The Latvian-Scottish hairstylist in the salon across the street from our flat holds my hair up in the mirror, both of us looking at it, and says it’s a disconnected style, which I ask her to define but she can’t really, other than one part of it isn’t connected to the other. And that’s ironic because my stylist in Seattle talks to me about Jung and synchronicity, the fact that everything’s connected, there is no coincidence, it would be harder for nature to separate one thing from the other.
The tour guide at the distillery holds an eye dropper in a stainless steel pitcher and talks about adding water to the whisky, says it helps keep the smoke down, but don’t add more than a drop or two, once you put it in you can’t take it out. And don’t add ice: whatever the whisky was going to do in the glass it will stop doing once you add ice.
We start in a long, narrow room they call the malting floor, covered a few inches deep in barley, which starts as an insoluble starch they add a bit of water to, and over the course of five to seven days germinates, develops sugar, and they come round with a three-pronged plough to fluff it so it doesn’t get tangled, then smoke and dry it over a kiln fed with peat cut from the fields.
And back at the pub, old men sit alone at the bar staring at the grain in the wood and I write about them behind their backs and think they’re here because they have nowhere else to go, I’m just a blip on their screens, a brief interruption: I draw the Puget Sound on my palm with an X to mark Seattle, to show where we live in proximity to the sea, and they ask about Nirvana, and I tell them about Aberdeen, and we nod and go back to our drinks.
On Orkney Island, they’ve only got about six hours of light the darkest time of year, and the tour guide complains about going to work in the dark and coming home in it, which I say I can relate to in Seattle.
They keep the barrels in a cool, dark room — good for ageing whisky because there’s not much variation in the temperature between winter and summer, which the Latvian stylist attests to when she says October was better than June; she had her winter jacket and boots on still most of the summer.
In the hotel bar, the rugby players are clumping up in the corners: one with a neck thick as a tree trunk orders several dishes off the menu — the barmaid asks are they for sharing, and he shakes his head no.
They have dishes like homemade pork scratchings, spicy pickled chillies, long, Polish cured sausages — steak mince tatties, seasoned squid, farmhouse cheese with beetroot and black pudding salad.
And after the ferry crossing back to the mainland Monday with rocky seas, the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin blowing back the northern UK, our car has a grizzled look around the edges like an old dog’s jowls with sea salt slobber, and though it’s dicey on the boat and some are staggering for the bathrooms, Dawn and I go out on the deck and wrap our arms around the metal rails and feel alive from it all, the rise and fall of the waves, the spray, the sense we’re riding a beast, and how small we are, how much we’re a part of it still.
Although we consider ourselves seasoned travellers we made a rookie error by overpacking, fearful we wouldn’t have enough of everything on a 90-day road trip through the UK, and so we wedge ourselves into the car with our winter coats, plush toys, books, laptops, sliced cheese I keep beneath the passenger seat, seashells in an empty Pringles can, CDs, maps, navigator and cell phone chargers, adaptors, half-full water bottles, barf bags.
The kids used to complain about getting car sick and ask us to pull over but now that we have medicine for it and bags we took from our boat ride out of Amsterdam, we just threaten to give them the medicine or tell them to use the bags, and that’s that — no one’s gotten sick yet, the jig is up.
The mind remaps to driving on the other side of the road the way your eyes adjust to a new prescription, though occasionally I get rattled and slip out, and this happens most times entering or exiting the roundabouts at rush hour — and after miles along twisting roads, estimating the distance between our car and the oncoming lorries we pass, squinting through windshield wipers and potholes, I’m wrung out like my blue jeans, the same pair since Amsterdam, broken in like a catcher’s mitt and taken on a sad aspect, the kind of sadness only a dog’s eyes can possess before it collapses in a heap on the floor at day’s end, defeated.
I stay up late in our Victorian apartment now in Oban, which has bay windows that actually overlook a bay, ferries queuing at the terminal — and the light that comes through our windows at night gets bent by the glass and thrown in a jewelled pattern along the walls; when I hold my hand up to it it looks like snakeskin, the same mottled look as the brownstones that line the streets below. In the morning we decide we’ll stay in all day and cook, watch the clouds and storms come and go.