The Love Island controversy

Our pub quiz team, The Unlikely Bawbags, recently suffered its worst-ever performance in The Lorne on a Wednesday night.  We finished in seventh place out of around ten teams, far removed from our usual lofty position within the top three.  It wasn’t even as though we had one terrible round that set us back, because for us the entire quiz was a shambles.  Things were so bad that by the end of the night we almost celebrated ending up so high in the rankings, since for most of the way through we had been sitting bottom of the pile.  It was a chastening experience, one which none of the three of us appeared to have an answer as to how it could have happened, which was seemingly in keeping with the night.

I went to Aulay’s to drown my sorrows, different from my usual visits there drowning my liver.  The lounge bar was empty, which wasn’t unusual for a midweek night in February, and so the barman was forced to listen as I told him of all my woes.  Would I ever get another general knowledge question right again?  Did there really need to be an entire round about Germany?  Why can we never remember who voiced the Bugs Bunny cartoon character?  I imagined that he would much rather have been dusting the tops of the malt whisky bottles, but I had a lot to unload.  To the relief of the barman, the pub gradually started to fill up, at least as much as three people can fill an alehouse.  

First, the Plant Doctor arrived carrying a pool cue, which he propped up against the coat rack, similar to the way that someone who is out walking the dog stops into the pub for a pint and sits their pet at the end of the bar. A while later a local shellfish seller dropped in. Following some discussion over the froth of our lager, it was noticed that there were three people in the lounge bar on a Wednesday night and each of us was wearing a pair of corduroy trousers. Who knows for certain if such a thing had ever occurred before, but it’s difficult to imagine that it had. It was, quite emphatically, a parade of corduroy.

Naturally, we were eager to bring this anomaly of fashion to the attention of the two members of staff behind the bar, and even to Aulay himself.  There were three distinctly different shades of corduroy on show.  I was wearing a vibrant cherry, the Plant Doctor wore a neutral olive, while the shellfish seller’s legs looked like two hot dogs smeared with English mustard.  We asked anyone who would listen for their thoughts on our respective cords, including one poor sap from Glasgow who was just wanting to enjoy a peaceful drink.  All three of the opinions we canvassed came back with the same response:  that the neutral olive was their favourite colour of corduroy and they wouldn’t be seen dead in the bold cherry.  I’ve long become used to suffering a crushing defeat in the month of February, but this was two of them on the same night five days before Valentine’s Day had even arrived.

Hardly two days had passed before I and my pub quiz teammates were afforded a shot at redemption, just like in any big-budget Hollywood movie, only this was a charity quiz at The View with a prize of £100 in cash. The event was a joint effort to raise funds for Kilmartin Museum and Dunollie Museum, two local projects in Argyll, and I somehow ended up in the middle of a tug o’ war between my usual Wednesday night pub quiz team and my regular Friday night drinking partners. I had never honestly wondered what it would be like to be a child caught up in a dispute between two divorcing parents, but I reckon this was pretty close to how it must be, and on this occasion, The Unlikely Bawbags were awarded custody of me.

Following our all-time worst performance a few days previous, we recruited some reinforcements for the charity quiz to bring our numbers up to six; amongst them a Doctor of Scottish literature who had started the week off-piste in Glencoe and was looking to finish it on the piste in Oban.  The theme of the night was anti-Valentines trivia, which we felt confident would suit us since the majority of our team seems to have an allergy to all things romantic.  There were several different rounds throughout the quiz, including the standard music round, film and television bedrooms, one where we were invited to list ten given animals by the length of their penis, as well as a series of questions all about sexually transmitted diseases, which I was really hoping wouldn’t be the traditional picture round.

The quiz was so busy that people were being turned away at the door.  There must have been no fewer than twenty teams taking part, and things were competitive from the very start.  With so many points to tally, it would be impossible to ask one man to mark every answer sheet, so teams were asked to swap their papers with a neighbouring table at the end of each round.  On the face of it, this seemed like a sensible solution, though it turned out to be like asking a couple of barmen for their opinion of corduroy trousers:  problematic.  In the very first question of the quiz, we were asked to name the winner of the 2021 series of the reality TV show Love Island.  Being that we were a team of adults who have seen the better part of our thirties, we couldn’t even begin to hazard a guess at a name and left the space unfilled.  Following the end of the general knowledge round, we exchanged sheets with the table adjacent to ours, whose team included a podcasting phycologist and a young woman who owns a vast wardrobe of scarves.  Much to everyone’s surprise, our paper was returned to us with one point more than we were expecting, while the gap left at the first question had been filled with a careful, scientific scribe.

We didn’t think too much about the ill-begotten point at the time since we were in second place, but as the quiz developed it was becoming clear that there was a tight tussle at the top of the leaderboard between ourselves and my usual Friday night companions.  Our cause was assisted by a full complement of marks in the round on sexually transmitted diseases, which had to be the first time anyone has been happy to correctly identify an STD.   By the time the final piece of music had been played to bring the quiz to an end, the two teams were separated by the length of a flea’s penis – or one point as it’s sometimes known.  We were delighted; the Plant Doctor, my brother and their team were devastated.  It clearly hadn’t required a great deal of detective work on their part to recognise that the beautiful penmanship used for the first answer was entirely different from the scrawl seen at the other sixty-odd questions on the sheet.  I mean, we had an actual GP in our team whose contributions to the sheet read like a prescription pad.

With a prize of a hundred pounds going to the winners and £50 to the runners-up, we could see why our competitors might have felt disappointed. Some of the people at their table had a look on their face that was similar to one I have seen around the pier when a tourist has treated themselves to a fresh prawn sandwich from the seafood shack and just as they’re ready to enjoy it, a sneaky seagull has swooped down and snatched it from their hands. A few of us were feeling some guilt about winning a charity quiz through nefarious means, even if strictly speaking it was only accidental cheating. We agreed that given the circumstances it would be the right thing to do if we came clean to the quizmaster, so we called him over to our table and explained what had happened. To say that he wasn’t interested would be an understatement. As far as he was concerned, the quiz was over and he had already declared us as the winners, which could probably be translated as him admitting that he hadn’t prepared a tie-break question. Maybe he was right. This was a Valentine’s quiz, after all, and it is said that all’s fair in love and war. Where love is concerned, it’s usually the case that one party is going to end up bitterly disillusioned. It just so happened that for once it wasn’t me this time.

Despite a fortuitous turn of events, we had already decided that we wanted the moral victory as well as the acknowledgement of being quiz winners, so we approached our rivals and proposed that we split the £150 prize fund between the two teams.  They agreed, though somehow even that didn’t quench our thirst for redemption – or perhaps more accurately, clear us of our guilt.  I was too busy trying to plead my innocence to the opposition to know who from our team made the suggestion, but it turns out that we went a step further than sharing the prize money and offered to donate our £75 to the charity.  When I heard about our philanthropy, I couldn’t stop wondering how much more we had to do to have our names engraved on a plaque at Kilmartin Museum.

A few of us made the usual Friday pilgrimage to Aulay’s after proceedings had been brought to a close in The View.  There were three members from the opposing team looking to spend their £75 in the final hour before closing time, and I saw this as an opportunity to recoup some of ‘our’ prize money.  All manners of whisky and shots of Tequila were being added to the bar bill, meaning that the most straightforward quiz question of all was posed the following morning when I went for breakfast with the rest of my family and wondered why I felt as though I was still drunk.  Along with the growing bar tab, there was significant jukebox abuse, and not only from us.  I could have sworn that one group played the same Feargal Sharkey song three times in a row.  I guess it’s true that sometimes a good song is hard to find.

It was difficult to say at the end of the week whether I had come out of it all on top or not.  I lost a corduroy-off, though was at least part of a historic fashion event in Aulay’s.  The Unlikely Bawbags had their all-time worst performance in the Lorne quiz, but followed it up by beating around twenty other teams to win a charity quiz, albeit with some controversy attached.  Even now I still don’t know who won the 2021 edition of Love Island, but I think I have learned that in future quizzes when we don’t know the answer to a question, such as who provided the voice of Bugs Bunny, it is best to leave it blank.

Revenge of the sheep

I’m currently sitting on a train bound ultimately for Stirling via Glasgow, the first time I have travelled out of Oban since late 2019, and it’s too early to say how I feel about it.  When I was last on the train I expect that I had a four-pack of Budweiser and some snacks to keep me nourished through the journey, and the only suspicion I had about my fellow passengers was whether one of them was going to interrupt my solitude by sitting in the empty seat next to me.  Today I brought a 500ml bottle of Highland Spring still water, which I was annoyed with myself for having forgotten to put in the fridge yesterday, and a 50ml tube of antibacterial hand gel.  Most people are wearing masks, except for one woman who has fallen asleep with hers clinging to her chin and her sunglasses perched atop her head.  It’s like nobody ever showed her how to wear these things in the proper way but she’s quite pleased with herself for almost getting it.  The others who aren’t wearing face coverings seem to be either a generation older than I am, English, or eating a sandwich.  It is possible that some are all three, but if they are they at least have the consideration to not speak with their mouths full.

Virtually all of the few remaining Covid restrictions in Scotland were lifted on Monday 9 August, meaning that life is beginning to feel a lot more like it did back in 2019 before any of us knew anything about a novel coronavirus.  Many of the things that we were only able to do over Zoom during the last 18 months, or in strictly reduced terms, we can now enjoy almost without limit.  Pubs are back to operating under their usual hours and you can finally drink at the bar again, people can gather in large groups where the only cap on numbers now seems to be how popular you are, travel – at least within the country – is firmly back on the agenda, and The Lorne pub quiz is up and running.  Other than the advice that people should still wear a face mask in certain settings and the ongoing threat of a highly contagious respiratory virus, things are pretty much as normal as they have ever been.

On the final weekend before those last restrictions were eased, when Scotland was still in what was commonly being referred to as “level 0.5”, the Plant Doctor was visited in Oban by his brother David and his partner Laura.  I had met Dave once before a few years ago, on a night where the Plant Doctor lured us back to his flat after the pub and tricked the two of us into eating mushrooms which had been hidden in a large omelette.  Whenever I tell people that story they usually react with shock and horror, commenting on how dangerous it was for the Plant Doctor to secretly feed us halloucanagenics in an egg dish, until I am forced to correct them and confess that it was only closed cup mushrooms we were eating and Dave and I just don’t like them.  It’s amazing how quickly you become the dick after people who initially had sympathy for you when they believed that you had been drugged learn that you simply don’t like to eat mushrooms. 

After many months where the only contact we had was through our ‘Beer Club’ Zoom meetings every Friday night, I met the Plant Doctor, Dave and Laura in Aulay’s, where they were sitting with my brother and the man who the previous Friday was so drunk from celebrating his birthday that it took him several minutes to be able to get up from his seat.  This guy was in a jovial mood once again – his face was blazing with it – and he looked at me from across the table with curiosity in his eyes as he sipped from his pint of Tennent’s, his surgical mask tucked underneath his chin.  I wondered if he had recognised me from our last encounter, when I was so in rapture with his heroics, but it turns out that I remind him of somebody else and he was struggling to place who that person is.  He was putting almost as much effort into trying to summon the name of the famous figure whom I resembled in his mind as he did rising out of his seat seven days earlier.  In the meantime, all I was interested in was finding out more about the hat he was wearing, but all he could tell me was that he had bought it in Croatia some years ago and hadn’t taken it off since being told how well he suited it.

The question of my appearance was evidently plaguing our companion.  Every so often he would interject into the conversation the five of us were having amongst ourselves to give us another piece of trivia in an effort to jog his and our collective memories.  It was said that I look like a character from a television show.  A show from the 1960s.  An animated character, or maybe a puppet.  We are all in our thirties and had no idea who he was thinking of.  Eventually, in the same way that he was able to push himself from the very same seat a week before, he dug in and found the name he was searching for.  It came out of nowhere when he extended his right index finger and pointed in my direction.  Suddenly, in the manner of someone who might suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, he loudly exclaimed:

“Joe 90!  That’s who you look like.”

I am familiar with Joe 90.  At least I remember dad referencing the character when we were younger.  Initially I wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, whether it was insulting or flattering.  I suppose it is difficult to be insulted by the prospect of being a 9-year-old prodigy who is recruited as one of the world’s leading spies; whose glasses are the source of all of his powers.  Coming from a man who had already so impressed me, I decided that I would accept being told that I look like Joe 90 as a compliment, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Although the weather forecast for Saturday was looking very unsettled and threatened some thunderstorms, the five of us arranged to meet at eleven o’clock to walk the mile-and-a-half out to Gallanach so we could catch the 11.30 ferry to Kerrera.  We had barely crossed the railway bridge when it began to rain heavily and we learned that not only did my brother bring the fewest beers with him out of any of us, but his jacket also didn’t have a hood.  I usually take some comfort in knowing that I am not the most ill-prepared person in a group, though my relief on this occasion was quite short-lived when I discovered that my boots are not even nearly waterproof.  Thankfully the rain shower was brief, and we had as good as forgotten about it by the time we reached the ferry car park.  

As fate would have it, we overestimated our ability to walk to Gallanach carrying backpacks filled with beer in the time we had set ourselves and arrived a few minutes after 11.30, so we resigned ourselves to sitting on some rocks drinking beers until the next advertised sailing an hour later.  To keep us amused in the meantime we questioned one another on which of the many boats in the bay we would rather own, judging each one on its size, shape and colour, as though any of us would ever have the means to buy a yacht or be sober enough to sail it.  Our eyes meandered around the busy shoreline, drinking in the floating vessels as well as our lagers, the 55 minutes we were waiting to pass feeling like they might as well have been an eternity.  In a fit of pithy, my eyes catching sight of a little black boat that was slightly longer than all the others and the only one moving across the narrow passage of water, I asked the others:  “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were just sitting here getting drunk and that was the ferry coming back?”

We quickly gathered ourselves together and came to realise that when it is busy they tend to operate more sailings to get everybody across to the island, meaning that we were able to pocket our beers and get over to Kerrera close to our original schedule.  The day was gloomier than when the Plant Doctor and I had been in April; the sea looking less like a blue marble and more similar to a curling stone, while the lambs who were on the cusp of being born back then were growing and had obviously well established how the different parts of their body work, judging by the carpet of shit on the grass.  After stopping at the top of a hill to take a photograph of the five of us around a dishevelled and broken down old digger – the end result looking like it could be the cover of our debut album if we hadn’t missed our slot in the recording studio and sat on the pavement outside getting drunk – we ventured down towards the beach, where we spread out across the rocks and ate our lunch.

Around us there were a couple of different groups who were seemingly interested in taking a dip in the water, and the Plant Doctor was considering it too.  Once the first man had gone in, a succession of swimmers followed, with the Plant Doctor stripping down behind a rock that presumably provided some kind of modesty, at least for a moment anyway.  Soon he was striding into the sea, a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale clenched in one hand, the other serving as something akin to a modern fig leaf.  Amongst us we were discussing how the scene was as compelling as a car crash:  horrific, something nobody wants to see, but yet impossible to take your eyes off.  He swam about twenty or so feet out, and before long the Plant Doctor was involved in a conversation with the three other swimmers, who were from Bristol.  It was funny to us knowing that he was completely naked in the water, compared to the rest who were swimming in their underwear.  There was no way of knowing if they could see from their perspective what we had seen.  We could only hope for the sake of the mother, son and daughter triumvirate that they couldn’t.

A foreboding cloud was rolling across the sky from the west, swiftly suffocating any colour that was once there.  It wasn’t long after the Plant Doctor had shaken himself dry and gotten dressed again that the cloud carried out its bleak threat and erupted into rainfall.  The stuff was crackling off the ground like an explosion in a joke toy shop, drenching us instantly.  The next hour was a miserable, sodden traipse around the northern loop of Kerrera conducted in a seemingly endless barrage of rain.  It touched me in places I haven’t been touched in years; every part of me was wet.  At one point we encountered a herd of around five wild goats who were sheltering from the storm under a large rock face, even staring down a couple of sheep who attempted to join them.  In the adjacent field there were dozens of sheep who were standing perfectly still.  We watched in awe for several minutes, wondering what they were doing.  They didn’t move an inch the entire time, almost looking like they were participating in some satanic ritual.  If the scene was taking place in a horror movie, this would be the point where the group of bedraggled hillwalkers should flee with all of their energy, but we were too soggy to run, and they would surely have identified us from the sound of our squelching anyway.

Further along the track, once the rain had stopped, we encountered a new problem when the Plant Doctor dropped his rucksack after one of the straps had snapped.  We stopped by the side of the road not far from the ferry as he investigated the damage inside, trying to ascertain whether any of the bottles had broken.  Having presumably spied the spectacle from his window with some suspicion, a man appeared at the end of his garden path and peered at us over the top of his fence.  We greeted him with a hello and were met with stony silence in return, as though we were sheep trying to nudge in under a cliff.  I explained that the buckle on the Plant Doctor’s bag had broken, and then quickly followed it up with the line:  “the buckle buckled.”  Still nothing.  We quickly picked ourselves up and carried on our way, but even now I wonder what he thought we were up to and if he would ever have told us.

Straddled either side of the trip to Kerrera was the return of the Lorne pub quiz, which was being held for the first time since The Unlikely Lads finally won the thing in September after more than a year of coming up short.  Our original trio had reduced by a third in the meantime with one unlikely lad moving to Edinburgh for university, meaning that the Trig Bagging Quiztress and I were in the market for new members to join our team.  On the first quiz back we had a pair further complement our outfit, one of them a lone Bawbag who didn’t yet have the rest of his team ready to return.  We did alright considering it was our debut outing as a team, finishing inside the top three places, but we knew that we were going to need to do better if we were going to avoid waiting another year before this team wins a £25 bar voucher. 

Our smorgasbord of trivia knowledge was added to the following week by a bird watching accountant, and from the opening two rounds, we were leading the pack.  However, it was beginning to look as though we were getting ahead of ourselves when our initial run through the geography round produced only three answers from ten questions that we could be confident were right.  The rest we had no real clue for and were going to have to take a stab in the dark at answering before the silver-haired host came round to collect our paper.  When the answer sheets were returned to each team, we found to our amazement that we had scored something like 11 from the 14 available points and even my completely blind insistence that Carson City is the state capital of Nevada proved to be correct.  Our ragtag collection of Unlikely Bawbags went on to win the pub quiz by two points – largely thanks to our guesswork, but we weren’t caring about that.  We even won the bonus round bottle of wine with another wild guess at the combined total of Subway, McDonald’s and Starbucks chains worldwide.  It was a spectacular double triumph.

I went round to Aulay’s after The Lorne closed since I was still on a high from the quiz victory and I wasn’t travelling through to Stirling until midday the following afternoon.  When I walked into the pub it was as though the door to the lounge bar was a portal to another time long since forgotten; something taken straight out of a sci-fi movie.  The bar was packed with so many people that I had to wade through the crowd just to get to my usual cool spot by the ice bucket.  There was a chattering buzz about the place, and I had to assume that not everybody had heard of what had just taken place in The Lorne.  Music filled the room as I fought my way to the bar, although it was an unfortunate coincidence that the song which was playing as I walked in was Dude (Looks Like A Lady) by Aerosmith.  Brexit Guy was propped up by the bar, a row of half-drunk measures of Quntro strung out like fairy lights in front of him and the Plant Doctor.  He had returned to Colombia shortly after the pandemic began last year and nobody was expecting to see him back in town, yet here he was.  It was like a Saturday night in 2019 all over again.

In the company of Brexit Guy and the Plant Doctor at the bar was Marco, the director of an Italian menswear company who was holidaying around Scotland.  He was immediately charming and it was easy to see why he was attracting so much attention.  It didn’t take long for Marco to turn his focus onto the way I was dressed, and more specifically onto fixing the casual look I have been attempting to fashion for the midweek quizzes since they started again.  He began pulling at the sleeves and shoulders of my light jacket, fluffing it like it was a throw cushion on a sofa, before telling us that in Italy men leave the top two buttons of their shirt undone if they have visible chest hair.  Marco demonstrated this by asking me first to unfasten my second button and then he began manoeuvring the collar of my shirt so that it sat over the lapels of my jacket, while finally some random button partway down the jacket was closed over.  For those few minutes, I was effectively reduced to the role of a mannequin modelling the summer 2021 casual drunk collection.

I didn’t really know what was happening – to me, it seemed the fashion equivalent of taking wild guesses at the geography round of a pub quiz – but I was happy to go with it.  Marco explained that the collar was opened out over the jacket to display the shirt, whilst the whole thing was done to “frame the chest hair,” which was the first time I have heard body hair spoken about as though it is a da Vinci.  It was impossible to tell how the proper way to dress casually looked in the mirror of the bottle gantry behind the bar, but in a way, it didn’t even matter.  It had been so long since I could stand at the bar after a pub quiz with a pint in my hand and without a mask on my face, being dressed by a complete stranger while the jukebox provided a soundtrack to the night, that nothing could detract from it, not even being told that I look like Joe 90.

The Vesuvius Question

It wasn’t often that I would arrive home to find anything waiting for me other than an escape from the world outside, but as I was approaching the front door to my flat I could see that there was a piece of paper protruding from the gap between the frame and the door, the way a shirttail comes loose from your trousers and hangs over the hip, like a hostage who has made a daring break for freedom.  The paper was no bigger than the palm of my hand, about a fifth of a sheet of A4, and it was folded onto itself with no greeting on the outside.  It was the most exciting thing I had encountered in my doorway since the time a sandwich artist dropped off a six-inch Sub on her way home.

My first reaction was to consider why the person who had delivered the note hadn’t used the mailbox which was on the wall adjacent to the door.  It struck me that walking all the way to my front door and shoving a sheet of paper into the narrow crack rather than easing it into the slot in the mailbox was a lot like taking a rod to the railway pier and spending hours fishing for a little kipper when there is a seafood hut selling freshly caught langoustine a few yards away.  It was an admirable commitment to the old fashioned way of communicating in our block of flats, following on from the two-foot-long scroll of paper which was stuck to the back of the entrance after a stranger wandered upstairs and fell asleep outside the home of a young family, but if the author of the note was really wanting to pay homage to a time before mailboxes had been invented then I would have been expecting to come home to be met by their message carved into the wall outside my door, or at least drawn with chalk symbols.

After gently prising the paper from its point of delivery my next concern was the question of who might have gone to such an effort as to handwrite a note and leave it dangling in the doorway like an apple from a tree, waiting to be picked.  A member of my family, perhaps wanting to discuss dinner arrangements for Saturday night, would have just sent a message to our group chat, whereas a friend who was needing to talk to me would have known to go straight to Aulay’s.  I clutched the paper in my hand, as though it was a winning betting slip, as I walked across the threshold into my flat, all the while considering the admittedly ludicrous possibility that I might have had a secret admirer.  I continued through to the kitchen with thoughts in my head of a woman who was finally letting her long-suppressed admiration of my liking of notebooks over Macbooks be known.  Perhaps she had seen me scribbling in my small pocket notebook at the bar, or she had even heard me read from my notebook at the Let’s Make A Scene open mic events.  I had a sense of anticipation I hadn’t felt in a long while as I unfolded the written note.

On the torn sheet of paper, my upstairs neighbour was advising me that the mains water supply would be switched off from eight o’clock the following morning.  Immediately my thoughts were turned to the havoc that could be wreaked upon my daily routine.  I was thinking about how I would probably have to get out of bed earlier than normal, rather than pull my usual stunt of hitting snooze on my alarm and turning in my sheets as I thought about which pair of trousers I would wear and how futile it all was anyway.  I considered the merits of switching things up and showering before shaving, imagining that it would be better to be caught mid-trim rather than mid-stream if the water was to go off.  A part of my thought process even became concerned with the effects it might have on me if I had to swallow my daily allergy relief tablet with a mouthful of milk.  It seemed unlikely that it would have done anything other than making the pill taste a little different, but I couldn’t face taking the risk.

A postcard view of Oban from Kerrera

As fortune would have it, I was able to rouse myself from my bed at a reasonable hour and the water supply remained active until I had left the flat, allowing me to both enjoy a hot shower and rinse the trimmings of my stubble from the bathroom sink.  Leaving my flat a few minutes earlier than usual enabled me to enjoy a longer morning walk, and I started the day feeling refreshed.  By the time I arrived in Aulay’s later in the night I was keen to discover if the surprisingly successful early start I had made to the day would translate into a pleasant night when I met with the plant doctor and his work colleague at the bar.

I had met the plant doctor’s colleague previously at The Rockfield Centre, where I was already nervous before a reading, but the hut was dimly lit and my leaf-like features and lack of eye contact probably weren’t so noticeable.  Here I was forced to work harder to hide my natural anxiety when talking to a woman because the bar lights in Aulay’s were so much brighter, and like a Smiths song, it was written all over my face.  Even if my body language was capable of masking my insecurity, it was inevitably betrayed by my words, which tumbled from my tongue one after another like lemmings walking off a cliff and collided on the bar in front of me as I pointed out that the last time we were talking, it was in a small dimly lit room where I was feeling nervous but “at least it couldn’t be seen.”

My mouth was dropping lemmings at a rate of around one stupid joke or observation every three or four minutes, which is often the way these things go when my social awkwardness either forces me into silence or forms a chemical romance with the pints of lager I’ve been drinking to convince me that it would be a good idea to blurt out every daft idea which comes to mind, and even though I was successful in my favourite past-time when meeting a new person with an exotic foreign accent of identifying their country of origin, albeit at the second time of asking, it seemed likely that the marine biologists had labelled me with the scientific term land-dwelling idiot.

As they did at the same time every year, my sister and brother’s birthdays fell a day apart in early August.  When I was a kid it was often difficult to wrap my head around the idea that my sister, who was the youngest child, would have a birthday on the 11th of August which would make her a year younger than my brother, and then the following day my brother’s birthday would once again make him two years older than my sister.  The confusion was enhanced by our parents, who would take great amusement from the tantrums it would cause when they began the act around early August time of pretending that they couldn’t remember which sibling’s birthday fell on the 11th, and whose was the 12th.  We always figured that this was how grown-ups got their kicks before the internet became a thing, and I felt a measure of luck that my own birthday was on a standalone date in October.  However, as I grew older I began to appreciate that maybe they weren’t always fooling around, and it really was difficult to tell whose birthday was when, and even how old people were getting.

For the most recent couplet of birthdays it was decided that we would do something different for the family meal which traditionally marks such events, and we took the small ferry which sails from the North Pier to the island of Kerrera, where we ate at the Waypoint Bar & Grill.  The evening was warmer than it had been in the preceding days, seducing most of our party into leaving home without a jacket.  My brother and I met for a pint in the beer garden of the Oban Inn, whilst unbeknownst to us, our father had made his way by bus to the slipway no fewer than forty minutes before our scheduled departure.  Our sister arrived with her partner and their daughter shortly afterwards, and from the pavement she spotted dad in the distance, when it occurred to me that we might have been better off exchanging handwritten messages after all.

The thing I had been spending years searching for was at the marina all along.

The short wooden benches around the perimeter of the small passenger ferry were so low down that you could almost stretch out and touch the sea if the mood took you.  As the vessel motored out into the bay everyone on board was reaching for their smartphone as we were treated to a view which was rarely seen by us, the postcard view of Oban which probably lands in scores of mailboxes every year.  It was a beautiful summer’s night.  My sister was thrilled to be able to see her new home from the water, whilst my father enthused about the stunning scenery of the west coast.  Then suddenly the pint of Guinness which I had drunk much quicker than is normally advisable was swimming in my stomach, and all I could think about was using the toilet.  I had almost forgotten all about the family meal we were heading towards Kerrera to enjoy; all I wanted was to reach dry land so I could make a urinal wet.

Reaching The Waypoint Bar & Grill was a short walk from the marina where the ferry berthed, and inside, the restaurant had the appearance of an Austrian ski lodge, with its warm timber walls and cosy ambience.  A nautical theme was prominent around the place, with buoys and various news articles and photographs relating to the sea decorating the walls, although nobody could quite figure out why a model fighter airplane was suspended over the bar.  I had managed to convince myself that the bathroom could wait through at least fifteen minutes of menu chat, but there reached a point after a certain number of mouthfuls of Twisted Thistle IPA that relief couldn’t wait much longer, and I had to go off in search of the toilet.  The location of the facility had featured in the discussion around the table, and although it was only a very brief journey down a path away from the restaurant, it wasn’t until I had taken the plunge to find it that others decided that they too needed to use the toilet.  As I was returning to the table, my dad and brother were both on their way to the restroom, and although it wasn’t quite someone writing a blog about motherhood, it felt nice to once again be the inspiration for a movement.

By the time the waitress had made her way back to our group to take another drinks order, dad was ready to break his sobriety, which it seemed he was only ever willing to do after seven o’clock on a Saturday night.  He ordered two bottles of red wine for the table, although when the rest of us had already started on the beer and, in my sister’s case, the vodka, it seemed likely that the phrase “for the table” was being used liberally, like when a friend invites you to the pub for a drink and you know it’s going to be three or four.

My sister looked at me across the table, which the six of us had somehow subconsciously managed to arrange ourselves around by age on either side.  “Can dad swim?”

It seemed like something that three people in their thirties should know about the man who helped bring them into the world.  We knew all of his other vital details:  the year he was born, the year he was married, his favourite film and musical artist, his career history and his shoe size.  And yet it occurred to us that in the period between 1983 and 2019 we had never seen our father swim. 

Even over the starters the three of us were still speculating over dad’s swimming ability.  The tones were hushed, as though we were discussing some matter of great sensitivity and we couldn’t risk the table behind us hearing.  A mob meeting over plates of pasta in the corner of a Sicilian restaurant, businessmen bartering over a multi-million-pound local investment, or a spy passing on new information to his bosses.  The reality was that we were three grown-up children who were questioning whether or not our father could swim whilst we were getting drunker by the minute.  What had given us the right to be so smug and confident about our own swimming ability in the event that it was one of us who would stagger overboard on the ferry home?

The service in the Waypoint was very attentive and considerate, which contributed to our tremendously enjoyable experience on Kerrera.  One of the waitresses went as far as to source a box of Lego for my three-year-old niece, who was the only person at the table whose swimming could not be called into question.  When the main courses arrived, it was difficult to tell which would have been the more intimidating sight at our table for a young server:  the three-year-old with the brightly coloured blocks spread out across the floor, or the 6’8” Slovak with the booming laugh.  I ordered the special of tempura scallops, having been attracted by the idea of eating seafood that had been disguised in a seasoned batter.  The scallops were meaty and delicious, though by the third one the fishy taste was creeping through the batter and I was reminded that I was eating seafood.

By the time we were nearing the end of our meal, the sun was beginning its descent into its cradle behind the island’s darkening green hills.  From our table, the terraced outdoor seating area appeared to be bathed in a beautiful warm glow.  Eventually we were enticed into taking our drinks outside to enjoy the view across the marina in the setting sun.  The scene was splendid, although it wasn’t long before the breeze coming in from the sea was causing an uncomfortable chill, and all of a sudden, as we glanced inside to see our table being cleared away, the decision by most of us to leave our jackets at home became foolhardy.  We couldn’t return to the restaurant, it would be too much like an admission of defeat, so we suffered the cold through gritted teeth and pretended that we were having a good time, which was ironic considering that oftentimes that can be the case with social occasions, yet on this night we actually were having a good time.  In a bid to create some warmth for myself, I engaged my niece in a game of chase around the pathways in the area surrounding the restaurant.  We were having a ball running in circles.  On the final straight back up to our table on the terrace, my young niece called out to me as she challenged me once more.

“I’ll be the tiger and you can be the grandma.”

She bared her claws, which were really tiny little fingers moulded into the shape of a large cat’s paw, and I let out the kind of hollow shriek that I could only imagine a terrified grandmother would elicit when confronted with such a ferocious creature.  The cry was tinged with the anguish that came with the realisation that my niece had seen my running style as being like that of an elderly woman and not a man who was in the prime of his thirties, or even a grandpa or another, lesser, wild animal such as a fox or a ferret.  Eventually the young tiger caught the elderly grandma, as it always did, and it used its tiny claws to maul the hapless, oddly-running pensioner.

When we arrived back on dry land after the ten-minute crossing from Kerrera we stumbled upon a folded page from a notebook which was sitting undisturbed on the pavement across the road from the Oban Inn, at almost exactly the location where my sister had spotted dad waiting for us hours earlier.  I was more excited than anyone else by the discovery, and I reached down with a flexibility that belied my role as the grandmother to pick up the note, eager to find if it was a lost love letter or some other artefact of interest.  The group huddled beneath a streetlight, almost like star-crossed teenagers reading forbidden communication by torch under the duvet, as I opened up the paper, which had been carefully folded twice.

The first line was written in a clear and concise manner, the letters were unjoined and elegant.  The word oregano was circled, and below it was several more words which had been crossed off.  Lemons, frozen broccoli, raspberries, 0% yoghurt (x2), kidney beans.  It was a shopping list, presumably for a family, or at least for a couple, and I could barely hide my disappointment.

It was nearing midnight when my brother and I were about to call it a night and leave Aulay’s for home when I noticed that somebody had filled the jukebox with nine songs by the Dublin four-piece U2.  This was all the reason I needed to stay for another pint of Guinness.  I never wanted to be the guy who put U2 on the jukebox, but I was always happy when another person took the risk.  Looking around the emptying bar it was difficult to tell who would have made such a sacrifice, but I considered them to be like a mystery benefactor, the kind of generous soul who anonymously donates a large sum of money to a charity or a person in need and then quietly disappears into the shadows, or drops a couple of pound coins into the jukebox and stocks it with several U2 deep cuts.  My brother left sometime between the second and the third track, while I was sitting in my own company with a pint of Guinness, All I Want Is You playing in the background and somebody else’s shopping list folded into my pocket.

Despite the enjoyment of the weekend’s celebrations, by the time The Lorne’s pub quiz came around on Wednesday I had been spending the past week feeling like a broken roller coaster, the type that only ever goes down and the engineers are busy working on the haunted house.  The raven-haired quiztress and I assembled once again in our breakaway team with the goal of getting the better of the Bawbags.  We were joined by a young woman who had spent the day fermenting fish scales and yet still only ever smelled like cigarettes and violets.  Compared to some of the other teams around us we were feeling underwhelmed in numbers, and we weren’t feeling confident about our chances.

However, after two rounds we were in first place, ahead of nine or ten other teams, and going into the final two rounds of questions we were involved in a three-way tie for the £25 bar voucher prize.  We were on a high, elated with the effort of our fledgeling three-person team, and excited to be in with a real chance of actually winning the quiz.  Despite all of this, one question from the earlier round on Italy was looming over us, threatening to erupt and spoil all of our good work.

“Which is the only active volcano in mainland Europe?”

I had no idea, my knowledge on active volcanoes being comparable to my expertise in the fields of medicine or romance.  The ladies had a good feeling about Vesuvius and wrote it on the answer sheet, although neither of them were certain about it.  It was a question we kept returning to through the round in the hope of finding some clarification.  From nowhere, the name of the only volcano I could think of came to mind, and as soon as I said the words “could it be Mount Etna?” the seed had been planted.  After a period of consideration, Vesuvius was scored out on our paper, like frozen broccoli on a shopping list, and Etna became our oregano.  Of course, the correct answer was Vesuvius.

There was an air of tension, trepidation and sheer electric thrill at the end of the music round as the teams awaited the final scores for the night.  There was a point and a half separating the top three competitors, and the slim margin of half a point came between second place and the eventual winners.  Regardless of the outcome, the three of us were chuffed with our performance, which had us competing until the very end with the two most experienced and skilled teams in the quiz.  

When it was announced that the Bawbags had finished third, it was confirmation that our breakaway outfit had at least achieved its original aim.  It was a minor victory, though when Redneck Riviera were crowned as the quiz winners for the week, beating us by half a point, our delight turned to despair.  Immediately the immortal words “fucking Vesuvius” were uttered. In future times to come, the answer to the question of the only active volcano in mainland Europe would never have us scratching our heads again.  No-one could forget Vesuvius.  Whether or not dad could swim was another question altogether.

The hybrid super smell of success

Every six weeks the stars of the Argyll & Bute refuse collection schedule would align and there was a Wednesday morning when all of the green household waste bins and the blue recyclable materials bins were lined up and down the streets the way that people queue to board a bus or pick up a prescription.  On those Wednesdays it was always the case that wherever a person would walk in town during daylight hours, the enormous bin lorry would be nearby, swallowing entire courses of rubbish like they were jelly.  

It followed that as the bin lorry travelled around town, so too did the humming stench of garbage, belching from the open back of the vehicle.  It was particularly potent early in the morning when the traffic was heavy and the fragrance would linger in the air and mingle with the sea breeze to create a hybrid super smell.  On such days it was easy to imagine that if the Highland Soap Company was for some reason to decide that it wanted to manufacture a product titled the pungent stench of hell to sell in its shops, it would carry the aroma found in Oban every sixth Wednesday.

In the block of flats where I was living it was my job to take the bins in through the close and return them to the storage area in the garden once they have been emptied.  It usually added two or three minutes to my morning routine and I had to adjust accordingly, particularly when a Wednesday was when I would trim my stubble.  As I was wheeling the empty vessels into the concrete confines of the close I became aware that it was more spacious than I had remembered.  The two buggies which had been sitting by the stairs outside my door since before the turn of the year were gone.

It was around a week before people traditionally open the first window of their Advent calendar when the first buggy appeared in the close.  Although I had originally been perturbed by the sudden arrival of a baby’s buggy in my block, initially considering whether it was possible that it was a crude play on the nativity story and the presentation of a pram to a single man was representative of the baby Jesus being bestowed upon the virgin Mary, over time I became used to seeing it when I opened my front door.  The sight of the three polar bears, coloured white, black and minty blue, on the fabric which lined the back of the chair even developed feelings of warmth and comfort within me.  If those little bears could appear so friendly and happy when all they had to live for was the back of a child’s head, then why was I spending so much time moping around?

When a second buggy arrived shortly after Easter it was more confusing than when there was only one, given that there were as many golden retrievers and single male occupants in the block as there were toddlers.  I began to view the child as being similar to those families in the better-off parts of town who drive two cars, and imagined scenarios where the toddler would decide which buggy it was to be pushed around in all day by the mood it had woken up in.

I couldn’t be sure how I was feeling when I realised that the two buggies were no longer there.  They had been replaced by a bicycle, which seemed to be an altogether more grown-up mode of transport.  I was back to questioning why the bike was there, why it had been chained to the railing when the two buggies had been sitting freely, and whether it was intended as an even crueller joke than the buggies were.

The horseshoe-shaped gonads on the moon jellyfish were the same colour as my forehead was by Saturday night

Later in the day, I was hoping that the hybrid super smell of rubbish and sea air would be translated into the sweet smell of success at The Lorne’s pub quiz.  My friend the raven-haired quiztress and I had previously agreed that we would form an alliance which would compete with, and perhaps even ultimately topple, the Bawbags as the predominant pub quiz team in Oban, but first we had the opportunity to join them.  We met with a pregnant Bawbag at the bar, before assembling with the rest of the team prior to the opening round.  The pub was busy and there wasn’t a table to be found as diners continued to feast on their meals while we perused the picture round.  It seemed too much to ask that the food and drink round would be based on the plates of fish and chips we could smell from the tables around us.

When we eventually found a free table at the end of the general knowledge round it was much to the annoyance of the dapper silver-haired host, who had a carefully organised system of answer sheets which had been arranged by position around the bar.  It was difficult to picture a better dressed quiz compère at any of Oban’s other pub question and answer events, although the bar was still buzzing with talk of the previous week’s shorts escapade.  The more relaxed environment of comfortable seating around a rectangular table seemed to benefit our team and it contributed to the release of a tidal wave of knowledge as we stormed to an eight-and-a-half point margin of victory.  It was quite the spectacle, and somehow seemed harder earned than the previous time I had been on the winning side at a quiz, which was accomplished over children of primary seven age at the family fundraising event several weeks earlier.

Not only had I recently experienced the sweet smell of success, but the tantalising taste of triumph had tread upon my tastebuds when after multiple attempts I finally perfected my homemade pasta sauce.  It had taken months of delicately balancing the right amount of tomato puree to thicken the sauce against using so much that the taste would be too rich.  I had to learn how to regulate my use of herbs, and no matter how many times I tried to make the sauce, it was clear that there can be no such thing as enough garlic.  My difficulty was furthered by my failure to keep a note of the quantities of ingredients I had used, which was unusual when I was not slow to write down the details of the bleeping of a smoke alarm battery or the imagined consequences of directions given to Italian tourists.

The first test of my freshly acquired ability to cook a palatable pasta sauce was also the first time in memory that I had made food of any description for a girl.  I had learned of her liking for pasta prior to the occasion, and I was feeling sure that a good sauce would knock her socks off.  She had a small appetite compared to my own, so I served her meal in a little bowl whilst I was eating from a large dinner plate which was piled high with penne as a consequence of my continued failure to correctly measure portions of pasta.  My dinner guest seemed to be enjoying the forkful or two she had eaten of my dish, although our pleasant meal soon turned to farce when I spilled a sauce soaked tube down the front of my lilac striped shirt, an error of etiquette which was made all the more chastening by the fact that my three-year-old nice had barely dropped anything on the floor, which was wooden and much easier to wipe clean than a shirt anyway.

I couldn’t tell if it was the sight of tomato sauce splattered across the left side of my shirt or the quality of the meal that did it, but my young niece quickly lost interest in eating her bowl of pasta and returned her attention to her favourite activity of the evening, which was to treat my body as though it was an amusement park.  She would jump on my bones the way a much older female never would.  My knees were being bounced on like they were an inflatable castle, my shoulders became a replica of the bow of the Titanic upon which the character Rose stood in the film, and it was while I was crawling around the floor of my flat in the act of being a horse that I began to question if a mountain bike really has to be considered an adult form of transport.

As the weekend was welcomed by the first day of sunshine in more than a week, scores of moon jellyfish had been swept onto the shore.  Their pink horseshoe-shaped gonads were not too dissimilar to the smudges on my shirt after a crude attempt at dabbing the pasta sauce stain with a cloth, or the shade of the skin around my forehead by the end of Saturday.  In town there was a reworking of the old joke about waiting for a bus when three street pipers turned up to play within yards of each other on George Street, although it wasn’t clear who would have been waiting to hear a bagpiper to begin with. 

The sun provided an opportunity to sit and drink beer in my dad’s garden, an area which is spacious and attracts unfiltered warmth from the rays.  An extension cable enabled me to move a small speaker outside, where I could listen to music wirelessly.  It was quite different from the sunny days when I was growing up, when the desire to play music in the garden meant carrying a bulky boom box outside, along with a handful of CDs, though the options weren’t limited only to compact disc and there was also the choice of playing cassette tapes or listening to the radio.  If I wanted to hear a particular song in my dad’s garden I just had to add it to my Spotify queue and it would play next, while in those early teenage years it required changing the tape or returning back inside to try and find the CD I wanted.  It is not unlike the way other people seeking romance in the modern world swipe one way or another on Tinder and the next thing you know they seem to be on a date, while I am trying to decide whether I should go and talk to a woman at the other end of the bar, and by the time I do it turns out that the CD isn’t even in the case anyway.

In Aulay’s I was approached by two young ladies who spoke with an elegant English accent.  They told me that they had listened to me read from my notebook at Let’s Make A Scene the previous weekend and that the woman they had attended the event with particularly enjoyed my performance.  I was feeling a sickly sweet glow that couldn’t be matched even by the shots of Tequila Rose the Brexit Guy bought later in the night.  If I had experienced both the smell and taste of success earlier in the week, then this must have been the sound of success.

I didn’t recognise the two women, however, and I couldn’t remember seeing them at the Rockfield Centre.  They told me that they were sitting in the very front row along with their boss, and it immediately stood to reason that this was why I wasn’t able to remember them:  they were the beguiling figures who I was too scared to make eye contact with whilst reading and who I spent the entire set trying to avoid looking at. With great enthusiasm I told the women of the pride I had been feeling over having finally read in front of an audience without being sick from the nerves beforehand, and how I was equally as pleased that my performance hadn’t caused them to be sick in the front row.  I think it was maybe a minute or two after that line when the women decided that they were going to enjoy their drink in the public bar instead.  It seemed I was going to have to wait to see or touch success.