revealed on the departure board in the manner of the answer to a piece of trivia in a television game show, there turned out to be a reasonably lengthy delay before we were allowed to board. Naturally, I was next in line to the person who was taking this worse than anybody. She couldn’t understand why the airport would announce the departure gate in a way which makes passengers believe they have to drop everything and get there immediately, only to keep us all waiting in a stuffy narrow corridor for what felt like at least as long as a game of snake. It was difficult not to agree with the woman’s point, but she complained about it so much that I couldn’t have any sympathy for her. In fact, I was secretly hoping that we would be delayed a little while longer just to spite her. Eventually, the doors opened and we were led towards the aircraft, and I felt a strange mix of excitement and disappointment.

Much of my trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was organised with the help of the Meet Bosnia tour agency, which I had found during one of my many research rabbit holes.  They arranged for one of their drivers to meet me at the airport since public transport is still quite sparse in the country.  It was a nice feeling being picked up by an older gentleman holding an A4 piece of paper with my name typed in bold letters across it, just like in the movies.  I greeted him with one of the four Bosnian phrases I had been able to learn before arriving – “dobar dan” for hello – and he responded with a string of incoherent words.  I looked at him with the same expression I expect I used on the mushroom a few hours earlier, and the driver spoke once more:  “I was asking if you speak Bosnian.”

It is difficult to put into words my first impressions of Sarajevo. On the car ride in from the airport, there is immediately a stirring juxtaposition of brand new buildings standing alongside those which are still scarred with bullet holes, if they are standing at all. A sign welcomes you to Sarajevo: “a city under siege for 1425 days.” Then you catch sight of the city itself, emerging like a jewel which is cradled in the bosom of the four Olympic mountains that snuggle Bosnia’s capital. There are red-tiled rooftops as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the innumerable chalk-white gravestones that line the hills. Thick plumes of cigarette smoke cling to every corner. In the Baščaršija [Market Square], the city’s heart beats. There are majestic sights in every direction the head swivels: mosques, synagogues, orthodox churches, and cathedrals live within 200 metres of one another – peacefully until 1992. There are street merchants, people playing music, and a sign advertising draft Sarajevsko beer for the equivalent of £1.34. All of a sudden, the sound of modern techno music which is bouncing across the cobblestones from a nearby coffee shop is drowned out by the beautiful Muslim call to prayer. In the garden of the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the city’s largest, it is an oasis of calm away from the thriving streets outside, where the only sound is birdsong and the constant running of fresh water from the spring. Stray cats are often seen sunbathing here on the wall. Pigeons dominate the square around the Baščaršija’s centrepiece, showing no fear – and why would they when tourists line up to buy boxes of seeds to scatter across the ground? One woman pours the food into her palms and holds out her arms. Soon she is cloaked in pigeons, resembling the heroic old lady found in Central Park in Home Alone 2.

Along the Miljacka River is the impressive City Hall, which was originally constructed in 1894 when Sarajevo was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  In time the hall was handed over to the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina, until Serbian shelling in 1992 caused the destruction of the library and the burning of more than a million books.  The building was restored to its original design in 2014 and is now a national monument, and it’s easy to see why.  It is a beautiful sight.  A walk further beyond the City Hall took me to the Latin Bridge, which is infamously the location where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated on 28 June 1914.  Exactly one month later, the First World War began, sparked by the killing.  Almost 90 years after that, the indie Scottish band Franz Ferdinand released their hit song Take Me Out, which was the cause of countless spillages of Jack Daniel’s on the dancefloor in O’Donnell’s Bar when the chorus kicked in.  It was quite the thing to be standing on that very same bridge 18 years on from those nights.

After a few hours of drinking in the sights of the Old Town and fending off the heat with my first pint of £1.34 (3 BKM) Sarejevsko, which is the locally brewed pilsner lager, I ventured to Gastro Pub Vučko – Vučko being the cartoon wolf who served as the mascot when Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.  The bar specialises in craft beer, and their house offering, Vučko Red, tasted similar to one of my favourite Brewdog beers, 5AM Saint, which was one of my favourite cultural discoveries of the day.  Sitting at the bar was a surreal experience, and not only because I was the only person who wasn’t taking advantage of the table service.  It was like being back in a pub in Scotland on 25 March 2006; the day before the national ban on smoking indoors came into effect.  Everyone in Bosnia smokes like it’s punctuation.  As soon as a sentence finishes another cigarette is lit.  This all still happens indoors, which meant that by the time I arrived back at my hostel five hours later, my clothes were reeking of tobacco.  If I could never wear that shirt again from the sweat I had soaked into it earlier in the day, I definitely couldn’t now.

The smoking didn’t bother me, though. Really, it was just the opposite of being at home where anyone who wants to smoke has to go outside; whereas in Bosnia if I am craving a fix of fresh air it is me who needs to step outside. It is around eight years since I last had a cigarette, but it was nice to feel as if I had inhaled an entire packet without having to do any of the hard work. My real problem was with language. The smoking barmaid was friendly and had a very decent grasp of English – much better than her colleagues, certainly. She smiled when, as I ordered my third or fourth Vučko Red, I attempted to add the word “molim” (please) to my infant vocabulary, even after I had to ask her if I was using it correctly. Indeed, so happy was she with my introduction of molim to our rudimentary interaction that a few minutes later a second beer appeared next to the one I had just bought. Of course, it was probably her way of reeling a fish in from the end of the line, knowing that I couldn’t possibly not buy another drink after receiving one for free, but it felt nice all the same. All I could imagine was the scene in Aulay’s if the bar staff could smoke behind the bar whenever they liked, poured themselves a shot on a whim and handed out free beer to any stranger simply for saying please.

My episode with the Bosnian language came before I received a free pint of Vučko.  Although the Smoking Barmaid was very pleasant and understanding, I felt reluctant to test her patience when it came to ordering food.  The menu in front of me was printed entirely in Bosnian, which is to be expected when a person is in Bosnia.  I had already achieved my goal of trying Ćevapi earlier in the day, so I wasn’t too concerned about eating anything ‘local’, I just wanted some pub food to eat with my beer.  I scanned the pages of the menu looking for familiar words, though other than the subheadings such as burger, chicken, pasta, and pizza, it was difficult to make head or tail of it.  Faced with such a daunting dilemma, the most simple option to my mind seemed to be to go with the pepperoni pizza.  You know what you’re getting with a pepperoni pizza.  There can be no surprises.  I felt pretty good about my decision, and when I saw the enormous wooden board arrive sometime later with a pizza the size of a pillow, my mouth was beginning to water the way every other part of my body had been in the afternoon sun.  Then I saw them, scattered all over the dish in the most indiscriminate fashion possible.  Mushrooms.  Tiny little pieces of the things; everywhere.  I didn’t know what I could do.  I baulked just looking at the atrocity.  It was right up there with the biggest blunders I have ever made, but I tried to tell myself that it wasn’t my fault.  There was a “fungi” pizza listed on the menu, after all.  Surely that’s where all the mushrooms would go?  Ultimately I had no choice but to eat the pepperoni with mushroom pizza, lest I look like an idiot in front of the Smoking Barmaid.  She already knew that I didn’t have a clue how to speak Bosnian, of course, but I had gone to such great lengths perusing the menu that I couldn’t possibly back out.

The mushroom incident was still fresh in my conscience when I went to the Meet Bosnia agency the next day for the first of the tours I had booked through them.  During the period of planning my trip, and the anxiety which followed the Russian assault on Ukraine, the people from Meet Bosnia were extremely helpful and reassuring.  It would be impossible for me to go overboard with my praise of Sejla, who helped prepare my itinerary in the months leading to my journey, and Medina, who looked after me in the weeks before I arrived and kept in touch with me while I was in the country.  They made what could have been – and at times was – a daunting trip remarkably comfortable.  I spent the morning learning the phrase “drago mi je” (nice to meet you), reciting it in my head as I walked to the mosque to top up my bottle with fresh water.  It seemed the least I could do after all the help they had offered me.  Somehow, implausibly, everyone at Meet Bosnia was even more beautiful in person, and I melted (though unfortunately, Sejla had left her job before I arrived in the country.)  Medina asked me whether I would like to sit and wait in the office for 15 minutes until the driver who was taking us on our tour out to the Tunnel of Hope arrived or if I would prefer to go for a walk.  I told her that since I am Scottish and already struggling with the sunshine I would take advantage of the cool space while I could, however, she didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.  But then, why would a young Bosnian woman know about the stereotype surrounding Scottish people with our milky sun-averse skin?  How could she possibly have known that by two o’clock I had already topped up my Factor 50?

I am learning new things each time I walk around Sarajevo.  For example, the Clock Tower in Baščaršija is the only public clock in the world that shows lunar time in line with the Muslim Maghrib prayer, which is said at sunset and marks the beginning of a new day.  It needs to be reset manually.  The city had Europe’s first tram system, on account of the Austro-Hungarian rulers using Sarajevo as a trial site for the new transport network before introducing it to cities such as Vienna and Budapest.  All around the streets, it is difficult not to notice the blood-red craters which mark the pavements.  These are Sarajevo Roses, seen on the spots where a mortar shell has exploded and killed at least three people.  There was an average of 330 mortar strikes launched on Sarajevo every day of the siege, and the way the bombs fell on the ground is said to resemble a rose.  After the war ended, the concrete scars were filled with red resin to leave a permanent memorial to those who lost their lives at that particular place.  There are approximately 200 roses around the city.  As well as all of that, legend has it that whoever drinks water from the Sebilj [historical fountain] in Baščaršija will be destined to return to Sarajevo.  It’s one of those folk stories that sounds really silly when you hear it as an outsider, but you can’t help yourself from wishing it to be true.

One of the routines I very quickly established after arriving in Sarajevo was to make an early morning trip to the Pekara (bakery) to purchase a couple of pieces of bread to take and eat with a Bosnian coffee at a cafe in Baščaršija. I never thought that coffee was something I would need to be taught how to drink, but on one of my tours with Meet Bosnia I was forced to ask the guide to demonstrate the proper technique for drinking the stuff. When you order Bosanska Kafa, you are brought a copper tray that has the thick, dark coffee in the ibrik (a little pot), alongside a tiny mug and another pot which contains a handful of sugar cubes and sometimes a Turkish delight. It isn’t immediately obvious how one is supposed to consume the beverage. I had spent many minutes researching the various techniques before I left for Bosnia and learned that people have different ways of drinking their coffee. Some folk put a piece of sugar in the mug and pour the coffee over it; others dunk a cube into the coffee and bite it; some hold a small bit of sugar underneath their tongue as they take a mouthful of kafa. It’s all to take away from the bitterness of the beverage. I think I tried them all before deciding that I didn’t enjoy consuming whole cubes of sugar with my breakfast.

My pigeon Bosnian was making the trip to the Pekara a real game of Russian Roulette.  I don’t have the ability to read the small ingredient cards in front of each item, and whereas in most bars or restaurants you can usually find at least one person who has really good English, it seems to be a condition of employment in the bakery that the staff only speak the local language.  Honestly, I reckon the women behind the counter in these places could get anyone to confess to a crime they haven’t committed with just a glance.  Each morning I go in there, I just decide what looks good in the moment and point at it, hoping for the best.   As a result, I have eaten some salty pretzel-like bread; pastry filled with chocolate, apple, and even tuna.  Everything I have eaten from a Pekara has been tasty, but you are always left with the feeling that one of these days the gamble could go horribly wrong, like ending up with mushrooms on a pepperoni pizza.

Finding the best bread to eat for breakfast was surely not very high up on the list of priorities for the citizens of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1995, if it ever has been. When Armin hosted our ‘Fall of Yugoslavia’ tour, it quickly became clear how little a piece of bread can mean, even one that has been stuffed full with tuna. Our first stop was at the city’s former maternity hospital, which had been deliberately targetted and destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army during the war, when it was still a functioning facility, in an act that was termed “the battle of the babies.” I don’t know that there’s anything more chilling than seeing an old maternity hospital reduced to an abandoned, bullet hole-ridden wreck. In Oban, ours has become a boutique hotel, but even £295 per night for a sea view in Greystones seems like something you can stomach in comparison.

Following the tour that took us high up into the Trebević Mountain, where the disused bobsleigh track from the 1984 Winter Olympic Games lies decorated with graffiti, as well as out to the Tunnel of Hope – the tunnel dug underneath the airport that was the only means which allowed goods and weapons to be brought into Sarajevo during the almost four-year siege, and where I learned the benefits of wearing a safety helmet – I got talking to the man who happened to be the Aulay of Valter 071 pub, though in this case he was named Vladimir, or Vlad to his friends.  You wouldn’t have known that he was the owner of the bar from the way he was sitting outside drinking beer and chain-smoking with his friend, but I suppose that’s just what happens in Sarajevo.  He was surprised when I told him that I was visiting Sarajevo for 11 days.  “Why?  Nobody comes here for more than two or three days.”

Early in our interaction, Vlad mentioned that he fought in the war, which surprised me a little since he didn’t look any older than I am.  “I picked up a rifle for the first time aged 15,” he told me between drags on his cigarette.  It turns out that his father was fairly high up in the newly-formed Bosnian army when the siege began, and he was wounded three times while fighting.  I asked Vlad where his father was wounded, thinking it was an innocent enough question.  He rhymed off the names of three cities or small villages whose names were too difficult for me to write down, however, I had been wanting to know where on his father’s body he suffered his injuries.

Over another beer, Vlad described how he and his father are reluctant to talk these days about politics and their experiences in the war as they often have disagreements over the direction of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to tell him that I feel the same way when I am sitting in Wetherspoons with my dad and brother and the conversation inevitably turns to politics, but somehow that seems different to what he was talking about. The bar owner was at pains to deny being “Yugo-nostalgic”, although he went on to speak fondly of the way things were pre-1992, which isn’t any different to the way anybody else feels about their childhood. I don’t know if Yugo-nostalgia is such a terrible thing or not, but Vlad is not the only person I have met in Sarajevo who remembers the days of Tito with affection. I liked Vlad, but I found myself questioning whether I should have another beer with him when he complained that “everything here is for the fucking Muslims” – although it turned out that his wife is Muslim, so maybe he was just upset that he wasn’t allowed to watch the Bosnia versus Finland Nations League game the night before.

Vlad’s claim was that until 2016, everybody would practice their religion in their own homes and not in public; presumably a reference to the volume of women you see in Sarajevo wearing the hijab.  I found it hard to believe.  It is counter to everything I have read about the place in my research before coming here, but then Vlad has lived in Sarajevo all his life and fought for the city, so what would I know?  I drank one more beer with him and promised that I would be back at his bar before I leave.  You have to live some of your life in those grey areas to find some of the colour, after all, and after just a couple of days, I already had a sense that there is a lot of colour to be found in Sarajevo.

Coming soon:  Mostar (part two)

Information on the tours offered by Meet Bosnia can be found here (non-affiliated)

“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.