There are two things wrong with the ferry journey from Wemyss Bay to Rothesay; it only takes 40 minutes and you're never out of sight of land. Unless, of course, you choose to travel at the same time as me, when poor visibility limits Saturn to an outline at the end of the gangplank.
Walking ahead of me, showing faith in his seeing-eye dog, is a tall, bearded man in a tan raincoat. I recall noticing them at Glasgow Central because the dog looked as if it was reading the departure board. This sparked a replay of film footage showing George W Bush waving to Stevie Wonder, the image confirming the dictum that, truly, 'anyone can be president.'
An elderly couple observe me smiling, jump to a wrong conclusion and try to embarrass me with a 'we saw you laugh at the blind man' look. They have matching Gortex jackets and His and Her's backpacks strapped properly on their bodies. 'That dug tells the time,' I suggest, including the raffia-mafia in something unusual. 'Nods its head for the hours, wags its tail against his leg for the minutes – pretty smart eh?' They follow my gaze across, searching for telltale signs. 'They were on One Man and his Watchdog – maybe you saw it?' And their little wicker contact lenses steam-up trying to look disgusted.
They aren't Glaswegians. Glaswegians would have reacted in some way. Glasgow's turning into another Edinburgh where you only meet people from somewhere else. Rothesay's much the same. Although, mercifully, the Costa Clyde is free from bogus buskers in national costume wringing the life from a myth.
Thanks to an integrated transport system the 12.50 from Glasgow Central to Wemyss Bay had arrived in ample time to board the 13.45 ferry to Rothesay. In the early 1900s Rothesay played host to thousands of working-class people in search of a cure for urban ills. And any overspill the Co-op Camp and Healthcare couldn't accommodate, far-sighted locals could. Rented rooms must have resembled multiple murder scenes as enterprising tenement dwellers marked out sleeping areas in chalk.
Today, along the promenade, there are multiple B&Bs to choose from, an accommodation resource that prompted a controlled influx of people from the urban sprawl of West Coast mainland. Inner city ailments were again imported to the Unexplored Isle, only this time the disabilities were more social than physical. The inexorable creep of contemporary problems are already beyond the landlady's chalk line. I phone the Social Work office for information on demographic change and its impact on the dynamic of the island. The three people I speak to are friendly and keen to help but don't have information to hand.
As a member of an escorted tour you don't even have to know the Matterhorn isn't a tuba
– Temple Fielding
On the upper deck of the Saturn I strike a Hemingway pose as we pull away but, within minutes, nails of wind-driven rain push me below. 'Bit blowy up top?' asks Gordon MacFarlane, in a deadpan kinda way. 'Very er, bracing,' I manage to gulp. 'Bracing?' laughs he. 'Well, I'm braced out.'
Ten minutes out into the Firth of Clyde and Gordon has embarked on his good deed for the day: a 'swift tour' of the island in the spare time he has before a late lunch date. 'You may fancy an open-topped bus of course,' he says, looking wryly into a curtain of wire wool enclosing the ship. He clasps both hands and delivers information in officer style. 'At two o'clock that's Toward Point – the lighthouse isn't operational of course. You'd take a dogleg right to Loch Striven. Warships refuel at the gantry there. Some clever bugger built a fake village up there during the second world war – sparsely lit, it duped Gerry into bombing a few sheds. At nine o'clock you'd see Great Cumbrae – if it were visible.' We peer into layers of mist then turn our attention aboard ship.
We watch a woman in a pleated skirt make heavy weather of navigating a flight of wet iron stairs until a freak gust lifts her skirt and changes her descent into a saucy postcard. She blames her husband following on behind.
Rothesay, early afternoon
Gordon moved to the island from Gourock four years ago. He owns an untraceable English accent, speaks vaguely about his origins, and has an 'our man in Rothesay' air about him.
'Coming up, at one o'clock, is Ascog Hall – a Victorian fernery. Two pounds fifty to look at ferns. At two o'clock, that's Yasmin Le Bon's place – up for sale I think. Now this is Mount Stuart House – and up there, at 10 o'clock, is the visitors' centre.'
On a grassy slope waits a minimalist's dream in wood and grass. Its clean, straight lines provide a contrasting relief to the main attraction's ornate splendour. a design inspired by a paperclip, if memory serves.
Then on to the Ettrick Bay Tearoom, full of sensible folk sheltering from the rain. Too wet even for seals, otters and porpoises to frolic off-shore, or perhaps high levels of nitrates washed from the fields prohibit wildlife as much as potential swimmers. Big breath of air, then it's back in Gordon's untidy car across country to Port Bannatyne which Gordon considers 'a bit rough' but to me looks like Brigadoon with a chippy.
'Three fifteen,' says Gordon, and I look immediately to the right. 'No, it's quarter-past three,' he angles his watch. Twenty minutes later Gordon drops me outside the Palace Bar. From inside comes the seductive click of pool balls – for me, a sound that holds a gravitational pull as a traffic cone to a pissed student. By 5pm I've discovered a nice B&B, had a shower and changed into dry clothes. A break in the weather encourages a walk to the West End Cafe to devour an 'award-winning' fish tea, before pool at the Palace Bar.
Royalty is so much a factor in the Palace Bar it could have been a 'grace and favour' boozer. Above the fading green baize of the pool table droops a Union Jack. Photos of Diana, et al, adorn the walls. 'Gonnae no' play pool the noo,' warns a thickset blonde behind the bar, then turns back to watch two Eastenders bawling abuse at each other. 'Ah get oot the hoose tae escape this,' grumps an old man in a baseball cap. There's a bit of forced banter between him and the woman that is probably a nightly happening. I order a 'soda water with lime and ice' and make my way back to a window seat. A voice from inside a nicotine cloud says, 'Is that wee George Chalmers?' and the rest of the night is used up recounting stories, real and imagined, from within the confines. After half an hour I remember why the two characters I've met were only ever nodding acquaintances. They have a young female in tow. She spends the few hours shredding beer mats until I ask 'How many are you on a day?' and she leaves without a word. She has a 'Freddy Kruger was my care worker' look about her and an obvious vulnerability ripe for predatory exploitation.
Get back to the B&B around 10, switch on the telly and get an unwanted programme about paedophiles. Check out the neighbours' back gardens. Next door, rain-heavy shirts pegged out by an untrained man still hang on a line. From beyond that comes the sound of an unnatural water feature.
Wakened by vertical rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof of an extension that slopes away from the window. At least it drowns out the water feature. Enjoy two perfect poached eggs on toast in the owners' lounge that doubles as a breakfast bar. We chat in polite fashion until 'Tim's chances of winning Wimbledon' receives an extended airing. My 'half hen, half man' jibe puts paid to the amiable punditry. What is this fascination the English have with mediocrity? Yes, the owners are English – three years in the B&B business on the island, but had been visiting for 12 years before taking the plunge. Nice people, running a clean, comfortable place. I'd go back – but not during Wimbledon.
Out in the rain to try and meet a local. No chance. Only me and a couple of dedicated prom-lovers brave the elements. 'Fine day,' I cry, preferring to be considered the island idiot rather than a fern hunter on the prowl. Take shelter in a graffiti-free pagoda overlooking the harbour and scan the shoreline for washed-up body parts.
The rain eases to a torrent so I slog along to the refurbished Victorian toilets. Don't know if they are worth the £300,000 expense or, indeed, the 'must see' hype. Nice tiles though, and for someone with serious prostate problems it's an OK place to stand and wait, and wait. Condom machines spoil the aesthetic. One offers: Assorted 2x£1. Not a wide-ranging assortment unless one's the shape of Mount Stuart House or flavoured like an award-winning fish tea.
It's a short walk to the visitors' centre past lines of Cordylines Australis (that's cabbage palms to you and me). The crumbling facade of the Esplanade hotel has bunches of ferns growing from every crack. Young people in grimy sportswear congregate outside an amusement arcade. The XL Cafe suggests we 'top everything off with a helping of double cream'.
Inside the visitors' centre among the leaflets and timetables are some low-tech interactive exhibits that are too high-tech for me. 'Did Johnnie Beattie speak to you?' asks a helpful guy behind the desk. I confess to incompetence on the J.B. website but suggest he was never really funny anyway. He gives me a blank look and sorts some well-ordered pamphlets on the counter.
On the notice board a reminder from the OES of an Orange Walk on the 12th July. There is also an announcement of a psychic meeting on 22nd June hosted by John Starkey. Why does he have to advertise? Psychic groupies shouldn’t need information. There are a couple of simple machines to operate if a glimpse back to Victorian entertainment is your bag. 'Mutoscope presents' two turn-handle peep shows: The Mysterious Cafe and The Tramp's Unexpected Skate. Goings-on at the cafe are indeed mysterious as only the top half of the flip card is visible. The tramp falls down a lot.
I've had enough. Go back to the fancy Victorian bog to wait some more and zip-up just in time to catch the 11am ferry to the mainland. A Cap'n Birdseye figure in yellow waterproofs greets passengers at the gangplank. He might be a local but I've lost the will to live and don't bother to ask.
When I reach home I have to phone the Western General to arrange admission for my operation. Two days later I'm lying prostrate receiving treatment from people from somewhere else. Brown-skinned women and Chinamen worked hand in surgical glove with ice-maidens from the Garbo School of Nursing. Raven-haired colleens stick tubes and needles into me whenever they pass. A careless visitor drops a 50 pence piece on my catheter tube that pays out in old pennies in my brain.
'You'll be on irrigation for a few days until you're totally washed-out,' says a handsome Asian surgeon.
'No problem, doc – I'm just back from Rothesay.' How we laugh.
I'm convinced he's left an instrument behind. It could be a tuba. Some days it feels more like the Matterhorn.