Jute, jam, journalism, high-jinx & Joop!

There are two reasons why I wanted to travel to Dundee from Edinburgh Waverley Station rather than Glasgow Queen Street.  The first is that I was keen to stop off for a couple of beers in one of my favourite bars, Brass Monkey, seeing that it had been nigh upon twenty months since I was last able to venture in.  It didn’t matter that at two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon I was the only person in the pub for much of my time there.  I was just glad to be back, sitting in blissful solitude with a pint and my Bill Bryson book.  Notes From a Big Country and peace from an empty bar.  On my way back to Waverley to catch my train north, I stopped into The Piemaker on South Bridge for a quick steak pie – not that there is ever any other kind.  As I sat devouring my meat and gravy encased in pastry, I listened as an American woman entered the store to enquire about the ingredients of a cottage pie.  She left immediately upon learning that it contains mince and potatoes, and I couldn’t stop thinking for the rest of the day that this American woman had most likely been disappointed not to find a pie with a traditional sweet filling, such as apple, cherry or pecan.

My main objective for making the journey to Dundee through Edinburgh instead of Glasgow was the anticipation of seeing the Forth Bridge, which was completed in 1890 and was once voted Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder. The bridge is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the subject of one of the country’s most popular colloquialisms for describing a never-ending task – that it is “like painting the Forth Bridge”; a saying that comes from the famously mistaken belief that the bridge is so vast that it requires a fresh coat of paint as soon as the previous one has been applied completely. My nose was pressed against the glass windowpane as the train began the crossing between the villages of South Queensferry and North Queensferry, eyes eager to catch sight of the iconic landmark. Across the glistening Firth of Forth, I could see the new Queensferry Crossing sitting behind the Forth Road Bridge, which was around the same point that I realised that of course I wouldn’t be able to see the rail bridge when I was travelling on the rail bridge. I could hardly mask my disappointment. It was the first time in hours that I wasn’t thinking about the cottage pie.

Scotland’s fourth-largest city had never appealed to me in the same way that it did now that we have been through a pandemic.  Dundee has always had a hard-earned reputation, both at home, where the 19th Century judge Lord Cockburn once described the city as “a sink of atrocity which no moral flushing seems capable of cleansing” and abroad, such as when the American travel writer Paul Theroux wrote of it as being “an interesting monstrosity”.  People in every part of Scotland will often use the unflattering moniker of Scumdee in reference to the city, which was historically the most industrialised in the country.  A problematic relationship with alcohol pervaded the place, something which particularly irked the infamous poet William McGonagall – often referred to as the world’s worst.  

Despite regularly denouncing publicans for the perceived sin of pedalling alcohol, McGonagall would frequently recite his terrible poetry in pubs, knowing that he could make money from the drunks. During his performances he was often pelted with bags of suit, tins, rotten eggs, and old boots, until he was finally forced into retiring from the stage when he received a brick in the stomach, making my own spoken word performances seem like a resounding success. Back in those days, it is said that Dundee had 389 pubs – one for every 43 people in the city. Today it has 115 such establishments, approximately one for every 1,278 people. I just had to find the right one for me.

Directly outside the entrance to my hostel stood the statue of one of Dundee’s many comic book legends, Desperate Dan.  How funny that there should be two of us in the same place, I thought, with no one to make the joke to.  There are statues to be found all over the city centre, from Minnie the Minx to Oor Wullie, and from an enormous green dragon that stalks the main shopping precinct to the titular Lemmings from the popular computer game that was created here in the early nineties, whose bronze beings can be found climbing a wall on Perth Road if you follow the right route.

Having dropped my luggage off in my modest private twin room, I ventured over to Trades House bar & restaurant for something to eat and to watch the football.  It was there that I was reminded of the absurdity of dining on a solo trip, when you usually end up feeling like an exhibit in a wildlife park.  It’s similar to the sense of utter dread and shame I have if I am ever sitting on a public bench eating a bacon roll I have bought from Greggs, when I can’t help but think that every passer-by is viewing this strange and unbecoming scene in judgment as I try to catch the brown sauce before it trickles down my chin, even though I am perfectly aware that everyone has much more important things to be doing than watching a stranger eat, such as checking their messages, pushing a pram in a straight line or keeping their eyes on the road.

Upon walking into the bar, the waitress began to wipe down a table for four, and already the scene was playing over in my mind.  Groups of people staring at the three enormous empty chairs surrounding me, talking amongst themselves, speculating on the reasons why I wasn’t with company.  It was only when the waitress had concluded her duties in line with current Covid protocol that I suggested I might feel more comfortable if I could sit at the table for two by the television, something I could never have done without the security of a mask stopping my lack of confidence from spraying all over her.

My order of beer-battered halloumi with sweet potato fries was simultaneously the best and worst decision I have ever made. Everything on the plate was perfectly palatable, but the three chunks of halloumi were as thick as a child’s fist, and after eating them I worried that I might never be able to sleep again. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that at the table facing me sat a couple who, on all available evidence, appeared to have tattoos on every part of their bodies. Arms, ankles, faces, scalps. Virtually every inch of visible flesh on the pair of them was inked. I could hardly concentrate on finishing my food or watching whichever game of football was being screened for wondering whether the couple had as many tattoos before they met one another or if they just became hyper-competitive during the course of their relationship.

It was with a belly full of barely digested Cypriot cheese that I waddled forth, onwards to The Pillars Bar a street away.  Any lingering discomfort soon dissipated once I walked in and found a pub that looked just like any of my other favourites.  The bar seemed busy for a Wednesday night, though something told me that you would find most of these same people here regardless of which night you happened to drop in.  There was a crackle in the air, and it wasn’t just from the sound of voices.  You could tell that something was going to happen; it could have been anything.

One guy ordered a pint of Peroni and sat it on the bar next to where I was standing.  He was around my height, needed glasses like I do, had hair that was maybe a little shorter than mine is, and wore a thin layer of stubble on his face.  Everything about him was like watching a bad sci-fi doppelgänger version of myself, with the exception of the multiple piercings he had in each ear and the Dundonian accent he spoke with.  The Dundee Doppelgänger abandoned his lager and wandered around the bar, trying unsuccessfully to engage in conversation with various people.  It was uncanny.  He managed to convince one guy to show him how to operate the jukebox, which was free, but he couldn’t get the hang of it.  I could tell that he was becoming exacerbated, so I nudged him in the ribs and reminded him that he still had a pint to drink, knowing that lager usually helps soothe me in such situations.  Whether he could see the same similarities in me that I was seeing in him I’ll never know, but he started talking to me all the same.  That is when I should have known there was something odd about this guy.

The Dundee Doppelgänger was incandescent with curiosity about why someone would want to visit a city that he regarded as “a shithole.”  It was difficult to find a complimentary way of phrasing the words “it seemed easier than organising a series of PCR tests to travel somewhere I really want to go”, so in an effort to evade the question I instead asked him to focus on one positive element of his hometown and suggest the best place a tourist should visit. He recommended the Verdant Works, a restored 19th Century jute mill, but since it is ranked a lowly #2 of 120 things to do in Dundee on TripAdvisor, I decided that I didn’t have time to fit it into my strict schedule. 

As the minutes passed, it was becoming ever clearer to me why others in the bar were giving this character short shrift.  He had suddenly grown insistent that Pillars is the biggest gay bar in Dundee, which didn’t seem plausible when I glanced around the place and observed groups of poorly-dressed middle-aged men, elderly heterosexual couples and your traditional bleak bar decor.  Yet he repeated the claim often, before adding that although he isn’t gay he doesn’t mind drinking in a gay bar, sort of like the old Seinfeld joke; “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”  It turned out that the Dundee Doppelgänger had been going around the pub asking people if they are gay.  I heard him ask the middle-aged barmaid the question twice.  He asked the only single woman in the bar about her sexual orientation, and when she informed him that she isn’t gay he inquired, “are you sure?  Not even bi?”  In ordinary circumstances, I might have been able to somehow spark conversation with this young woman, but even my doppelgänger is ruining my prospects with the opposite sex.  Of all the 1,277 other people I could have found myself in a pub in Dundee with, it had to be this guy.

Whilst he was outside smoking a cigarette, the barmaid confided that she was finding the inebriated interrogator deeply uncomfortable and intended on cutting him off if he ordered another drink.  Upon his return, he asked me my name and where I was staying while in the city.  Realising that he had clearly forgotten that I had made the mistake of telling him my real name earlier in our conversation, I decided to take the opportunity to improvise a new backstory.

“My name is Mikey and I’m staying at the Holiday Inn for a few nights.”  I couldn’t be sure that Dundee definitely has a Holiday Inn, but I figured it was a pretty safe bet that they do.

“Mikey?  Are you sure that’s your birth name?”

“Aye, that’s the name my parents gave me.”

Smelling a rat the way I could smell the stench of tobacco from his breath, the doppelgänger challenged me.  “What’s your full name?”

I stumbled.  “Michael Alan Ross.”

“Ah-ha!  So Mikey isn’t your name!”

I had long suspected that I didn’t have the skillset to make a successful secret agent, but all the same, to have it confirmed in such a shameful manner was a bitter blow, and it left me resenting my doppelgänger so much more.

Fortunately, my ability to improvise false information on the spot wasn’t going to be needed for much longer, since when the doppelgänger moved to order another drink the barmaid was true to her threat and refused him service.  You could tell he knew it was coming.  This was just as another man, who looked like he had been teleported in from the 1990s, was kicking up a fuss for being asked to leave by another barman.  He was dressed in a dusty nylon tracksuit and looked about as drunk as I felt.  His main gripe, apart from the fact he was being thrown out, was that the bar doesn’t serve Buckfast.  The guy was adamant that he was going to have a tonic wine, and challenged the barmaid to phone the police if she wasn’t going to let him have one.  She picked up her mobile phone and did a better job of a fake dial than I could ever have managed, at which point the man staggered away, ranting and raving to himself, a couple of locals standing by the door to make sure that he didn’t think about coming back.

As soon as both men were gone, I pulled my notebook from my pocket and immediately scribbled down as much as I could remember.  The barman from the adjoining lounge bar reappeared, and on seeing my prolific penmanship asked what I was writing.  I told him about how I occasionally produce a blog detailing the everyday things I witness, and that I need to make note of my thoughts as soon as they occur to me, otherwise I tend to forget them.  He smiled warmly, in a manner that suggested he was interested, and proceeded to tell me about the night he was closing up the bar when he hadn’t realised that there was still a customer in the toilet.  “He was locked in the pub all night, and of course, he helped himself to all the drink he could manage.  When I opened up in the morning there was money on the bar for every drink he’d taken.  That’s what people are like here.”  This long-haired barman promised that he had hundreds of stories he could tell me, and I believed him.  It wasn’t until later that I learned he is the proprietor of the pub, and that Pillars has been there since 1864, making it the oldest location for libation in Dundee city centre.

After my experience in Pillars, the very first thing I would do when visiting a new joint was to reach for my notebook and either hold it in my hand or sit it in front of me. I liked to think that folk take me more seriously when they see a notebook before me on the bar or table. I imagined that they probably believe I am writing things of great significance, when the truth is that it’s usually something along the lines of: “Thursday 16 September – Henry’s Coffee House: I saw a bald guy who literally has a face tattooed on the back of his head. An entire face. It was possibly even his own face.”

The notebook was as much a social crutch as anything else since I didn’t have anyone to talk to and I couldn’t carry my Bill Bryson book with me after the strap on my leather satchel broke in Edinburgh.  It was when I was traversing the Discovery Walk in Slessor Gardens that I learned that I am not the only person to have ever used a notebook in such a way.  The walk has around a dozen plaques celebrating the achievements of people who have lived and worked in Dundee.  One such plaque was commemorating the physicist Sir James Alfred Ewing, who it is said kept a notebook on a table by the front door of his home.  In this notebook, he would ask visitors to draw a pig with their eyes closed and then sign it.  Down in the bottom-right corner of Ewing’s plaque is a sketch of a pig.

Many of the historical sites of interest in Dundee are within easy walking distance, which seemed fortunate when the bright blue sky and blazing September sun were making a mockery of my casual jacket. In City Square, there is a public arts display by way of the carvings in the four fountains, each representing one of the elements, either that or a popular seventies soul band, Earth, Wind & Fire (and air). Each one has a quote from a local poet or author, such as Mary Brooksbank, who was the first woman as well as the first Communist to have her words inscribed into the wall of the Scottish Parliament. From City Square, you can see Caird Hall, the concert auditorium that is named after its benefactor, the jute baron Sir James Caird, and which like many other places today serves as a Covid vaccination centre. The statues of the five marching penguins on the wall of Steeple Church are nearby, as is the plaque commemorating former local MP Sir Winston Churchill and, further on, the birthplace of the feminist abolitionist Fanny Wright; a building which is now a solicitors and estate agents.

Eager to enter some more notes into my book, I returned to The Pillars on my second night, only to find that none of the characters I had been introduced to the previous evening were there, yet the bar was just as busy as it had been.  To nurse my disappointment I went straight to the Jack Daniel’s.  I expect that I was cutting a fairly forlorn figure standing at the bar with my notebook in hand and nothing to write about.  After a while, an elderly gentleman over my left shoulder asked me if I knew where he could get a German Shepherd.  I informed the guy, who had a graveyard tan and a white moustache that trembled like a pigeon on a telephone line as he spoke, that I’m not local and wouldn’t know where he could find a German Shepherd.  We returned to our respective drinks.  The silence was excruciating, and eventually, I had to ask why he was looking for a dog.

“I killed my last one.  The vet wanted to put him to sleep, but I don’t believe in that shit.”

I could tell that this guy is an animal lover.  He spoke fondly of the loyal companionship he has been afforded by his three German Shepherds, each of whom he has had to kill for one reason or another.  But killing his dogs out of mercy was always more difficult than taking the lives of men in combat during his military career, which seemingly came to an end after he suffered a head fracture in the Falklands.  

Soon the conversation had transcended into his time in Spain, where he claimed that he had befriended a wolf.  Said wolf would often follow him on his daily walks, into coffee shops and bars; they had formed a bond beyond words.  Apparently the key was respect, each knew their place within the pack.  People would approach him and ask if they could clap his dog, and he would firmly tell them that it wasn’t a dog but a wolf, he didn’t own it, it was merely with him, and that they could pet it at their own risk.  It sounded like the terms and conditions when you click on the ‘cookie consent’ button.

The Falklands veteran’s fondness for animals extends beyond canines to donkeys, which are seemingly a popular mode of transport in the area of Spain he was living.  He told me of an occasion where he witnessed a local who was using his whip much too vigorously on his donkey for an animal lover’s liking, so he approached the man, snatched the whip from his hands and proceeded to beat him with it.  Evidently, this attack was witnessed by a crowd, because the vengeful veteran was arrested later that evening and subsequently spent ten days in a Spanish prison.  “They fed me bread, cheese, tomatoes, and wine.  I was quite happy.  And the best thing is, the guards searched me and they never knew I had a knife in my sock.”

I noticed him reach into his backpack for a flask, which he unscrewed the lid from and discreetly poured his entire glass of whisky into.  He unhooked his cane from the lip of the bar, clearly making to leave.  Unlike the previous night, this wasn’t a departure from Pillars I was ready for.  As he pulled the straps of his bag over his shoulders, I bid my farewells and chanced to ask the man’s name.  “They call me Hawkeye.”  There wasn’t much more that could be said.

My stubble trimmer had inexplicably run out of charge by the time I could use it on Friday morning, leaving me with no choice but to further explore Dundee with more than the 0.5mm of stubble I usually like on my cheeks. Like my face, the sky was noticeably more grey on Friday, though the look definitely suited the city better than it did me. Despite the rough-around-the-edges reputation Dundee has, the 30-year £1billion regeneration of its waterfront is a true triumph. From the Discovery Walk through Slessor Gardens, past the bright new railway station, down to the splendid V&A Design Museum, the whole area is impressive. Beyond the car park of the Premier Inn and Beefeater restaurant, there is a spectacular view of the Tay Rail Bridge.

The V&A is the first built outside London and the only design museum in Scotland.  Sitting next to the RRS Discovery, which was part of the successful 1901 British National Antarctic Expedition, the pair make for an aesthetically pleasing coupling.  I gorged on the sight from a nearby bench as I enjoyed an Italian bagel and coffee from the nearby Heather Street Food pop-up van.  Even with little pieces of mozzarella dropping from the bread like they were lemmings and balsamic vinegar threatening the integrity of my shirt with every mouthful as museum-goers walked by, it couldn’t spoil my enjoyment of the view.

As far as buildings with an ampersand in the title go, the V&A would rank high in my list of most beautiful. It is a piece of art in itself. Reasoning that it would be foolish to travel all the way to Dundee to eat a bagel outside the V&A without stepping foot inside, I wiped myself down and entered the museum. The thing I noticed most about the place was how much empty space there was. In a way, it reminded me of my living room, where parts of the walls are decorated with prints or photographs, and there is a collection of barely living plants on the mantelpiece, but there is a gaping emptiness amongst it all. The V&A has a mighty stairway from the ground floor to the exhibitions, and the room on rave culture was fairly interesting for what it was, which was basically a series of photographs of a young woman taking drugs in different places over a couple of decades. One room, titled “What if…?”, asked communities from across Scotland to share their hopes and dreams for the future of their hometowns. A host of cards dangled from the ceiling, each one containing a written wish. Things like, “I wish more homes were homes, “I wish the train would come to my town (St. Andrews)”, “I wish we had paths at the side of the road for cyclists and pushchairs,” and “I wish my neighbours could club together for a government grant to put solar panels on the roof of our flats.” It was a nice idea, but for me, it wasn’t any different to what you might hear said in any pub. “I wish I could find the company of a German Shepherd,” or “I wish gay pubs were gay pubs.”

I left the V&A feeling very underwhelmed.  For such a beautiful building on the outside, there is a disappointing lack of substance inside.  I imagine it is a lot like the way anybody views me after seeing me in a tweed suit and then spending a few moments talking to me.  A much better introduction to Dundee was found at the McManus Gallery not but ten minutes away by foot.  There you can not only learn the story of Dundee’s heroic homing pigeon Winkie, who earned a Dickin medal for saving several stricken RAF bombers during the Second World War, but you are also afforded the opportunity to view her taxidermied torso, which is on display in the museum.  There are exhibits dedicated to the city’s pioneering role in Scottish journalism, comic books, and video games, as well as other aspects of everyday life on Tayside.  Ideally, I would have spent much longer than I did in the McManus Gallery, but I still had some drinking to do during my time in Dundee.

Though I have long since grown out of being the sort of Catholic who insists on eating fish on a Friday, I was very much looking forward to a meal of beer-battered fish and chips in the St Andrews Brewing Company.  The place was vast, like an aircraft hangar for craft beer.  It struck me that they probably needed such a large location to store all the fish they are serving, since when mine arrived it was the biggest piece of fish I have ever seen.  If the haddock was still alive it could surely have swum in the puddles of beer-batter grease on the plate, which probably went some way to explaining why it was so delicious.

The travails of dining solo fortunately prevented me from asking for my second beer, the Yippie IPA, as “Yippie IPA, motherfucker,” though I believe that if I had thought to put on my mask I could probably have gotten away with it. At the table in my immediate eye line were two elderly couples who were toasting the beginning of a weekend getaway. Once their four drinks had been ordered, the organiser of the group pulled a sheet of paper that had been torn from a notebook out of her bag and announced that they were going to have to compile a shopping list for items they would get from Tesco in the morning. She had already taken care of the basics, things like bread, eggs and flour, but the type of milk they were going to need was the first source of debate. They were still working on this list when I paid my bill after my third and last beer. Who knew that writing a shopping list would be like painting the Forth Bridge?

My final destination in Dundee was Tickety Boo’s, which was another of those bars that looks and feels like every other pub you have loved.  Before doing anything, the young lady behind the bar informed everyone who came in that the card machine was out and they were only able to accept cash.  I hadn’t felt such panic since my first night in Pillars.  My worry was quickly replaced by the long-forgotten joy of discovering an unexpected £25 in my wallet.  It was probably around March 2020 since I had last paid for anything with cash, and just seeing and handling banknotes again wasn’t any different from one of those exhibits in the McManus Gallery that gave a glimpse into how it was to grow up in Dundee in the 60s and 70s.

Actually seeing money disappear from my wallet in a pub, as opposed to not seeing it leave my bank account with every contactless payment, was a reminder that £25 doesn’t take you very far, especially in a city centre bar.  Soon I was reacquainting myself with the lost art of counting change, and when I finally encountered a shortage of coinage, I leaned across the bar and asked the barmaid to pretend that this was my first time in Dundee and provide me with foolproof directions to the nearest cashpoint.  As well as furnishing me with the funds to continue drinking for the rest of the night, the remark also proved to me that I don’t necessarily need to wear a face mask to have the confidence to make stupid comments.  When I returned to the bar with my first cash machine withdrawal in 18 months, I beckoned the barmaid over and told her that her cashpoint suggestion was a success.  Somehow, the line wasn’t as flirtatious as I was hoping it would be.

Despite my inability to produce interesting conversation about the location of Dundee’s ATMs, the barmaid did kindly offer to take a high seat over to the bar for me to sit on.  I thanked her for her generosity and wondered if she was concerned for my wellbeing.  I assured her that despite my increasingly worn appearance, which doubtless wasn’t helped by the fact that my stubble was surely longer than 1mm by this time, I am deceptively good on my feet.  Declining the stool was a foolish act of bravado, however, since it looked very comfortable and I would have loved to sit down.  I asked the barmaid which style of chair she would like to have behind the bar if she was allowed one, and she instantly responded that it would be a rolling chair, as though she had previously given it some thought.  She would be concerned about the mess caused by spillage from serving customers on wheels, but it would be a fun way of getting around the horseshoe-shaped bar.

Three nights of the kind of alcohol abuse that would make William McGonagall seethe were beginning to catch up with me, and my last hour or so in Tickety Boo’s is lost in a haze of Jameson and ginger ale. The last thing I remember is ending up in the company of two people who I believe were the last pair standing from a work night out, some department from Dundee City Council, perhaps. In a break from the norm, the woman initiated conversation with me when their group first entered the pub and she was sent to the bar with the drinks kitty while the others took a table. She must have made mention of her status as a key worker, since there would have been no other reason for me to regurgitate my joke about being unable to understand why Timpsons was closed during the various lockdowns when they are surely key workers, too. Her laughter was a tonic, like the ginger ale to my whiskey. Even more delightful was to hear her recite the line when she returned to her group, though her delivery didn’t do it justice.

When the council worker returned to the bar for another round she asked my name, which was a lot less troubling than when the question was last put to me.  There was no need for improvisation this time.  I did my usual act in these situations of providing the two initials of my first name and asking the inquisitor to guess the rest, but she got them both immediately and took all the fun right out of it.  The tables were turned when she revealed that her first initial is also a ‘J’, which seemed fitting when there are three J’s everywhere you look in Dundee.  Eventually, the two work colleagues got a taxi to Broughty Ferry and I walked the short distance back to my hostel, passing the large green dragon – which is a much more imposing sight at the end of a night than it is at the beginning of the day – and the Desperate Dan statue on my way.  I had only seen a very small sample of the city in my time there, but it was enough to make me think again about Dundee’s reputation.  The place has a rich history with many quirks.  More than that, even in the 5% of the city’s bars I visited, I found the most interesting and bedevilling characters.  Enough to fill a notebook with sketched pigs.

Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday.  For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year.  When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.

Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running.  Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week.  We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.

Stirling Castle

Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.  

Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them.  The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs.  My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else.  The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances.  From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.

After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs.  There was a wide range of abilities in our group:  from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t.  Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game.  It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves.  Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game:  best described as a lost cause.

It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love.  On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place.  It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building.  The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland.  It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.

Doune Castle

We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen.  Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water.  A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter.  The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs.  We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed.  In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through.  Doune was a quaint wee village, though.  Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace.  On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.

The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry.  From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery.  If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery.  We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand.  Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky.  Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing.  I could barely contain myself.  My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming.  I looked straight into Erin’s eyes:  “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.”  She hardly flinched.  It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it.  “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.”  It was ever thus.

During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group.  This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky.  The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us.  I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.

Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument.  I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history.  Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure.  Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves.  It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge.  The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning:  “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball.  Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.

There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them.  The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations.  I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while.  I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day.  It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.

After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building.  The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle.  Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing.  The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018.  In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves.  The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat.  We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley.  From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge.  Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group.  Somehow I resisted.

The crown at the top of the Wallace Monunent

Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling.  I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times.  Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces.  Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae.  Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory.  The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us.  This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.  

We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass.  This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us.  The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get.  I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos.  Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.

As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers.  For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help.  At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth.  In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs.  Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.

The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma.  The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group.  My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers.  From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest.  The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale.  He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg.  It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.  

I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference.  I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting.  None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend.  Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal.  I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story.  To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.

Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn.  As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar.  When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s.  It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into.  They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery.  Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into.  It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out.  The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.

Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around.  We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday.  I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for.  He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too.  I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans.  You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.

On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well.  One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player.  As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning.  I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”  

Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept.  Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening.  We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing.  I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them.  If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is.  “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.

Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink.  At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off.  It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure.  What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.

Revenge of the sheep

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

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

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

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

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

“Joe 90!  That’s who you look like.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.