Skimming the surface (part two)

The first part of this story can be read by following this link.

Not only was Saturday the first day of May, but it was also the first Saturday morning in a long time that felt even close to resembling a “normal” Saturday.  I had arrived home from our in-person beer club drinks behind the lifeboat station in the early hours of the morning and fallen asleep in my tweed suit on the couch with a 568ml can of Tennent’s Lager by my side whilst attempting to watch the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  It was the second time I had tried and failed to see the entire movie in recent weeks.  All I really wanted to do was to lay amongst my tangled sheets in a pitiful stupor and consider why the hell it was that I couldn’t make it all the way through that damn film, but I had made breakfast plans with the rest of my family and the alarm clock was about to go off.  Some things just aren’t meant to be.  

That hungover struggle to get out of bed and into a presentable state before my sister arrived to pick me up at 10.30 was maybe the first time I felt certain that things were beginning to return to more familiar territory.  We hadn’t been able to do our weekly breakfast at Poppies as a group of five since last summer and probably hadn’t been together as a family in as long.  For our father, it was the first time he had gone anywhere other than to Tesco for his shopping once every other week since August.  It was a big morning.  There was nothing like the rich, creamy Eggs Benedict from Poppies or the way that first cup of coffee would do to a hangover what finding God does to a heroin addict.  I could see myself one day sitting in a park telling complete strangers about that coffee.  We took a seat outside since Ardmucknish Bay and Dunstaffnage Castle in the distance were bathed in May Day sunshine, but the temperature wasn’t living up to the promise.  Since it was my suggestion that we eat at an outdoor table I felt compelled to make sure that I enjoyed myself more than anybody else, although that was difficult when my niece was so excited for finally having a group to perform in front of again.

Around twelve hours after parting, and with most of us refuelled with coffee, eggs or well-fired rolls, the beer club reconvened outside the Premier Inn to set off on our proposed adventure to Easdale Island.  Despite the island being only around 16 miles south of Oban, or a 31-minute drive according to Google Maps, it took our two cars closer to 50 minutes to make the journey to the ferry after both vehicles conspired to miss the two separate turn-offs from the main road.  Considering that the six members of our group had been split evenly between the cars, with each having a born and bred local and at least one scientist, it was pretty damning that we managed to miss both of the road signs.  I was in the lead car with the Plant Doctor and a red-haired biologist, which meant that we probably had to carry the can for the blunder, though carrying cans was our speciality.  It was no defence in hindsight, but at the time our car was deeply involved in a three-man rendition of the Britney Spears hit Oops!…I Did It Again which we later proudly performed on speakerphone for our trailing companions.  The red-haired biologist insisted that he had been looking out for a waterfall by the side of the road which he knew was close to Easdale, but I warned him against falling into the same trap as TLC once did, which I thought was the best joke I had ever made.  The detour was worth it just for that.

Easdale is the smallest of the Inner Hebrides’ inhabited islands and was once the centre of the Scottish slate industry until the great storm of 1850 flooded most of the quarries.  Today the island hosts the annual World Stone Skimming Championship which brings people from all over to the area.  The small boat to Easdale Island was carrying six passengers at a time, and we happily kicked our football up and down the slipway as we waited our turn to be taken across the water.  The crossing was only a matter of minutes, and you’re sat so low to the ground on the little speedboat that you can feel the ocean spray on your face.

Virtually the entire island is covered with tiles of slate, almost as far as the eye can see.  For a group of people who enjoy nothing more than casting sardonic comments at one another this was the perfect place to be.  Every piece seemed to be perfect, which led some of us to go off in search of the ideal coaster to take home.  It was a fun forage, but also very frustrating to know that I had spent £10 on two packs of four slate coasters at the time I became a single occupant when there was an endless supply of the stuff barely an hour’s drive down the road.  I reminded the red-haired biologist that it is important not to settle for the first one that you see, though in honesty I think I probably only told him that because he had found a piece of slate that was the desired shape and size for a coaster when we had only been on the island for ten minutes, and I wanted it.  He agreed and placed it back on the ground amongst the rest of the slate, though there was little chance of me finding that coveted piece again.  It was ever thus. 

There are fewer than 60 people living on Easdale and although we only encountered a handful of them, they were memorable meetings.  Due to our interest in examining the usefulness of pieces of slate as items that could protect a coffee table from rings, my brother, the red-haired biologist and I were lagging behind the second trio of our group.  We were idling over the terrain when we passed one of the few houses we saw on the island.  There was a young family out sitting in the calm of the afternoon.  We were in possession of the football, rolling it along the dirt track between the three of us.  That feeling of touching the ball with your foot never grows old, especially when there was none of the pressure that there was back on the slipway when we were terrified that the ball would end up in the sea.  A wee girl, maybe two or three years old, was standing on the grass outside the gate of the family home we passed.  She looked down at the ball in awe.  It could well have been the most wondrous thing she had seen that day.  The three of us spent what could easily have been five or ten minutes just kicking the football back and forth along the dusty path to this little girl.  

She squealed with excitement each time she kicked the ball, and at one stage even declared “Goal!  I win!”  The girl was having such a great time that we found it difficult to pick up our ball and leave.  The rest of our group had already disappeared into the horizon, and the girl’s parents kept telling her, “okay, one more kick and then say goodbye” but there was always another kick.  She didn’t care that we had quarries to visit or that our backpacks were full of beer.  She would tap the ball in any old direction, the red-haired biologist would exaggerate a dive over his bag and the trundling football, and this girl would celebrate like she had scored the goal that won the World Cup.  People often throw around the phrase that something is “as easy as taking candy from a baby” yet here we were, three grown men who couldn’t take a football from one.

Eventually we were able to say our goodbyes, but that was only the beginning of it.  A few hundred yards along the path, not long after I had taken a can of lager out of my bag, the three of us had our balls busted by an older gentleman who was out painting a shed.  Nearby his wife was sitting in a garden chair reading a magazine and minding her own business.  We exchanged greetings with the couple out of courtesy of being visitors to their island, then the man turned from his shed and called out to us across the slate and the grass.  “Do you have tickets?”  As though we were entering an exclusive museum, which in a way we were.  We smiled awkwardly.  

Noticing the can of Tennent’s Lager clutched in my left hand, unopened, he addressed us again.  “You know there’s no drinking on the island?”  I raised my hand above my hip.  “Oh, I only carry this to balance me out.”  It was the sort of response that sounded better in my head and didn’t really help the situation.

“Just remember to take your rubbish with you.”  We assured him that we were good citizens and continued on our way, not entirely sure whether the bloke had been serious or if he was pulling our legs.  We were convinced that he was joking, but his delivery was so dry that it was hard to tell.  As we were walking away we could hear the man’s wife scold him in the distance.  “Och, you do this to everyone!”

We caught up with the rest of our group, greeted by the sound of beer cans opening all around us.  Some of us noted the distinct whiff of gunpowder in the air, similar to the scent you get after you pull the string on a party popper, only in this instance there were no streamers to be seen, just steamers.  It didn’t take us long to reach our desired destination, which was the first of the two largest of the island’s seven flooded quarries.  From above, the water was the most exquisite colour you could imagine.  As a shade it was indescribable, like something you might see in the window of the Gem Box.  It was mesmerising to look at, especially when the water was surrounded by those towering columns of grey slate.  I asked the rest of the group what colour they thought the water in the quarry was, and the overwhelming, scientific, response was that it looked to be aqua.  It was difficult to argue the logic, just as it was difficult to hide my disappointment that they hadn’t come up with a word I hadn’t heard before.  That is the only thing that would have done it any justice.

The six of us descended into the quarry to sit by the water’s edge.  Although it was all slate and a reasonably stable climb, I felt terrified with every step I took – even more so than usual – but it turned out alright in the end.  There was no peace like the peace we found down at the base of the quarry.  It was the most tranquil place I have ever sat; so still, so unblemished, so aqua.  I parked myself on a rock that was just the ideal shape for a seat and cracked open a can of Innis & Gunn Lager, which being brewed in Edinburgh was really just a middle-class Tennent’s.  I rummaged in my backpack for the only item of substance I had brought with me on the trip – a Lidl Deluxe tub of Spanish olives with Gouda cheese.  They were intended to see me through the entire day, but that turned out to be wildly optimistic.  Around me others were indulging in a packet of mixed nuts, some rough oatcakes and a Tuna Subway on nine-grain wheat bread.  Between us I think we managed to name what eight of the nine grains would have been, but struggled on the ninth.  I wondered what the former heroin addicts who had found God and who the previous night had accused us of looking like a group of socialists from Glasgow University would think of the scene if they could see it.

Before long, the red-haired biologist had finished his Subway sandwich and stripped down to his swimming shorts, almost like the way the cartoon superhero of the eighties would eat a banana and be transformed into a muscular, caped figure.  He strode into the aqua water without any hesitation, like it was the most natural thing a person could do.  It looked so impressive, until the screaming started.  Soon the air was turned almost as blue as the water; an indescribable shade of blue.  I had never heard someone being tortured, but I expect that this is how it would sound.  Yet that didn’t stop the Plant Doctor from removing his clothing and wading into the quarry.  It was hard to tell if it was braveness or stupidity, or most probably that drunken spot right in the middle of the two.  That’s where most things tend to happen, after all.  The Plant Doctor didn’t swim all the way to the other side of the quarry like the red-haired biologist did – twice – but he at least got into the water, which was more than the rest of us could do.  Some dipped a toe into the aqua, but I forgot to even do that.  It was speculated that the temperature in there was no more than ten degrees.

The second quarry we ventured to was the one where the World Stone Skimming Championship is held in September every year, or at least it was during normal times – like in 2020, the 2021 event has been cancelled.  Along the way, some of the guys gathered up handfuls of what they believed were perfect stones for skimming in the quarry.  I didn’t particularly understand what they were looking for and took a greater interest in the flecks of fool’s gold that each piece of slate on the island seemed to have in it.  They each took turns tossing their stones into the water, the face of the aqua appearing to shatter like pieces of crystal with each throw as the stones skipped across the surface.  Somehow these stones could defy gravity.  According to the official competition rules, it is a distance of 63 metres from one end of the quarry to the back wall, and some of these throws threatened to go all the way.  

There was talk amongst the scientists about how the ideal technique seemed to be to try and throw your stone parallel to the water, which only had me less enthused about trying one for myself  I didn’t want yet more numbers to think about when the pollen count was still troubling me.  Yet being surrounded by all of these pieces of slate was no different to having a football within striking distance; your instincts compel action.  So I picked up a stone and stepped to the water’s edge, winding my arm back just as everybody else had.  I swivelled it forward with all of the might I could muster and released the stone from my grasp, sending it towards the water.  There was no bounce, hop or skip:  it immediately sunk, pretty much as I was expecting it would.  I returned to my seat with my beer, satisfied that the best use I would ever have for slate would be as a coaster on my coffee table.

As we made our way back to the slipway where we would get the boat returning to Ellenabeich, we passed by a small grassy area that had two sets of goalposts erected at either end.  It was impossible to resist.  Four of us threw our jackets, bags and beers down and began kicking the football around the field.  It wasn’t any different from when we were playing on Friday night, only this time we had a purpose; we had goals.  We arranged ourselves into a two-on-two game which was fairly ramshackle from the beginning.  A couple of young boys were walking along the dirt track beyond the field, and they seemed to take a keen interest in watching our game.  They could have been no older than ten, maybe younger.  Presumably on the island they had never seen four grown men – three of them inebriated – taking such delight in playing a game of football using children’s goalposts.  I booted the ball in their direction, a universal invitation to come and join us.  Only one of them did.  He told us that his friend wasn’t interested in football, that he preferred rugby.  I think we were probably just glad that he recognised that what we were playing resembled football enough to be bracketed in that category.

The ten-year-old boy joined the Plant Doctor and me as we faced off against my brother and the red-haired biologist.  He was wearing the blue jersey of the French national team, embroidered with the name of Antoine Griezmann on the back along with the number 7.  I asked him if he supported Barcelona since he had chosen to have Griezmann’s name on his shirt.  He dismissed my question as though I had asked him if he had landed from Mars.  “I hate Barcelona!”  Apparently he likes Arsenal and Juventus.  We were thankful to have young Antoine on our team – not only because he was a fairly skilful player who plays for the Oban Sunday league team Oban Galaxy, but mostly because he had bags of energy.  He hunted our opponents for the ball relentlessly.  It was tiring just watching him buzzing around the field, and it’s fair to say that he easily shamed us all.

Back in Oban we took some beers and sat on the shoreline, where we digested the weekend’s events.  Some chucked stones into the bay, and without a back wall to stop them it looked like the possibilities were limitless.  They could go anywhere, and so could we – almost.  We were astonished that the football had lasted the weekend and made it back from Easdale; not only due to our difficulty in taking it from young children, but because we were convinced that it was inevitable someone would kick it into the sea at some point.  We couldn’t stop thinking about the God-fearing former heroin addicts we had shared Friday night with, and how the tag of ‘socialists from Glasgow University’ had kind of stuck with us.  The whole weekend seemed normal, even if for the time there really wasn’t much normal about it.  More normal adjacent, or skimming the surface of what normal used to be.  It wouldn’t be long, surely, until we could plunge right in.

An endless cycle

It isn’t often that I find myself wishing I had paid more attention in class during science lessons, but that was the case recently when I was taking a walk by the seafront and noticed that the tide was much lower than usual and didn’t know why.  Sometimes it would be nice to have the answer to a generic piece of trivia without having to remember to Google it when I get home.  It took me longer than I had hoped that weekend to find my way to a website detailing A Beginners Guide to Surfing in Newquay where I learned that in addition to the usual daily high and low tides, twice a month there is a variation in the size of these tides known as a spring tide which occurs around the full moon.  This went some way to explaining why there didn’t appear to be as much water around the bay as normal, but not some of the unusual items that had been revealed to have been washed ashore.  Cast amongst the usual pieces of driftwood, empty drinks cans and bottles, and polystyrene food containers was a red Vileda mop handle, as though a party cruise had run aground and the clean-up crew had gone with it.  Further along the shore, beyond a hillwalking boot that was abandoned on the slipway, and tangled in chains of seaweed, was a small plastic doll; stranded, helpless, stripped bare of all of its clothing.  It was difficult to ignore this doll as being the perfect metaphor for our collective experience in the continued lockdown.

Oban’s online community seemed to be occupied by the pungent stench of diesel fumes that was wafting up from the bay and across the town.  The smell was deeply embedded in the atmosphere and seemed to cling to the hairs of your nostrils all the way from one end of the Esplanade to the other.  Toxic rainbows could be seen gathered on the surface of the water.  For an entire week, there was great concern about where the diesel had come from and what was being done about it, but I don’t think that anybody ever got to the bottom of the mystery, and even now the stuff still seems to linger in the air like some misbegotten courtship.

The appearance of the diesel in the bay was not unlike the relentless sense of melancholy that had seemingly washed over me in the days leading up to Easter.  I didn’t know where it had come from or how I could shake it, though part of the feeling was undoubtedly due to a disappointing laundry experience during the week, which in truth wasn’t all that different to every other episode of laundry.  I can think of nothing more mundane than putting my clothes in the washing machine.  Some weeks I will need two separate loads of laundry just to clear the basket in my bedroom, but if I can get away with doing only one and still have enough clean underwear and a reasonable variety of coloured shirts to get me through the week, then I will. 

Part of the reason for the washing machine becoming my greatest nemesis of all the home appliances was the slow drying sock saga which plagued me for several months after I became a single occupant.  Despite being the smallest item of all the garments on my clothes airer, the socks hanging on the bottom tier always took longer than anything else to fully dry.  Sometimes it would be days before I could put them back in their drawer, and I could never understand what the reason for that was.

As I mentioned my concerns to people, more of them were suggesting that I should try running two spin cycles after the main wash instead of one.  It seemed to make a bit of a difference, and I felt pretty sheepish for not thinking of the life hack myself.  With hindsight, it was so simple, though I tried telling myself that it’s the sort of thing you could never know for yourself without a little guidance, just like nobody knows the meaning of the word ‘ambedo’ or why the tide is so low at the end of March without Googling it.

Last week was shaping up to be a two-load week of laundry since it seemed to be a good idea to take advantage of the long Easter weekend and start afresh with a full wardrobe the following week.  I followed my usual routine and filled the washing machine with clothes before I left for work on Thursday morning; ran the first spin cycle during my lunch hour and the second when I arrived home in the evening.  As my dinner was cooking I went to unload the clean clothes; and one by one I pulled the garment from the machine, slowly realising that they were no wetter than when I threw them in that morning.  Some of the shirts still had the smell of my aftershave on the collar.  I couldn’t understand why the clothes were so dry – or why I was still pulling them out of the washing machine and hanging them on the airer.  By the end of it all, the airer with the unwashed clothes was resembling the most depressing looking mannequin known to man, standing there in the centre of the kitchen modelling my disappointment.  The only explanation I could think of for the dry clothing was that the washing machine was broken, which was surely the worst thing that could happen to a person at Easter.  I furiously cursed my rotten luck.  It wasn’t so much a Hotpoint as it was a boiling point.

For the entire weekend the mannequin stood fully dressed in my kitchen, where I stepped around it and yearned for the days when my socks wouldn’t dry.  There was nothing to be gained by leaving the clothes out on display on the airer, but I didn’t know what else I could do with them.  It would have been ridiculous to hang them in the wardrobe amongst the other clothes which had already been through a successful wash, while returning them to the laundry basket felt like it would have been akin to admitting that the whole weekend was already a failure; the only plan I had made for the Easter break turning to a complete farce.  Besides, there was a part of me that was questioning if there even was a farce at all.  I couldn’t stop from wondering if I had set the clothes to wash in the first place.  It seemed like classic denial, but the more I thought about it I couldn’t remember actually pushing the button on Thursday morning – though I couldn’t remember not doing it, either.  There was no way of knowing for sure if I had programmed the machine correctly.  Over the weekend I managed to talk myself into believing that the washing machine might not be broken after all, with the result being that I decided to give the load a second attempt on Easter Sunday morning.  I pressed the ‘start’ button with more conviction than I had ever pushed any other button in my life, as though I was John Locke in the hatch, and when I stepped back and watched the drum fill up with water it was the most joy I had felt in a long time.

Two years earlier I had witnessed an Easter miracle as my brother and his then pub nemesis Brexit Guy exchanged a handshake at the bar in Aulay’s, though it seemed like a different lifetime altogether when reminisced against the backdrop of a second Easter spent in lockdown.  Good Friday was a beautiful day in Oban, and the whole weekend was forecast to enjoy wall-to-wall sunshine.  In times gone by such a thing would have seen tourists flock into the town.  Pubs and beer gardens would have been a pulsing mass of life, cafes and restaurants would have been busier than ever, and the local shops and attractions would surely have done a roaring trade.  It was difficult not to think about the way things used to be, particularly when the highlight of my own weekend was promising to be a 59p packet of six hot cross buns from Lidl and a jar of strawberry jam.  

When my washing machine dilemma suddenly made things seem much bleaker on Thursday night, I decided that I would join the Plant Doctor and the owner of the Arctic Fox for some al fresco beverages on the picnic table at the grassy area by the sailing club the following evening.  Considering that it was a sunny bank holiday, the scenic spot was far quieter than I was expecting it to be.  For most of the time we spent at the location there was only one other group who were seated at the table further down the shore.  There were around four girls, who we presumed were in their late teens from the bottle of wine they were sharing, and a tall male who was fashionably outfitted.  I immediately envied the scarf he had draped luxuriously around his neck, especially when the bitter breeze crawling up from the sea announced itself shortly after we had arrived.  The group had a Bluetooth speaker which was loudly playing modern hip-hop music, the sort of sound that was completely lost on a trio in their thirties.  I imagined how differently things could have been if we had brought a wireless stereo of our own and played the songs of Elliot Smith, for example.  The sort of duelling musical tastes that you see in the movies.  It seems unlikely that we would have won the youths over, however.  They appeared to be too drunk – the happy sort of drunk – to truly enjoy Elliot Smith, and besides, what chance would there have been of seeing another Easter miracle so soon after the handshake in the pub?

We had alternative forms of entertainment at our disposal all the same, such as the tennis ball Arctic Fox had in her backpack.  Where some other people like to carry a book of Sudoku puzzles or a hairbrush wherever they go, Arctic Fox always has a fresh tennis ball in her possession.  She told us once that she mostly carries it in the hope of finding a dog who she can play with, but on this occasion the Plant Doctor and I were more than happy to be thrown the ball.  The three of us gleefully kicked the tennis ball around the slope of grass, using a bench as a makeshift set of goalposts, and nothing made us happier than when one of us could head the ball, although the nearby teenagers appeared to be unmoved.  When we weren’t displaying our athletic prowess we were back at the table creating quizzes based on the pub snacks the Plant Doctor had brought with him, challenging each other to arrange packets of beef jerky, pork scratchings and bacon fries by salt content, expiration date or which didn’t contain MSG.  I believe that we each won a round, though it was difficult to see any of us as winners.  

Despite us not being at the sailing club long enough to even get notably drunk, we did somehow manage to agree that we would all take a trip to the island of Kerrera the next afternoon since it was forecast to be another beautiful day.  Ordinarily I would have made any excuse to get out of an outdoor excursion of this sort, but when the alternative was spending a Saturday at home with an airer of unwashed clothing it was difficult to say no.  We decided that we would convene at 12.15 pm so that the Arctic Fox could drive us around the coast to Gallanach, where the passenger ferry was scheduled to set sail at 12.30, since she would be the only one of the three of us who would be sober, or who can legally drive a car.  It was a bit of a rush to get prepared in the morning after the Plant Doctor and I had been involved in one of our Zoom recreations of the pub until 3am, but we somehow managed to make it for the designated time; not especially bright-eyed nor bushy-tailed, but carrying bags filled with beer all the same.  After waiting several minutes for the Arctic Fox to arrive downstairs, we discovered that she wasn’t even nearly ready to leave since she didn’t believe that we would actually go through with the plan when we were sober.  Given the lessons of history we couldn’t blame her for not having much faith in the pair of us, and we decided to catch the next ferry instead, though we would have to wait until two o’clock for it.  Looking back on it, it should have been a foreboding sign of things to come, but the Plant Doctor and I just walked along to the sailing club and opened our first beer of the day without a care.

The crossing to Kerrera takes less than five minutes and there were maybe another five passengers on the small ferry, which can carry a maximum of twelve people the short distance between the two slipways.  We noticed that one of the passengers was accompanied by a small dog that rather sadly only had three legs, and watched as it bounded off the vessel with more poise and assurance than the Plant Doctor and I had, despite us only being two or three beers in by that stage.  All of the other pedestrians took a turn to the left of the classic red telephone box while the three of us headed for the hills.  It wasn’t long before we were presented with a fork in the single-track path, and the responsibility of deciding which direction we would take was bestowed upon me, which seemed to me to be like the point in a low budget horror film when a quiet stroll in the hills leads to the unsuspecting group being massacred, all because they listened to the least experienced person in the group.

Fortunately for us, the only vaguely horrific sight was that of a duck that appeared to have a badly deformed spine, but it seemed to be happily quacking away and didn’t look to have any intentions of killing us.  As we continued on our way up our chosen path we also saw some pigs, rabbits and cows to add to our nature checklist alongside the couple of red squirrels we had encountered by the side of the road in Oban.  And, of course, we saw plenty of sheep.  There are surely many more sheep than there are people living on the island of Kerrera, though curiously for all their numbers we didn’t hear them baa all that often.  The Plant Doctor enjoyed trying to talk to the sheep, frequently addressing them as Sheila or Barbara.  It was difficult to tell how the animals felt about this, though most of the time they would simply stand there and urinate or shit in the grass soon as they heard his voice.  I had never seen such an effect, and it caused me some concern to think about how things might go once we are finally able to socialise with other people.

Our decision to follow the path we did was eventually rewarded when we reached the top of the hill and were treated with an exceptional view across Mull and Lismore and to the hills which produce a breathtaking backdrop to Oban.  It could hardly have been a clearer day and we could see it all.  The sea was an unspoiled marvellous blue, resembling a bucket of marbles that have been strewn across a big blue carpet.  Lismore Lighthouse looked as though it could have been sketched onto the horizon with a piece of chalk.  Apart from the sound of the wind rasping through the blades of grass, it was absolute serenity up there.  For a moment, as we stood and drank it all in along with a swig of lager from our cans, it was almost as though the world had stopped and the last year hadn’t happened at all:  there was no pandemic, no lockdown, no broken down washing machine. 

As we continued our trek around the island we were able to add yet more creatures to our wildlife checklist:  some guillemots, a boisterous bullfinch and a couple of Canadian geese who were basking in the still sea.  I was busy wondering how the Plant Doctor and Arctic Fox, who are both marine biologists, could tell where the geese had come from when I noticed the water ripple with disturbance in the distance.  The scientists knew immediately that the commotion was being caused by an otter, which greatly excited us since it was the first time that any of the three of us had seen one in the wild.  We watched as the otter tried its best to be discreet in sizing up the geese, hanging out in the background, waiting for the right moment to make its move.  It had gotten it all wrong, however, as the birds seemed to catch wind of the impending trouble and squawked their way to the safety of the shoreline.  The otter continued to linger in the background, but it was more out of hope than expectation.  It was a scene I was quite familiar with.

While the otter sighting was probably the most thrilling thing we saw during our time on Kerrera, there were many interesting discoveries along the way.  It was almost disconcerting the number of bones or pieces of bone that we found around the island, yet it is impossible to see a bone on the sand and not feel a desire to pick it up and examine it and question what type of mammal it had come from or which part of its body it used to belong to.  As far as quizzes go, it was a level above guessing the salt content of a packet of pork scratchings – yet all things considered, not markedly different.  On the beach at the south end of the island we also stumbled upon an old wooden shipwreck which looked to be in pretty good condition considering that it had probably been there for some time.  Off the coast, the back end of Mull was shrouded by a cloak of mist as the ocean spray from the tide was caught in the sunlight.  It made for quite an impressive visual, even if the scenic view was similar to viewing a beautiful photograph through smudged glasses lenses.

Navigating our way around the island wasn’t always easy.  The terrain in some parts was tricky to negotiate, particularly as we were rounding the southern loop, where the path became less obvious or was sometimes over-run with water and mud.  The grass verges were often deceiving, and if you weren’t careful you could easily lose a foot in there.  What looked like steady ground would turn out to be a soggy ditch that challenged our balance, especially for the Plant Doctor and me, when we were essentially handicapped by the fact that we had a beer in one hand the whole way round the place.  We fell on our posterior a couple of times apiece, though fortunately the evidence of our failures would quickly dry in the sun.  It was in those moments when we were gathering ourselves back to our feet, beer can held aloft, protected from coming to any harm like it was the most valuable thing in the world, that we understood why that one couple we had passed on our travels a couple of hours earlier were dressed for the serious pursuit of walking.  They were in athletic wear and had sensible footwear; their rucksacks with water bottles cradled in the side pockets as opposed to the cans of Tennent’s Lager that weighed down my New Yorker tote bag.  Arctic Fox said that I was dressed like a professor who is on the run from some tremendous scandal, while the Plant Doctor resembled a well-educated biker with his leather jacket and sunglasses, and with the benefit of hindsight and a pair of dirty jeans, it is easy to see why it wasn’t the wisest decision to dress the way we did.

After those many traumas we could finally see Gylen Castle on its rocky peninsula in the distance, which was the ultimate aim of our trip.  From afar, the architecture of the old ruin appeared to have some unusual quirks, not least of all the odd-looking tower on the side of the structure that looked so out of place with the rest of the design that it gave the impression of being an afterthought, sort of like adding a pink pocket square to a brown tweed suit.  We were debating whether we had enough time to climb the steep hill to reach the castle considering that the last ferry back to Oban was leaving at 5.55pm, but it seemed foolish to come all this way and not see the one thing we had planned on seeing, so we agreed to make it quick.  As we were making our way up the hill we discussed which part of our body usually begins to hurt first after a sustained period of physical exertion, which had a similar kind of purpose as participating in a sponsored fast and entering into an argument about your favourite pizza topping; it wasn’t helping anybody.  Gylen Castle was built in 1582 by Duncan MacDougall of Dunollie but was only occupied for around seventy years before it was attacked and left a ruin by Covenanter forces.  On our way up the side of the hill, with my calves making more noise than the local sheep and my beer can clutched precariously in my right hand, I wondered why anybody would have the idea to build their home on such high and remote ground, but I guess it turned out that the castle wasn’t high enough.

Having accomplished our goal of seeing the castle, we meandered back down the hill buoyed by our achievement and began making our way back to the jetty where we would catch the ferry home.  It was after five o’clock and we had no way of knowing how far away we were or how long the route back would take, but at that point we were only interested in toasting our success with another of our beers, which were becoming as warm as our foreheads.  As we were strolling past one of the few houses we saw on the day a man shouted out after us from the garden, his face obscured by shrubbery and the glare of the sun.  “Are youse on the way to the ferry?”  He was presumably able to tell from our inappropriate footwear and the state of the Plant Doctor’s and my jeans that we weren’t residents of the island, and we confirmed that to be the case.  “Youse had better start running!  You only have forty-five minutes, and it won’t wait for you!”  We thanked the kind stranger as our panic began to set in, knowing that he most likely wouldn’t have felt it necessary to warn us in this way if we were a ten or even a thirty-minute walk from our destination.

As we picked up the pace from a dawdle we began discussing our contingency options if we failed to make it to the slipway in time to catch the last ferry.  We would have to beg one of the locals to put us up for the night, likely the same man who had warned us about the fading time, probably to avoid such a situation from arising.  It was suggested that we could send a scout to run ahead and somehow convince the ferryman to hold the sailing for us, but what good would that really have done us considering our athletic display with the tennis ball at the sailing club the previous evening and our ill-footing throughout the day on this trip?  What could we reasonably say to the ferryman when two of the three of us had the appearance of drunks who have wandered into a wind tunnel, looking no different to the airer of unwashed clothes in my kitchen?  No matter how hard we power walked, we didn’t seem to be getting any closer to the jetty, and even the upturned wooden boat that we spied on the shore was being considered as an option to get us home.

Despite all of the great things we had seen:  the red squirrels, the Canadian geese, the otter, the chirping bullfinch, Gylen Castle, and all of the stunning scenery; in addition to the laughs we enjoyed along the way, it was accepted that the entire success of the day would be determined by whether or not we could make the ferry.  It was exactly the same question as was posed in the opening track from Blondie’s 2017 album Pollinator, a song that was playing in a loop in my head as we made that desperate push.  In the end, we reached the slipway with exactly seven minutes and no beers to spare.  The feeling of relief was the sort of thing you would pay good money to a dealer for.  Back in the car at the other side of the crossing in Gallanach we spoke about how we would wake up in the morning hungover with our jeans wet and our shoes reeking of sheep shit and we’d have no recollection of what had happened last night.  It would be just like any other Sunday, and I was going to have yet another load of laundry to get through.

The first night

By the time the first day of August had arrived it had been 141 days since I was last in a pub, and boy did it show.  It isn’t that I had been keeping count of the days, just that it was easy enough to enter the dates into a search engine and let the internet do the work.  There were very few things in life that I could count in increments of a hundred days, and dates between visits to Aulay’s would usually only ever require the fingers from one hand to keep score.  The number of days since I had last been able to interest a woman in my company would run into multiples of hundreds, it had maybe been close to a hundred days since I had last thought to dust the dado rails in my living room since things had become lax during lockdown without the hope of being able to invite someone around after the pub, while the pre-pandemic panic purchase of a nine pack of toilet rolls was probably going to be good for another week or so.

Life in the intervening months had been transformed into something unrecognisable and unfathomable, like the sight of me wearing a t-shirt.  Masks were everywhere by this point, most commonly in shops and supermarkets, but also on the streets, where they were not as much seen on faces as they were found on street corners, by the sides of pavements amongst leaves and litter, or lost between park benches.  For something that was designed to preserve lives I struggled to comprehend how people could be so careless with their masks.  The more I saw them kicking around in the dirt, the more I thought of them as being no different to a pound coin left stranded in a supermarket trolley, a forgotten umbrella in a shop doorway, an abandoned baby’s boot, a jacket left behind on the coat rack in the pub, a woollen glove in winter, or, most worryingly, a pair of tights brazenly discarded in the drunken haze of a night out.

A sign that things were gradually getting back to some form of the normality we had previously known was when glossy leaflets for Mica Hardware started arriving in my postbox again, alongside another which informed me that I could buy three Bramley apple pies for the price of £10 from the frozen food retailer Farmfoods, when for months the only items of mail I had received were official pamphlets from the government advising me how to properly wash my hands and what I should do if I thought I had symptoms of Coronavirus.  Even though the sheets of paper usually went straight into the recycling bin alongside crushed cans of Tennent’s Lager and empty milk containers, it was nice to be getting them again.  I’d often heard people use the saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” and while I don’t think that anyone had ever said it about promotional leaflets, it seemed to be true.

The three bicycles that had gathered next to the stairs outside my front door in early April had been reduced back down to one by late July, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t seeing as many cyclists around town as I had been in the early days of the pandemic.  It used to be that you couldn’t walk through Oban without feeling like you were intruding upon some kind of a tribute to the Tour de France, and if people weren’t riding a bicycle then they were walking a dog, which was another sight that didn’t seem as frequent in the new near-normal, or normal adjacent.  I found myself in the chorus of a Paula Cole song when I wondered in my internal monologue where have all the doggies gone?  Dogs and bicycles had been replaced by tourists and masks on the streets, and there was soon the usual worry over how many perfect family photographs I had unwittingly walked through just as the shot was being taken.  There were always so many people lined up along the Esplanade, trying to create the ideal Instagrammable snapshot, that it seemed impossible to avoid ending up in some of them.  Being photobombed by a seagull I imagined the holidaymakers would be comfortable with, since it’s part of the charm of taking a seaside break and they were probably expecting it, but they couldn’t have been anticipating the awkward-looking man in tweed with a four-month-old haircut.  I wondered if it would be obvious when they returned home to view their photographs on some sweet family slideshow that I had been listening to the Taylor Swift song cardigan at the moment I became a blur in their album.  I couldn’t see how it would be, but I thought about it all the same.

Ever since restrictions were eased and bars and restaurants were able to open in mid-July I had been thinking about when, or even if, I would go back to the pub.  Hanging out with friends and like-minded people at the bar had always been a large part of my life.  It was important to have that escape from the miserable monotony of single occupancy by sitting around the bar and feeling miserable whilst in the company of others.  But after 141 days away from the pub, I wasn’t sure how I felt about going back.  Not from any fear of catching the virus – although it was naturally occupying part of my thoughts – it was more a sense of anxiety that things were going to be terribly different from the places I had loved in the past.  I had read about the measures that had been put in place in bars since they had reopened, and for as much as they sounded safe and sensible and necessary, it was hard to picture myself enjoying such a sanitised version of the bar life we used to know.  In my mind, a pub without the bar to socialise around would be akin to a church without an altar.  I was torn, though ultimately while there was a part of me that enjoyed spending a Saturday night alone in the quiet darkness of my flat, drinking craft beers and watching Bruce Springsteen concert footage on YouTube until three o’clock in the morning, it was becoming difficult when for the better part of twenty Saturdays the only company I had were the three mini cactus plants which I kept on the end of the mantel place, and they bristled any time I tried to start a conversation.  Those 141 days could as well have been 1041 for all I’d known, and by the end, I’d been starting to feel like a face mask lost under a rain-splattered bench; forgotten about, disposable, and more than anything else that feeling forced me into deciding that it was time to get out of my solitary confinement.

The plant doctor and my brother had already been to the pub some weeks earlier, and we decided that it would be best to go for the halfway house of the beer garden at the Whisky Vaults, which in practice was really more of a car park which had been transformed into a garden by way of adding some outdoor furniture and a few plants, which the bees seemed to be enjoying at least.  It had been very well done and looked quite chic, which was the first time I had ever described anything in that way.  More importantly, the Guinness was amongst the best I had tasted in town, with each creamy mouthful bringing me a little closer to comfort.  

For an August night it was cool, certainly not like the humid July day it had preceded, though it was at least dry, which was more than could be said for that aforementioned evening when without a coat to shield me I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was walking home from work, the sort of rainfall that was reminiscent of when you turn on the shower in the morning and leave it to run for a few seconds to warm up.  The only difference being that when I eventually step into the shower I’m not usually wearing a shirt and tie.  

Seating was so well spaced out in the garden that it was almost possible to feel as though ours was the only group there, even when most of the other tables were occupied.  Social distancing wasn’t a priority of the swarm of midges we had quickly been surrounded by, however.  The blood-hungry pests were everywhere, which it occurred to me was the first time in a very long time where I had attracted any kind of attention in a bar situation, though as usual I ended up without a bite.  The absence of music in the outdoor setting was compensated for by the backing track of an excited squeal of swallows who were swooping and swerving in synchronised formation overhead, having clearly spied the bothersome midges as an opportunity for a wholesome nighttime snack.  They made for splendid entertainment, different from the usual boxing matches which might typically be screened on television in a pub on a Saturday night.  Since beer gardens could only be licensed until ten o’clock we enjoyed a couple of pints outside before venturing indoors, leaving the birds and the beasties to decide things amongst themselves.

Inside the Whisky Vaults, the tasting room – which had become the main bar area since it could safely accommodate more people than the regular, much smaller tavern – had the appearance of a trendy city-centre pub featured in a television drama, the sort of place that would be popular with successful twentysomethings who had careers and relationships and where people like me wouldn’t ordinarily be welcome.  Its centrepiece was a recently installed ‘washback tasting table’, which since the lockdown had become more of a decorative feature, just like any other part of the bar, really.  The room was easily the most aesthetically pleasing place I had drunk a pint of Guinness in Oban, and it seemed a shame that it wasn’t able to be used in its natural function.

In these heady new times of hygienic consideration, there was almost as much alcohol being squirted onto hands as there was being poured down throats.  Hand sanitiser was available and encouraged to be used at all opportunities, and you could tell that the bottles in the Whisky Vaults were the really good high volume stuff by the way that they stank.  The liquid would cling to your hand the way a cobweb did when you were a kid, when no matter what you did the sensation of it would stay there for ages.  Every few minutes you would see someone returning from the bathroom and they would be rubbing their hands together in exactly the same way, somewhere on the scale between glee and Machiavellian plotting, or just a kid who couldn’t shake off that cobweb.

It was remarkable how quickly things began to seem just as they were before the fourteenth of March, as though the entire global pandemic had been the product of some wild sleep theatre.  After discussing a variety of topics, from our favourite kitchen hob to a comparison of our face masks, we made our way to our chapel – Aulay’s – where we managed to score the last table in the place.  The new one-way system took you in through the door to the lounge bar and exiting from the public bar, which was a route we were familiar with.  Just beyond the entrance was a small foldaway table that had been set up with some pieces of paper and a few pens.  It had the appearance of a stall at a summer feis selling raffling tickets, but in actuality was a contact tracing hub, the sort of lottery where you were hoping that your number wouldn’t come up.  I had often pictured what it would be like to be asked for my phone number by a barmaid, but when Maciej approached us in his surgical mask, it somehow wasn’t as romantic as I had been imagining.

We were seated at the table closest to the entrance, by the stained glass window, which I think was the furthest I had ever been beyond the fruit machine.  The vantage point offered a different perspective of the bar, like taking a painting you have been looking at for six years and moving it to a different wall.  Hanging above the bar at the precise place where we would ordinarily have been standing, by the ice bucket, was a thin, narrow sheet of plastic which was being suspended by a couple of flimsy-looking steel wires, not entirely dissimilar to a particularly garish Christmas decoration.  We found amusement in the fact that the protective shield had been positioned only at the part of the bar we inhabited, and wondered why they hadn’t thought of putting it up years ago.

Towards the end of the night, as the bar was slowly emptying and last orders were close to being called, we were approached by a woman who sat down at our table and introduced herself by telling us about how she and her group had travelled to Oban for the weekend to celebrate her husband’s birthday.  Her skin was the colour of a chestnut left in the microwave for too long, and it looked like it would have had the same texture, too.  The visiting woman’s hair had seen more bleach than even the plant doctor’s, and if I forced to guess I would have speculated that she was in her fifties, though she had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to dissuade people from reaching that conclusion.  She seemed a little surprised to learn that we were all local to the area, and proceeded to take it in turns to ask each of us about our occupations.  She didn’t seem particularly interested in our responses, although her painted lips curled when I mentioned that my work had kept me busy since the beginning of the pandemic, and she promised to come back to me.  We were then invited to guess which line of work the woman was in, which was when it became clear that the entire purpose of her coming over to join our table was a visual representation of when I have thought of something clever and I just have to get it into the conversation.  It felt strange to see it happening before my very eyes.  None of the three of us seemed to be especially good at the pub game of guessing a perfect stranger’s job, and after several fruitless attempts, the woman decided to put us out of her misery.

“I’m an undertaker,” she proclaimed.  And then, looking across the table at me, she returned to my earlier comment.  “Like you, I’ve seen a real uptake in business.”  

Ordinarily it would be the polite thing to do to wish someone you had met in the pub well in their future endeavours, but it seemed counter-productive in this instance.  Usually I was the person making deeply uncomfortable remarks in the mistaken belief that they sounded funny or clever, and despite all of my experience in the field, I didn’t know what to say in this instance.  I think all I could muster as a response was to remark to the woman that she didn’t look like an undertaker, but really, my only frame of reference for what an undertaker looks like was the WWF wrestler from the nineties.

After 141 days where everything had changed, suddenly nothing had changed at all.  People were being enticed into buying frozen desserts and power drills again, tourists had returned to Oban in their droves, and unusual and unexpected conversations were being conducted in the corners of bars.  It had been a while since I had become a blur in someone else’s holiday memories.

Recently I have been listening to:

Click through to my Instagram for some more photographs of masks seen in unusual places.

Ocean Spray

WARNING:  THIS POST CONTAINS EXPLICIT PHOTOGRAPHIC CONTENT

The stormy weather continued into another week in Oban, with rain so relentless that it barely took a break, not even for coffee.  The winds weren’t vicious enough to be christened with a name this time, although they were wild all the same.  Without causing any noticeable disruption or damage, all the storms really achieved was to make me aware of how desperately in need of a hair cut I was becoming.  It had been more than nine weeks since my last visit to the barber’s, and things had reached the stage that by the time I had taken more than a few steps in the blustery conditions, my hair had been blown all over the place, leaving me to resemble a troll doll, only more unkempt and with a much less colourful barnet.

A walk by the sea felt like the most adventurous thing I had done in several months.  There is something dangerous and exciting about the water.  I was listening to the Lenny Kravitz song Can’t Get You Off My Mind as I was striding along the Esplanade one evening, maintaining a slightly better balance than my hair.  Waves were crashing into the shore again and again, sending claps of foam up into the air, the water caressing my cheek like the wet kiss of a salty lover.  It was the most intimate thing I could remember feeling, and yet all it could make me think of was the popular cranberry juice.

February was fast becoming a miserable month.  The incessant rain and cold temperatures and dreich skyline; the soggy soles and the feeling that it might never end; the loneliness of it all.  Increasingly, I was finding myself plotting an escape.  For several months I had been thinking about taking a trip to the Serbian capital Belgrade, mostly because several travel guides had named the city as one of the most inexpensive to visit in Europe, but also because they seemingly know how to party in Belgrade.  The more I researched the trip, the more it was beginning to flourish into an all-encompassing experience.  I bought three books – a DK Eyewitness travel guide, a guide to Balkan train journeys and a history of the former Yugoslavian state – and soon I was considering how I would add Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia to my itinerary.  The latter was a country I was becoming increasingly eager to see, even though my base knowledge of it was as a place that was being bombed to smithereens every time I saw the evening news when I was ten-years-old.

On nights when I was sitting alone in my flat with the wind whistling down the chimney, I found myself spending hours watching YouTube travel vlogs featuring boisterous Canadians or excitable Aussies showing viewers the sights of Ljubljana, Zagreb, Mostar or Sarajevo.  It was all I could do to get myself through those bleak nights to become immersed in their narrative, living vicariously through their experiences.  In the daytime, all I was thinking about was following in their footsteps through the streets of Belgrade.  I had seen so many videos that it almost felt as though I had been there myself, but it wasn’t enough.  I didn’t know how I was going to get there, or the route I was going to take around the four countries, but I decided that I would set off in May and see where the railway took me.

Dubrovnik seemed a long way away when I was sitting at a table in the Oban Inn on a wind ravaged Friday night.  My brother and I had staggered upon the plant doctor and two of his friends, who were also similarly scientific in nature, and we joined them in the corner.  I had previously met the man from Swansea University, and we quickly resumed our discussion from last time on the trials of shoelaces which inexplicably shorten over time.  The question of why one side of the laces always ends up longer than the other was begging to be answered, but it never seemed likely over drinks in the pub, especially once our group’s attention had been grabbed by a scene that was unfolding up at the bar.  Our eyes weren’t drawn so much by the emergence of what would colloquially be described as a plumber’s crack when the broad-shouldered man sitting on the stool by the bar leaned forward, but more by the presence of the hand belonging to the woman who was presumably his partner as it rested inside the opening at the rear of the man’s jeans.  It was a public display of affection, verging on a public display of penetration.  We had been sharing a bag of pork scratchings at our table, but this was a pork scratching of an entirely different variety.  To our amusement, we began speculating on the conversation between the couple, imagining the phrases the woman might have been using as her hand disappeared into the void.  It didn’t seem to matter which way we looked at it, it couldn’t have been comfortable for anyone.

By the time we had left Markies at closing time, the wind was agitating Oban bay with increasing force.  The plant doctor and his friend were concerned about my unsuitable attire, struggling to comprehend why I had gone out for the night wearing little more than a suit which was as black as the night.  They each unbuttoned their large winter jackets and held them wide open by the tails, like great golden eagles ready to soar.  In an act of camaraderie that would surely have appeared unusual to anyone who witnessed it, if the streets weren’t completely empty, the two men created a coat shelter around me as we walked alongside the seething tide.  I disputed the need for it.  After all, I contended, a little wind never hurt anyone.  But the scientists were having none of it, and they continued to frolic around me with their jackets outstretched, shielding me from the worst – although not all – of the conditions.

Off in the distance, we could see the wind taking hold of a large dumpster from the side of the Oban Inn and dragging it out into the middle of the road.  Since it would have been an obvious hazard to any oncoming traffic, and because we were good, concerned citizens, the three of us used our combined drunken powers to push the vessel back up onto the pavement, where we held it in place whilst trying to secure it with a block of concrete.  The wind was howling at our backs, lifting the heavy lid of the bin back and forth, like the jaws of a crocodile.  Next thing I knew, the lid was snapping down on my fingers, which had carelessly found their way onto the lip.  

All of a sudden everything was warm, my hand feeling like a distress flare had been set off somewhere at sea.  It was beaming.  I immediately shook it back and forth in that senseless and ultimately meaningless way people do when they have their hand banged against something.  It did nothing to help, though I presumed that the throbbing sting would disappear before long.  When I next looked down at my fingers there was blood streaming down the length of two of them, and I was once more reminded of cranberry juice.  The plant doctor suggested that my middle finger might need stitches, but since it was almost two o’clock in the morning and I was tired, I continued home and went to bed after hopefully sticking a couple of plasters to the wounded parties, praying that when I awoke the next day I would still have all of my digits intact.

On Saturday morning I was awake much earlier than I normally was after a night out.  Even without my glasses, I could tell that the two plasters had assumed an entirely different shade to when I had first applied them.  The index and middle fingers of my right hand had become much chubbier than the others, and at the base, they were the colour of blueberries which have been crushed into a perfectly good sheepskin rug.  There wasn’t much pain, but my hand was practically useless.  For a few days, at least, the rest of my life was going to be consigned to the same fate as my romantic life had been for years:  it was going to be a solo venture conducted entirely with one hand.  

I had to rely completely upon my left hand to take care of everyday tasks that I ordinarily wouldn’t have to think about assigning to a specific hand.  Tying my shoelaces, fastening my belt, buttoning my jeans, brushing my teeth, holding a knife, going through the self-service checkout in the supermarket, opening a can of lager, holding a glass of Guinness.  None of it could be done with my right hand because of my useless fat fingers.  I was feeling like a child who was learning for the first time how to use those funny looking tools at the end of their arms.

Since I was up anyway, I decided to take the opportunity to go to the barber’s, if for no reason other than to prevent the wind from having the joy of messing up my hair again like it had my hand.  It was the first time I had gotten a haircut out of spite.  After trimming my locks to a length that would be out of reach of the elements, the barber asked me if I wanted anything taken off the eyebrows.  It wasn’t an unusual question to be asked in the setting, but I couldn’t remember how old I was when the barber first posed it.  At what age do a person’s eyebrows begin to grow so unruly that they need to be trimmed by a professional every other month?

My hand was pulsing beneath the black cloak as loose hairs fell around me and the shop was gradually filling behind me.  The barber told me that the previous Saturday had been his quietest one on record, and this one wasn’t looking much better.  “What are you doing in a place like this?” One man said cheerfully to another whose hair was defiantly thin on top.  Invariably the discussion in the room turned to the weather, and it was said that the long-range forecasts were predicting that the strong winds, rain and even snow would last for at least another ten days.  I was cradling my wounded fingers in my left hand, thinking about how miserable it all sounded.  Belgrade and Bosnia couldn’t come around quickly enough.

This week I have mostly been listening to:

A tale of two cities (part three)

The first part of this story can be read here
The second part of this story can be read here

One of the downsides of solo travelling is that it invariably requires a person to spend a considerable amount of time in their own company.  While that wasn’t entirely different to my everyday experience as a single occupant at home, it was really noticeable when I was sitting by myself in a place like Ellátó Kert, which was another ruin pub in the Jewish Quarter.  All around me there were groups of people gathered around long tables, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, talking away in all sorts of different languages. Even when such a scenario presented itself in a place like Edinburgh, London, Dublin or New York City, I was able to listen in on the conversations and in a strange way feel like I was a part of them.  The others around me would never know it, but in my mind, I was making all sorts of interesting and amusing contributions to their anecdotes.  But when all I could hear coming from the bar’s DJ was an instrumental version of the John Lennon song Imagine being played on what I was sure were the panpipes, everything suddenly felt very silent and melancholy.

In an effort to spend less time by myself and to become a genuine member of a group, I took part in four free walking tours around Budapest, which was three more than I had originally intended.  Although the tours were advertised as being free, they were presented by freelance guides who don’t receive payment from any employer, and therefore participants were encouraged to contribute whatever they felt the walk was worth.  This was understood before the group set off, although it always left me eyeing the others in my walking group with suspicion as I tried to work out what a reasonable sum would be to put into the guide’s wallet at the end of the tour.

Budapest’s Great Synagogue

The walking tours were a good way of seeing parts of the city I hadn’t planned on visiting and small hidden gems I would have absent-mindedly strolled past if I didn’t have a local guide pointing them out, such as the tiny figurine of Theodor Herzl which could be seen on a gate outside the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street.  Herzl was considered the father of modern political Zionism and promoted the effort to form a Jewish state, and his birthplace was next to the site of the colourful synagogue.  Some other aspects of Budapest that I might not have picked up on without taking part in the walking tours were the tree outside the hotel where fans of Michael Jackson eagerly gathered during his trips to the Hungarian capital in 1994 to film the promotional video for HIStory and again in 1996 when he performed for the only time and which since became memorialised with his images following his death, as well as the enormous piece of street art which celebrates the fact that a Hungarian was the creator of the Rubix Cube.

On the Communism tour, which was led without a hint of irony by a woman named Barbie, we were told the story of the only remaining monument in the city to the Soviet liberation of Hungary from Nazi German occupation and how it was built in Liberty Square, which houses the United States Embassy on its western side.  In response to the landmark, the US erected a statue of President Ronald Reagan on the opposite side of the square which marked his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

The House of Terror

There were some sights which I tried to enjoy in my own time, such as the House of Terror and the Hospital in the Rock, where the English guided tour group I was on momentarily halted to allow another group to pass from the opposite direction in the narrow underground cave and their guide said to mine, “thank you for your patience.”  I wanted to believe that the pun was intended, but it seemed too good to be true.  After all, how could a man who has English as his second language come up with a joke that even I would probably think twice about trying?

The temperatures in Budapest weren’t quite leaving me in need of hospital treatment, but as a typically pale west of Scotland male who had packed nothing but jeans and long-sleeved check shirts, I was struggling with the days which came with uninterrupted sunshine.  My most difficult experience came after my encounter with the man who had spent the summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke.  It was only when I woke up that morning that I appreciated how terrible an idea it was to have downed two measures of apple flavoured Jim Beam whiskey as shots, something I ordinarily would never do with whiskey.  Everything was happening in achingly slow motion, like watching a YouTube video on a poor internet connection.  Even getting out of bed was a dramatic theatre production in the style of a tragedy.  

At Szent Istvan Bazilika, Budapest’s largest church, I found myself in awe of the majesty of the building, which is named in honour of Stephen, the first King of Hungary.  Even though I hadn’t set foot inside a Catholic church since my mother’s funeral in 2014, I felt a compulsion to dip my fingers into the holy water on the way in.  I couldn’t be sure if I did it because many of the people in front of me had done it and it seemed like the right thing to do, if it was some desperate attempt to cool my beating forehead or if it was out of the hope that it might bring me some luck.  In any event, the holy water was lukewarm and I only felt self-conscious about whether I had blessed myself correctly.  It has been said that once you learn how to ride a bicycle you never forget, but there is a reason no-one has ever said the same about which shoulder is touched first when a lapsed Catholic blesses himself.

Szent István Bazilika

Amongst the rich fine arts, the bright mosaics and prominent statues, the basilica also houses the “incorruptible” right hand of Saint Stephen in the reliquary.  The relic was stolen by a cleric and later discovered in a county of what is today Romania in 1044.  For several centuries it was transferred around different parts of the Ottoman Empire before eventually being returned to Hungary in 1771 and, finally, displayed in Szent Istvan Bazilika since 1950.  Crowds of people were gathered around the holy right hand, which was held inside a treasure chest within a large glass case and didn’t really look much like a hand at all.  A metre or so away from the religious artefact was a slot machine which carried an invitation to insert 200HUF (approximately 60p), which would in turn light up the display for two minutes.  

There was an inescapable feeling that tourists were just waiting around for someone else to put a couple of coins into the slot so that they could see the hand lit up, the way that everyone wants to feed someone’s pet dog a scrap of food, but they don’t know that it’s acceptable and so they wait until they see someone else doing it first.  I must have been standing in front of the hand for a good ten minutes before a tour group eventually arrived and the woman leading them advised everyone to have their cameras ready as she positioned herself by the coin slot.  They all huddled around the holy relic like it was an exhibit at the zoo, and I was right behind them, just as eager to see it.  The coins fell into the slot and the case was brightly lit like a Christmas carousel, and the only disappointment was that it didn’t rotate or play a musical hymn.  It was another example of the Catholic church making money hand over fist.

I had set the remainder of the day aside for walking up the long and leafy Andrássy Avenue, where the iconic statue complex Hősök tere – Heroes Square – sits at its top, and then onto the City Park beyond.  The square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has three main columns, the centrepiece being the Millennium Monument, which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of the formation of the Hungarian state.  I hobbled onto the vast space in the manner of a wounded soldier, although my woes were entirely self-inflicted.  I was grossly hungover, tired and sweaty from the heat, and all the while feeling very sorry for myself.  Around me, I could see other pedestrians, groups of two or three, who were shading themselves from the heat under umbrellas, and I couldn’t even summon the energy to feel fear of the threatening spokes.  In Heroes Square I was little more than a vanquished villain.

Hősök ter

If Hungarian beer wasn’t able to cure me of my ills and holy water wasn’t going to bring me any fortune, then the local food would usually do a pretty good job of making me feel better.  While a traditional goulash soup or a paprikas dish was what I enjoyed most of all, nothing would sort a hangover or line the stomach for a night of drinking better than a lángos did.  The idea behind a lángos seemed so simple and yet so wild at the same time, like mixing apple with whiskey.  It was dough deep-fried in oil, which was then smothered with a coating of sour cream and finally topped with grated cheese which would never melt due to its cool shield below.  I had rarely encountered genius in my life, but the concept of this treat came as close as anything.  As I was enjoying my greasy saviour at the large street food site Karavan on Kazinczy Street, a North American couple was standing at the opposite end of the table from me.  While I was devouring my lángos, they shared one between the two of them, taking one small bite each at a time, like a modern-day Lady and the Tramp.  For the first time in a long time, I was feeling thankful to be single.

Although I had spent the majority of my trip alone, I had still managed to suffer an athletic bed-time injury during my time away.  It happened at the end of my second full day in Budapest, when I was feeling exhausted from the heat and worn out from another day of constant walking.  My hangover from the previous night was enough to stop me from drinking more than one beer, and I had decided that I would get an early night so that I could enjoy my final full day.  I undressed and collapsed onto one of the twin single beds with so much force and exasperation that I immediately bounced off the other side, hitting my right shoulder on the bedside table in the process.  I was lying in the small space between the bed and the wall, no different to the pile of clothes I had left strewn at the other side.  I must have been there for ten seconds questioning why I hadn’t elected to sleep in the bed that was pushed in safely against the wall, though I supposed that it had been so long since I had something to cuddle in next to in bed that I couldn’t be sure how it worked.

When I saw the large mark on my shoulder the next morning it reminded me of the kitchen worker who had spent the summer working in Basingstoke.  My aches were beginning to mount up.  Already my calf was strained and it was hurting every time I walked.  Rather than stride up and down escalators like I normally would, as though I was on an urgent mission, I would stand still and wait to be carried to my destination.  The Metro stations in Budapest were so far underground that the escalators were the longest I had seen anywhere; from bottom to top they were the length of two Slash guitar solos in the Guns N’ Roses song Don’t Cry.  It was always around a quarter of the way up that the sweet smell of freshly baked goods from the Princess stall on the station concourse would waft its way down.  Every Metro seemed to have one, and they all had the same pleasing aroma, a combination of pastry, cinnamon, almond, chocolate, apple, caramel and coffee, all enticing weary travellers to the ground.

Great Market Hall

Even that couldn’t compare to the sight which unfolded in Great Market Hall, which is the largest and oldest indoor market in the city.   Once you walked in through the grand neogothic entrance your eyes were greeted with every colour imaginable, and there was food as far as you could see.  Traders come here every day to sell their fresh produce to locals and tourists, who would also shop for souvenirs on the upper two floors.  There was a cacophony of chattering voices, fragrances and foods on offer.  Salami, strudel, chicken, pork, venison, paprika, pickles, bananas, broccoli, coffee, vodka, wine, cheese, chocolate, bread, fish, fresh lemonade, candles, bath soaps.  You could spend the whole day walking around the vast hall, taking it all in.

The more I was walking around Budapest and learning about the place, even with strained muscles, a bruised shoulder and sweat on my brow, the more I found myself falling for its old-world charms.  The entire country has such a desperate history, having at various points in its past been occupied by the Ottomans, the Austrians, the far-right terror of the Nazis and the far-left dictatorship of the Communist Soviets.  They spoke with great pride that, after it all, Hungary had gained entry to the European Union in 2004.  I visited the country in the week where the British government had shut down its Parliament in an effort to leave the European Union without democratic debate and without a deal of any description.  

On all four of the walking tours I took it was said how Hungary had lost every major conflict the nation had been a part of.  It wasn’t clear to me whether they were unlucky or hopeless, or perhaps a combination of both, but whatever it was, I was relating it to my own long history of defeats in the field of pursuing romantic relations with women.  I felt a certain kindred spirit with the nation, even if my own independence was somewhat less desired than theirs.

My final night brought with it one last awkward experience with language when I returned to the bar around the corner from my hotel, where I had previously found the cheapest beer in Budapest and the dusty barman who kept a clean floor.  On this occasion, the elderly gentleman had been replaced by a woman who was a little younger and whose features were not quite as set in stone.  She smiled the way everyone did when I attempted to greet them in Hungarian.  Yo a Stevie.  And I quickly appreciated that as with most people I encountered who were of a certain age, the barmaid didn’t speak any English.  I ordered my Borsodi and handed her a blue 1000HUF note in exchange for the cold beer.  She returned with a pinkish-red 500HUF note, similar to the colour of my forehead after days spent strolling in the September sun, which I subsequently placed on the surface of the bar to indicate that I was leaving it as a tip, partly as a form of compensation for the guilt I was feeling over my broken pronunciation and the fact that I was speaking almost entirely in English, as well as being part of my endeavour to get rid of all of my Hungarian Forints before leaving the country the next day.

The barmaid seemed taken aback that I was attempting to leave gratuity which was equal to the cost of the beer I had bought, though at a total of roughly £3.03 the drink and the tip was still cheaper than a pint of Tennent’s was at home.  She picked it up from the bar and tried to hand it back to me, clearly believing that as well as being unable to understand Hungarian, I also didn’t know what I was doing with the currency.  I shook my head and pointed at her, the universal language meaning “for you.”  She smiled shyly, and as a display of her appreciation, a few minutes later she shoved in front of me a small piece of green plastic which held the details of the pub’s wifi connection and password.  The writing was difficult to read and I continued to use the local 4G instead.

Long before I had finished my first drink, I was already starting to worry about how I was going to pay for my second beer.  I was concerned about appearing overly lavish or crudely flirtatious if I continued handing over 500HUF tips, as though I was trying to buy her affection seeing as I couldn’t go through my usual means of talking to a woman and having it fall apart from there.  So when I paid for my next beer I instead left 300HUF in coins.  Some time later the barmaid appeared at the other end of the bar, where she picked up a stool and carried it over to where I was standing.  She pointed at it, encouraging me to take a seat.  I thanked her in both Hungarian and English, and as I was perched upon the barstool a local man who had been sitting to the left of me was at the jukebox requesting the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch.  I considered what could possibly follow a wifi code and a barstool if I left another tip at the bar, and feeling uncomfortable about it all, I finished my beer and left as the barmaid was standing outside smoking a cigarette. 

The Hungarian Parliament building

I returned to Scotland after five days in Budapest and spent a night at a Travelodge hotel in Glasgow, before taking the train home to Oban the following morning.  The climate was much cooler than I had become used to on the continent, and by the time I had reached the reception desk the jacket which had spent a week stored in a wardrobe was wrapped tightly around me.  I was standing in the vacant space for several minutes before a short young woman whose hair was almost the colour of one of the seven towers at Fisherman’s Bastion emerged from the back room.

“Sorry, I hope you haven’t been waiting for long.  I was eating a chippy.”

“I haven’t been here too long.  Sorry for disturbing your chippy.  What did you get?”

The almost-blonde receptionist told me that she was only eating chips because although she wanted a chip butty, the shop had run out of rolls.  I enquired if the absence of a roll from her dinner would mean that she would be grumpy for the rest of the night, and she laughed and checked me in while I was checking her out.

I dropped my baggage off in my room and freshened myself from my cabin fever before returning downstairs to the hotel bar some twenty minutes later.  The bar area was deserted, with the exception of an elderly gentleman who was sitting upon a stool.  He was wearing a polo shirt that was the colour of paprika and had a plastic patch over his left eye, the result of a recent cataract operation.  I took a seat at the end of the bar, and the elderly man reached over and pressed the button at the front of the bar which activated a bell that had a sound not too dissimilar to the chime of a doorbell from the 1990s.  The noise alerted the receptionist who hadn’t had her roll, and she appeared in a different role as our bartender.

“I remember you from before,” she said to me as she opened the latch to step behind the bar. 

“It was maybe around two years ago.  You were really drunk and I think you were telling me that you were worried about wearing double denim.”

The barmaid had done a pretty good job of recalling my plight, especially when even I had forgotten the details of that particular defeat, but I knew the phase of double denim doubt she was referring to.  I ordered a pint of Guinness from her, which cost around the same as two-and-a-third pints of Borsodi, and revelled in the triumphant feeling that the Travelodge girl had remembered me.  She returned to her post at reception, while the old man with the eye patch told me about how he has a friend who also likes to wear denim.  He continued to describe the way that his much younger friend has a method of rolling the bottom of the legs up and how it is considered to be very fashionable, although he himself had never worn a pair of jeans.  I was listening to the man, all the while considering how much better things were when nobody could speak English.

I pressed the button which summoned the receptionist to transform herself into the barmaid, it was as much an alarm bell as it was a doorbell.  She appeared a short while later, though the Guinness that she poured from a can would be the last act of her shift and she was replaced by another multi-purpose Travelodge employee.  Soon the hotel bar became busy with four members of a stag party from Sunderland who were loud and each dressed in a Bavarian dirndl.  Later a larger, though quieter group who were also on a stag from Manchester arrived, and suddenly the tiny Travelodge bar had become like Szimpla Kert.  I finished the last of my drink and took the lift back upstairs to my room.  Not for the first time I was feeling overwhelmed and defeated as I climbed, carefully, into my bed.  Already I was missing Budapest.

The full version of this story can be found here

A tale of two cities (part two)

The first part of this story can be read here.

I had written four Hungarian phrases into the first page of my notebook in order to help me get along in Budapest.  The variants of good morning/afternoon/evening, the word for ‘thank you’, how to ask someone whether they can speak English, and in the event that they couldn’t, “kaphatnék egy sört.”

It took me until eleven o’clock on my first night, and my second drink in Budapest, to find a pint of beer which worked out at the equivalent of £1.51 and was, therefore, better value than the £1.69 I had paid for a bottle of water at the branch of WH Smith in Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow earlier in the day.  The pub was on the next street from my hotel, and the first thing I could see when I walked in was a popcorn machine sitting on the bar facing the open doors.  Inside, the barman was sweeping the floor with a hard-bristled brush.  He looked as though he had been working there, brushing the same floor, since the Stalin era.  His complexion was cement-like, grey and brooding, while his olive coloured apron was the most colourful item in the place.

The dusty old bartender was the fourth person I had encountered in Hungary, after the woman at the BKK ticket desk in the airport, the man on reception at my hotel when I checked in and the waiter at Gettó Gulyás, where I was served my first – and best – bowl of traditional Hungarian goulash, and he was the first who didn’t speak any English.  I tried out my version of good evening, which by now was already beginning to sound like I was trying to get the attention of a Spanish Steven.  Yaw aeshtayt was how I had, phonetically, written the phrase in my notebook, but even I could hear that it was coming out of my mouth more like a “yo a Stevie.”  A smile cracked across the features of the barman.  I imagined that it was his first experience of smiling since around 1991, and it was warming to see.

Almost all of the local people I encountered in Budapest had a very good knowledge of the English language, and often my trouble was more with understanding them than the Hungarians understanding me.  On the first morning of my trip, I walked across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to see the Buda side of the city.  Originally Budapest was three different cities – Buda, Óbuda and Pest – until they were unified in 1873.  While linked by several different bridges across the Danube River, the Buda and Pest sides of the city have very distinctive features.  Buda is more residential, quieter and is set upon rolling hills, where Buda Castle and Matthias Church are found.  

The chalk-white towers at Fisherman’s Bastion

The chalk-white Neo-Romanesque towers of Fisherman’s Bastion is where I spent a large part of my first day.  On my way up the winding stairways, my progress was often stopped by the couple ahead of me.  The woman was dressed entirely in black and seemed to be her partner’s photoshoot project, her red hair bleeding against the white stone.  While I could see the attraction, the panoramic views of Budapest from the lookout terrace were much more appealing.

It was when I returned to the area which I had been gazing down on from up high that I experienced my first real difficulty with language.  I had ventured on to Három Holló, a speakeasy bar which had attracted my attention whilst researching my trip online when it was described as being a hub for Budapest’s “socially sensitive, musically-inclined, left-wing intellectuals.”  I had aspirations of being at least one of those and turned up just as the seating was being arranged for what looked to be some kind of performance.  The pint of American Pale Ale I ordered was almost twice the price of the Borsodi I had enjoyed the previous night, but as a socially sensitive intellectual, I couldn’t be seen to be complaining.

Széchenyi Chain Bridge and Szent István Bazilika

I took a seat in the corner of the room with my notebook, and it wasn’t long before the place filled up and a woman was reading to an audience at the front of the bar area.  The performance was entirely in Hungarian, and I couldn’t be sure if it was poetry, drama or spoken word, though the absence of laughter from the group was leading me to think that it might have been a Hungarian female version of one of my Diaries of a single man readings.  The more I was drinking from my beer, and the longer the performance was going on, the more awkward and uncomfortable I was beginning to feel.  There was an attentive silence in the bar, no-one was going to order drinks and nobody was leaving. How sensitive would it look if I got up and waded through the entire audience to leave, or if I was to make one of my efforts to attract the attention of a Spanish Steven at the bar?

It was impossible to even judge from the tone if the performance was anywhere close to being finished.  I was nursing my beer, trying to make it last as long as possible, when two young females entered the bar and sat at the only available seats left, which happened to be at my table in the corner.  I could scarcely believe that such a situation would arise where two beautiful young women would sit at my table in a hipster bar. They were obviously reluctant to potentially interrupt the live reading by ordering drinks for themselves, and then it occurred to me that I couldn’t talk to them, or at least attempt to talk to them, even if I was feeling brave enough to try.  It was a scenario where the only red face I had was from the heat of the sun I had been walking in all day.

After twenty-four hours in the city, I had picked up a habit of trying bad Hungarian on barmaids who ended up having perfectly good English.  This manner made itself most known when I visited Szimpla Kert, which is Budapest’s most iconic ruin pub.  When I first became aware of the term ruin pub, I thought of the condition I have been in when leaving Aulay’s on any given Friday, where I have been ruined by Jameson.  In actuality, a ruin pub is a bar which has been created in an old derelict building, where the furniture is second-hand and everything has utilised as little renovation as possible.  They were popularised in the early 2000s when more and more buildings in Budapest were falling into a state of disrepair after the end of Communism a decade or so earlier.

Szimpla Kert

Szimpla Kert had numerous bars spread out over three or four different floors, many of them having different themes or atmospheres.  It was at one of those bars that I thought I was being smart when I tried to impress the barmaid by asking for “a sört of beer.”  Apart from my phrase literally translating as me asking for “a beer of beer,” the Hungarian word sört is supposed to sound similar to the English word sure.  The barmaid looked at me with incredulity.  “You want a shot of beer?”  She questioned.  I thought it better to offer my apology in my native tongue and accepted a full pint of beer instead.

Although Szimpla Kert was a stunning sight to behold, it felt a lot like being in one of the “Irish” pubs that every city seems to have, where they are crowded with English stag parties and everyone is at an incredibly high volume of drunkenness.  After exploring the multiple layers of the ruin pub, I returned to the area around my hotel, which was less populated with tourists.  Across the square, I found Imperial Pub, which like the place with the dusty barman the previous night, was a quiet watering hole for locals.  Three men were sitting at the bar as I entered, and the woman who was pouring their pints spoke nothing but Hungarian.  I was able to make it clear this time that I was hoping for an entire glass of beer, and upon hearing my voice the youngest of the men spoke to me in English which was almost although not quite as broken as my Hungarian was.  He told me that he had spent the previous summer working in a kitchen in Basingstoke, which was one of those places that I always knew existed, but I was never entirely sure where it was or had met anyone who had ever been there.

To emphasise that his story was true, as if my reaction had somehow suggested to him that I didn’t quite believe that he had once worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, he extended his right arm across my chest, where he pointed out a gruesome burn which was across the bone of his wrist and was the colour of modestly milky coffee.  I presumed that it was healing.  In an effort to make conversation I asked the Hungarian with the burn scar how he had enjoyed his time in the United Kingdom, but it turned out that his grasp of the English vocabulary extended as far as to literally tell me that he worked in a kitchen in Basingstoke, and our exchange fell flat.

Regardless of there being only one common strand between us, that being that the Hungarian had briefly lived in Basingstoke and I had heard of it, he offered to buy me a shot of his liquor of choice, which was Jim Beam apple flavoured whiskey.  I hadn’t learned the phrase for “no thank you, I don’t enjoy apple flavoured alcohol” and so over time I ended up with two of the things.  I bought him a beer in return, by which point I had become a sort of musical carousel, an object which nobody really quite understands, but that they take an interest in any way because it is new and emits a peculiar sound. 

A second member of the party shuffled closer to me.  He had asked the barmaid to play some songs by the rock band Guns N’ Roses through her YouTube screen, which had been linked to the bar’s speaker system.  I found it fascinating that even though he didn’t speak a word of English, this man was delighted to hear Axl Rose’s voice, while I too was thrilled to be able to listen to the music.  He was speaking at me with emphatic Hungarian, and I was talking back to him in English.  We didn’t understand a word that the other was saying, yet when it came to the guitar solos and he was wildly strumming his hand down the imaginary guitar on his torso, we both knew exactly what it meant.

A tale of two cities (part one)

It was six o’clock on a Monday morning and I had been up and out of bed for around eighty minutes, which when added to a week of nights that had been merely peppered with incidents of sleep meant that I was feeling a lot like a wet bath towel.  I could hear the rain falling onto the already sodden tarmac outside, and even though the streets were almost entirely deserted, I was still forced to confront one of my worst fears – a pedestrian carrying an umbrella.  I never really understood where my fear of umbrellas had come from.  Usually it follows that these things are the result of some childhood trauma, the way that an entire generation of people developed a phobia of sharks after the 1975 movie Jaws, or how my own difficulty with talking to girls came after many red-faced rejections.  But umbrellas were different from great white sharks and women. There was never an incident with a spoke to speak of.  It didn’t seem reasonable that whenever I saw a person approaching me with a rain-splattered umbrella held over their head I would have this uneasiness in the pit of my stomach that one of the sharp metal spokes was going to spear me in the eye, having already broken through the lens of my glasses.

As the bus was leaving a dark and wet Oban, I was feeling tired and miserable, and I wasn’t really sure why I was sitting there.  Two nights before, I had read from my notebook at The Rockfield Centre, and while the performance itself didn’t seem that bad, there were only around sixteen people there to hear it.  The numbers would have made for a great dinner party, but not so much an open mic event. While it was a nice feeling that the small number had been swelled by the late arrival of some of my best friends who had made a spur of the moment decision to come along, the experience didn’t do much to alleviate my recent feelings of loneliness and of there not being anyone I could talk to who would understand me, which had resulted in my decision ten days previously to book a solo trip to Budapest.

In the Ryanair non-priority boarding line at Edinburgh Airport I found myself involved in a discussion with an older Scottish couple, involuntarily, as a conversation in a queue usually is.  The older man looked like Santa Claus, bearded and with a jolly belly, and sounded like Robbie Coltrane.  Our flight had been delayed by approximately thirty minutes, although there was no indication of this anywhere around the airport.  John wasn’t upset about the wait to board the flight, although he reasoned in a passive aggressive manner that it would only be fair to those passengers who had the potential to become annoyed that some announcement should have been made as to why we were still waiting at the gate.  “If you’re standing on the platform at Milngavie and the non-existent train you are waiting for isn’t going to turn up, they at least have the decency to tell you.”

John and his wife were on their way to Budapest to join a fourteen night river cruise.  This would not be the couple’s first excursion on a cruise ship, and he regailed me with the story of a previous holiday where an Australian radio personality of modest fame was due on board to perform a DJ set for the holidaying guests.  The tale went that because this presenter had encouraged so many elderly Australians to join the cruise, his cabin was rewarded to him for free.  The first night of sailing departed without any live music, and the following morning the expansive breakfast lounge was buzzing with hushed speculation.  According to John, no-one from the crew on board the ship was allowed to confirm it, but the Australian disc jockey had died of natural causes. As the tall, booming, Father Christmas-like figure reasoned, of five thousand passengers on any given cruise ship, it is likely due to the demographics of the guests that at least one of them would perish each week.

Upon hearing this story, moments before we were about to board our flight to Budapest, where John and his wife were going to join a cruise on the Danube, I found myself worrying that I could inadvertently have become the last person John would ever talk to.  All he wanted was to pass the time whilst waiting to board his plane by talking to a stranger about which cities have the best hop on sightseeing bus tours, and the whole time I was hoping that he would turn to his left and tell it to his wife instead. And now he might be the one in five thousand who dies in a tiny cabin on the river. 

To make matters worse, the gentleman’s parting words as we were opening up our passports and slowly advancing forward in the line were to say:  “I hope you find yourself sitting next to the person you’re looking for.” As though he wasn’t Santa Claus at all, but rather he was a wise old wizard who could tell just from the shape of me that I was a single occupant seeking company.  As it turned out, I was in the middle seat of the emergency exit row, in between a man who minutes after take-off had disembarked his feet from his brown loafers and ordered a hot chocolate and two Cadbury’s Dairy Milk bars, and a senior woman who was on a golfing holiday and had in her hand a copy of the Daily Mail.  He wasn’t even going to get his final wish, though it was difficult to reason that I would have deserved to benefit from it anyway.

Budapest would prove to be a leafy city, this being the pick of the trees

Three hours later our flight arrived at Ferenc Liszt International Airport.  It was thirteen hours after I had left Oban, although with the addition of a Central European hour it was technically fourteen hours.  I saw John and his wife in the line at passport control and was relieved that he had at least survived the flight. Although it wasn’t yet eight o’clock at night it was dark, which was earlier than it had been falling dark back home.  Whilst waiting for the bus into the city a light rain was falling from the sky, caressing the lens of my glasses and dripping down my face.  I huddled inside a shelter, away from the weather and the threat of any oncoming umbrellas.  

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 Fine Art of Self-Destruction

Although the trains between Oban and Glasgow generally operate between meal times, there always seems to be an instinctive need to snack when travelling on them.  I have never known why it is, but when you look around any table on the 12.11 service you will see them decorated with pretty paper Costa bags, Subway sandwiches and large bags of Kettle’s crisps.  And these are all people who probably ate a large lunch before they boarded the train.  There’s just something about the prospect of spending three hours enclosed in a boiling metal container that has people stocking up as though they might never see food again.

In my modest backpack I was carrying three peaches and two bananas.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a peach, though it seemed unlikely that it had been within the current century.   Despite my lack of recent peach experience, it caught my eye whilst shopping in Lidl that they had the fruit on offer at 59p for a punnet of six, which if nothing else would at least finally provide me with a retort to the question of what can you get for ten pence these days?  If anyone should sarcastically ask that in the general area of my presence, I could tell them:  “well, actually, you could get yourself a peach and still have a penny change.

I approached the checkout with a basket filled with peaches, bananas, four cans of Budweiser and a few other items which I wasn’t going to need until after my train journey.  The queue was unusually long for a Monday afternoon, or at least it was longer than I had imagined the line would be, having never actually shopped at three o’clock on a Monday before.  It was when I eventually reached the self-service till, having scanned each of my items through the system, that I became much more aware than ever before of my need to make contact with the card reader, even when making a contactless payment with my debit card.  I was feeling a sense of unease, perhaps even embarrassment, when I realised that not only was I touching the device with my purple plastic debit card, but I was holding it firmly against the screen until the payment had been recognised.  It was clear that I was substituting my emotional need for intimacy, for contact, for a £9.87 payment for groceries.

On the train, I unpacked the fruit from my luggage just as the others around me were placing their own food on the table.  The white-haired woman sitting opposite me unveiled a sandwich that was the most tightly wrapped in clingfilm I had ever seen.  The wrapping job was perfect, as though it was a tourniquet holding a wounded salmon together until it could make it into surgery.  Watching the whole thing, I couldn’t help but feel shame about my own use of clingfilm, which is so loose that it resembles a Club 18-30 holiday.  By the time the sandwich had been unwrapped, it was obvious that the salmon had not made it.

At the table across the carriage, a middle-aged couple whose accent depicted a Yorkshire charm became involved in a dispute with one another when a third party at their table pointed out that their sodden Costa bag was leaking coffee onto the surface.  The woman hastily removed two cups which were stained with brown from the bag while her other half sighed, his face as stern as a weather-beaten granite statue.  “We’re going to have to get rid of these coffees ASAP,” the man said, speaking the final part of his sentence as though it was a word, rather than the initialism most people commonly use.  Other than drinking the coffees, I couldn’t see what their options were.

Jesse Malin performed The Fine Art of Self-Destruction at King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut on Thursday 20 June

As I was unpeeling my banana, the passenger sitting next to me was using the Spotify app on his mobile phone to listen to the greatest hits album by Midge Ure.  He pressed play as the train was leaving the station in Oban, and by the time it had reached the first stop in Connel fifteen minutes later, his earphones were coiled on the area in front of him, alongside his phone and his glasses.

Around an hour had passed since consuming the banana when I was beginning to feel the need to eat again.  I hadn’t purposefully left it so long before thinking about having the peach because I was looking forward to it, the way I’ll sometimes leave my favourite song until the last selection on the jukebox, but more because I was feeling anxious about eating a peach in front of other people.  It’s not that I didn’t know how to eat a peach, just that it had been so long since I had eaten one that I had forgotten how to do it without looking like someone who hasn’t eaten a morsel of food in five months.

With the peach sat on the table staring back at me, I was reminded of a similar situation I found myself in some years earlier on the same train when I was sitting opposite a mother and her son, who was no more than five-years-old and who had peeled the skin from an orange in one attempt and in the fashion of an elephant’s trunk.  I was suddenly feeling very self-conscious about the two satsumas I was carrying in my bag.  My anxiety was justified when I began peeling the first of the satsumas and it turned into an arduous demonstration of my method of stripping old wallpaper from a wall, taking at least eight tries at removing all of the orange peel.  I felt disillusioned, and even though the young boy’s head was buried in a colouring book, I was sure that he was silently judging me.  Not only that, but he was probably staying within the lines, too.

I was keen to avoid a repeat of the orange peel incident and ensure that I wasn’t left looking foolish in front of my fellow passengers, particularly when I could recall that a good, ripe peach has the potential to be very juicy.  It was this that was troubling me, in addition to the furry texture of the skin, which was key to my uncertainty over how the fruit should be eaten.  I used the Safari browser on my phone to Google the phrase “how to eat a peach,” and the first result was a WikiHow page which offered the helpful advice that a peach is eaten like an apple.  Confidently I sunk my teeth into the skin and found that the fruit was not entirely ripe.

My first calling point in Glasgow was MacSorley’s on Jamaica Street, a city centre bar which had reopened the previous Friday following its closure in 2018.  I had a faint memory of a busy night drinking in there with a wild-haired friend some years earlier, and it seemed like a good location to while away a couple of hours before the Jesse Malin gig I was attending later in the night.  The bar was the brightest I had seen anywhere, with late afternoon sunlight falling in through the impressive stained glass windows and an entire solar system of spotlights sparkling from the ceiling.  A selection of music was playing over some speakers, though the volume would suddenly go from being very loud to barely audible, in the way of a conversation in the pub, and I was left tapping my foot to a beat I couldn’t quite hear.

The couple along the other side of the bar from me was keeping a more steady volume, and they seemed to be involved in a dare which had challenged them to speak exclusively using words that were four letters long.  After a drawn-out dispute over the technicalities of saving a photograph from a WhatsApp message to use as a screensaver, the couple asked one of the barmen for suggestions of a drink that the raspberry-haired woman could try as an alternative to vodka, which seemingly is much too easy to drink and doesn’t last nearly as long as a pint of lager.  The barman poured various schooners of Heineken, Amstel, fruit ciders and Neck Oil IPA, and despite the latter drink’s pleasing elderflower fragrance, the woman decided that she would have another vodka after all.  I was watching the scene unfold with interest and the cynic within me wondered whether it was all an elaborate rouse to score some free drinks, rather than a genuine concern over equity.

My observation of the couple had provided a brief distraction from my ongoing curiosity regarding the dish of blueberries behind the bar, beside the wedges of lemon and lime.  I couldn’t determine what use a blueberry would have in a pub, and I was thinking about it so much that it was all I could do to ask the barmaid when it came time to order another beer.  The young woman behind the bar had a stature that put me in mind of a cocktail stick, and I worried that my question would knock her over.

“I can’t stop looking at the pile of blueberries there.  What kind of drinks would you use them in?”

“I’m not really sure,” the barmaid bristled.  “No-one has ever asked that.”  Considering that the bar had not yet been open for a week it didn’t come as a surprise to me that no-one had asked about the blueberries, though it seemed inevitable that they would in time.

The barmaid’s striking pink eye shadow must have mirrored the colour of my cheeks when she suggested that she would ask her supervisor about the blueberries.  After a few moments she returned with a tall man who had a beard which implied knowledge and wisdom.  The barmaid told her supervisor about my blueberry query, and suddenly my vague attempt at flirtatious banter had turned into a full-scale investigation.  I sunk into my barstool the way my heart had been sucked into my liver as the barman explained that sometimes people like blueberries with vodka and lemonade, or occasionally in gin or combined with a daiquiri.  Now the music gets louder, I was thinking as they walked away.

Before I left MacSorley’s for King Tut’s I made use of the bathroom, where I discovered a large chalkboard on the back wall of the men’s room.  The board was headed ‘The Graffiti Wall’, and it was presumably a device installed to prevent people from inscribing telephone numbers on the doors of cubicles with suggestions of a pleasant night.  On top of the hand dryer, which was adjacent to the Graffiti Wall, sat two pieces of white chalk, and as I was drying the water from my hands I was feeling the urge to make my own addition to the board.  Hands up if you like to pee seemed in keeping with traditional toilet humour, but I became worried about the integrity of the writing equipment and thought better of handling it.  The Graffiti Wall seemed like a good idea all the same, though, and as I walked to King Tut’s I spent some time considering how it would be used in Aulay’s Bar.

Although Jesse Malin had played his debut album The Fine Art of Self-Destruction in full in November 2011 to mark the tenth anniversary of its release, and there wasn’t any obvious reason for doing it again eight years later, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear it performed live once more.  The Fine Art of Self-Destruction was one of the seminal records of my budding adulthood.  It came at a time when I was learning about the types of music I enjoy and the bands I was wanting to spend my time listening to.  The first ten tracks on the album* were perfect, and the eleventh song, Xmas, was sometimes quite good to listen to around the month of December.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a way of appearing to be part museum and part advertisement at the same time.  Three-quarters of the walls around the bar have been decorated by a variety of tour posters dating as far back as the early 1990s from bands such as Pulp, Supergrass, Manic Street Preachers, and The Strokes.  The stairs leading up to the concert venue itself have been adorned with the names of many of the acts who have played at Tut’s over the years.  Meanwhile, the area of the bar nearest the entrance is a parade of posters and leaflets advertising the upcoming bands and artists who are aspiring to become the latest addition to the exhibition on the opposite walls and on the stairway.

As the bar was filling up prior to the doors to the venue opening at 8.30, I was glancing around the museum-like portion of King Tut’s, becoming increasingly convinced that I might be the youngest person in the entire room, and if not the youngest then I was certainly in the most youthful 5%.  I was beginning to perform a quick head count of my fellow gig-goers, but after a while it seemed that I would be more efficient counting the number of heads without grey hairs on them.

When I am at home and in Markie Dans it usually seems to be true that everyone around me is getting younger, but the opposite was the case at my recent experiences of attending gigs, where everyone else looked to be getting older.  I found myself scouring the scene around King Tut’s trying to spot the twenty-year-old version of myself:  the guy who fifteen years earlier was travelling to gigs in the city by himself, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt which invariably was a combination of black plus one other colour, with a dark suit jacket decorated with novelty badges bearing amusing slogans and superhero logos, although the Batman and Superman buttons were soon claimed by girls who I would never see again.  I couldn’t find the young adolescent version of myself in Tut’s, however, and if he was there he must have done a better job than I ever did of finding company at a gig.

During my brief time in Glasgow I was gradually becoming aware of a new habit I seemed to have been developing where I would use the word perfect as a prefix to ‘thank you.’  An example of this would be when I was asked how my stay was by the young man on reception at the Euro Hostel upon checking out on Friday morning.  My room in the hostel was on the ninth of nine floors and had a single bed which required to be made up from the small pile of linen sitting atop the mattress on my arrival.  The bathroom was small – so small, in fact, that it almost made my own bathroom at home seem luxurious. It was so compact that they had to plumb the wash hand basin outside the bathroom.  When asked how I enjoyed my night in the Euro Hostel, I replied:  “It was perfect, thank you.”  It wasn’t the first time I had heard myself use perfect in this way, and when I said it again in Aulay’s later that evening I couldn’t help but feel that it was a very high standard to be setting.  Where can you go after a pint of Tennent’s Lager and a £5 all you can eat breakfast in the Euro Hostel has been described as being perfect?

Over the course of a few months the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had, through means of either romance or sickness, dwindled to just a lonely heart.  I walked into Aulay’s wearing a black sleeveless v-neck sweater over a burgundy wine shirt and a navy blue tie, even though I had spent most of my day on a train rather than in the office.  Over the course of an hour or so groups of implausibly young looking people were arriving in the bar, apparently on their way to the high school leaver’s dance, which was being held next door in the Royal Hotel.  Many of the youngsters were dressed in outfits far more colourful than I had ever dared to dream of wearing, while their ID cards were forcing the bar staff to perform mental arithmetic much faster than I was capable of.  I was discussing the idea of a leaving dance across the bar with the moonlighting banker when I remarked that they never had anything like that when I was in school.  As soon as the words had left my mouth I realised that it was the perfect thing to say if I was hoping to convince someone that I was getting old.

I was still reeling from my realisation regarding my increasing age when I stuttered through the bar to the men’s bathroom, where a lone silver-haired patron was finishing up at the urinal.  I slunk over to the far side of the short steel trough and unzipped my trousers in a fashion which I hoped would not attract any attention.  Steam was barely beginning to form when a voice belonging to the only other man in the room piped up.  “£3 a pint just to pish it away.”  There was a brief pause, and in the silence I couldn’t find it within myself to dispute his understanding of the human digestive system.

“And then they expect us to wash our hands?  Fuck them!”  The silver-haired man stormed out of the bathroom in an act of rebellion against hygiene that I had become all too familiar with during my time in the bars, though I supposed that at least this man had given a reason for his uprising, even if I couldn’t be entirely sure who the they that he was referring to were.  I was staring ahead at the empty tiling before me, hoping for a Grafitti Wall that would stop people from talking to me at the urinal.

Towards the end of the night I found myself in Markie Dans, which was quieter than usual for a Friday in June.  A bar band was playing the last of its set to a floor which was slowly emptying.  Of the collection of people who were still scattered around it seemed obvious that if I wasn’t the oldest person in the bar, I was in the upper 1%.  It was an experience entirely different to the previous night, almost like the feeling you get when you have used the last sheet of kitchen towel and you know that there is still an oily pan needing to be wiped clean.  I wasn’t feeling at ease with it and left for home, where there was still a single peach left in the fruit bowl, sitting amongst a bunch of evergreen bananas.  By the end of the week the peach was just like everything else.  It had finally ripened and grown old.

Listen to The Fine Art of Self-Destruction by Jesse Malin here

*Cigarettes and Violets didn’t appear on the UK release of The Fine Art of Self-Destruction, although it features on the Spotify version.

This is still life

It occurred to me recently, some time on a Saturday night, I think, that nothing ever really changes.  I get out of bed at the beginning of the week, brush my teeth and do my hair, and go back to bed when the week has finished.  In between, there are a series of events which repeat themselves in a loop, like a fairground ride – though more often it is something slow and safe, such as the teacups, rather than the Big Dipper.  It was when I was standing in The Oban Inn debating whether a puddle of beer on the surface of the bar looked more like an angel or a map of the country of Ireland as viewed by a bat that I decided that I could do with a day or two away from the town.

The puddle in the Oban Inn looked either like an angel or the map of Ireland turned upside down

With a rucksack three quarters filled with my most precious belongings and a change of underwear for two days, I made a midweek trip to Glasgow and Edinburgh:  two cities which I have seen enough of for them to no longer wow me, but which are affordable and close enough for a single man who relies solely on train timetables to travel to.  If nothing else, it was at least going to give me something grander to look at.

On the way to Edinburgh, a Spanish woman wearing a red knitted jumper was bounding from one end of the carriage to the other taking photographs of the countryside, the way I urgently leap up from my sofa if I think I have forgotten to switch off the towel rail.  To me the scenery was unremarkable, nothing I had not seen before, but to this tourist everything was new and worthy of capturing forever.  Frolicking lambs, horse boxes, green hills looming on the horizon, an ambulance with its blue lights flashing, road signs, an advertisement for a vintage car show, a heavy goods lorry.  I was worrying for the health of her phone once she saw the sights that Edinburgh had to offer

The warm, cloudless sky in the west was growling with grey the further east we travelled.  Out of the window on the left, the sun could be seen hiding behind a sprawling white cloud, giving it a crackling pink hue, like dropping a rose petal into a glass of Alka Seltzer.  On the right side of the train, the clouds were ominously black, and it was as though the sky had been split in two.  Switching my attention between the pair of opposing views put me in mind of the moments shortly before I decide to go up and talk to a girl at the bar and I can foresee the two potential outcomes:  the idealistic blue sky scenario where she smiles at my jokes and we hit it off like the sun nestling behind a cloud, or the imposing black clouds which loom large and only spell trouble.  Soon the sky erupted and a mighty rain cascaded down against the windows of the train, the drops as big as passion fruit seeds.  For a few minutes all anyone could see was rain.

In Glasgow I had visited some of my favourite bars for a few early afternoon beers, although at one o’clock Nice N Sleazy is more nice than sleazy and in Variety I was the only patron.  Edinburgh demands a more cultured approach, however, and I decided that I would go somewhere I had never been before and take a walk around the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

The Scott Monument sitting against a blanket of grey clouds

While I have often enjoyed visiting art galleries, I have never really known how to react to art.  I always preferred words because they tell me how I should be feeling, and I know where I stand with words.  With paintings and photographs there is a lot more room for interpretation, which is troublesome for me when my interpretation of things is often wildly different to what was intended; something which has become increasingly evident the more I try to wear pink socks to match a tie which everybody else insists is coral pink.  One painting which featured, amongst other figures, Mary Magdalene washing the feet of Jesus, carried the description that the woman was displaying remorse and repentance, when to me it looked like she had drawn the short straw.

As I worked my way around the various displays, I was spending more time reading the descriptions on the cards positioned next to the artwork than I was studying the actual art, though even they did not prove terribly helpful.  In the gothic room, I was vexed by such phrases as “the suggestive tying of a garter” and “the placement of a glass jug indicating that the sitter was a glassmaker.”  All I could see was a man who cared deeply about fashion and a clumsy mistake, like when a selfie is botched by a thumb which has crept over the lens of the camera.

The employees of the National Portrait Gallery were floating across the floor without it being immediately obvious what they were doing.  In the section dedicated to Scottish art, an expressionless bearded man, dressed in the uniform of a white shirt with an emerald green tie, was sitting on a chair which was backed against the wall.  It was as though his features were sculpted from marble, and only his eyes could move as he observed the room.  Although I was looking at a piece by David Wilkie, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if the people working in the gallery ever become bored with seeing the same things every day, the way the rest of us suffer the mundane things in our own jobs such as spreadsheets or grinding coffee beans.  In my mind’s eye, I could see the man turning up for work at nine o’clock in the morning, buoyed by a walk under pale blue sky, and he reports to his supervisor to find out which room he has been assigned for the day.  “Rembrandt again,” he sighed to himself, his wispy white beard ruffled with disappointment.

Near the Van Gogh, a pair of employees in matching tartan skirts were discussing their imminent lunch plans.  One of the women was scheduled to take her break at one o’clock, while the other was going to have to wait until two, although she was meeting her boyfriend at Yo Sushi and it was probably going to be worth the wait.  I had worked my way round to the portrait of the Three Tahitians, by which time I was feeling like the man who was caught in the middle of the woman offering indulgence with the mango and the second woman in the painting, who was offering convention with the wedding ring.

The only piece of art which really grabbed my attention was the 1708 work by Thomas Warrender titled Still Life;  a portrait of a random collection of the artist’s belongings, amongst which were a quill, a comb, some playing cards, and a baby blue bow tie.  I was entranced by the picture, which was presumably the 18th century equivalent of me lining up a small pocket notebook, a Zebra Z-Grip Smooth pen, a pocket square and a bottle of Joop! aftershave and taking a photograph with my phone.  I was staring at it until it went black, completely immersed in the whole idea, until somewhere in the distance a mobile phone went off, and the owner took a call on loudspeaker.  On the other end, a woman with an elegant and well-prepared voice was asking if the recipient of the phone call could spare a few minutes to take part in a survey.  The person with the phone, whose face I never saw, disappeared into the next collection, and it didn’t take much to guess what their own Still Life portrait would look like.  At times of intense loneliness, I have often thought about the way that the whole world can feel like our own enclosed space, and this seemed like another of those instances.

With culture firmly in mind, I thought that I would retire to my favourite bar in Edinburgh, Brass Monkey, to consider all that I had seen.  On my way there I walked past a man on North Bridge who was dressed in a robe which was the colour of a baboon.  On his head he wore a red beanie hat, while his dark beard was dishevelled and stained with shades of grey.  He was standing on the pavement ranting loudly at passers-by, with it becoming clear as I approached that the subject of his discontent was Robinson Crusoe. It wasn’t obvious what his trouble with the character was, but he seemed upset by it all the same.  Further up the road on Infirmary Street, a large group of people, presumably on a walking tour, were stopped outside Cafe Nero listening to a man speak.  Meanwhile, on the nearby stoop of an empty premises, a man was wrapped in a blue nylon sleeping bag.  Life is insecure, and hope full oft fallacious as a dream.

I was reviewing my notes in Brass Monkey when my attention was caught by something I had never before seen at a bar.  The barman sat a glass which was around two-thirds filled with ice on the bar in front of a man who was of average height and wearing a grey t-shirt.  Next to the glass was a green bottle of Schweppes tonic water, which the man proceeded to pour into the glass, which I presumed to have a measure of gin or vodka on the bottom.  Floating on the surface of the drink, cradling the blocks of ice like a buoy at sea, was what appeared to be an egg – still in its shell and all.  The more I looked at the scene the more certain I was that I was seeing an egg garnishing an alcoholic drink.  I waited for around twenty minutes to find out what would happen when the man reached the end of his beverage, as to that point all he had been doing was drinking around the egg as it bobbed against his hairy upper lip.  Finally he was on the last mouthful of his refreshment, and I was eagerly anticipating the moment where he was surely, I imagined, going to crack the shell against the rim of the glass and down the raw egg.

Is this an egg?

Instead he ordered another drink – the same again – and when he finished the first, he set the glass aside with the egg still intact, before pouring a fresh bottle of tonic water into the second glass, which also had what seemed to be an egg floating in it.  The process was repeated all over again, and it struck me that I would have been as well looking at an impressionist painting in the National Portrait Gallery, because I couldn’t understand any of it.  Why was the egg in the glass?  Why didn’t he break it?  Was it even an egg?  If it wasn’t an egg, then what was it?  I asked an Italian waiter each of these questions later in the evening and he only stormed off uttering words in his native tongue which sounded like they were indicating confusion.

Even though I had only been out of town for two days, I returned to see that Aulay’s Bar had been painted on the outside.  The coat was so fresh that the fumes could still be detected inside the bar, though the smell was probably no more intrusive than the regular fragrances that linger around a pub.  Over an intoxicating pint of Tennents Lager, the plant doctor and I resumed our usual topics of conversation as we discussed which of us would be more likely to be my brother’s best man if there was ever a scenario where he was getting married, Paolo Nutini puns, the merits of whether a disagreement is a £5 argument or a £10 argument and later in the night we both received a goodnight kiss on the cheek from Geordie Pete, which we agreed had a familiar feeling.

For a change of scenery we ventured to the Balmoral after watching the Scottish Cup final, where there were more people than the last time I had drank in there years earlier, and the carpet wasn’t nearly as sticky.  On my left-hand side appeared a woman who was a lot younger than everyone else in the bar.  Her hair was the colour of shaded sunlight, and she ordered a pint of Magners Cider.  The barmaid was a quick server, leaving me little time to consider my options.  As she took the glass in her hands, I blurted out the only thing I could think of and asked how her day was going.  The woman was having a good day, and our conversation seemed to be developing well.

In the space of a few minutes I learned that she was twenty-six-years-old – which was older than I had guessed – and that she was visiting Oban from Glasgow for the weekend with her mother, as it was a town they had come to often when she was younger, and she had promised to take her mum once she returned from a year living in Australia.  It was all I could do when she mentioned this fact to let her know that I had recently watched the Australian film Wolf Creek, which was based on a true story about a group of young travellers who were abducted and brutally tortured by a psychopath.  The woman didn’t respond to this piece of information, and instead took her drink and returned to the company of her mother at their table on the opposite end of the room.

I left the Balmoral a short time later, while a steady rain was falling from the bleak sky.  After a week during which I had a brush with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Da Vinci, I was still going to bed at the end of it all, waiting to get back on to the teacups to start it all over again.  I had seen the blue sky, but I was still searching to understand the meaning of it all.

May I make a playlist? My Spotify soundtrack for the month of May