The joint is called “Mariners” – which is fair enough: somewhere has to be – but there’s nothing oppressively nautical about the place. I ask my 14-year-old bullock of a son (he grazes all the time, you can watch him grow, castration may be on the cards), how he would describe the curtains and he says: “Greenish, pinkish, greyish mush”. The boy’s a natural – he could also have hymned the nauseating carpet, a chequerboard of red and yellow tweedy striations, or descanted on the low and beige-steely ceiling. We plonk ourselves down at a Melamine-topped chair-and-table combo – also in beige steel.
The menu offers Chef’s Curry of the Day, Scotch Beef and Mull Ale Pie, which comes with that delusory thing “a choice of potatoes”; delusory, because, giving one potato preferment over another is no kind of a choice at all, when what you want is to get away from the whole compulsory potato scene. I’m urging my son to consider the Traditional Scottish Breakfast when the translucent concertina doors to the serving area are ratcheted open and the three or four other customers dotted about rise up as one and head for the anti-bacterial hand-lotion dispenser, only to swerve around it and fetch up in front of the heated cabinet full of black-pudding discs, bacon rashers, Lorne sausage, link sausages, potato scones, hash browns, mushrooms and grilled tomatoes.
Standing up, observing the wall-mounted placard that displays the timeless pictogram for muster stations (four arrows, each sustaining a running man in silhouette, all pointing towards a nuclear family group); clocking the framed photograph of Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra who wielded the shampoo bottle against the stern back in 1987; and seeing from this position the mirror-calm waters slipping past the portholes, I can no longer evade the reality: I’m on a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry once more and yet again I’m about to eat some black pudding simply because it’s there.
What is it about the ferry experience that makes us go belly-up to fried food? We cannot in this exhaust-stinking roll-on, roll-off age make allowance for it because of the sea air – nor can we blame the imminent threat of a watery extinction. No, the compulsion we have to chip-and-bean our way from Dover to Calais, from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, and in my case from Craignure on the Isle of Mull to Oban on the Scots mainland (a voyage lasting a scant 45 minutes), is a function of the most primitive, lab-rat levels of cognitive functioning: the foghorn sounds, we salivate and so we pick up the tray and slide it along the aluminium bars of our floating cage.
On more occasions than I care to recall, I’ve found myself on rough crossings (back in the day, on the old P&O St Ola out of Scrabster and bound for Orkney), battling with nausea and considering whether it’ll be worth the effort of cramming the full Scottish into me, only in all likelihood to see it again, minutes later, pluming down into the maddened waters of the Pentland Firth. I used to treasure the Orkney crossing, not only for the views of the red sandstone cliffs of Hoy – and looking very much as one imagines Avalon would, were it to exist – but also for the raised rims around the saloon tables, and the graticules of rubber mesh that sat upon them, which taken together adverted the fact that you were going to be at a tipping point for some time to come.
On the MV Isle of Mull there’s none of this drama: a man with a skid-mark goatee divvies up a bacon-and-egg roll to bullock-boy, while I have the blood sausage, some mushrooms, a half tomato and a round of toast. The waters slide on past the portholes, spun-sugar-white cloud flows over the hills, sunlight lances sharp and low: we’re on the 6.45am sailing and have been privileged by one of those dawns that turns the Highlands from driech to divine; on such a morning even the blackest of puddings can be toyed with, as BB inhales his roll in a yolky spume.
Princess Alexandra. Pretty insignificant HRH really – but then this is a pretty wee ship. There must be more minor royals and smaller ships out there – on a boating lake near Stirling the last Stuart Pretender is probably launching a pedalo with a bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine as I anoint my toast with a pat of butter and then a second. Because if there’s one thing still more inevitable than the ferry breakfast, it’s that one portion of anything is never enough for man, woman, or bullock.