I first noticed it on Thursday following the first Lorne Bar quiz of the year. I was sitting on the end of my yoga mat putting my socks back on and looking every bit as limp as the fern on the coffee table to my right. Because it had been more than four weeks since I last took part in a pub quiz, I had just about forgotten how much of a struggle the hangover can turn the next day into. Often I would forgo my daily yoga practice on account of it, persuading myself that I was ‘too tired’ for a 30-minute exercise. My intention, if not my resolution, is to get better at sticking to my movement routine – mostly because I have found that days with yoga are much nicer than days without yoga, and the hangovers last longer without the mindfulness of half an hour on the mat. Effectively, I am trying to get in touch with my inner peace rather than my inner pissed.
My socks were coral pink and still a little damp from the rain, which forced me to immediately change out of them. Whilst peeling the socks from my feet again, I caught the distinctive whiff of smoke passing my nostrils. It was a peculiar thing to smell in my living room. While I could feel the burn from my side planks and tree poses, I knew that they weren’t sizzling that much. In the hallway, the aroma was so pungent that it could have been coming from inside my flat. For a moment, I was forced to convince myself that I hadn’t started smoking again. It was only a few beers after the quiz I kept telling myself, like it was a meditative mantra. Minds were only put at ease once I opened the door to my flat and found that the entire close smelled like a Marlboro production plant.
Usually the scent of cigarette smoke is inoffensive to me. In many ways, it is the thing I miss most about being a part-time smoker. The rest of the habit I found to be pretty disgusting and ultimately pointless, but I really enjoyed the smell of tobacco on my fingers – especially the morning after a night out. I could have lain in bed for hours savouring the space between my index and middle fingers. Sometimes it seemed a real pity to have to shower and lose everything that I had worked so hard for hours before. These days I find myself walking behind people on the street who are smoking and positioning myself in their slipstream, waiting to catch a puff of that sweet second-hand cigarette smoke, only to get a mouthful of wet melon or cotton candy. It is often tempting to wish for the vapers to walk into traffic.
In truth, my understanding of the physics of cigarette smoke is as paltry as the next person’s. I don’t know why the fragrance is so strong in my flat. There have been smokers living in the block before, but never anything like this. Considering that there was not a hint of smoke before I took to the floor for my yoga practice, it was remarkable that it would be so pungent less than thirty minutes later. They had to have blown through an entire packet of the things to create this much of a stink. You never get a neighbour’s batch of freshly baked bread or a homemade curry wafting under the door, at least not on Combie Street. What’s all the more difficult to comprehend is how the smell can be so overpowering in the living room and the hallway and for there to be no trace of it in the kitchen or the bathroom, the two rooms that have windows looking onto the garden. I also can’t smell it in the bedroom, but then nothing has ever been smoking in there.
If there was one positive to come from the unseemly smoke saga it is that it at least served to take my mind off the other matter which has threatened to consume the early part of my 2023. At the tail end of last year, my barber announced that his wife had accepted a new job in Dundee and the couple would be moving there in February, therefore closing the barber shop that he had opened in its current location more than thirty years ago. The news was swirling around my head like a cloud of nicotine. Some days it was all I could think about. Apart from the few years in late childhood and early teens when most boys seemed to get their hair cut at home, I have always gone to the same barber. It isn’t that he necessarily snips sideburns better than anybody else in town, that his scalpside manner is more entertaining, or that he keeps the best selection of newspapers for people to read while they’re waiting. Visiting the same barber for a lifetime is one of those things that men seem to do, the same way that we use only one butcher, trust the same tailor, or call on the same electrician. Mostly it is through laziness dressed up in the guise of “ach, he’s always done that for me.”
Throughout my adult life, I have never had to think about where I would get my next haircut. The laziness that I inherited from being born a male means that there has only ever been one person I could entrust with that job. Now my entire world has been blown up, it feels as though everything is all over the place, like my hair after a walk along the Esplanade on a February morning. I don’t know where to begin looking for someone to cut my hair. It’s not as if there can be an audition process – once a haircut has been fucked up, you’re forced to live with it until the next one. Apart from anything else, Oban these days seems to be suffering a dearth of traditional barbershops. There are plenty of hair salons and Turkish barbers, but very few old-school barbers. One of the guys who we play football with on a Monday night is a Kurd who works for one of the many Turkish barbers in town and I have considered taking my short back and sides to him, but I worry that it is enough being skinned by him on the football pitch without being skinned in the style that Turkish barbers are known for.
I went for my final cut on the morning of the latest Let’s Make A Scene open mic night, where I read a piece concerning the storage of my herbs and spices that sparked an intense discussion around the room. When I arrived in the barbershop on Saturday morning, there was already a student in the chair who had enough hair to help his secret lover scale a tower. I worried that I might miss our family’s weekly coffee at eleven, but to my relief, the young man was only in for a minor procedure. Taking my seat in the barber’s chair for the last time was a curious feeling. It was tempting to ask about getting a little more taken off to make up for the barber’s imminent departure, and were it not for genetics giving me a sparse head of hair as it is I probably would have.
Although this was definitely different to any other time I have been in the barber’s over the years, it was also exactly the same as always. As the sound of the clippers began to buzz around my ears like a determined bee, the barber told me about how he had recently entered into an eBay auction for an antique guitar. He was mostly just curious to see how much the vintage instrument would sell for, but as things developed his bid ended up being the winning one. I don’t remember how much he told me he paid for the guitar, which he believed he could sell for a profit in a few months anyway, but I know that I was suddenly thinking that £10 for a haircut doesn’t seem so outrageous after all.
While the barber was initially sceptical about his and his wife’s move to Dundee, he has recently found himself warming to the new life ahead of them. He is seeing it as his retirement and is planning on hanging up his scissors and working a small part-time job to allow him to pay for things like antique guitars. “I won’t even be telling people that I used to cut hair for a living,” he told me in a way that made it sound as though he is going on witness protection.
“If anybody asks what I did in Oban, I’ll tell them that I used to work in the distillery rolling barrels. Nobody asks any more questions after telling them that.” This has always been one of his favourite things to say. You usually hear him bring it out when he’s about to go on holiday to Italy or Spain. I’ve never fully understood why being a barber is something that he feels the need to be so secretive about, but I believe that it’s out of a fear that once people know that you can cut hair, they will start asking you if you can do them. Before you know it, you have a queue of folk looking to have their hair cut. I’m not convinced that’s the way it works. You might be on the flight to your sunny destination when another passenger takes unwell and the cabin crew ask if anyone on board is a doctor, but you never hear emergency requests for a hairstylist.
I don’t know if I’ll find another barber in town who has the same turn of phrase and the ability to turn a haircut into an adventure down all sorts of rabbit holes. The last hair was snipped on the back of my head, and the barber asked me to put my glasses back on and review his handiwork. This always struck me as the most awkward part of the haircut process. There isn’t a lot anyone can do about a terrible haircut when the hairs are on the floor of the barbershop. Like asking how a meal was after it has been digested, or if a demolition job was suitable when you’re standing amongst the rubble. I said that I was happy with the haircut, and the barber handed me a tissue, which I presumed was for dabbing the stray hairs from the back of my neck and not the anticipated tears from my cheek. When I left, I was walking into a world of uncertainty, a place that wasn’t the same as it was twenty minutes before. For the first time, I was a man without a barber or any idea where my next haircut would come from. It was unnerving, no different to coming up from a downward dog and finding the scent of cigarette smoke in your living room.
I spent the afternoon of New Year’s Day with my laptop open on a PDF of the Argyll & Bute Council refuse schedule for 2023, setting a reminder on my phone for each date in the year that the bins would need to be put out for emptying. It isn’t that I don’t have anything better planned for the twelve months ahead. On the contrary, the Google Calendar app on my device is filled with a smorgasbord of activities. For example, on 28 January I will be performing at the first of our quarterly Let’s Make A Scene open mic nights; the Oban Beer Seller is hosting her second ‘The Love of Beer’ tasting event at The View on 18 March; by mid-April, I will have attended four gigs, which is as many as I made it to in the whole of last year; the fourth of those gigs will take me back to Dublin for the first time since 2018; I will be attending two wedding dances during the summer; and in June I’m planning on returning to Sarajevo.
My sudden enthusiasm for the bin schedule wasn’t born of a renewed concern for the environment or part of a New Year’s resolution. It wasn’t even the hungover equivalent of making a drunk purchase on eBay. By the first of January, I had arrived at the realisation that without a proper structure during the Christmas break from work, I collapse into anarchy. More accurately, when my daily routine revolves around going to the pub on as many nights as possible, things very quickly become shambolic. One night I might come home from the bar and stay up until the small hours watching music videos on YouTube and then lay in bed until after midday. On another, I’d start watching the Tarantino movie From Dusk Till Dawn and decide that midnight is a perfectly good time to open a tube of Pringles, reasoning that they are already in the cupboard anyway and what else are you going to do with them? Everything was a negotiation that concluded with the promise, “I’ll do better in January.” Chances are that I would have eaten pizza for dinner every day for two weeks if not for the fact that would have required the effort of leaving the flat to buy another one. The way I was living my life was as if my 16-year-old self had been put in charge. It was disgusting.
Filling my phone with serious adult tasks seemed like an easy win over the teenager who had assumed control of my life during the festive period; an acknowledgement that I was going to get back to leading a responsible lifestyle while knowing that I wouldn’t need to act on it for another couple of days yet.
The final Saturday of 2022 brought many of the same things that feature on any other Saturday night where nobody is spending their time watching the clock: food, drink, and music. A group of us went to The Lorne to eat our last meal of the year, where we amused the soulful barmaid who smiles as frequently as the traffic lights at Argyll Square used to turn red before they were fixed. We complained first that the starter of mussels cooked in a white wine and garlic sauce will have dashed The Algae Man’s hopes of receiving a kiss at the bells, and followed that up with the proclamation that we didn’t have any reason to laugh about it since one of us would be forced to take it on the chin, so to speak. The barmaid’s smile turned to a laugh, which left some of us wondering why we had waited until the last night of the year to be funny.
When we arrived in Aulay’s, the Plant Doctor and his better half had already taken residence at the table in the corner of the bar; a location they had purposefully chosen so that we could mark the one-year anniversary of New Year 2021, when three of us tested positive for Covid a few days after celebrating in that same spot. In truth, I hadn’t thought about the Covid corner in all the times I had been in the pub since, but then most sites of significance are usually marked with a plaque, whereas the most remarkable thing about this table is that it is the closest seat to the jukebox. It was intended as a funny moment of reminiscence, which it undoubtedly was, at least until nigh upon six days later when I registered a positive LFT almost a year to the day after my first bout with the virus. My illness this time felt far worse than in January 2022. The symptoms were much the same as before only stronger, and even now I can hardly walk the length of the street without being left feeling like a 1997 song by the popular Scottish band Texas. Of all the traditions that people in Scotland have to mark the turn of the year, being infected with an airborne contagion ranks right up there with never receiving a kiss on the bells as my least favourite.
It has always seemed to me that the pub on New Year’s Eve is exactly the way a theatrical production set in a pub on New Year’s Eve would look. Nobody is anyone you would recognise from any other night in the bar. They are all dressed in their finest outfit, some even wearing a kilt, ordering drinks like bottles of Peroni, port, or gin and tonic. The enthusiasm for the countdown to midnight – something that by my watch happens every day – is portrayed in the manner of the pinkest of ham actors. Sitting in the Covid corner dressed in corduroy and denim, we resembled the understudies; the people who turn up every night hoping that this one might be their turn. It’s a role we are well familiar with and we played it with all of our hearts, choking the jukebox with coins whilst drinking our fill of beer.
Last orders at the bar were called at 11.30, which meant that we left Aulay’s with around ten minutes left in the year. That gave us enough time to saunter along George Street towards the Oban Inn as crowds of people were gathering on the pavement to seek out the best vantage point for the imminent fireworks display. In the dark of the distance, a lone piper could be heard serenading the cold as a countdown from ten began to filter through the masses. I found myself stuck contemplating how it is that these things get started. After all, how could anyone be confident enough to kick off an accurate countdown to midnight when the clock in the town centre has been showing two o’clock for as long as anyone can remember? Get this one wrong and everybody’s year is out from the very beginning.
As the clock struck midnight, or close to it, fireworks erupted from the mouth of McCaig’s Tower and the sound of the horns from the CalMac ferries berthed in the bay pierced the night sky. People were exchanging wishes for the year ahead while tiny flakes of snow started to fall. It was a jarring juxtaposition to see snow as the sky was being lit up with rockets, one that surely would be easy to interpret as some kind of meaningful symbolism for the coming year if only we weren’t too drunk for that. I moved closer to the Rogerson Shoes store to get a better look at the scene as fireworks were sent up into the snowy sky above McCaig’s Tower, crackling and sizzling to the delight of whooping crowds. Even as someone who is never especially moved by a fireworks display, I could happily concede that this was the most spectacular one I’d seen all year.
Once safely entrenched in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn, we once again found ourselves surrounded by people we didn’t recognise; actors in a play. Where do people from Oban go on Hogmanay? In the end, we were ingratiated into a table of complete strangers. Amongst them were two Irish women who visit the town nearly every New Year; they could hardly have spoken more highly of their travels to the area. A couple of gentlemen from our group entered into conversation with the women at opposite ends of the table, and from afar it appeared as though their interactions were going well. For a time I was standing at the bar nursing a Jack Daniel’s, wondering if I might be the only one of us who was going home alone. Just as it was looking like 2023 might finally herald a change in fortunes for our group, the guys almost simultaneously learned that the Irish women are married to one another.
They were a charming couple who enjoyed regaling us with the story of their engagement. We were told about how the pair were walking along Eas a’ Chual Aluinn, which with a sheer drop of 658ft is the highest waterfall in Scotland, and indeed the entire United Kingdom. It was a breathtaking setting, one which inspired a marriage proposal. What really made the story sweet was the added caveat that to make the prospective wedding official, the recipient of the popped question had to ask for her partner’s hand in marriage in return. While it perhaps seemed like unnecessary additional bureaucracy, I thought it was a nice touch and told the couple as much.
“That sounds like the opposite of what Demi Moore received,” I commented as we were all walking towards Markie Dans, which turned out to be full. I was met with blank looks.
“What I’m saying is it was a decent proposal.” Much like our group’s luck with the opposite sex hadn’t changed with the beginning of a brand new year, it seemed that my streak of being able to make a woman laugh was going to be restricted to one night at the end of 2022.
After the blue recycling bins had been emptied and I was about over my brush with Covid, the first big event entered into my Google calendar was our planned leaving dinner for The Algaeman, who was departing Oban to take up a new career opportunity in Sweden. He had come into our lives barely a year earlier, just a fresh-faced boy from India. For a while it was hard to know what to make of him, the fact that our accents were barely decipherable to one another probably didn’t help. But over time he became an integral part of our group; always smiling, always up for a beer. If a social group can have a heart, then The Algaeman was ours. He put himself forward for everything we had an interest in, even our weekly game of indoor football despite, I suspect, having never previously seen a football. Aulay’s became a second home for him, where his early claims of never experiencing a hangover were soon in tatters once he was introduced to malt whisky. Before long he was like a puppy chasing a toy when the jukebox was turned on; always the first person with loose change in his hand, usually with a view to playing Eternal Flame by The Bangles or Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler. You could set your watch by it.
Organising a secret leaving dinner for someone who is always around and such a central part of the group became akin to a top-level military operation. At one stage I think we had at least four group chats on the go across Facebook and WhatsApp. We had to employ powers of subterfuge that I don’t think any of us knew we were capable of. The Algaeman’s last day in Oban coincided with The Plant Doctor’s birthday, and knowing how much the Sweden-bound scientist enjoyed celebrating other people’s birthdays, it was the perfect foil. As predicted, the closer we got to Friday the 13th, the more excitable The Algaeman was growing over the forthcoming birthday, as though he had just spied the jukebox loading up. He was eager to arrange a meal and put together a list of people who we could invite, oblivious to the fact that we had already booked The Waterfront Fishouse for fifteen. Eventually, we had to admit that there was a dinner planned, convincing The Algaeman that we were having a small gathering for The Plant Doctor’s birthday. A web of lies was spun in an attempt to stop him from going overboard. We told him that The Plant Doctor is bashful and wouldn’t appreciate a fuss being made over him, even that he doesn’t like cake, as if he’s some kind of sociopath.
The harshest untruth was the story we concocted to keep him out of Aulay’s before dinner to allow us to hang the flag of Sweden and put up our “we never liked you anyway” banner over the bar. None of us enjoyed having to be so dishonest to the sweetest and most innocent person we had ever met. In a lot of ways for me, it was no different to the deceit we pull off every winter when we’re convincing our six-year-old niece to eat all her breakfast otherwise Santa might not visit. It doesn’t seem right, but it’s necessary.
On the day of the dinner, we were updating our multiple group chats with The Algeman’s location, like a really underwhelming episode of the TV show 24. When the rest of us met in Aulay’s an hour before dinner to turn the place into a territory of Sweden and gather signatures inside his copy of the book Morvern Callar, The Algaeman was off the grid. Nobody had seen him in hours, and he had turned down an offer to meet The Nut Tax Man in Wetherspoons to keep him off our scent. We feared that the lure of the jukebox would prove too strong and he would walk into Aulay’s and catch us all in the act of planning his surprise leaving night. As it turned out, The Algaeman arrived late to his own leaving dinner because he was saying goodbye to a friend and shopping for a gift for The Plant Doctor’s birthday. Nothing could have summed him up more.
People come and go in life, like New Year’s Eve, fireworks displays, and snow flurries. Some disappear, never to be seen or thought of again, like bad actors in a terrible play. Others leave an indelible imprint, a touching decent proposal and a total eclipse of the heart. That was The Algaeman. For all the dates filling up my Google calendar at the beginning of 2023 and as much as there is to look forward to, it will be a very different year without The Algaeman.
Our final game of indoor football before the festive break was played on the Monday night following a three-day weekend that resembled a line from the hit 1997 song Tubthumping by Chumbawamba. There had been the office Christmas party on Friday, a Saturday night spent in Aulay’s, and the rare occasion of a World Cup final taking place on a Sunday in December, all of which combined to produce the most torturous hour of my life in Atlantis Leisure. It’s challenging enough trying to compete against your ageing body without adding extreme amounts of whisky drinks and lager drinks to the equation. The five-a-side game, from my perspective anyway, was less decking the halls with boughs of holly and more decking the halls with balls of folly. By the time it had mercifully been brought to an end, my shirt must have been drenched with enough Jameson to refill an empty bottle.
When I awoke on Tuesday, my nostrils weren’t filled with the usual scents of the season, such as a coal fire, pine trees, mulled wine, or mince pies, but rather the air was pungent with the deep heat gel I had applied generously to my aching leg muscles. In some ways, it came as a surprise that this was the first time I was using the heat rub in several weeks. First of all, the warming sensation of the gel was most welcome amidst the freezing temperatures of the last week and it turns out is probably at least as cost-efficient as turning on the heating. Apart from that, the weekend just passed brought the first snowfall of winter in the area, which in turn had left much of the town’s pavements unwalkable due to the ice. It seemed miraculous that a painful injury never occurred, particularly with my history.
Heavy snow, like a really hot summer or a woman accepting an invitation to go out with me, is always something that happened “around ten or eleven years ago” whenever it is talked about. It’s memorable in so much as you know that it occurred but is rare enough for it to be uncertain when. It was maybe around 2009 or 2010 when Oban experienced the most dramatic snowstorm that I can remember. The stuff was several inches deep when it first fell on a Saturday evening, and another coating was added to it on Sunday afternoon. In my memory, it lay around the street for days afterwards, and the ice was especially troublesome. That was the year frozen water joined the top tier in my list of nemeses, alongside mushrooms and people who stand at the traffic lights by a busy road and don’t think to press the button.
I was working as a supervisor in the Co-op supermarket at the time, which involved starting at six o’clock in the morning to take in deliveries and prepare the store for opening at seven. The walk down from Lower Soroba was like something out of a comic book sketch. I left home with all the confidence of a man who had never fallen on ice, and by the time I’d reached the bottom of our street I had hit the tarmac. I fell again just outside the hospital, then for a third time at the traffic lights opposite the high school. My tailbone was the shade of a ripened plum, but even it wasn’t as bruised as my pride. The only comfort I could take from the ordeal was that it had taken place under the cover of darkness and so there were no witnesses to my calamity. With that in mind, I could probably have gotten away without anybody ever knowing about the failure of my feet, but I was soon betrayed by the wince on my face whenever I moved an inch.
Ice has been my mortal enemy ever since that December morning. There is nothing I dread more than the prospect of having to go somewhere on a frozen pavement. A 39-year-old man, afraid to walk. Much of the snow in the town centre had turned to a slush the colour of dishwater when I was going home from the office party in the early hours of Saturday morning. It was deceptive, however, and the conditions underfoot were treacherous. On George Street, I walked past an abandoned shoe shortly before I almost lost my own footing, while on Combie Street a wheelie bin was on its side. How anybody loses a shoe on a night out has always baffled me. A scarf or a wallet I can understand, but how do you not notice that one of your feet is wetter than the other? By Saturday when I went to my dad’s in Lower Soroba, I was filled with fear. The Facebook page Information Oban was teeming with posts from people who were warning of the dangerous state of the pavements and car parks and bemoaning the shortage of available grit.
I knew it was bad when I walked around the corner to Lidl to pick up my morning rolls and found myself gripping the rail at the back of the loading bay the way a nervous child clutches a comforting favourite toy. It was impossible to travel anywhere with any kind of grace or poise, or at least it was for me. Others seemed to be managing it just fine, striding along without a worry in the world. I used to be like them, I thought. Now I find myself hating anybody who shows just an ounce of composure on a frosty street. I heard a lot about the 1984 Winter Olympic Games when I visited Sarajevo earlier in the year, and now I was being forced to channel Torvill & Dean just to be able to eat a bacon roll.
Walking back into town from Soroba, several beers deep on Saturday night, was one of the most challenging expeditions I have embarked upon. A rain shower on the frozen pavements earlier in the evening had left the surface glistening under the streetlights like a jewellery store window. Nothing has looked as menacing. If I had put as much focus, concentration, and determination into other aspects of my life as I did into staying upright on that walk home then there’s no telling what I could have achieved. There were points where the pavement looked so terrifying that there was no option but to walk on the road. Having weighed up the potential outcomes, I guess that being struck by an oncoming car was preferable to the embarrassment of falling on my arse again.
Making it all the way to Aulay’s without incident felt like the greatest triumph I have experienced all year, maybe beyond. It was certainly worthy of a celebratory pint. The bar was thriving with festive revelry; groups of work parties filled the booths while stragglers boogied in the space between the jukebox and the ladies’ bathroom. In a moment of surrealism from a virtual stockingful of them, someone selected the Marilyn Manson song mOBSCENE to act as the soundtrack to the Christmas scene. One woman approached the bar and reached into her shirt to find the drinks order for her table. Then she pulled her phone out from in there, and finally, after a prolonged period of fumbling around, she produced the kitty the group had collected to pay for their drinks. I was mesmerised by the act, struggling to come to terms with the idea that this approach was any easier than carrying a bag. The longer she spent searching for the next item, her torso resembling a bedsheet when a puppy has become trapped underneath and it’s trying to wrestle its way free, the more curious I became to see what would come out. When a magician performs the trick where they pull tissue from their sleeve, you know that the paper is eventually going to run out, but with this, it genuinely felt as though it could go on all night.
Later, a group of young women came in to toast a birthday. One of them was wearing a large badge which was emblazoned with the number 22, presumably to indicate that she was just turning twenty-two. She ordered a glass of pink gin and asked the barmaid if she could “down this in the toilet.” Just when you think that you have heard everything in Aulay’s, someone will always come along and prove you wrong. Sure enough, she waded through the mass of bodies and took her drink into the bathroom, emerging moments later with an empty glass and a look on her face that would have matched mine after I made it down Soroba Road unscathed. The unusual request was all I could think about for the rest of the night. I can only imagine that it was part of some social media challenge that an older person like me wouldn’t understand.
Some form of normality was restored a few days later when, in Aulay’s after the final Lorne pub quiz of the year, Geordie Pete was seen for the first time in many months. It would be a stretch to classify it a Christmas miracle, but I don’t think any of us expected to see Pete in the bar again, and there can’t be many things that are more warming than his big, toothy grin. His smile belied the fact that he was using a crutch due to an injury he had recently sustained. Pariss reached over from behind the bar and asked him if she could borrow the instrument. She disappeared into the public bar with it, and we were left to assume that she had a troublesome customer who she was needing to resort to extreme measures to convince to leave. However, she returned moments later with the crutch wrapped in a sparkling string of red tinsel.
Initially, Pete didn’t like the Christmas crutch, since red is the colour of Newcastle’s fiercest football rivals Sunderland, but he quickly warmed to it and was seen showing it off around the bar like an excited kid with a new toy. I couldn’t help but feel a little envious. The crutch was colourful and striking; a charming piece of festive fun that would make for a real talking point as an accoutrement to my tweed jacket. People have recently been telling me that I dress like a disgraced geography teacher, and the Christmas crutch would surely change all that. Maybe I was too fast in trumpeting my recent transformation into Torvill & Dean at the 1984 Winter Olympics. Deep heat soothed me on Monday, but ice might have been my friend after all. There’s a Christmas message in there about embracing your fears and you never know what might happen, which is probably easier to get behind than the one about an Instagram Reel featuring you downing a glass of gin in a public toilet.
While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years. It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought. These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep. Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different. For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.
There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on Hogmanay. Did they change the rules after Christmas? Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember. Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party? I could have sworn that was the year before. 2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022. Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year? I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then. Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe. Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books. What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?
Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now. It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident. You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know. People have more important issues to be thinking about these days: The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.
Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.
The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off. We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour. A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves. A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find. Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess. That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.
Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos. We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place. Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade. On this night, however, it belonged to us. Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation. We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground. It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.
Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me. She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line. It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance. I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.
The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around. She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear. People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them. This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing. I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.
I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket: my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook. Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it. She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself. “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.
Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.
Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual. It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all. Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground. People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements. Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.
We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine. Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display. Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets. The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.
The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019. I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year. When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid. Everyone is doing their best to recover that time. Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered. In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila. Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either. I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night. My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room. Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner. There are some things that are best forgotten.
In these days where turning on the news or opening your social media brings yet another wave of stories about energy price caps, inflation, the cost of living, markets collapsing, or interest rates soaring, it feels more important than ever to take all the pleasure you can from the small things in life. At least, that’s the only explanation I have for why I was standing at my bathroom sink for what seemed like several minutes one morning this week staring straight into a freshly opened jar of Lidl’s own brand moisturiser. It was so perfectly smooth and unblemished. I imagine that I was viewing the cream the same way some people peel back the paper on a new tub of butter and admire how nice it looks. That moment when your knife skims across the surface to make the initial disruption in the butter is such a quietly satisfying one. For the first time I can remember, I caught myself looking at the pure white moisturiser and questioning if I was even worthy of spoiling it by applying it to my face.
The thing is, it wasn’t the cream’s flawless appearance that had me reluctant to take my finger to it like a knife through butter, it was the new label on the plastic container. It used to go under the name ‘Vitality Regenerative Day Cream’, which was neat and uncomplicated for a man who was new to the concept of moisturising. Such is the way of life in 2022, however, things don’t tend to remain simple for very long. The cream had been rebranded and is now known as ‘Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream’. Nothing stays simple, you see. This had me questioning everything from why I need to moisturise at all, to Lidl’s marketing department, and what am I doing with my life anyway. Most of all, I couldn’t understand why I would need my cheeks to be extra firm. The cheeks on my butt, yes, but the cheeks on my face? It didn’t make any sense to me, but the tub was already open by this point, so I sliced my finger right through it.
I’ve never been one to let anything go to waste; you can’t afford to when you’re a single occupant. I’ll squeeze every penny of value I can out of my goods, whether it’s a tube of toothpaste or a lemon. This prudence seems all the more necessary now that we’re experiencing this cost of living crisis that everybody is talking about. Last week, just days after the new UK Government’s mini-budget caused the pound to crash, markets to panic, pensions to evaporate, and interest rates to rise, I received a letter from my bank reminding me that my original mortgage deal will end in February 2023. I mean, the timing alone was like rain on your wedding day or a black fly in your Chardonnay. From March, I will be paying interest on my loan at the Standard Variable Rate of 4.99%, rather than my current fixed rate, which is 3.92%. The difference is the cost of a decent night in Aulay’s. With a variable rate of interest, anything can happen. In theory, I could be making a different payment every month for the rest of my term. I’d be as well writing my future budgets behind a scratchcard.
Money is far from the greatest concern in my life, though. I’ve found that you can have a lot more fun if you don’t even think about it. Time spent with friends and family is where true wealth is found, and of late I’ve been rolling in it like Scrooge McDuck. I didn’t know The Algaeman before the turn of the year. In fact, I can’t pinpoint exactly when we all met him, but he has become a constant in our Friday nights. It is difficult to imagine a time before The Algaeman was part of our group. He smiles all the time, which is useful when it comes to helping me believe that at least one person has found something I’ve said funny. The fact that he smiles isn’t all that distinguishes him from the rest of us. When we are lined along the bar in Aulay’s, we could easily be described as a coffee shop order of four glasses of milk and a chocolate milkshake. His Indian accent is one I have come to associate with pure, undiluted joy, while his words are almost musical. One night recently, we taught him all about the word cunt. It was a beautiful thing to hear him repeat it over and over again, and before long, there was cunt being thrown around like confetti.
The Algaeman recently submitted his Master’s thesis after a year of hard work, giving us all cause for celebration. We joined him in the Whisky Vaults on Friday, where the staff were busy erecting a large tent in preparation for their German-themed beer event Oktobanfest the next day. It’s amazing to see what finally completing a 36,400-word, 160-page paper does to a person, having a similar effect on The Algaeman’s complexion as dipping your finger into a tub of Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream. I was feeling just as buoyed when I learned that I had been included in the acknowledgements section of his thesis. Even if the mention was only for my ability to make an appearance in Aulay’s every Friday, it still represents my best chance of ever having my name published in print.
Most of the people in the bar were also marine scientists from SAMS, except for myself and the only man who I have ever seen being forced to pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern. We took a seat at the end of a table opposite two women we had never met before. I sat down and, for reasons that might seem peculiar with hindsight, decided to break the ice by announcing that “we may as well make this as awkward as possible.” One of the ladies smiled the way someone does when you tell them a piece of distressing news and they don’t know what they can say to reassure you.
Knowing that SAMS is the most multinational institution in town, and having heard an unfamiliar dialect in the woman’s voice, I attempted to advance the conversation by asking her where she is from, anticipating an exotic answer such as Portugal or Spain. “Nairn,” came the response. It transpired that the accent I was hearing was English, one that had been passed down from a parent. Even by my standards, it felt as though the interaction was going terribly, though it recovered enough for me and the nut tax man to glean some of the most interesting pieces of information I have heard in a while. We learned that she was named after one of the Shetland Islands, just like her two older siblings, and that because her parents couldn’t decide on a name, the midwife who helped deliver her chose one for them. I couldn’t get over the pressure the nurse must have felt in that moment. It’s one thing to deliver a healthy baby, but to then give it the name that is going to follow the person for the rest of their life is a whole other level. I thought about the way that I can barely come up with something original to write in a birthday card, when a name is going to be repeated on every card a person ever receives.
Naming is a complicated business, as we discovered when we tried to talk to one of the other women from SAMS who was at the table. She was Italian and not yet fluent in her English, so much of what was being said wound up getting lost in translation. Even trying to find out which part of Italy she is from was an ordeal which resulted in the entire group striving to explain why I had asked which part of the boot she comes from. It didn’t get any easier when we had a go at talking cuisine; specifically what her region is best known for. Alan told a story about a friend of his whose surname is Gateau. This guy had a pizza named after him in an Italian restaurant he ate in often. Our companion was incredulous at hearing this. She couldn’t understand anyone naming a pizza Gateau, no matter how many different ways Alan tried to explain that it is true. It felt as though someone could have written an entire thesis on the concept of how things get their name in the time that passed before someone at the table came to realise where the confusion was coming from: the Italian word gatto is a male cat, and the woman couldn’t comprehend why Alan was talking about a cat pizza. It was easy to see why the idea was ridiculous.
Like completing a thesis, the first day of October doesn’t come around very often. This year, the Whisky Vaults marked the beginning of the tenth month with Oban’s first Oktoberfest. They had a menu of seven different German-style beers, as well as a selection of barbequed meats, and people dressed in traditional festival attire. We sat outside under the tent that was covering most of the beer garden. To begin with, the sound of the rain pattering against the roof sounded like tiny baby steps, though after six beers they could just as easily have been from an elephant. We opened with a wheat beer, the sort that could be enjoyed for breakfast if breakfast was at five-thirty in the afternoon. We were joined briefly by a Canadian marine biologist who told us that she had tried five of the beverages on offer, recommending the caramel-tasting Red Lager. She wondered how many we had sampled, though having just arrived we were at the start of our beer journey.
“This is just our first,” I said. “But I hope I’m looking as good as you are after five.”
I am never so nakedly flirtatious, and I’ve no idea what possessed me to be in that moment. What’s worse is that it was impossible to tell how it was received. The Canadian smiled shyly before walking away from the table and returning to her group. Who knew whether I had complimented or offended her? Even apart from that, it was ridiculous for me to think that I could look as good as anyone after five pints, let alone an effervescent young woman. All the Vital Beauty Anti-Ageing and Extra Firming Day Cream in the world won’t do that. I returned home hours later, the remark still playing on my mind. To distract me, I put on the 1980 film Airplane! and opened a Tennent’s Lager, placing the can on my coffee table next to the letter from my mortgage lender. It’s still the most reliable way for me to see any interest.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.