To Sweden with love

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.

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Homage to the 1984 Winter Olympics

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.

After midnight

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 HogmanayDid 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.

Bumbled lines

Bingo is one of those pastimes that I could never imagine enjoying.  Some things you just develop a notion that they aren’t for you and so you don’t bother wasting your time trying them.  I know that there’s nothing I’m ever going to need from one of the local tourist shops such as Highland Experience or Thistle Do Nicely and I’ve never stepped inside them, for example.  In my mind, based on nothing other than reputation, M&S is much more expensive than the budget meals I can put together from Lidl, so I don’t go shopping there, not even to browse.  Nobody needs to be exposed to the sight of my downward-facing dog, which is why I stick to doing yoga in my living room rather than attending a class.  People have a pretty good knack for knowing these things, or at least thinking they do, and so it is with bingo.

Previously when I thought of bingo I imagined dank, dusty halls reeking of Bacardi and L’Oréal; tables of competitive elderly women with screeds of bingo books spread out before them like a road map, the furious sound of dabbers and tutting heavy in the atmosphere.  Nothing about it appealed to me.  It, therefore, came as a surprise when my sister held a bingo night to help raise funds for her Happy Wee Health Club and I found that it is quite a lot of fun.

The bingo came at the end of the first week following the end of British Summer Time, when the night was continuing its relentless march as the daylight shrivelled and curled up at either end. Temperatures were moving in the opposite direction of energy prices, while hardly a night passed without me arriving home from my regular walk soaked through to my underwear. There is good reason why this is the only time of year I listen to the Guns N Roses song November Rain. Residents in some parts of town have complained that the streetlights in their neighbourhood haven’t been working since the clocks changed, whereas Argyll Square has been brightly lit by the Christmas lights which aren’t due to be switched on for another few weeks. In years to come, when social scientists are studying the complete collapse of society, it is easy to see this being exhibit A.

It was on the Sunday after our most recent Let’s Make A Scene open mic event that things really began to take shape.  These weekends always follow the same pattern.  There was the triumph of Let’s Make A Scene, where I felt pleased with how the material I read from my notebook was received.  It’s always nice being told by people that they have enjoyed my set, even if at the time part of me is consumed with wondering why the audience laughed at some of the lines that I have never thought of as being funny but were almost entirety silent come the punchline to the story.  A more considered person than me might dissect their performance for the parts that got the most positive response so that the act is even better next time, but I’m usually so weighted with relief that I spend the rest of the night guzzling Tennent’s and don’t stop to think about how it went.  Retiring to the Oban Inn afterwards is usually my favourite part of Let’s Make A Scene.   I found myself chatting with a couple of ramshackle scallywags whom I had met for the first time, and I even left with a phone number scrawled in my notebook.  Though just like every other number I’m picking up these days, it was from a guy who is looking to play indoor football.

After the high invariably comes the low. Days do not come more diametrically opposed than Saturday and Sunday, especially on a Let’s Make A Scene weekend. I went from being surrounded by friends and an admiring audience to spending an entire day with only my fern for company, waiting for the washing machine to complete its cycle and at the same time preparing a goulash in the slow cooker. I hated the humdrum routine of it all. It used to be that I would revel in it, bundling myself up in a big blanket of misery. I would write page after page in my journal about the frailty of trying to position wet socks on the airer so that there’s enough space for everything; the annoyance of slicing a carrot and having pieces fly like shrapnel from the chopping board to the floor; the elderly man who stands at the bus stop across the road from my window at the same time every Sunday, seemingly waiting for a bus that never comes, and how that’s exactly like the punchlines to my jokes. But that isn’t me anymore. These days I live for the nauseous feeling I get before reading; the sound of an audience laughing, or even not laughing; the celebration of talking to new people and hearing words used in conversation that you hardly ever hear.

It’s easy to feel sorry for yourself when you’re hungover and you know that you’re not going to the bar again for another three days, even more so when it’s the Sunday that British Summer Time has ended and there’s an extra hour of monotony to deal with.  The comedown from the previous night was particularly harsh.  I couldn’t shake it, and I spent the afternoon swiping through Tinder, hoping for something to come along and drag me out of my funk.  However, it turns out that I’ve pretty much exhausted Tinder.  Nobody new in the Oban area ever appears, and even when they do, they inevitably don’t match with me.  Sometimes I hit the “expand your distance” button so many times that I am seeing users close to the border ‐ the border between England and Wales.  I grew so tired of it all that I downloaded a couple of alternative dating apps ‐ Bumble and Hinge ‐ and worked on creating a profile that would be less Bangor and more banging.

Bumble was the most appealing of the two.  Their premise is that female users hold all the cards, so when two people like one another’s profile, it is down to the woman to make the first move.  She has 24 hours to send her potential partner a message, after which time the match disappears.  I liked the idea of having the pressure of the opening line taken out of my hands, since on the rare occasion that I have ever been paired with someone on Tinder my introduction has almost exclusively been met with either no response or being unmatched.  This way seemed better for everyone.

I took some time to scroll through some of the many prompts the app offers you to complete to give other users a better idea of your personality.  Things like:  “I get way too excited about…”, “If I could eat only one meal for the rest of my life it would be…”, My personal hell is…”, “I’m a real nerd about…”, “I quote too much from…”,  “If I could have a superpower it’d be…”, or “I’m a great +1 because…”  I wanted something that would really stand out and show me for who I am, so I settled on the following three:

The quickest way to my heart is…

with a scalpel and a degree in cardiac surgery.

I promise I won’t judge you if…

you wear a black robe and a wig.  Hey, that makes you the judge, not me!

The world would be a better place with more…

action and a little less conversation.

Within ten minutes I reached the limit of maximum ‘likes’ allowed without a paid-for subscription in 24 hours and I never made a single match.  As far as I could tell, Bumble was exactly like Tinder, only with better jokes.  By the time the working week began and I was amongst people again, playing football and thinking about the pub, I forgot all about Bumble.  Some things you have a notion for, and I’d long known that dating apps just aren’t for me.  Which is why it came as a surprise when I awoke on Friday morning to find that not only had I made a match on Bumble, but she had sent me a message well within the 24 hour curfew.  According to her profile, Emma* is 28, based in Oban, and a fish biologist.  She appeared to be smart, funny, and attractive as all hell.  It seemed ridiculous that such a person could even be paired with me, let alone that she would get in touch.  I could hardly wait to read her missive.

“Hey,” it read.

That was it.  She hadn’t given me much to work with, though to be honest, I was too giddy to care.  In a way, I admired that she had found the perfect loophole in Bumble’s system.  The app only requires the woman to send the first message, there is nothing in the terms and conditions about it being a good message.  Emma* had managed to put the opening line pressure back onto me.  I read her profile once more, seeking the key piece of information that would help me formulate the perfect response.  I liked that there was nothing vague about her.  Some profiles on these apps are like a badly‐buttered slice of toast, where what little butter there is is concentrated in the middle of the bread and doesn’t come close to reaching the crust.  

In her bio, Emma* noted that she is a certified forklift driver, so I decided that I would ask her what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate. It seemed light enough to grab her attention ‐ after all, she must have seen the responses to my prompts ‐ whilst also enquiring a little about her. I thought it was a good opening message, but I decided to canvas opinion around the office before hitting send. After all, these are people who are either married, engaged, or in relationships. Almost universally, I was told: “why don’t you just ask how she is?” I wouldn’t hear of it. How are you? is the worst question. It is the “hey” of questions. You seldom receive a truthful response to it, unless everybody on the planet is “fine”. I refused to go down that route and instead stuck with my original gut instinct.

By the time our pub quiz team met in The Lorne to spend some of our hard‐earned £25 bar vouchers on a meal before heading round to The View for the bingo, I had not received a response from Emma*.  She doesn’t owe me anything, I attempted to soothe myself, and besides, she’d likely had a busy day.  With a bellyful of burgers and beer at a discounted bargain, we ventured forth in search of witty numerical calls and raffle prizes.  The scene in The View was nothing like what I’d been imagining all week.  It was bright, vibrant, and had the fragrance of just about any other bar.  The room was full of people, hardly any of them of pension age.  Overwhelmingly they were female, which immediately had me rethinking my attitude towards the noble pastime of bingo.  We each bought a book and a dabber, as well as enough raffle tickets to have our table resembling the ground outside a church after a wedding.  

Nobody has ever considered a bingo dabber to be the height of man’s engineering achievement, yet it defeated one member of our group.  Nobody saw it happen, but seemingly my brother struggled with the screw-off lid to such an extent that he ended up pulling it off with so much force that the green ink erupted all over the table.  Everything was green:  the table, his bingo book, his jeans, and his hands.  It was like watching Bruce Banner transform, and nobody knew what would happen if my brother got angry about this.  Our niece was incredulous with her amusement.

Despite having a book that was almost entirely ruined by the ink spillage, my brother managed to win a cash prize on a line in the only game that wasn’t covered by green.  I could scarcely believe that anyone could have that kind of luck.  As it turned out, most of the people at our table won a prize of some sort, either during the five rounds of bingo or in the raffle.  My niece drew the winning tickets out of the hat for the raffle, the proceeds of which were going to my sister’s Happy Wee Health Club.  She revelled in the role of pulling numbers out at random and delivering the prizes to the winning table.  Most of the time, she was coming to us.  By the end of the night it was getting embarrassing, and people from our group were returning goods to be redrawn, though I couldn’t be sure if the Nut Tax Man was just being overly sure of his own scent when he handed back the Jimmy Choo perfume set.  Other tables were jeering when yet another prize landed our way.  The whole episode was reminiscent of the Maryburgh meat raffle a year earlier where my niece once again had a skill for picking the raffle tickets that had been bought by her own family.  Just like then, I was one of the few amongst us who didn’t win a single thing all night.

Even though I wasn’t having any success, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the bingo.  It was tremendous fun.  What was noticeable was how deeply involved everyone became in the game.  There was tension as folk edged closer to winning a line or a house, drama, and no shortage of competitive action.  You immediately become engrossed in finding the numbers in your book as they are called as rapidly as a chopped root vegetable hits the floor in my kitchen.  I hadn’t afforded as much concentration to something since putting together my profile on Bumble.  Ultimately, when we convened in Aulay’s to analyse the night we’d just had, it transpired that I’d had as much luck on Bumble as at the bingo.  Emma* had unmatched me without ever telling me what a fish biologist does with a forklift certificate.  On Bumble, just as at the bingo, I couldn’t get a single line.

Usually these things don’t bother me.  I’m well used to not receiving a response on dating apps, or not making a match at all.  But these are always women from other parts of the country.  This was different.  Emma* lives locally; it somehow seemed more real.  In my head, I had already been dating her for most of the day, imagining all of the things we could be doing together.  I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that it hadn’t worked out.  People will always say that there are plenty more fish in the sea, but then, who would know about that better than a fish biologist?

*Emma’s name has been changed.

39 not out

That a man will attract some interesting looks when he walks into the bar holding a fern is just one of the lessons I learned on the recent occasion of my 39th birthday.  Of course, it isn’t every day that a man appears in Aulay’s carrying a leafy houseplant in his hand, but the eyeballing me and my fern took was something else, as though I was drunk driving into a handicapped space.  Sure, the scene had an element of farce to it, with me trying to navigate the busy bar to find a spot where I could rest my large birthday gift that wouldn’t intrude on anyone’s view of the football, but you’d think that people had never seen a 39-year-old man lovingly cradle a fern the way some of them were acting.  Maybe it was when I sat the ceramic pot down on the end of the bar and one of the leaves made a beeline for a glass of vodka and coke that things threatened to take a turn.  Eventually, it was decided that on the floor by the coat rack was the best place to store a fern until closing time.

On the face of it, the fern was a thoughtful present from my friends, but it felt like a cruel joke.  The fact that I can never keep a houseplant alive is almost as notorious as my ability to kill a flourishing interaction with the opposite sex.  All they had done was pass down a sentence on an innocent plant.  Some might say that by thirty-nine a man ought to be capable of showing some form of responsibility, and my friends clearly felt that I had a better chance of that with a fern than a female, but I wasn’t convinced.

A Tuesday afternoon is not my usual slot for getting my hair cut, though sometimes the head has to rule the heart and you are forced into breaking some habits.  My hair had grown into an unruly state that needed tending to before we went out for my birthday dinner in the evening, even if it was at the expense of the barber’s projected Saturday takings.  There’s always a fantastic story when you get into the barber’s chair, no matter what day of the week it is.  This time he told me about his recent holiday in Italy, which has resulted in an ongoing dispute with a popular package holiday operator.  In an effort to raise awareness of his struggle and to force the agent into refunding him the money he feels he is due, the barber is in the process of using the GoPro footage from his travels to produce a protest vlog of sorts.  It sounded extravagant, the means he was going to when most folk would simply fill in a form.  I wasn’t sure about it.  Something about the idea of a video blog made me uncomfortable.  What is it with people having the need to put every aspect of their lives online?  

The responsibility for organising the night out in celebration of my 39th birthday was taken into the hands of The Algaeman and the only person who I have ever seen pay the nut tax in the Tartan Tavern.  As far as I understand it, the sole condition they attached to their guest list, aside from that they would be our usual circle of friends, was that the invitees should be female.  Therefore it seemed pretty damning that the only women they could convince to join us for dinner were my sister and niece. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t thrilled to see them.  Everybody had a great time, and I could tell that my niece especially enjoyed having a larger than usual audience to play to.  She would wander between us like a trick-or-treater, performing for the gallery and seeking a response.  Her favourite game on this occasion was to unclip the gold chain from her purse and show us all how it could wriggle between her hands like a worm.  It was the sort of act that had endless amusement for a six-year-old, but for the rest of us, there was a limited shelf-life.  I foolishly suggested that, since the chain had clips at either end, it could be used to curate a pair of handcuffs.  Little did I realise that my niece would heartily take my advice.  With a relish I have seldom seen in anyone so young, she untangled the web of golden worms and wrapped the chain around my wrists, clasping it shut at either end.  As a jailer, she had done a pretty lousy job and my hands would still have been free if I wanted them to be, but there’s an unwritten understanding that you play along with these things.  I wrestled and struggled and proclaimed my innocence against the crimes I had been convicted of.  Then the waitress appeared with plates filled with pizza and pasta, and I sensed a way out of my predicament.  She placed a “Rio” before me – a pizza topped with all of the meats you can imagine – and I took my chance.  

“Would you happen to have the keys for these?”  I pleaded, holding my bound wrists up in the air.

“No.” The response was blunt. Not only was the rest of our food served by a much older and definitely more masculine employee, but we didn’t see the waitress anywhere for the rest of the night. There was a part of me that was feeling guilty for making the handcuff remark. Amongst our table, we imagined her fleeing to the city of Glasgow and beyond upon hearing my line, quitting her job and everything. I felt terrible about it. There will never be any way of us knowing why her shift ended at that exact moment, but much like with all of the games my niece will play, it is easy to join the dots. Perhaps there is a lesson there about the jokes you can attempt when you are 39.

Outside Bar Rio, on our way to Aulay’s to watch Celtic play RB Leipzig in the Champions League, the gang presented me with my fern.  I cannot think of an instance where I have felt both so touched and terrified at the same time.  I have been gifted a houseplant in the past, but that was a succulent which didn’t require much care or attention – and still it died within months of being introduced to the environment of my home.  The fern was different.  It was big, easily the size of a newborn baby, and a living, breathing being.  While it was nice that my friends trusted that I would be capable of looking after something so green, it has to be remembered that most of them are scientists who have been trained to consider the chance that all outcomes are possible, no matter how unlikely.  If there is a 98% probability of a houseplant dying within four months of falling under my guardianship, they’re going to look at the 2% prospect of it living for a year.

As far as the likely outcome of certain events goes, the Algaeman’s decision to drink his first-ever (and consequently second) cocktail was as predictable as the fate of my fern; a joke made to a waitress; a Celtic game in the Champions League.   When he first joined our group early in 2022, the Algaeman had a fresh-faced innocence about him.  He used to boast about how he had never experienced a hangover, though by summer that claim was flushed down the toilet when he arrived at work one Saturday resembling Linda Blair’s character in the Exorcist movie, only without the Satanic chanting.  We all knew how a dalliance with Passion Fruit Martini and a Strawberry Daiquiri would go, but sometimes you have to put your belief in that 2% chance.  Of course, on this occasion, the overwhelming odds proved to be correct once again, and the Algaeman was asleep on the table before half-time.

The thing about youth is that these setbacks are quickly brushed off as if they had never happened, and within minutes the Algaeman was leading a further presentation of birthday spoils.  A chorus of “Happy Birthday to you” barely rippled beyond our table as the group lit a ceremonial Colin the Caterpillar candle and stuck it into the flesh of a half-ripe mango.  It was a beautiful homage to the night a few of us were served a platter of sliced mango in the public bar, still the best time we have had in Aulay’s.  Next, I was presented with a copy of the book Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, which was another callback to a historic episode in the bar.  Inside, the paperback cover was signed by all of the people with whom I spend the majority of my time:  the bar staff in Aulay’s.

It wasn’t long after Celtic’s inevitable defeat that the jukebox was switched on and we could get down to business. If there’s one thing we do well as a group, it is feeding pound coins into the jukey. On the face of it, it seems an easy thing to do, but there is almost an art to playing the right song. It would be easy to revert to your favourite Ryan Adams track or to request No Pussy Blues by Grinderman on repeat, but in a pub full of people who don’t share your taste in music that can quickly come across as obnoxious. Not many folks can balance this quite as well as our own jukebox Romeo, who has an uncanny knack for pulling out the most obscure and yet perfectly-timed tracks, mainly from the nineties. Jimmy Nail, George Michael, Coolio, Limp Bizkit, Backstreet Boys. On this occasion, it was another boy band, Blue with their hit One Love. I’ve often longed to have the command of the jukebox that he possesses. His unflinching ability to find the ideal mood music on the touch screen has earned him the nickname Dirty Finger. He’s the Bond villain that you find yourself rooting for.

While I was busy keeping an eye on my fern by the coat rack and Dirty Finger was slipping silver into the slot of the jukebox, the Plant Doctor became engaged in conversation with a man who was wearing the green jersey of the South Africa national rugby team.  The guy was only passing through Oban for a couple of nights and had a keen interest in science, which made it easy to see why he was so eager to talk to a group of blokes who are in the field.  Since he invariably became part of of my birthday night, we asked him to sign the inside of my book, where his signature took up almost the entirety of the back cover.  He even used the loose leaf on the other side of the last page to write down his email address.

Perhaps with hindsight and the benefit of my 39 years of experience, I should have known that there was more to Randy Ron when he began talking to us about how all women are nothing more than succubus who are only interested in sucking the souls from men.  “Domineering soulsuckers” is the phrase I believe he used.  It’s the sort of thing that someone says and it sticks in your head for days afterwards, particularly in this instance where it’s clear that if all women are looking for is another soul to harvest, I am wasting my time making stupid jokes about handcuffs.  The pieces really fell into place when we were all going our separate ways at the end of the night.  I gathered my fern and was left alone with Ron, who was hoping for an after-party.  I explained to him that I was working in the morning, so I walked him to the taxi rank, where he was seeking a ride to a destination in town he wasn’t familiar with.

“Can you tell me how I get here?”  He asked, handing me his phone, which was open on a text message he had received from a guy who had provided him with an address, followed later by the information:  “I’ve just gone to bed but the door is open.”

When we all reconvened in Aulay’s on Friday night, a handful of days older than 39, the rest of the gang was curious to know how I had gotten on with Ron and if I had been able to “shake him off.”  It was an odd question when I hadn’t thought of him as being a nuisance in any way.

“He seemed to have taken a shine to you,” they said.  “He even asked Dirty Finger if he would mind him going home with you.”  I was shocked, and more than a little annoyed.  I mean, here’s this guy who was presumably attracted to me, yet he’s arranging a rendez-vous with somebody else the entire time.  Of all the lessons I learned during the week of my 39th birthday, discovering that I can’t even be hit on by a guy was the harshest.  If it’s true what they say about life beginning at forty, then I have finally entered the embryonic phase of my existence.  If I am on the cusp of a period in my life filled with new and exciting experiences, I’m not saying that I want any of them to be with gay men, but it would be nice if they could at least hit on me right.

I will be reading excerpts from my notebook at Let’s Make A Scene at the Corran Halls, Oban on Saturday 29 October. The link is below if anyone feels like checking it out.

https://fb.me/e/2UDEFlG0L

Interest like confetti

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.

It turns out that the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is Capitalism.

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.

Pure morning

Monday 12 September 2022:

Tonight we played our tenth week of indoor football in Atlantis.  Our game has grown quite significantly during that time.  In the beginning, we were eight men with a severe lack of fitness and no footballing ability who knew each other primarily from the pub; now we are fifteen men who met mainly through the pub, are a little fitter than we were but still have no footballing ability.

In those ten weeks, we have played with a Frenchman, a Belgian, a Polish schoolboy, and adopted a Turkish barber originally from Iraq who is so much better than the rest of us that he has taken to finishing games playing in his socks.  Our squad currently consists of, I think, four scientists, two accountants and six spectacle wearers.  It is the most placid collection of individuals you could care to meet in a leisure centre, yet people have suffered strained quadriceps, bruised ligaments, damage to their fingers, and on one occasion, a dislocated shoulder.  We aren’t a competitive bunch, but I guess if you throw a ball into a hall for a dozen or so men to chase after, these things are bound to happen.

Despite the rash of injuries, people seem to be enjoying the weekly game, so much so that there has been some discussion of potentially playing twice a week.  Apart from anything else, it seems that before long, hiring the hall for an hour is going to be cheaper than paying for heating at home.  Tonight I scored for the second time in ten weeks, which although a paltry tally when compared to most of the other players in our group, is a much more prolific return than in other areas of my life.

Tuesday 13 September 2022:

Other than the indoor game in Atlantis, there hasn’t been a great deal happening over the last few days. It has been an unusual time. There has been nothing on the television, sporting events across the UK have been postponed, the cinema was closed on Friday night, and even the Oban Pride Festival was cancelled over the weekend. To fill the void, I have found myself spending a lot of time listening to the 1986 album released by The Smiths. The title track is a classic, and surely one of the best-ever opening songs on an album.

Wednesday 14 September 2022:

After a fairly successful streak sometime around July, The Unlikely Bawbags are on a barren run at the Lorne pub quiz.  If we don’t win we are usually close, though there was one week where we fell down the rankings as far as fourth or fifth.  Tonight we were second, a point off the eventual winners.  It’s frustrating when that happens, and we’ll spend some time afterwards dwelling over it, trying to count the points we could have won if only we’d made different decisions and gone with the right answers; but this time there really wasn’t any more we could have done.

Despite telling anyone who would listen that I was going to have a refrained night on account of my plans to travel the following day, I once again ended up in Aulay’s after the quiz.  The winning team, Quiznae Me, were there celebrating their success.  It was all I could do to sit at the end of the bar and furiously contemplate what might have been.  Over the froth of a Tennent’s Lager, I watched as an elegantly dressed woman approached and ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio.  She remarked to her friend that she had recently made the switch from red wine to white, and the reason why became the question I most wanted answering for the night.  There’s little more fascinating to me than the thinking behind the seemingly mundane decisions people make, usually because it leads to an exchange of other similarly beige nuggets of information.  For example, the wine-quaffing quiz winner told me that she had been finding that red wine was going straight to her head, but that the green grape isn’t nearly as potent.  I noted that the glass of white wine she was clutching in her hand complimented the colour of her nails, which she told me had been manicured for the very first time the previous week.  I learned that the process behind picking a colour for your nails is broadly similar to when you enter a hardware store and you’re seeking the perfect tin of paint for your new kitchen.  The buyer goes in and thumbs through a colour chart which gives them the opportunity of seeing how a certain shade looks against their finger before having the material applied for real.  On this occasion, the woman had gone for a colour which resembled sand on a beach before it becomes wet, since she considered it a safe option for her maiden manicure.  

“Would it impress you if a guy could tell you that your nails are shellac?”  I enquired, immediately dispensing my only piece of nail knowledge, kindly offered to me years ago by a young woman who was standing in almost exactly the same spot when she insisted that a female would enjoy it if I could point out that “they’re shellac, bitch.” 

“I don’t think it would.  I don’t even know what shellac is, and I’d probably be busy wondering why the guy knows.”  My demeanour darkened, though in truth, I don’t especially know how to identify a shellac nail either.

The wine drinker has a pleasing, peaceful aura, and she smiles as often as the traffic light on Argyll Square turns red.  She told me that she has recently embarked on a new initiative to do one thing each week as a treat to herself.  Last week she had her nails done, while this week she visited a hairdresser for the first time since the pandemic began.  She picked up her drink and made to return to her group.  “Thank you for the great conversation,” she said in parting.  I didn’t know how to respond.  Nobody had ever thanked me for talking to them before.  I took it as a treat for myself.

Thursday 15 September 2022:

France’s largest air traffic control union, the SNCTA, has called a strike for tomorrow. Ordinarily, these things wouldn’t bother me and I would find myself on the side of the underpaid worker, but I was due to travel for a weekend break in Sarajevo, and the elaborate route I had sourced was to take me from Glasgow to Dublin, onwards to Paris and finally to Sarajevo. The final flight has been cancelled due to the strike action. I wasn’t looking forward to the journey itself, since it was going to require a seven-hour overnight stop in Dublin Airport followed by a further six-hour wait in Paris Beauvais, but I was excited for my brief return to Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than anything, I was keen to see some of the friends I had made there during the summer: Aid, Kenan, Medina, and the bar staff at Gastro Pub Vucko. To have the trip cancelled so close to departure was disappointing, but I suppose it was better than learning about it upon arrival at the airport. The task now is to find a way to enjoy the weekend that will keep me from mourning that I am not in Sarajevo.

Friday 16 September 2022:

On days like this, Oban scarcely looks real; more like a series of postcards have been pinned to the horizon in some dramatic exhibition.  McCaig’s Tower pierces the sky, leaving barely a scratch in the pinball blue.  From up there you can see for miles, islands in the distance are exposing themselves to the sun.  The sun itself dances provocatively on the surface of the still sea.  Beer gardens and al fresco dining areas are doing a roaring trade, pavements packed with the sudden jolt of tourists who spy a photo opportunity, while on the Esplanade, a couple with an A3 pad sprawled across their knees are sketching the scene on the bay.  I guess that’s easier than writing a thousand words.

In the evening, I joined a few friends in attending the Pictish Trail gig in The View.  I had listened to only a small amount of the Island of Eigg native’s material before the night, but there was enough of it to span two sets:  the first a solo acoustic warm-up for the full-band, lo-fi psychedelic folk experience that followed.  It was pretty great; energetic, interactive, and a lot more fun than I could ever have expected the performance to be.

Saturday 17 September 2022:

I like to buy whichever vegetable Lidl has on offer and then Google what I can do with it.  This week they are selling courgettes for £1.29 per kilo, which weighed out at 37p for the courgette I picked out.  The extent of my typical recipe search is usually to ask the internet for suggestions of pasta dishes I can cook using that week’s vegetable.  Easily the most awkward part of my shopping experience today was when I was approaching the sale items in the fresh produce aisle and the song Je t’aime moi non plus by Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin began playing in my earphones.  The track is the audio equivalent of reading the articles in Playboy Magazine.  To my memory, it is the first time that I have been checking a courgette for firmness while hearing the sound of a female breathing heavily in my ear. 

I added the song to my monthly Spotify playlist due to an incident that occurred in Aulay’s last Friday. Amongst our group, we had become aware of three French women who were seated at a table in the corner of the bar. Given that most of us have no idea how to approach a table of French women, we were feeling pretty hopeless. Eventually, it came to me that the best way of communicating them might be through the true language of love – music – and so I dropped a pound in the jukebox and played the LaBelle classic Lady Marmalade. The song appeared to delight the damsels since they were seen dancing at their table, though they presumably never acknowledged our existence on account of there being no way of knowing who has requested which song. Besides, I had become distracted by our usual game of themed playlists and followed Lady Marmalade with Sugar, Sugar by The Archies and some track by The Jam. It was during his round of picks that the Plant Doctor played Je t’aime, but the ladies had long since departed by the time it came on. We were left only with speculating as to how they would have reacted to hearing it.

Sunday 18 September 2022:

Many people throughout the UK have the day off work tomorrow, and since there doesn’t appear to be anything better to do with the time, I decided that I would embark on the nearly mythical ‘Sunday sesh’ – an entire Sunday spent in the pub.  To start the day, Gary and I went to the Tartan Tavern to watch Celtic lose 2-0 to St. Mirren, which was the first time either of us had reason to grieve in well over ten days.  A pint of beer in there retails at £4.50, surely putting it around the mid-point of the prince range in Oban these days.  Gary arrived later than I did, joining my table with a pint of Guinness and a packet of KP salted peanuts.

“Help yourself to some nuts if you like,” he said.  “I only bought them to get the total up to five pounds.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s a five pound minimum charge for card payments, so she asked me to get something else to make the bill up.”

It’s true that above the bar there is a sign clearly stating that the minimum card payment the place will accept is for £5, yet I was able to pay for my £4.50 Budweiser without having to buy a bag of nuts.  We found the discrepancy curious, and I was alert to it when I was next at the bar.  I studied the scene closely as the transaction unfolded.  Drink ordered.  Pint poured.  Bill rung up.  £4.50 paid by card.  As far as the things that happen in a hospitality setting go, this seemed fairly unremarkable, but we were perplexed.  Some time passed before Gary needed to have his Guinness refreshed.  This was the moment of truth.  The barmaid repeated the same process she had gone through with me, right up until the final step, where she invited Gary to buy something else to bring the bill up to the £5 minimum charge.

“Why are you having to pay the nut tax and I’m not?”  I wondered.  It was a question neither of us could answer, and as much as we were curious to know, I wasn’t going to be the idiot who asks a barmaid why he isn’t paying more for his drink.

We left for Aulay’s with Gary a pound lighter in the wallet and 100 grams heavier in peanuts.  There we were joined by a rolling cast of characters through the afternoon as we discussed our favourite cheesy eighties movies and quizzed the barmaid on her habit of adding items to her online shopping basket without ever checking out.  In a way, I guess it’s the modern equivalent of window shopping.  She had more than £400 worth of goods in her basket just from that day’s shift behind the bar.  In her view, she isn’t the type who cares for branded clothing or spends a lot of money on herself, she just likes imagining that she could own them with one click.  I tried telling her how I like to do the same on the World of Books website, with the difference being that I had recently gone through with spending more than £30 on second-hand titles, but she didn’t have much interest in that.

The most fascinating thing about spending an entire afternoon in the pub is observing the different people who come and go.  One minute it is quiet and the next there is a cacophony of flamboyantly drunk young women singing along to 4 Non Blondes in celebration of a 30th birthday.  From where we were standing, it seemed impossible that they could last the day, but by the end of it all, we would discover to our cost that we were underestimating the group.  

Unperturbed by the earlier nut tax, Gary found himself in conversation with an older Irish woman.  She was dressed as though she had been attending a funeral, though we knew that couldn’t have been the case since we had heard of nobody else who had died recently.  The woman integrated herself into our company, and we learned that she had in fact spent the afternoon at the classic car rally that was held at the station square.  Some of the antique automobiles on display were so beautiful that “they would take the knickers off a nun,” or so we were told.  People had always tried telling me that my life would be simpler if I had learned how to drive, and I might have been more willing to listen if they could have put car ownership in such convincing terms.

The Plant Doctor and Gary had spent much of the afternoon in competition over ‘the Guinness challenge’, which requires the drinker to take a continuous mouthful of the black stuff with the aim of leaving the base of the creamy head resting in the tiny space between the bottom of the harp and the top of the branded lettering.  On observing this, I have calculated that a successful Guinness challenge should have six gulps; a skill that The Plant Doctor seemed to have mastered on approximately 50% of his attempts.  Our Irish guest had never heard of this highly-accomplished art and was eager to try it for herself, so she ordered a pint.  We stood back in expectation of witnessing a masterclass from someone to whom Guinness comes as natural as oxygen, water, or whiskey.  None of us had ever seen a Guinness challenge like it:  the mouthful went far beyond the white letters, all the way to the middle of the glass.  It was difficult to know whether to be impressed or disappointed.

I believe it was sometime after the nationwide minute’s silence at eight o’clock was observed by turning on the subtitles during Frozen Planet 2 that we left the pub to get something to eat before heading for Markies to take part in Oban’s second-best quiz.  We believed that the team we had assembled was capable of achieving great things, even after a long and emotional day.  Things were going well for a time, though we found ourselves trailing by several points going into the final music round.  A strong score of 16 out of 20 salvaged a tiebreak situation for us, but our miserable knowledge of the number of windows on The Shard skyscraper scuppered the whole thing.  It turned out that the young women from the 30th birthday party know their pub trivia as well as their alcohol better than we could ever have considered.

Monday’s bank holiday was already beginning to look bleak when we decided to partake in some consolation shots of tequila laced with Tobasco sauce.  Nothing was happening on Monday that I was aware of, so as far as I was concerned, I might as well confront it with the mother of all hangovers.  All that was left was to play that 1986 album by The Smiths one more time.  

The occupier

Life changing events don’t usually occur when I open the letterbox outside the door of my flat on a Monday afternoon. Still, when a small handwritten envelope greeted me, my hopes were raised that something special must have been contained inside.  After all, nobody communicates by writing letters anymore, so someone had to have gone to a great deal of effort to get in touch with me.  It seemed quaint; charming even.  My immediate thought was that it could be a secret admirer who had finally summoned the courage to make their long-suppressed feelings known, even when it didn’t seem the most romantic of gestures to address me as “the occupier.”  People go by all sorts of nicknames, I thought, and I could probably get used to it for the sake of a little loving.

The return address on the back of the envelope was a local one – Ganavan; so my admirer was apparently someone from money.  I bounded through to the kitchen and peeled the envelope open with all the delicacy of a nervous lover.  Inside was a beautifully handwritten note that had letters swirling across the paper like great rivers, along with a thin pamphlet posing the question:  “Can the dead really live again?”  The brochure provided three options as a possible response:  Yes, no, or maybe, and if the ‘dead’ that was being referred to was my hopes of finding love, it seemed that the answer was a resounding no.

Hazel is a Jehovah’s Witness. Her letter was making me aware of the fact that her organisation has produced an interactive bible course on their website. I have often joked that even the Jehovah’s Witnesses wouldn’t pay me a visit at my flat, but now it seemed to be the truth. The really bitter blow came later in the week when I received another envelope in my letterbox. It was penned in the same swooping writing, though this letter was intended for my neighbour across the landing, who was also given the name “the occupier.” Is nothing sacred anymore?

My correspondence from Hazel asked plenty of questions, but it didn’t contain the answers to the riddles that I’ve been thinking about as I’ve grown older, such as why there has been a pair of boots standing on the wall at the end of my road all week, or why two bees suddenly appeared in my flat over the same weekend when I have lived here for more than four years without so much as one finding its way in.  If the people at the Jehovah’s Witnesses could tell me why a bag of mixed leaf salad can often survive in my fridge two or three days beyond its ‘use by’ date, but a pint of milk starts to turn a day before the label suggests it should, I would consider signing up to their religion.

As I have aged, it has become increasingly clear that the answers to the questions I didn’t know that I needed resolving are not to be found in a church pew, but rather the barber’s chair.  At this stage in my life, most of the knowledge I have accumulated has come from the wisdom of my barber.  He has a different story every time you take a seat in there, and they always go in a direction you could never expect.  This time he was telling me about a rival barber from a mid-Argyll town who used to run the shop for him on a Monday.  He twice tried to set up his own business some years ago but struggled to attract customers, despite being the only barber in the town.  The story goes that this guy had an irrational dislike of people who whistled in his presence.  He couldn’t understand why anyone feels the need to whistle and it would drive him crazy if somebody walked into the shop with a jaunty tune emitting from their mouth.  So the story goes that whenever a resident of this mid-Argyll town came to Oban to have their hair cut, the barber would ask them that once they return home they visit his rival’s business and simply walk into the premises whilst whistling before turning back on their feet and leaving.  It was a mischievous scheme which seemed to please the barber greatly.  As clumps of brown and grey hair cascaded all around me, all I could picture was the scene in a ghostly quiet salon in the middle of nowhere as a freshly-groomed man strolls in whistling the theme from The Addams Family.

Where the tale turned was when the barber vowed that after he told me what he was about to say, I would never be able to go anywhere again without noticing it happen. My eyebrows were raised – at least until he trimmed those, too. According to the barber’s observations, people cannot help but whistle when they are walking between two points, such as the bathroom and the bar in a pub, the entrance to a supermarket and the first aisle, or the door and seats in a barbershop. It’s a nervous tick, a sort of placeholder to fill the void until something occupies their mind. I had never noticed this phenomenon before, and since I’m not yet ready to spend my time studying men as they enter and leave the toilets in Aulay’s I just have to trust the barber as the leading authority on the matter.

My entire purpose for going for a haircut in the middle of the week was the result of a chastening experience at the bar a few days earlier.  On the face of it, it was just an ordinary Friday night.  The Plant Doctor and I were talking to a guy who was telling us about how he’s teaching himself to play the guitar with the Pink Floyd album The Dark Side Of The Moon, which struck me as being the equivalent of learning how to paint by sketching the Mona Lisa.  In time we were joined by several other experts in algae, although I believe they learned their craft the conventional way.  At various points over a twenty-minute or so period, I noticed the four scientists as well as my brother and Geordie Dave conspiring over a piece of paper in the corner of the bar by the coat rack.  I had no idea what they were up to until I was finally introduced to the sheet and asked to judge which of the six drawings they had each created was the best likeness of me, and to guess who had drawn which one.  It was the first time I had ever seen myself in pen, while the portraits were a curious cross between touching and excruciating.  I think, ultimately, I would have preferred it if they had spent their time in the corner whistling.

Despite the quality of the sketches, I failed to correctly identify any of the artists. Amanda who was working behind the bar, on the other hand, was able to guess four of the culprits. Some people have an eye for these things, I suppose. What the artwork demonstrated more than anything – more even than that the scientists had made the right career choice – was that I was in dire need of a haircut. A picture speaks a thousand words, after all, and I had six thousand of them telling me that my hair is a mess.

While the display of artistic endeavour was something that we would go on to talk about again and again, it turned out not to be the most remarkable thing we would see in Aulay’s that night.  With the clock ticking towards closing time, the door swung open in the ominous way they do in horror films.  In walked a couple of young guys who were effectively carrying a much older man with them.  It was a slow, arduous walk from the door to the bar as the two men dragged their companion along the ground with them, as though they were moving a heavy piece of furniture.  They shuffled towards the bar and struggled to manoeuvre the elderly man onto a barstool, all under the eye of a bemused barmaid.  It was nothing short of a Weekend at Bernie’s scenario playing out before us.  The barmaid immediately told the gentlemen that she couldn’t serve them on account of Bernie’s practically comatose condition, and they had to turn around and go through the entire charade in reverse.  The scene was surreal to watch play out, and just like the theory of why people whistle as they walk between two points, the question of how these guys thought they were going to be able to buy drinks after carrying a drunk old man into the pub isn’t one that’s ever going to be answered in a pamphlet from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“Who needs a shower?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The social hierarchy of dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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