Indian summer

The early onset of autumn had fallen back into summer in mid-September – for a few days, anyway – reigniting the most perplexing question of the time of year:  which jacket should I leave home wearing?  Nothing could make a fool out of a person quite like being seen in a heavy coat on a sunny day. Temperatures had soared into the high-teens, a good day for August, let alone anything after.  The sun was hanging low on the bright blue sky, looking exactly like it would in a child’s drawing:  enormous, shiny and orange.  Along the Esplanade, for three or four evenings straight, it was a scene of an Indian summer.

Across the road from the Regent Hotel, which was once an art deco gem in the display case of Oban Bay but had recently become a ghost and fallen into a sad state of disrepair, a casualty of the economic cost of Covid, a man was reclining in a garden chair, opposite what I presumed was his brown campervan.  He was a picture of comfort, his bare legs outstretched, baseball capped-head thrust skywards, though his position on the pavement, between his van and the railing by the sea, made it awkward to pass.  Other people were using the designated benches to soak up the rays and read, while out on the sea powerboats were cutting through the white waves like scissors.  All of the slipways leading from the street down into the water were lined with people who were enjoying takeaways from the town’s plentiful chip shops, or just one another’s company.  On one concrete strip, just beyond the cathedral, a labrador emerged from the sea with a stick clenched between its teeth which looked to be at least as long as its body.  As it bounded triumphantly up the slipway, water cascaded from the dog’s coat like a burst hosepipe, splashing all the way up the dry surface.  A young woman was sitting on a step with her legs crossed, staring out at the horizon in thoughtful meditation whilst smoking an e-cigarette.  Cherry, I think.  On the next set of steps, a young woman wearing a backpack was being directed by a man on where to stand.  Her companion, whom I presumed to be her partner, was holding a camera in his hands, looking for the perfect shot that would mark their romantic seaside adventure, the coastal scene with the buoys in the background over her shoulder.

 Further along the shoreline, a bespectacled man was crouching amongst the weeds, washing a pair of shoes in the water.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell if the scene was as it appeared, but the closer I got, the clearer it was.  In the man’s right hand he was holding a peach scouring brush, which he was using to scrub the soles of the shoes with all of the studied intensity of a cardiologist performing complex surgery.  Who could know how this man’s life had taken him to the point where his only option was to clean his shoes – although not the shoes that he was wearing – in the sea.  If I was ever feeling down on my luck, I would always remember that at least I wasn’t washing my footwear in the bay.  

On the North Pier, outside the restaurants EE-Usk and Piazza, which both have floor-to-ceiling windows offering a prime view overlooking the harbour, two large Ferguson Transport lorries were unloading goods onto a vessel which was moored nearby.  I always found the scene quite fascinating whenever I encountered it, wondering what was in the enormous plastic cases and where they were being shipped to, but it must have been an irritation for the diners who had booked their tables by the window anticipating enjoying an early evening meal whilst looking out on the sun-kissed west coast.  By the time I had walked back around to the bus station, the heavy beating of the sun on the back of my brown tweed suit jacket was so constant and so warm that I could feel the beads of sweat gathering on my spine in groups larger than those I had witnessed through town.  I was regretting my decision to wear the jacket at all.

Considering that I held a regard of warm summer days similar to that of the misery crooner Morrissey, as a single occupant there were few things which truly brought joy to life in the strange times of 2020.  The pinnacle of my excitement was probably any time I received an email from Netflix telling me about a new docuseries they were streaming.  There was the night that The Unlikely Lads won the pub quiz in The Lorne for the second week running, after fifteen months of not winning it at all, although that was more of a group achievement than anything I had done.  But when the supermarket chain Lidl released their new rewards app in September it appealed to all of the thrifty senses of a guy like me.  Every week they would make available four digital coupons for products that I either didn’t particularly need at the time or wouldn’t usually buy; things like a certain type of cheese, hot chocolate, bacon, laundry detergent or tissues, and I would eat them up because I was saving 15% off the price.  Each time I would scan the coupon at the checkout it felt like a small victory.  These smartphone apps were always shiny and exciting to swipe through, offering the user the promise of something they might not otherwise get:  coconut-flavoured Greek yogurt from Lidl, or a date with a woman on Tinder.

The big attraction was the offer of receiving £5 off a £25 spend during the first month of signing up.  Ordinarily it would be a big week if I spent as much as £25 on my food shopping over the course of seven days, let alone in one visit, but I figured that if I planned ahead and bought things that I might need in the future then I could probably reach the target.  It was a bit like the hoarding everyone was doing back in March, a skill I had already shown to be quite bad at.  My first attempt didn’t get me anywhere near the number needed to make my saving, and over the following week I spent a lot of time plotting how I was going to do better next time, as though I was trying to beat the high score in an arcade game.  I measured how many tins of tuna I would realistically be able to store in the cupboard and considered how much toothpaste a person could buy before it became obsessive, helping me put together a list that would surely earn me the five pounds discount I deserved.  Excluding alcohol, which cannot feature in promotional offers in Scotland, my shopping came to a total of £22.22, which sounded more like a bingo call than the sum of the food I would be eating for the next week.  It was frustrating, especially when I arrived home and realised that I had forgotten to pick up a couple of items, including the toothpaste.  The episode seemed to me to be the equivalent of matching with a girl on Tinder who immediately stops talking to you when you make a stupid pasta pun.

I did finally manage to spend twenty-five pounds and seven pence in a single transaction a week later, but only after I had bought a houseplant to bulk out my basket.  The purchase went against a vow I had made to myself more than a year earlier to never buy another houseplant again, which was sworn mainly as a result of my ineptitude in caring for the things.  I think that the longest a plant had survived under my guardianship was a couple of months, and my inability to keep them alive had given me a complex. The way I saw it, if I couldn’t look after a simple houseplant, how could I possibly trust myself to cultivate my human relationships?  It seemed that the best way of forgetting about all of that and preserving my confidence was to stop replacing my plants when they died.  But with yet more lockdown restrictions arriving towards the end of September, it felt like a good time to give my green fingers another go, if for no other reason than to have some company for a little while, so I bought a potted plant alongside my regular groceries.  When I got it home the first thing I did was to remove the small plastic stick from the soil which carried the name of the plant I was now caring for.  I thought it would be a good idea to search the internet for the best ways of looking after a ‘Crassula ovata’, since although succulents were almost indestructible I had a pretty mean history of killing them.  I learned that the houseplant I had purchased purely to bring my shopping up to a total of £25 just so that I could finally make use of my £5 off coupon is more commonly known as a lucky plant, money plant or money tree.  It was rare that these moments of irony occurred to me so quickly.

As the cases of Covid began to rise across the country again, new measures were introduced during the last week of the month to combat the virus.  Pubs and restaurants were told to implement a 10pm curfew, while households in Scotland were no longer allowed to mix, other than in exceptional circumstances.  In many respects it was a return to the way things had been pre-July, and when we went to the pub on Friday the 18th of September, it was to mark the end of our Indian summer in more ways than we knew at the time.  The plant doctor, my brother and me had met in the beer garden of the Whisky Vaults, though by the time we did the sun had set and we were as much in the dark as we always were.  The air wasn’t exactly cold, but I was feeling nostalgic for the sweat I had felt under my shirt on the walk home earlier in the day.   Once inside, we were one of only four or five groups, and the only time I can remember feeling uncomfortable was when we had forgotten to wear our masks as we walked from the beer garden into the pub.  It was a mild discomfort, mostly brought on from the embarrassment of having to be reminded during times of a pandemic that we should be wearing a mask when walking around a pub, though the feeling was soon offset by the unbridled bliss that was to be found from wearing a mask at an empty urinal.

We were in conversation with the ladies at the table next to us, a pair who we knew from the bars and who were serious about their drinking, ordering bottles of red wine and glasses of Jameson; unlike us amateurs who were only drinking pints of beer.  During our discussion I made a joke in relation to the cravat that the man at the farthest away table had brandished.  The comment drew no response amongst the rest of the group, which wasn’t unusual; but what was out of the ordinary was the fact that the girl on the opposite side of the room erupted into howls of laughter, even nudging her friend to ask if she had heard the remark.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Even accounting for the way the sparseness of the room made every sound echo like a gunshot in a canyon, this laugh was loud.  It was exciting to know that this young woman had apparently been listening in on our conversation, though I had little experience with the sound of laughter and wasn’t sure how to act on it, especially in the midst of a global health emergency.  I couldn’t very well saunter over and join her table when groups were limited to two households at that point, and sauntering wasn’t something I had been able to do in the best of times, anyway.  Finally somebody had laughed at something I had said, and I didn’t even have to say it directly to them.  I just had to sit there and let the words blunder out, but I couldn’t follow up on it.    Not long after, the girls finished their drinks and left the bar.  So much for the fucking lucky plant.

In Aulay’s, we were reunited with our cross-table companions from earlier in the night, though my ability to focus on anything that was being said was compromised by the man who was sitting by himself at the table to my right.  He was making an effort to integrate himself into our conversation, though I was the only one in the group who was paying him any heed.  There was something mesmerising about the character; his wispy white hair resembling fluffy mashed potatoes sitting on a dinner plate alongside a medium-rare steak; the way he was dressed entirely in blue; his choice of drinking a “half and half”, a combination of a half-pint of Export and a glass of whisky (a half) which was traditional amongst men of a certain generation; the fact that every so often he would briefly burst into song.  When he spoke, the man’s voice had a lyrical lilt that was common with the north of Scotland, so pronounced that it was almost like a vocal caricature.

It was impossible to resist the stranger’s attempts to involve himself in our discussion for too long, and when I finally indulged him I learned that he had travelled down from Thurso that day, a journey of around 215 miles.  He had to take three buses to reach Oban:  the first left his hometown at nine o’clock that morning and took him to Inverness, where he then caught the bus down to Fort William, and after around an hour’s wait he made the final leg of his journey to Oban, arriving here at twenty minutes past seven.  Just hearing about it had me feeling exhausted.  His reasons for wanting to visit Oban, seemingly on a whim, were twofold.  As he told me, he had recently taken trips to Skye and Fort William, but he had never been to Oban – and he thought “why not?”  The other cause for travelling 215 miles from Thurso to Oban was a desire to learn the full lyrics of the old folk song Bonnie Oban Bay, as it turned out that the tune he had been serenading us with for much of the night wasn’t the full version.  “I was struggling to find it on YouTube.”

I was feeling pretty guilty that I had lived in the town for my entire life and had never even heard of the song Bonnie Oban Bay, while here was a man who ventured half the length of the country in three buses during a pandemic in which his age group was probably the most vulnerable just because he had a romantic vision that everyone here would be so familiar with the song that they could easily fill in the verses that he was missing.  It was hard not to be impressed with the man, who had also been unsuccessful in asking the woman in the hostel where he was staying about the words of the song, as he just shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his diminishing half-pint of Export.  “Ocht, somebody will know,” he said confidently, before his fairytale voice lifted into the single verse of the song he had been singing all night.

Less than a week had passed when there was frost seen on the windscreens of cars.  The mornings had taken on an icy demeanour, while the temperature on some days had nearly halved.  It used to be that I felt excited by being able to see my breath in the air on crisp, cold mornings, when I would exhale as much as I possibly could because it made me feel like I was a mighty dragon.  But like everything else, that had changed in these times of Covid, when now it was only possible to see how easily an entire village could be scorched.  In the end, our Indian summer lasted only a few days, and our break from the tightest of the lockdown restrictions seemed like it was going to be the Indian summer of our 2020.  As it was, we were all going to to be spending some time on our knees on the shoreline, scrubbing our shoes in the salty water.

The combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé

During the first couple of weeks in September, before new restrictions were introduced on the tenth which limited the number of people who could gather anywhere to six from two different households, I found myself sitting at a table in Aulay’s with a couple who were keen to know if I had started primary school at the same time as their identical twin boys.  I had no recollection of going to school with identical twins, but as the wife of the couple went through a mental checklist of the sort of questions one might be asked when you have forgotten your password for the website of an online retailer, the evidence became indisputable.  It was a certainty that I was in the same class at St. Columba’s primary school as her two sons, at least until the family left for Africa partway through primary two. 

I felt quite a deep sense of guilt that I couldn’t remember the children.  After all, how many times through life does a person encounter identical twins?  And yet right there, sitting at the opposite side of the table from me in the pub, was the mother of two such people who not only did I begin my journey into education at the same time as, but who it emerged grew up in Burnbank, around the corner from our home on Dunollie Road.  We all played amongst the same group of children in the neighbourhood, attended the same birthday parties and quite possibly even went to the same nursery.  I remembered nothing of the Bowen boys.  The mother vowed to return home that night and seek out the traditional first day of school photographs she would have taken to mark the event, and I agreed that I would do the same and we would bring our findings back to the pub the following week.  Since mum was no longer around, dad was the only person I could ask about the whereabouts of any school photographs in the family home.  While you could ask him where any Bob Dylan LP from the sixties was in the house and he would know exactly where to find it, there would have been no hope with a photograph.

Not only could I not remember the twins, but as I thought about it over the subsequent days, the only part of the story which seemed familiar was the woman’s husband, who I felt as though I recognised due to his distinct facial tick, which resembled the actions of a man who every so often remembers that there is a chunk of liquorice stuck to the roof of his mouth.  But the more I contemplated it, the more difficult it was to be sure if I was recalling the man from my childhood or from Friday night in Aulay’s.

The couple had an impressive recall for bygone events.  They had grown up locally and raised their children here for a short time before moving to Africa and then on to Edinburgh, and the woman in particular seemed to enjoy regaling us with tales of the school trips the Catholic church would organise to take them to the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.  She described how the priests would spend the entire trip getting blind drunk, vividly remembering one specific morning where the bus was ready to depart for the next stop but the driver had to wait for the priests, who were lined up on the pavement alongside the vehicle in their sleeping bags, to waken up.  The woman’s husband bristled at the mention of Bishop Wright, whom he had a particularly strong dislike for since he had banished the man from mass because he had previously been divorced and so “there isn’t any point in you being here” but who himself was exiled from the Catholic church after his liaisons with a parishioner were exposed by the gutter Sunday tabloid the News of the World.  The scandal didn’t trouble me at the time when it broke, but as I grew older it was frequently a source of frustration that the Bishop of the diocese who conducted my Confirmation into the church had boasted a better record with women than I did.

I wondered what it was about certain types of people that enabled them to remember events from forty, fifty years ago with such clarity while others struggled to think about daily occurrences.  I got to thinking about the way that my own mind worked, and the meaningless things I would observe and note on a daily basis, yet I couldn’t remember something as significant as going to school with a set of identical twins, albeit briefly.  For example, on Wednesday morning, as I was returning the rain-soaked recycling receptacles from the pavement to the garden, I was struck by the contrast between the two bicycles which were stacked against the bottom of the stairway.  The black bike at the back was bigger and its tyres were thick with dried mud, while flashes of dirt were streaked across the well-worn bodywork.  Clearly the bike had seen a lot of off-road riding.  Slightly in front of it, nearest the door, was a white bicycle which was smaller and practically spotless in comparison and could easily have been a display model in a shop window.  Every time I left my flat my attention would go straight to the two bikes, and for days I was thinking about the variation in their use.

It was a similar situation when I opened the bathroom door at around ten o’clock the previous night, when the breeze that greeted me reminded me that I had left the window open all day.  Summer had stormed straight into autumn, bypassing the usual few weeks of indecision in September.  A daddy longlegs was flailing around the ceiling above the shower in that hapless way that that the spider does, its agitated gait forcing me to think about how it must have been to watch me on the dancefloor in Markie Dans back when people could dance in pubs.  Meanwhile, a moth took the opportunity to flea the scene.  I couldn’t imagine what had been going on in there before my interruption.  When I got out of bed the next morning the moth was sitting patiently on the small glass panel that was carved into the wall above the door to my bedroom.  I never really understood the purpose of that window, and neither did the moth, I suppose.

When I returned home from work in the evening, I was expecting to find that the moth would have moved from its position on the glass to go and do the things that moths do, but to my surprise, it was still assuming its lofty perch, despite my bedroom door being ajar all day.  Presumably something had attracted the insect to the window, to peer into the room, but there was a reluctance from it to venture inside my bedroom.  I concluded that the moth was most likely a female of the species on account of this behaviour, and it became quite comforting to know that it wasn’t going to be disturbing my sleeping chambers.  By the time it came to the business of cleaning the flat on Friday, I had forgotten all about the moth.  Things were dusted and polished and wiped in the usual manner, before I came to realise that on the windowsills throughout the place was a total of around seven dead moths.  I couldn’t fathom when my home had become a necropolis for departed winged creatures.  It felt as though there should have been a plaque somewhere.  I fetched the dustpan and brush, but not before briefly considering the merits of leaving the moths where they were as some kind of deterrent, a way of letting other beasties know that nothing ever thrives here and they would be better off leaving on their own accord.  In the end I thought better of it, worrying about the untidiness as well as the reputation I might gain.

Distractions such as memorials to moths, pristine bicycles and photographs of twins who I never knew existed were put to the back of my mind when The Unlikely Lads returned to the Lorne pub quiz for the first time since early March, finally making use of the weekly reminder I had optimistically set into my phone at the beginning of the year.  Our ensemble cast of quizzers had been trying to triumph in The Lorne for nigh upon fifteen months, coming desperately close on a couple of occasions, but ultimately always falling short.  With one of our founding members due to leave for university at the end of September, we knew that we only had two more opportunities to earn the win we had put so much blood, sweat and Tennent’s into, lest the original trio of Unlikely Lads ends their tenure winless.

The Lorne Bar had an impressive protocol for social distancing

When our team of five arrived in the pub for dinner before the quiz, we soon realised that we were the only regulars who were taking part, and one of the few teams of locals.  Most of the other tables appeared to be made up of visitors.  I couldn’t be entirely sure why, but this filled us with a sense of confidence.  The fact that we didn’t recognise anybody else in the pub had us believing that we had a better chance of winning.  I suppose that we already knew that we couldn’t beat the other regulars – the Bawbags, I-95, ‘Mon The Fish – but with a bunch of jokers that we had never seen in our lives and didn’t know anything about in terms of their ability to handle general knowledge trivia, anything could be possible.

We made a strong start, scoring 9 in the opening picture round on well-known ‘baldies’, despite some of our group misinterpreting the heading on the paper as asking us to identify famous baddies, which only made the inclusion of Sinead O’Connor all the more baffling.  Our general knowledge round was also decent, leaving us a point short of the early leaders The Pink Flamingos, who were destined to become our rivals due to them not being as inept as we had been hoping, and because they clashed with my own colour scheme.

There were some rocky moments for our quintet:  a disagreement over the colour which represents the District Line on the map of the London Underground, and basically the entire third round which consisted of questions where the answers would all feature the letter B in some form, during which we lost our way and answered at least four of them with Blantyre, which earned a rebuke from the silver-haired host.  During the round on Germany, we missed the date of reunification by a year, which in retrospect we were really frustrated with ourselves over.  Most people, I think, know that the timeline went:  1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall began; 1990 – the year of reunification; 1991 – U2 released their album Achtung Baby.

An uncanny knowledge of whisky, due in part to one of our team having spent some time working in the local distillery, and an otherwise stellar performance answering questions about the nation of Germany put us in contention for the trophy of a £25 bar voucher, though there was a tightly-packed field of teams around the top of the board.  At the end of the final picture round, we were feeling pretty good about our efforts through the night.  We were confident that we had done enough to win the quiz, and there was a heightened sense of excitement around the table.  As the silver-haired host announced the scores in ascending order, it became clear that it was going to come down to us and The Pink Flamingos.  In the end it did, and the quiz was going to be decided by a tie-break question.  It was the worst possible outcome for us, since historically as a team our attempts at answering questions which required us to guess “to the closest number” the population of a country, the number of peanuts in a jar of peanut butter, or the distance between two points had been risible.  Often our responses to such bonus questions had drawn ridicule and we featured at either end of the “answers ranging from” scale, usually miles away from the actual answer – both literally and figuratively.  It was even the case earlier in the evening, when the bonus question asked us to determine the distance of the borders around Belgium and we were wildly inaccurate.  We felt defeated.  They would have been as well just giving the bar voucher to the flamingos.

Nevertheless, we had to be grown ups about the thing, and we dusted down our disappointment and readied ourselves for the tie-break question.  The silver-haired host read aloud a list of celebrity names whose birthday it was – or would have been if they were still alive – on that day, the ninth of September, and asked us to tell him, to the closest number, the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.  We took a studious approach to the task, forensically analysing each individual figure in our collective mind and trying to accurately guesstimate their ages, adding them together to reach a total which was probably going to be several decades out anyway.  It was revealed that the winning team had come up with a number that was only two years away from the correct combined total.  The Pink Flamingos, their name now taunting me in my pink tie and socks, had given an answer of 276, whereas we had calculated 288.  We were on the edges of our seats, which as far as we knew wasn’t breaching any government health guidelines.  It transpired that even though we had reached an incorrect age for every one of the five famous names, the combined total of incorrect guesses was within two of the number the silver-haired host was looking for, which was 286.  The Pink Flamingos were left red-faced; we had finally won the quiz.

It was a real moment to savour.  We rightfully basked in the glory of the unlikeliest of pub quiz victories.  The barmaid approached our table with a £94 bill for our food and drinks, setting in motion a cavalcade of chaos as we each tried to make individual card payments which were being hampered by a weak wifi signal and a reluctant chip and pin reader. In many ways, waiting to pay for my portion of the bill was like being a bus driver in France who is waiting for a bunch of drunk Scottish priests to wake up on the side of the road.  Nothing was going to detract from our triumph, though.  In years to come I might not remember the identical Bowen twins from my primary one class, but I wasn’t likely to forget the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.

Bookmarked

When I last wore a burgundy suit it was the day of the office Christmas party and trying it on for the first time in the morning was an experience which had me thinking of the desperate efforts to close a stuffed suitcase the day before leaving on holiday.  I hadn’t worn the outfit since December; there just aren’t that many colour combinations that can be worn with a suit the shade of which wouldn’t look out of place on a wounded animal, though that wasn’t the only reason I hadn’t worn it in eight months.    What had really stopped me from wearing the suit for a second time was that I had fallen into a ditch on my way home after walking a friend up the road at the end of the night.  There was no way of knowing how long I was lying in the muddy grass that night, but the scars of the episode were still smeared across the polyester some months later, until I finally figured out which setting on the washing machine would be best for cleaning it up.  All things considered, the burgundy suit hadn’t been any more or less lucky than anything else I had worn, but it had taken me a while to reach a place where I felt comfortable wearing it again.

I was dressed in black when a group of us went to Aulay’s on a Wednesday night in August to watch Celtic play in a UEFA Champions League qualifying match against the Hungarian team Ferencvaros, where the eventual outcome of the game meant that my outfit was quite appropriate – for a change.  The new guidelines for pubs stipulated that there could be no music played and that the volume on any television sets had to be muted, which made watching the football an unusual experience.  Normally you could tell from the excitement of the crowd noise or the pitch of the commentator’s voice when it was time to look up from your pint to pay attention to the game on TV, but this was going to require us to pay attention.  To make things easier for the rest of us, our group discussed nominating one person at the table who would provide commentary on the match, though predictably the idea descended into chaos when the former Celtic and Wales international John Hartson appeared on screen and the plant doctor and one of the pub’s golfing barmen traded some fairly lamentable impressions of the Welsh accent.  They sounded more like someone from Northern Ireland who had boarded a train in Newcastle bound for Cardiff, mistakenly gotten off in Chester and stayed there for fifteen years.  It seemed better for everyone that we just watched the game in silence.

As the football kicked off, the talk around our table turned to the sign that had appeared in the window of the craft burger restaurant Gelatoburger that day to explain that their temporary closure was due to a local shortage of eggs.  I regretted having not taken that route on my way to the pub to see the sign for myself, but then you can never plan your walks around the odd things you might experience around town.  There must surely be plenty of good reasons why eggs would be such a key ingredient in a burger restaurant that the lack of them would cause the entire place to be closed for a day, but for us, the situation was as difficult to comprehend as some of the Welsh accents which had been flying around our table.

While Celtic were suffering a humiliating defeat on the silence of the big screen, we were having a time of it watching them.  For such a dispiriting night, it was a delight to be amongst people who I hadn’t seen since March.  During one break in play, or at least when nobody had alerted us to any significant goings-on, Brexit Guy leaned across the table and confided in me that he had read some of my written musings and that they had reminded him of Evelyn Waugh, whose work I admitted that I was not familiar with, though like anybody else I had heard about his book Brideshead Revisited.  I found it flattering to be compared with someone else; the idea that I could be anyone but me.  Part of me was wondering if this was an insight into Brexit Guy’s flirting technique, if he was just practising his lines on me since there wasn’t any prospect of any of us at the table interacting with a woman in the foreseeable future, the way that every so often a good chef sharpens his knives to ensure they’re working to their fullest potential.

Out of curiosity, I later researched Evelyn Waugh and found that one biography described him as being right-wing, reactionary and snobbish, which were qualities I wasn’t expecting to find in a man whom I was supposed to have reminded someone of.  When I read this, I immediately took to my journal and penned two entire pages furiously questioning whether Brexit Guy’s remarks had even been intended as a compliment at all, or if it was always a long-form insult, a treasure hunt where the map and all of the clues led to me digging up a note telling me to go and fuck myself.  Nevertheless, I went online and found a rare copy of the author’s 1938 novel Scoop, which was eventually delivered in a small sealed plastic pouch within the usual packaging.  It was unclear if this was for the book’s protection or mine, but holding it felt like clutching an actual piece of treasure.  The copy was so old that the price on the back cover was marked as “20p 4/-”, though I had always been taught to not let things like that impact me in forming a judgment.

Our Wednesday night in Aulay’s ended long after Celtic’s campaign in the Champions League did, though not nearly as unceremoniously.  It was after last orders when a young woman walked through from the public bar into the lounge.  I had seen her earlier in the evening when she arrived with a man who I presumed to be her partner.  When she reappeared, her aura brought light to the dim bar, a welcome distraction from the misery we had been watching unfold on screen.  The woman was walking around the bar, seemingly introducing herself to the few folks who were left, when she finally arrived at our table.  She extended her hand to offer a handshake while providing the information that she was from Wales.  It was just my luck that the only time a woman was suggesting making physical contact with me was in the midst of a global pandemic.  I couldn’t be sure if it was because I had drunk seven or eight pints of Tennent’s or if it was maybe all the different Welsh accents which had been going around the table through the night, but it was difficult to tell by that point if the young woman was actually Welsh or if she too was producing a dire replica of the accent.  There was no reason not to believe her story, and I was just sorry that she hadn’t arrived earlier to provide commentary on the game for us.

Less than forty-eight hours later we were back in the pub, not quite at the same table, but in a similar state.  I was wearing my burgundy suit for the first time since I had fallen into a ditch in December, and this time I was feeling comfortable in it owing to a twice-daily yoga routine.  We were largely the same group as had watched the football a couple of nights earlier, and I told Brexit Guy about the things I had learned about Evelyn Waugh.  He said that he had no idea of any of that and reiterated that my written notes had made him think of the author, and that was enough to have me swooning again.  Meanwhile, Geordie Pete had just sneezed for a sixth time, which he believed was a new record for him.  He seemed chuffed about the fact, and I wondered how many times before he had sneezed five times in the pub, only to be disappointed that it hadn’t happened again so that he could break his record.  The plant doctor and I questioned Pete about the significance of the six sneezes, and specifically if it was like a Beetlejuice scenario whereby doing something a certain number of times would summon an otherworldly being.  We were just amusing ourselves with silly jokes as we always did, and nobody was expecting that Michael Keaton was really going to appear in the pub, though a few minutes later a living spectre actually did arrive in our midst.  I don’t remember why he approached us, but he carried an uncanny resemblance to Geordie Pete.  He was tall and broad, middle-aged, with the only discernible difference really being that he had short grains of stubble on the top of his head while Geordie Pete’s temple was always as smooth as the foam on a pint of Tennent’s.  Pete’s record-breaking six sneezes had somehow, almost unbelievably, invited his doppelganger into Aulay’s, right down to the fact that the man had been visiting Oban from Stanley, which is around ten miles south of Newcastle.  We were all anxious to see what might happen if Geordie Pete sneezed again, but he never did.

At the table next to us was a group of four or five guys who were from Glasgow and seemed to be enjoying their night.  They were older than most of us, maybe in their forties, and they soon took an interest in us and our backgrounds.  One found it incredulous that we had all met in the pub and become friends over time, asking numerous times if we were sure that we weren’t actors.  It struck me as an unusual thing for a person to ask when none of the five of us could particularly be described as having movie-star looks, but having asked us all about what we do for work, the man was convinced that we were actors.  He insisted that our table resembled something from a television sketch show, and when he said it out loud I could see that he had a point.  We did sound like the set-up to a joke.  “A marine biologist, a hypnosis downloads marketer, a haematologist, a Geordie labourer and a man in a burgundy suit walk into a bar…”

It was nigh upon a week later, at around quarter to one on a Friday morning, when I had a rare match on the dating app Tinder.  For all intents and purposes, it would be the first time I would attempt to talk to a woman in that way since February, and I was excited.  Her bio stated simply that her life ambition is to have a lifetime supply of pasta, 6 cats and several dogs, and that seemed a decent place to start a conversation, so I asked how close she was to achieving her ambition.  My match responded within minutes, telling me that she had amassed a month’s worth of pasta, which I learned was casareccia.  I had never heard of casareccia pasta and had to search for it on Google to get an idea of what it looked like.  My observation of the pasta was that it looked like it would be good for containing sauce, which my match confirmed, calling it the “supreme pasta for containing sauce.”  Even though it was early, both in our conversation and the day, I was feeling hopeful that we had already made a connection.

My admission that I’d had to Google casareccia since my knowledge of the different types of pasta extended only to those stocked by my local Lidl prompted my chat companion to suggest that she would like to start some marketing campaign to bring casareccia into local supermarkets so that more people could find it.  My response was to remark that “Casareccia should be easiereccia, right?”  The discussion fell silent.  There was nothing for days.  Presumably there never would be again.  When I thought about it with the benefit of hindsight over the weekend, I came to the realisation that things might have turned out better if I had told my Tinder match that her prose reminded me of Evelyn Waugh.

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.

Masked man seeks masked woman for socially distanced shoegazing

On one of my final drunken misadventures before the world changed beyond recognition in March, I injured my hand whilst trying to rescue a recycling bin from the Oban Inn as it was carried into the middle of the road by a powerful gust of wind during a late-winter storm.  The lid snapped shut on the errant fingers of my right hand as my friends and I were trying to position the bin in a secure place, immediately drawing as much blood as I had ever seen and leaving them swollen and bruised almost beyond recognition as fingers.  My hand was useless for at least a couple of weeks after the incident, leaving me to tend to everyday tasks such as tying my shoelaces, fastening my belt, brushing my teeth, scrolling through Netflix and holding a can of lager with only my left hand.  At the time it seemed like the greatest inconvenience imaginable.

When it came to applying plasters to my wounds, it appeared to be a futile and pointless task.   The damage had already been done and thus it was a little late to be taking preventative measures, I thought, even if the idea of the piece of fabric was more to protect others from being infected by me.  On several occasions, I was forced into describing to different people the grisly detail of my injury and the foolhardy events surrounding it, and it seemed that the act of wrapping Elastoplast around my fingers was only drawing attention to my plight, the way large “50% SALE” signs are placed in shop windows.  If I was awkward and uncomfortable to begin with, the plasters were akin to putting sellotape on a burst pipe.

I thought once again about that week or so in February where my two fingers were covered by plasters when the Scottish government announced that wearing a face covering when entering a shop was going to be compulsory from the tenth of July.  It was a rule which was designed to reduce social distancing from two metres to one in certain situations and to allow businesses in the hospitality trade to reopen safely, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  Change of such a magnitude to our everyday living always unsettles people in the beginning, but my main concern was that it was already difficult enough for me to find socks which matched the colour of the tie I was wearing without also having to buy a similarly shaded face mask, and I knew that I would need one in every colour of the rainbow just to keep up with my wardrobe and the sartorial expectations I had placed on myself.  People who knew me and all about my habit of matching the colour of my apparel would often challenge me on why my socks weren’t coral or aqua, seemingly without an understanding of the limitations in men’s sock wear, and I worried that the same thing would happen with the masks.

Throughout the first four months of the Coronavirus crisis, protective masks were, largely, a rare sight around supermarkets in Oban.  Most people weren’t wearing them, and whenever I did encounter someone who had a face covering on, the predominant feeling I had was one of discomfort.  For some reason, it was still quite a shocking thing to see in a shop in Scotland.  It was a reminder of this terrible thing that was unfolding in the world outside the store, when all I wanted was to buy a mango and some milk.  It was a strange reaction to have – I knew that – particularly when of the people involved in the scene, I was the dick and the mask wearer was a responsible adult who was looking out for my safety as well as their own and everybody else’s.  We were all going to need to get used to the idea of carrying a mask with us every time we went shopping, the same way that you had to remember to pick up your wallet and a couple of bags for life before leaving home, it would just become routine.

I tried to look at the positives of wearing a mask in shops, apart from the obvious health advantages.  The most favourable factor I could think of was my theory that it should make it easier to avoid having to talk to people, which was the thing I dreaded most about shopping.  It always seemed to be the way that you would meet somebody you knew in the fresh produce aisle, usually somewhere around the tomatoes, and they would be keen for a stop and chat.  As in most social situations, I would feel awkward and lacked confidence in making suitable supermarket small talk.  Other people seemed to be having engrossing conversations in the biscuit aisle or by the frozen food, but I could never understand how they were doing it.  It was a skill I couldn’t comprehend.  Even more tricky for me than the actual act of conversation was finding a natural breaking point, which was usually difficult to judge and would often lead to me blurting out some exclamation like:  “Oh, I’ve just remembered that I need to get tartare sauce.”  On reflection, it was a possible explanation for why I occasionally ended up with items in my store cupboard that I didn’t especially need.

One other aspect which I found in favour of face coverings was the idea that if everybody was wearing one, then they would all be dragged down to my level of physical attraction.  If we were all reduced to having only our ears and eyes visible to others, instead of also showing our noses and smiles, it could only benefit a person like me who rarely smiled and who never had all that much of a notable nose.  With that in addition to the restricted ability to talk to other people, and therefore less opportunity for saying something stupid, masks really had the potential to prove quite advantageous to me, I thought, and I began to warm to the prospect of wearing them.

With renewed enthusiasm, I took to a well-known online retailer and found that I could buy a packet of four different coloured machine washable face masks for £8.54, which although I had never before purchased a mask and had no guide for comparison, seemed too good a deal to be ignored.  It wasn’t going to be enough to cover every colour of tie that I owned, but it would be a start.  I felt pleased with myself for having done a grown-up thing; until I noticed that the email which was sent with my dispatch notice attached stated that it could take up to ten days for the masks to be delivered to my door, and I was left resigned to the likelihood that I was going to have to talk to people in the fruit aisle for a little while longer, with the additional catastrophic potential that I might not have been able to go shopping for beer over the weekend.  It was a rare stroke of luck that the package arrived a couple of days later, much earlier than promised.  The masks were black, light blue, pink, and a sort-of-white-sort-of-grey colour that resembled a bowl of porridge or the kind of tracksuit you would sometimes see a drunk person wearing at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.  I immediately decided that the last one would be my ‘back-up’.

When I held the pink mask in my hands, I quickly changed my mind about how keen I would be to go as far as wearing something so bright on my face in front of other people.  I had an image of myself walking through the foyer in Lidl, beyond the houseplants and the debris of soil, and into the shop in the manner of Prince at the beginning of the music video for Purple Rain, in which the audience is staring at him, as though unsure of what he is doing on the stage, and Prince is looking back at them with equal uncertainty as a great awkward silence ensues.  This lasts for 42 seconds, during which it is clear that nobody knows what to expect or where they should be looking.  Somehow it seemed different to those times when I had worn the combination of a baby pink tie, pocket square and socks that were virtually a perfect match to the pub, almost as though with the mask I would be deliberately drawing attention to myself, and it didn’t feel like a global health emergency was the right time to be making such a bold fashion statement. 

In the end, I used the pink one as my practice mask, the piece which I wore around the flat a couple of times so that I could get used to how it felt before I had to go outside and use it in public on the tenth, almost like breaking in a new pair of shoes.  I walked around my flat performing a variety of everyday tasks as I tried to familiarise myself with the new fabric which was stretched across my face:  brushing the oak flooring, carrying a load of empty beer cans out to the recycling bins, watching a show on Netflix, cooking some fish.  While it was undeniably different, and difficult to ignore the feeling that there was something on my face – which, of course, there was – it wasn’t all that terrible.  The only trouble I really experienced while I was trialling my pink mask was when it came to exhaling and the lenses of my glasses would mist up with a cloud of my own breath.  It seemed unavoidable since there was nowhere else for the carbon dioxide to go, and with every breath out I was left with the same inconvenient feeling I had any time I had walked into the bank on a rainy day.

Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had in July

 

Around two or three days before the new legislation surrounding face coverings came into effect, I caught myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the morning clipping my eyebrows.  To begin with, it was something I was doing for only thirty seconds or so after I had noticed a couple of particularly long hairs, but as time grew on, so did my eyebrows, and my morning routine was increasingly about taming those wild forehead whiskers.  When I looked in the bathroom mirror, all I could see were those hairs sticking out in every direction over the black frame of my glasses, the way my tie had been restlessly flapping in the breeze during recent walks along the seafront.  If only the government had made eye coverings mandatory too, in the fashion of Batman’s crime-fighting partner Robin, I would have been saving myself a good deal of time in the morning.

Wearing a covering across the eyes wasn’t as ridiculous as the sight often seen around the town of people who had pulled their mask down to rest under the chin.  I could never figure out if it was an act of laziness and a reluctance to have to put a mask on to enter a shop, take it off when leaving, and then having to put it back on again when going into the next shop, or more worryingly, if it was a misunderstanding of what the mask was supposed to be covering and why.  One person who has used their hands to move their mask from their mouth down beneath the chin didn’t seem all that different to another person who might be driving down a motorway using only their elbows and with the seat belt draped across their body but not clipped in place:  there’s a chance that it might not cause any damage to you or anybody else, but it seemed silly to take the risk.

Masks were an increasingly common sight in Oban after they became mandatory in shops on the tenth of July, as the town gradually began to busy following the further easing of restrictions which enabled hotels, restaurants and bars to open for the first time since March.  It felt strange to suddenly be seeing people where for almost four months there had only been open space and fresh air.  Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had, vehicles decked with bike racks and coloured by canoes.  Roads were no longer an extension of pavements, a safe void where you could walk to avoid oncoming people.  Outside pubs and coffee shops, extra tables and chairs were popping up like eyebrow hairs.  While restaurants operated with reduced service areas due to distancing measures, space for eating was at a premium and anything that could be found was prized:  steps, slipways, entire families enjoying two-course dinners on the sea wall.  It could have been July in any year, but for the sombre skies and the pre-teen temperatures.  And the masks.

In shops, everybody complied with the request to wear them and it was no longer daunting or overwhelming to see a mask.  It very quickly became normal, almost right away.  Indeed, perhaps the only unusual element of the whole thing was that for the first time in my life, I was wearing exactly the same thing as everybody else.  I just had to figure out what to do with my pink mask.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

A crisis of condiments

The question of when is a feta cheese and olive salad not a feta cheese and olive salad had never occurred to me until the night before the first big thunderstorm of the summer struck.  I was sitting in my dimly lit living room considering the events of the day for my handwritten journal when I noticed that the room had become even darker than usual as the fourth of five bulbs in the claw-like chandelier which hung sternly from the ceiling had flickered for the final time, leaving the entire space to be lit by one flimsy little filament.

It had been an otherwise unremarkable day where all I had found it worth writing on my page was the following, which occurred to me, and was originally used, during a telephone conversation with a colleague at work:  Note to self:  “much like the song by the theatrical vocalist Meat Loaf, it’s all coming back to me now.” <- – – a line to use when you have slowly begun to remember the details of something.  As I was writing the line, I literally saw the light go out before my eyes, which ordinarily was how I would have expected anyone to react when I was speaking it, but my colleague only burst into song over the phone.  It wasn’t often that you could see a light expire in that way, and it was only in that moment of clarity that I realised the reason people had been criticising the poor lighting in my flat for weeks, and even months, on Zoom meetings was because another three of the bulbs had already been extinguished.

It didn’t seem like it was all that long since I had last changed some of the bulbs in the chandelier, and I only felt indignation that I was going to be forced to do it once more – indignation in the dark being the less romantic version of a popular Bruce Springsteen song.  None of the other lights in the flat needed replacing so frequently and I couldn’t remember changing the bedroom light at all during my first two years living there, though it perhaps wasn’t surprising since it was the room which experienced the least activity.  Installing new lightbulbs in the living room would mean having to get up from the couch and go all the way through to the bedroom to get the stepladder, which would then be positioned precariously around the coffee table while I stretched to reach the high Victorian era ceiling.  It seemed like a lot of effort, especially with everything else that was going on at the time, and besides, there was so much more daylight in the summer months, and when I did feel the need to close the curtains, the claws of the chandelier made for brilliant shadows on the walls.  So instead, as a temporary measure, I decided to invest in a desk lamp which was on special offer in Lidl, and my fellow Zoom meeting participants were thrilled to see me in a new light, although I couldn’t be sure how long that joy would last.

The same June afternoon in Oban, at the same time.

I was finding myself in a period of tremendously underwhelming lunches when the feta cheese and olive non-salad salad occurred.  On the previous Sunday, I had been cooking sausages whilst listening to Jay-Z’s The Black Album during a break in Sky’s Super Sunday programme of English Premier League football, which was proving to be less super and more Sunday.  I never knew when or why having a roll with sausages at the half-time interval of televised football games became a thing, but I would always go to dad’s on a Saturday afternoon with a bag of six pork sausages from Wynne’s the butchers, and I didn’t see any reason for that to change in the circumstances of 2020.  The bangers would sizzle beneath the grill, making a sound that was not too dissimilar to a distress flare being set off into a drizzly, darkened sky, and sometimes I would wonder if the sausages were okay – which was silly since they obviously hadn’t been alright for some time.  To pass the fourteen minutes it took for the sausages to be fully cooked, I went about the task of preparing a couple of lunch boxes for the first two days of the working week.  It never took that long to put together a tuna salad, but I liked to take my time after the incident a year earlier where I ended up slicing my finger open on the lid of a tuna can, which left me with the most absurd of all of my scars.  Tuna mayonnaise was the easiest salad I knew how to make, since it only required two ingredients to be mixed together and spooned onto a bed of mixed leaves, maybe with a squeeze of lemon juice or some sweetcorn if I was feeling flamboyant or adventurous.  It was ideal for preparing on a Sunday afternoon spent in a hungover haze.

Things were going rather well that day since I had already done a full load of washing, and in these days my success was measured purely by how many tasks and chores I had completed by the time I sat down to eat.  Two was good going for a Sunday.  Once the salads were ready and refrigerated for future use, I still had time to cut open a roll and garnish it with mustard before the sausages were cooked.  I always preferred Dijon, since it seemed considerably more exotic than some of the other cast of characters which were usually found in my fridge:  the punnet of blueberries, the pint of semi-skimmed milk, the tub of Lidl own-brand Heavenly Butterly butter, four free-range eggs, ten cans of Tennent’s Lager.  There were times when a helping of Dijon mustard could almost take you away to a different place, to that foreign holiday I wasn’t able to take in 2020, although the research for my trip hadn’t quite reached the stage where I learned which type of mustard is most commonly used in Bosnia.  I wasn’t anticipating that my roll with sausage and Dijon mustard would make me feel as though I was sitting in a street cafe in Mostar, but I hoped that it would at least be something different.  To my dismay, I found that I hadn’t replenished my favourite mustard since I had used the last of the previous jar several weeks earlier, and all that I had left in the fridge was the English variety, which was strange when I couldn’t remember even buying it.

The most concerning thing about the English mustard was the colour, which although yellow and not completely unlike mustard, was deeper and more watery than I could recall that particular type of mustard being.  As though it was imitating mustard.  It was a colour that even I would struggle to wear on a tie, and even then I didn’t really notice it until it was already becoming familiar with the bread.  I happened to take a cursory glance at the lid on the mustard as I was returning it to the fridge and realised that it was dated ‘Best Before End December 2018’.  Of the other condiments which were kept on the shelf on the inside of the refrigerator door, the wholegrain mustard had expired in August 2018, the tube of El Paso chunky guacamole was last good in November 2018, there was a half-used bottle of tonic water which I had opened for some guests prior to Christmas 2019, and somehow I had procured two jars of tartare sauce.

It was difficult to tell how something like this could have happened.  As much as I tried while I was biting into a roll with Cumberland sausage and eighteen-months-past-its-best-before-date mustard, I couldn’t put myself in mind of my shopping habits two or three years earlier, and so the recriminations were more difficult to apportion than those, say, from an argument during the summer of 2010 were.  

The summer of 2010, as well as being forty-one years later than and not nearly as sexy sounding as the summer of ‘69, was the year that I did four festivals with a former girlfriend.  She had sent me a text message the Friday before since it was the decade anniversary of our journey to the Isle of Wight Festival and the satellite channel Sky Arts was screening highlights of the weekend.  It was the first time I had heard from her in around five years, and while it was very nice to spend an evening reminiscing over old memories, it also served to reopen the old wound of our decision to see The Black Eyed Peas instead of Muse at that years T in the Park.

The trek to the Isle of Wight was a lot longer for me than it was my friend since she was studying in Portsmouth at the time, and I never could remember very much about the journey, which I think consisted of a train to Glasgow, the overnight National Express bus from Glasgow to London Victoria, a further bus journey to Portsmouth and then a hovercraft across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, before taking one final bus to the site of the festival.  The route, in all, took almost twenty-four hours, and back in a day where I hadn’t yet discovered that you could enjoy alcohol between places as well as at your destination.  

It would be the festival, and the summer, where I discovered a surprising love of the hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who I was aware of but had never taken the time to listen to before he was the headline act on the first night of the festival, where we also saw such artists as The Strokes, Blondie, Biffy Clyro, Vampire Weekend, Pink, Crowded House, and Paul McCartney, though it was Jay-Z who stuck out the most.  I was never as blown away by a musician as I was the first time I saw Jay-Z perform, and I spent the rest of that summer listening to The Blueprint 3, which was the album he had released the previous year and something I would never have considered listening to before the Isle of Wight.  We saw him play again the next month at T in the Park, where he was below Kasabian on the main stage billing and it didn’t make any kind of sense.  Even ten years later we could agree that 2010 was the summer of Jay-Z.

We had the type of falling out that two people can only ever have at a music festival the following afternoon when we couldn’t agree on which band we would see early in the day.  The Hold Steady were one of my favourite bands and played on the main stage, while at the same time on the second stage, a band my friend really liked – Bombay Bicycle Club – were appearing.  It was the only split we disagreed on over the weekend, and it didn’t seem fair for one to make the other miss a band they wanted to see, so we decided to go our separate ways and meet at an agreed point after their respective sets finished.  The Hold Steady came to an end first, and since I was at the meeting point early, I decided to walk a little further to the large open-air area where a large screen had been erected so that people could watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was taking place in South Africa at the time.  I was able to see the final ten minutes or so of the match between Argentina and Nigeria, though the game’s only goal had already been scored much earlier and nothing of any significance happened in the parts I saw.  By the time I returned to the agreed meeting point my friend had already arrived, and I could tell that she was furious at having to wait for me.  My case wasn’t helped by my defence that, in actual fact, I had been there first but decided that rather than wait around I would go and watch the football, and besides, she couldn’t have been waiting for all that long anyway.  The ensuing argument was still in my mind the following month when we were trying to decide whether we should see Muse or The Black Eyed Peas in the headline slot on the Friday night of T in the Park.  Although I had no strong feelings about either act, my preference as a fan of music would have been to see Muse, while my friend believed that The Black Eyed Peas would be more fun.  I had no appetite for debating it, so we went to the second stage and saw Fergie, will.i.am and co.  We never did see the summer of 2011.

In the dark

The recriminations from ten years earlier were fresh in my mind the night before the first big thunderstorm of summer 2020 was about to strike.  In reality, a thunderstorm to me seemed to be a lot like a really beautiful romantic relationship, in that they were always something I saw other people talking about or posting pictures of on social media, yet they somehow always passed me by.  It was a Wednesday evening and I was thinking about the salad boxes I would prepare for the last two days of the working week.  I had decided whilst shopping earlier in the day that I would buy some feta cheese and make use of the jar of green pitted olives that was sitting in the kitchen cupboard, just in case they too had expired in 2018.  In my mind, they were going to make for the most delicious lunches of the week, and I could hardly wait to put them together.  I went through to the kitchen and took the ingredients from the fridge and cupboard with the sort of enthusiasm I imagined eating my lunches with.  It was in that moment, like the words of the theatrical vocalist Meatloaf, that it was all coming back to me.  The question of when a feta cheese and olive salad isn’t a feta cheese and olive salad would be asked and answered with the realisation that while I had gone out of my way to remember to buy Dijon mustard, I had forgotten to buy salad leaves.

Links and things:

Six months and all I have to show for it is this Spotify playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of June 2020

This week I have mostly been listening to…

Certain household types

Oban in June would normally have been a hive of activity, a town brought out of hibernation around the Easter weekend and given new life by visitors seeking the spell of good weather that often straddled the end of May and the beginning of the sixth month.  Cruise liners would ferry to shore day-trippers who were eager to sample the fresh locally-caught seafood and admire with wide-eyed wonder the coastal sights around town.  BID4Oban’s flower baskets would hang from every lamppost, colouring in otherwise empty spaces.  The restaurants and coffee shops thrived with the gentle hum of hungry customers, table after table of them.  Around town, the predominant smell would be a heady mix of suncream and Lynx bodyspray and the sea breeze carrying the fragrance of fish and chips.  Pubs would have been buoyant with guests who after their first dram of Oban Malt had lost all inhibitions when it came to sampling whisky.  The native drinkers arrived without inhibition.  There wasn’t a more brilliant place to be than Oban in June.

Nothing about 2020 was normal, though, and unusual sights were still popping up all over the place in the early days of June, like the most maddening puppet show ever produced.  On the Esplanade, outside the Bishop’s house by St. Columba’s Cathedral, a small lorry had broken down.  It was a warm Thursday evening, one of those days where I regretted leaving the flat with a denim jacket, and the sun looked like a brand new fork in an old cutlery drawer when it was cast onto the surface of the sea.  The neck of the lorry was bowed forward, as though in prayer, while a man wearing a luminous vest was standing on the pavement across the road from the church waving oncoming traffic around the obstruction.  I saw the scene from a mile away, figuratively speaking, and by the time I had neared the stricken vehicle, the driver had obviously grown tired of the steady stream of cars and he crossed the road and opened the driver’s side door before reaching inside and dressing it in a high-visibility jacket of its own.  It was the most misshapen scarecrow I had ever seen, but it seemed to do the job.  

The sun looked like a brand new fork in an old cutlery drawer

 

I stepped around the stationary obstacle of the lorry driver on the pavement as he admired his traffic management and continued on my daily walk out to the war memorial, where on my way I witnessed as a seagull was scavenging amongst the scraps of wood and metal in a large skip outside a guest house which appeared to be under renovation.  It was pure opportunism, no doubt driven by the desperation of a town without tourists who would happily toss chips towards the birds all day long, and it was hard to imagine that the seagull enjoyed any success from the bin.  By the time I had doubled back on my footsteps, the driver was smoking a cigarette, and it occurred that rather than having become restless at having to constantly wave traffic around his broken-down vehicle, he simply needed his hand to hold the cigarette.

Further into town, I noticed that Webster’s camera shop was being coated with a new flash of yellow paint, while at the automated hole in the wall outside the Bank Of Scotland a man was withdrawing money from the machine.  The scene really took me by surprise since I didn’t think that there were any places open which were still dealing in cash, as contactless card payments were considered to be much safer, and I wondered what the man was going to use the notes for.  As I thought about it some more, I came to realise that I couldn’t remember the last time I even handled cash.  I would guess that it was probably around February or early March when I last bought a beer in Aulay’s with cash, but I couldn’t be sure.  It was much like my romantic relationships with women in that respect, though it was difficult to think which I was most likely to get my hands on first.

A week before the summer solstice, the sun was beating so brightly that there was no cause for me to be wearing a jacket, although having run out of time in my morning routine to iron a shirt I was still having to wear a sweater vest to hide my indiscrete creases.  I had found myself in the habit for some months of wearing a sweater vest over my shirt to work, and most people had taken it as just another of my fashion quirks, when the truth almost always was that I just hadn’t bothered to iron.  It was presumably after I had left the freshly reopened Oban Beer Seller shop to collect my second order of craft beer from Karen that I was spotted on the street by a Czech marine biologist who later appeared on one of our pub recreations on Zoom over the weekend and told me that I was looking very hot when she had seen me.  I thanked her since I never had the opportunity to respond to a woman commenting on my appearance being hot, although I was aware that her words were more likely to have been in reference to my rosy cheeks rather than what yoga had been doing to my cheeks.

On another day, I passed a man at quarter to nine in the morning who was carrying four bottles of Yazoo flavoured milkshake – two in each hand.  At least one of the bottles was the banana flavour, which I didn’t think people still bought.  Chocolate or strawberry milkshake I could understand having a craving for, but not banana.  The Coronavirus pandemic was affecting people in some terrible ways, it seemed.  The man was moving with some haste – even quicker than I was, and I liked to power walk in the morning.  It was as though he was concerned that several weeks or months of inaction on the shelves in the shop could have left the milk without much shake.  Not only were people craving banana milkshake, but they were in a rush to drink it, too.  It was as unfathomable to me as the snippet of conversation I overheard between two women as they were passing the window of my office, when one remarked to the other:  “She was always getting her eyebrows and chin done.”

An article in the previous weekend’s edition of The Sunday Post newspaper reported that Oban’s economy had been the worst affected by the lockdown in the entire country, with consumer spending reducing by 68% according to their data.  The news just didn’t seem to be getting any better.  It wasn’t surprising that a town which relies so heavily on tourism would suffer the most when people couldn’t travel, but it was a blow to many to see it in black and white print all the same.  

  Source: The Sunday Post

There was great relief around the middle of the month when the next phase in the gradual lifting of restrictions allowed some places which had previously been classed as non-essential to begin reopening, or at least to start preparing to operate again from the end of the month.  Outlets offering takeaway food and drinks, like Costa Coffee, Subway, the Pokey Hat ice cream shop, and Bossards Patisserie, were opened up for the first time since March, though they had to adhere to strict guidelines.  There were limits to the number of people who were allowed inside the premises at the same time – usually one or two, though it was twenty in WH Smith, and I struggled to remember a time that I had last seen twenty people in WH Smith.  It was probably before they stopped selling CDs.  Some places were operating a one-way system, where customers would enter through one door and exit by another, and there had to be visible signage to indicate a safe two-metre distance for those who were queuing.  It was only when I saw the two metres set out in such an explicit way that I was reminded of what it used to be like when we were in bars and I was trying to talk to a woman.  The first ‘2m’ marker looked to be approximately the distance she would have moved away after I had first tried a joke, and the next one would be where she would have been standing after I had repeated the line in case she just didn’t get it the first time.

A visualisation of the distance a woman moves away after I have attempted a joke

 

Further stages in the second phase of lockdown were announced by the Scottish government which meant that even more ‘non-essential’ shops would soon be permitted to re-open, places of worship would allow individual prayer, the wearing of face masks on public transport would become compulsory, and larger groups of people would be able to meet outdoors and at a distance.  Perhaps the biggest change in the guidance was that “certain household types” could now meet indoors and with no physical distancing to form an extended household.  People immediately interpreted this to be relating to single people and those who were living alone.  The single occupants like me who received a 25% discount on their council tax.  For all intents and purposes, we had been given the green light to have sex.  It all sounded very lovely, and I couldn’t help from feeling excited by the idea of it all.  I had a spring in my step as I walked home from work that evening, another sunny Friday.  Then I thought about it and realised that, of course, it wasn’t a government matchmaking scheme for lonely hearts and I was still going to have to actually talk to women first before I could form an extended household with anybody.

What good would Argyll & Bute council assigning me with another “certain household type” have done anyway?  With my hapless luck, it would only have been yet another farce.  We couldn’t extend our households in my flat on account of the crepuscular lighting and my inability to efficiently change the bedsheets.  The chances are that I would have been coupled with someone who didn’t share my interests, who hated listening to Ryan Adams and U2, a woman who wasn’t amused by my sense of humour and who would have no desire to have sex with me anyway.  It would have been like all of my other relationships. As ever, it was obvious that I was still going to be relying on the sweater vests to make me feel hot.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

There is an official music video for this 1997 single from the Britpop band Reef, but the album version is 2 minutes longer and is just that bit better.

We’re halfway there, livin’ on IPA

There was a time in my life when my taste in beers wasn’t limited to Tennent’s Lager and whichever box of branded bottles was least expensive in the supermarket.  For a while I liked nothing better than sipping on an IPA on a Saturday afternoon and thinking how superior my palette was to everybody else’s, then I bought a flat and became a single occupant and enjoyed nothing more than getting shitfaced on as much beer as I could for as little a cost.

My relationship with craft beers began in September 2014, when I travelled to Manchester with a cold to see Ryan Adams perform for the fourteenth time.  Most people liked to take long journeys with a companion, but I went along with a viral infection.  Ryan was playing in the Albert Hall, an old Methodist chapel which was built in 1908, and having known that the train from Glasgow stopped at Manchester Oxford Road station – less than ten minutes from the venue – I booked a room at the Premier Inn hotel, which was right in the middle of the two.  Planning a trip was often something which I enjoyed more than the actual act of embarking on it, and I took great delight in researching the area around St. Peter’s Square for ways of wiling away a few hours before the gig began.  Since there only appeared to be one bar between my hotel and the church-turned-concert venue, I knew that I was going to have to familiarise myself with BrewDog, the independent Scottish brewery that was rapidly opening bars all across the UK at the time.

When I got off the train at Manchester Oxford Road, nothing seemed familiar.  It wasn’t like when I had surveyed the area on Google Maps all those times in the weeks before the gig.  The deeper I ventured into the street, the less certain I was feeling about things, like every romantic relationship I had ever had.  It was when I noticed a poster in the window of one bar extolling the virtues of Wednesday night being leather night, and then further along the pavement stepping around a sandwich board advertising live drag shows that I realised I was in Manchester Gay Village.  It was a brief dalliance before I turned back and found my hotel but mere footsteps away from where I had disembarked the train.  Though the Labour Party was holding its Autumn conference in the convention complex across the street from the hotel, and it occurred that there were worse wrong turns I could have taken.

A selection of the beers I purchased from The Oban Beer Seller

 

I didn’t remember much about the Manchester branch of BrewDog, but then I was young and it seemed that a good bar shouldn’t be all that memorable after a few hours spent drinking there.  Despite feeling incredibly self-conscious when I tried to eat a twelve-inch bratwurst smothered in yellow mustard and ketchup while a group of young women sat at the table opposite me – as though they were somehow going to have nothing better to do than watch me attempting to eat a sausage while smearing as little sauce as possible on my stubble – I was immediately drawn to the names of some of the beers on offer, such as Punk, 5AM Saint, and Dead Pony Club, which tasted a lot better than its name suggested.  I marvelled at the idea of there being a menu of beers to choose from and that people would ask the bar staff for recommendations, like being in a fancy restaurant and enquiring about the specials.  They would even offer a little taster schooner to help you decide if you wanted to buy a full beer, though in future years I would never have the heart to tell a bar person that I didn’t like their suggested beer and I always ended up buying a pint of it anyway.

I liked the BrewDog bar so much that I returned there after the gig with a group of guys who I had met during the performance and who turned out to be the first people from Carlisle that I had ever talked to.  We were all standing at the back of the balcony in the Albert Hall, presumably because it was easier to reach the bars in the venue to top up our drinks from there, rather than it being a particularly good spot to watch the concert.  I never knew whether it was the way I was standing – drunkenly and likely at an angle, resembling a street sign which has been bent by an out of control car – the fact that I was on my own, or the way I was dressed – in jeans and a checked shirt, like everybody else at a Ryan Adams gig – but the man standing to my right offered me one of the plastic tumblers of Coca-Cola he had come back from the bar with.  “I have Bacardi in here,” he said holding out a Sprite bottle, the way someone might a strobe light at a more raucous gig.

It was a scene that would seem unthinkable in 2020, but in 2014 I had no qualms about accepting a drink from a stranger, especially when he had taken the ingenious measure of disguising the spirit in the bottle of a soft drink which was the same colour.  The libatious gentleman handed me one of his spare cokes and proceeded to unscrew the lid of the Sprite bottle.  His hand was large and beefy and somehow still red, even in the darkness.  For the first time, I began to feel nervous that I had never drunk Bacardi before.   It was a drink that was always in our parent’s alcohol cupboard, but I had never seen anyone drink it, let alone taste it myself.  His pouring was generous, like running the hot water tap on the bath a little longer than necessary because it’s been a long, hard day.  I thanked him, since that seemed the right thing to do when being handed a free drink, but when I finally brought the Bacardi to my mouth it put me in mind of the way I imagined a glass of paint thinner might taste.  I could scarcely understand how it hadn’t burned through the Sprite bottle it had been carried in, and it was with reluctance that I accepted the offer of a refill.

Back in BrewDog, we pored over the setlist while pints of craft beer were being poured for us.  It was a rare thing for me to have the opportunity to talk about Ryan Adams, and this was the first time I had been able to analyse the details of the setlist after a gig with another person since 2011 in Brighton, where I had seen him with a red-haired Welsh lass who was a real-life stranger but an internet friend at the time.  The man from Carlisle was unhappy that Ryan hadn’t played anything from his album Gold, and he couldn’t understand why he would have ignored his most successful record, but I was too giddy to care since he performed Anybody Wanna Take Me Home for the first time in seven years.  When he played two songs from the album the following night in Glasgow I thought about the man from Carlisle.  I felt guilty that I was hearing the songs he wanted to have heard in Manchester, but I was thankful to be paying £5 for a Jack Daniels and coke.

It was awkward to be tucking into a twelve inch bratwurst when I was aware of a table of women sitting nearby

 

After discovering that I had a taste for craft beers I drank them at every opportunity I could.  There was never a great variety in Oban, so I was forced to get my fix whenever I went out of town, usually to another gig someplace.  The first thing I did when I knew I was going somewhere was to scope out the craft beer bars.  Dublin, Newcastle and Brighton turned out to have some of my favourites, but it was in Glasgow that my heart was truly taken by hoppy beers.  Although Burger Meats Bun on West Regent Street was primarily a place where people went to eat burgers, I kept going back because I really enjoyed their selection of beers, and because I developed a huge crush on one of their waitresses, whose hair was the colour of a double IPA and had twice the kick.  They usually had something from the nearby West Brewery on tap, while they also carried cans from Cromarty Brewing Company and Camden Town Brewery, amongst others.  I would spend hours in their little diner, drinking beers long after I had finished eating my burger.  If I was fortunate enough to be seated close to the bar I would pass the time by talking to Johnny, the barman, while he was waiting for drinks orders to come in from the tables.  He was fantastically friendly, and it was always fascinating to watch him mix the cocktails he was curating for the place.  There was a time in 2015, a couple of months after I had been made redundant, that Johnny was being very helpful in my thought process with regards to the possibility of moving to Glasgow.  He assured me that he knew people and it wouldn’t be a problem for him to find me a job, and we discussed where in the city I might live.  I liked the idea of relocating to the city, but then fate dealt its hand and I stumbled into a job I enjoyed in Oban, though I sometimes wondered how different my life would have been if I had taken the chance and moved to Glasgow.  The people I might have met, and the ones I wouldn’t have.

I would order pint after pint just for the chance to talk to the waitress again.  I had a way of making her laugh, though there was no way of telling how much of that was heard through the haze of a high ABV IPA.  When I eventually left the place to make my way to whichever venue the gig I was attending on that night was being held, I was so drunk that I would either end up arriving after the main act had started their set or I would be incapable of remembering very much of the night by the next morning.  That was the case when I saw, or was at least present to see, Tweedy – the father/son act formed of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco and his offspring – play at the Royal Concert Hall, perhaps the grandest of Glasgow’s music venues.  I had witnessed Wilco perform there some four years earlier and it was a brilliant night, but on this occasion the starry spotlights in the lobby were a blur as I was vomiting on the stairway, unable to make it to the men’s room in time.  Twice.  I had always put it down to some disagreeable ingredient in the burger I had consumed earlier in the night, but the truth was probably closer to the bottom of a pint glass.  The next morning, the Glasgow Herald review of the Tweedy gig gave it three stars.

By the time the lockdown of 2020 arrived, I had fallen out of the habit of drinking craft beers.  I was a single occupant with a mortgage to pay and I wasn’t travelling to places like Manchester to see bands as much.  Burger Meats Bun had closed years earlier, and it just seemed easier to drink Tennent’s Lager in Aulay’s on a Friday night.  When some of us decided to hold a weekly Zoom meeting as a means of recreating the experience of being in the pub, I was still drinking cans of Tennent’s, because that’s what I would have been doing if I was standing at the bar.  We were synching a collaborative Spotify playlist so that we were all listening to the same music, like standing at the jukebox but without a fistful of twenty pence pieces.  I was still turning up wearing the shirt and tie I’d been dressed in for work earlier in the day, and we were still having trouble finding women who were wanting to talk to us. 

It wasn’t until the local newspaper, The Oban Times, ran a story towards the end of April about a lady who had opened a new shop dedicated to selling craft beer the day before the pandemic forced everything to close that it occurred to me that there were other things I could be drinking during our weekly video discussions.  For a few months before the world changed, I had been noticing from across the street the striking yellow sign on the side of the old flower shop on Stafford Street that appeared to have the word ‘beer’ emboldened across it, but I never thought to cross the road and take a closer look, fearing that it was most likely a mirage in the desert.  It turned out that one of my wildest dreams had come true.

If reopening the bike shop six weeks into the lockdown, after everybody seemed to have already taken up cycling, was like opening a lemonade stand the day after a long heatwave had broken, then opening a craft beer shop the day before a pandemic would force a nationwide lockdown seemed to be like waiting all your life to get into heaven, and when the time finally comes that you reach the fabled pearly gates, Saint Peter scans his list – which is presumably stored on a tablet, or perhaps a Kindle – and welcomes you inside, before telling you that there is a strict no beer policy.

The Oban Beer Seller was still able to operate her business on a delivery basis, though, and our group took motivation from the arrival of proper craft beers in town to start mixing up our usual Friday nights.  It wasn’t the vaccine everyone else was looking for, but it was the cure for our ills. We started by sampling some of the different IPA’s available from the local supermarkets, and myself, my brother, the plant doctor, one of Oban’s finest barmen, and Alan – who I didn’t know very much about, other than he had a lot of hair – attempted to discuss the beers in a serious manner.  Although we were five men who didn’t really know what we were talking about when it came to beers, we began to consider that if we drank enough of them we could compile our notes together into a book for people who didn’t like craft beer.  Sort of like a CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) guide for idiots and losers.  When the best that we could come up with for some of the cans we had bought from Aldi and Lidl were that it “smells like a sock that has been stuck in the drum of the washing machine for two months” and one “tasted like if a unicorn had pissed in my mouth” we started to re-think our plans for publishing.

In the end, we decided that since we had been inspired by The Oban Beer Seller’s new venture, it would only be right if we bought some of our drinks locally from her, so we all agreed on one beer that we would buy for our Friday night group chat, while we each also purchased a ‘taster box’, which was made up of seven different beers selected by Karen herself to give an idea of the range that the shop offered.  The box cost £20, and while craft beers in general are more expensive than buying a case of Tennent’s or Budweiser, or even the IPA’s brewed specially for supermarkets like Lidl, the quality is noticeably so much better.  More than that, though, exchanging emails with Karen to place my order was like talking to a man from Carlisle in a craft beer bar in Manchester about the setlist at that nights Ryan Adams gig, such was her enthusiasm for her project, which had been a work in progress for more than a year.

My taster box had lasted longer than the others in our group, since I had gone quite heavy on the 6% Wolf beer from Windswept Brewing, which had kept me up until four o’clock in the morning with the plant doctor the previous weekend, when the various tastes and flavours from the beers we had been drinking felt like a technicolour yawn.  More recently, a weekend of warm weather had given way to atmospheric clouds and the sort of breeze that tickled around the hems of a man’s trousers.  The sea was tossing salt like a superstition, and I could taste it on my tongue.  Friday was a night for staying in, not that there was an option with the restrictions still in place.  I worked my way through the bottles and cans from the taster box, each one a reminder of why I loved craft beer to begin with, every mouthful a memory – until eventually I drank so much of the stuff that I couldn’t remember, just like always.  I do know, though, that not one of them tasted like Bacardi.

Oban, June 2020

 

Links & things:

The Oban Beer Seller reopens to the public on Thursday 11 June, selling happiness in a can.  The shop’s Facebook page can be found via this link. 

The setlist from the Ryan Adams gig at the Albert Hall in Manchester on 24 September 2014 can be viewed on setlist.com.

This week I have mostly been listening to…

A hundred legs and one shoe

If there was a surface anywhere that was colder than my bathroom floor at seven-thirty on a Thursday morning I was yet to discover it.  There wasn’t really such a thing as a surface which was pleasing underfoot in my flat, but the bathroom especially was like if someone had taken the proverbial other side of the pillow and manufactured linoleum tiling out of it.  It was because of this that I always resented the fact that my morning routine was the busiest part of my day.  Although it was tempting in my weaker moments to consider that – particularly in the spring of 2020 – people had other things to worry about besides the appearance of my face, I would never have forgiven myself if I had neglected to trim my stubble to a fine 1.0mm every other morning and ended up having to care for a fully-grown beard, the way that someone feeds a stray kitten once and is eventually forced into giving it a home.

I was applying moisturiser to my face when the rough realisation occurred to me that the sound coming from the roadworks which had been ongoing outside my window since the beginning of the week was not too dissimilar to the album by the Scottish band The Twilight Sad that we had been listening to for the upcoming meeting of the album club.  Constant, loud, and often unsettling.  And just when you were beginning to think that they had finally stopped, they start banging all over again.  The noise didn’t trouble me so much since I had become used to living on a busy street during my two years as a single occupant, but I was worrying intensely about how much air freshener I would need to use if I wanted to open the windows.

Whilst brushing my teeth I would usually rotate my gaze around the entire room and study various features around me.  The nearly empty bottle of Joop!  Go aftershave which I had suddenly stopped using years earlier when I noticed that it was turning the collars of my shirts a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shade of green, the almost whole toilet roll sitting atop the cistern because I had been too lazy to attach it to the wall yet – although I didn’t have a traditional toilet roll holder anyway and would usually have it dangling from the towel rail with a red ribbon.  Anything to avoid making eye contact with myself in the foggy mirror.  I glanced out of the open bathroom door across the landing to my bedroom, which had been illuminated by the marvellous morning sunlight and the flashing amber of the road maintenance vehicle stationed across the street.  My eyes screwed up as I tried to bring into focus a tiny green object which was moving slowly across the floor, almost like a small piece of thread being agitated in a breeze.  I would have felt more worried by the vision if I’d thought that it could have come from one of my shirts, but I knew that fabric couldn’t crawl.  It was either a centipede or a millipede, but I couldn’t really be sure of the difference between the two.  All that I did know was that there were at least ninety-eight legs more than there had ever been in my bedroom.

I had seen the occasional spider or moth milling around my flat, but never a centipede.  They always seemed like one of those insects that only ever existed in children’s books.  Where would one even come from?  And what would it want on my bedroom floor?   I rinsed my mouth and thought about how best to rid my flat of an interloping insect, but there didn’t seem to be a straightforward way of dealing with a centipede.  It wasn’t like a spider, whose black spindly legs would carry the creature into a glass before it had even realised where it was, like a drunk spilling into a taxi at the end of the night.  The little thing appeared to be making its way towards the exit anyway, an act which in itself convinced me that the centipede was surely a female of the species, and I figured that eventually it would leave on its own accord.

I was in a sort of a blind rush that morning since I had made the sudden decision that it would be the day where I would wash my bedsheets.  Changing the bedding had always been my most loathed of household chores, and the one I was most inept at performing.  It always seemed to me that it was something a couple would do together and share the benefit of their efforts, like building lawn furniture, and I never knew why I should care if the duvet was the right way round or the bottom sheet was fitted perfectly snug around the mattress.  Nobody was ever going to know.  I went through the charade every other week all the same, though, and the entire process was always a farce from morning to night.

Hanging the wet linen on the airer in my kitchen was a particularly crude exercise, with the sheets being so much bigger than the contraption that it gave the appearance of a seriously underwhelming haunting.  I never used the much more spacious rotary airer in the garden through fear of being judged by my neighbours.  My hanging technique was never especially confident, going back to the days where as a youth in the summer holidays I would often snare the job of hanging out the washing since our parents were running a bed and breakfast and there was always a lot of it, so it was a good opportunity to earn some extra pocket money.  My work often looked sloppy and shapeless, though, and I always suspected that mum would go outside a little later and re-hang some of the items, especially duvets and shirts, though I could never prove it.

Worse than having my ability to hang laundry critiqued would be the idea of others judging the clothes themselves, which seemed ridiculous when I didn’t think twice about being seen wearing pink socks paired with a baby blue shirt, but somehow having them viewed on a washing line seemed different.  As though they were on display.  I felt that if I was going to use the communal concertina then I would have to stand by it at all times in the event that anyone should approach and I could explain that I also had a coral pink tie to match and that I had put together the outfit the previous Friday and had been feeling unusually good about myself at the time, in the manner of a guide at the Natural History Museum.

When putting fresh sheets on the bed I would always change the pillowcases first, since it was the easiest part of the process and I could convince myself that things were going well this time.  It wouldn’t last, however, and it wasn’t long before the other end of the bottom sheet was unravelling as I tried tucking in the last corner.  Matters with the duvet were even more complex, and trying to convince the thing into the white cover was as difficult as trying to convince a woman that it would be a good idea to talk to me.  It would never lie straight and flat, and after a period of breathless frustration, the whole episode had taken on the resemblance of a really bad game of hide and seek, where one of the participants had thought that hiding in the bed would be a good idea, only to be given away by the lumpy outline of his body under the duvet.  By the time I had finally gotten it right, I had spent nigh upon forty minutes making my bed.

Thursday 28 May was also the day that the Scottish Government announced that from Friday the country would be moving into the first phase of the easing of lockdown restrictions, meaning that, amongst other things, people would now be allowed to meet up with one other household outdoors and with social distancing in place.  It was such a small thing to be told that you could now see another person, previously unthinkable that it would even be a thing, but it felt enormous.  Until then the most pressing concern on my mind was the shoe which had been cast astray on the shoreline amongst a tangle of seaweed and debris the day after a storm the previous weekend.  It was black, and maybe more like a trainer than a shoe.  I found myself looking out for it every day on my walk; in a weird way it had become a kind of monument to the hopelessness I’d been feeling.

I had always taken an interest in discoveries like these.  A glove by the side of the road or a sandal standing on a wall, but a shoe washed ashore seemed like it would have a more fascinating story behind it.  It was impossible not to wonder how it had arrived there or to consider where the other half of the pair was.  Somewhere, there was surely someone who had woken up on Sunday morning and wondered where the fuck their right shoe had gone.  For five days straight I was peering over the top of the railings, eager to see if the shoe was still there, whether the tide had reached it to drag it back into the sea, or if the rightful owner, presumably hobbling around on one foot all this time, had spotted their missing footwear like I had and had been reunited with it.  I had taken someone else’s drama and made it my own since there was nothing else I could be invested in.

At various points around town, the smell of fresh paint punched you on the nose as you walked the streets.  I couldn’t be sure if it was people preparing their businesses for reopening in the weeks and months ahead, in line with the different phases of the lockdown plan, or if they simply had nothing better to do.  The washing was on the line, the bed had been made and they had half an hour to spare. 

Links:

May’s the one – my Spotify playlist for the month of May

This week I have mostly been listening to…

Petrichor

The first occurrence of rainfall in a while always had me reaching firstly for the coat I had discarded in hope and haste a few days earlier, and then a few hours later for the website dictionary.com, where I would use the opportunity to review one of my favourite words.  I could never remember when or how I had first heard petrichor used, but I know that it immediately grabbed my attention, and every time it rained after a prolonged dry spell I would search for it in the dictionary, just to be able to look at it again.  It was impossible to say exactly why I had a habit of doing it or what purpose it served, much like adding the accoutrement of a pocket square to my suit before going out on a Friday night, other than that I liked the way it looked.

It was the first Friday of May and it had been raining through the previous night, leaving the morning ground with a light glaze of moisture and the atmosphere heavy with petrichor.  The scent was as distinctive as the one which funnelled from the Oban Distillery every other day, though not nearly as frequent since it was rare for there to have been so many days without rain as there had been towards the end of April.  It was all I could do to inhale every whisper of it in, finally a use for the breathing techniques I had been learning in my daily yoga sessions.

Accompanying the earthy fragrance was a thick silver curtain of mist that always seemed to cling around the edges of the town at times like these.  I could have sworn that such a sight must have been unique to the west coast of Scotland, where somehow the mist on a day like this one in May would resemble a stage curtain and the audience was in the throes of anticipation, just waiting for it to lift and reveal the theatre of the landscape.  I adored the vision, and even if the mist was simply acting to hide something beautiful, it was itself quite beautiful.  In that sense, it reminded me of a long striking red dress I had once seen.

This particular Friday was the start of a bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe, though I hadn’t been aware of the holiday until a couple of people who I was talking to through work made mention of it.  By this point, weekends had become an extension of a Tuesday night, inconsequential and indistinguishable from any other day, and it hadn’t occurred to me that bank holidays would still be a thing.  It was towards the end of this weekend that stories began to emerge surrounding the UK government’s plans to ease the lockdown in England, where it was reported that the “stay at home” message was going to be replaced by a new advisory to “stay alert”.  Nobody could really understand how they were supposed to be alert to virus particles, given that they weren’t like potholes on a road or a thronging beehive.  It seemed fortunate that the Scottish government’s approach was still focussed more towards public health, and the only easing of our restrictions was to allow us to exercise outdoors as often as we liked.  While I felt a certain bitterness that the second piece of exercise I had been able to sneak since returning to work was no longer just my own special thing, it felt good to be rewarded for our efforts in keeping each other safe.  The announcement reminded me of when we were told at the beginning of the school holidays that if we were well behaved and carried out certain chores around the house we would be given £5 pocket money every week, and if we kept it up and maybe even did some extra dusting without being asked or made a special trip to the shop for milk or Ruskoline, there would be more of where that came from by the end of the summer.

Around Oban there were signs that people and businesses were slowly beginning to find ways of adapting to the changing situation.  There was a gradual reopening, on a limited basis, of some places which had been closed since the end of March, mostly takeaway restaurants, chip shops, and a couple of bars which were offering a delivery service.   However, after more than five weeks of sitting in an empty flat with a case of Tennent’s Lager on a Friday night trying to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s, I had come to the realisation that it wasn’t the pint of cold draft beer I was missing, but rather the people around the bar who I would have been talking to, or too scared to talk to, as was sometimes the case.  I couldn’t imagine ordering four pints of Tennent’s to drink at home, because I would still be alone, and although Zoom was great for keeping in touch with people and offering some form of social interaction, it was difficult to escape the feeling that our entire lives were now being conducted through a screen.  Drinking with friends on a Friday or a Saturday night was like watching a scene from a bar in a poorly shot indie film where the small budget didn’t extend to hiring a hairstylist.

Elsewhere, I had noticed that the Oban Cycles shop was finally permitted to open for three days a week as the rules slackened and exercise became more of a priority.  Since the majority of the people I would see when I was out walking were either running or cycling, and far more people than ever before seemed to have access to a bicycle, it struck me that the bike shop being able to open six or seven weeks into the lockdown would be like waiting all summer to receive planning permission to open a lemonade stall, only for it to be granted the day after the heatwave had broken.

Further south on George Street, I found myself approaching a young woman who was emerging from the drizzly distance carrying a tray which had three potted houseplants sitting in it.  It seemed like a very typical bank holiday purchase to have made, even in the new world.  For a moment it had me considering if it was time for me to make another attempt at keeping houseplants in my flat, but I just as quickly reckoned that there was enough suffering without me needlessly adding to it.  The young woman was methodical with her footsteps, very cautious, almost shuffling along the pavement, as though her boots were cast from clay.  She was cradling the tray of plants like it was the most precious thing in the world to her, like a mother carrying her child, or me back in the days when I was trying to ferry a round of drinks to a table in the pub without spilling anything.

I had only learned – or, perhaps more appropriately, bothered to try learning – a few weeks before the lockdown was enforced how to schedule a recurring event in the calendar on my phone.  Up until then, I would have to go through each individual week and plug in the same event at the same time, no different to when I was circling dates with a pen on my old glossy Celtic calendars as a boy.  All of this meant that at eight o’clock on a Wednesday night my phone was still pinging and I would receive a reminder that the pub quiz in The Lorne was due to start in an hour.  I never had the heart to cancel the calendar entries, partly through fear that when the normal life we had known resumed I wouldn’t remember how to create a weekly event again.  I missed my quiz team and the weekly hope that this time we would finally win, the revolving door of characters we would convince to join our pursuit of the £25 bar voucher.  I was becoming rusty in my knowledge of the nationality of football players, and what little I knew about the different lines on the London Underground had all but vanished.  It wasn’t all the time, but there were moments when it felt as though the lockdown was getting harder to deal with and it was difficult to find that same kind of hope that arrived as the picture round was being distributed on wet tables, the belief that the veil of mist would soon be lifted and we could see the beautiful islands once more.

Everybody was missing friends they couldn’t be with, the family they couldn’t see, though a lot of people seemed to be using the time to find new hobbies and pick up different skills, like building a fence, playing the guitar or riding a bike.  At the bottom of the stairway in my block of flats, where once there was one lone bicycle chained to the railing and before that there were two buggies – although only ever one toddler – there were now three bikes.  They were arranged in a neat cluster so that people could still easily access the back garden, sort of in a triangle formation where each of the front wheels was touching.  I was talking to one of my upstairs neighbours when I arrived home for lunch one afternoon, and she was delighted about the Scottish government’s announcement that we could exercise more than once a day.  I noted the multiplying numbers of bicycles in the close and she looked at them and said, “I don’t know where I would be without my bike.”  It wasn’t until a couple of days later that the perfect line in response came to me.  How hilarious it would have been, I thought, if I could have joked:  “Presumably you’d be in the same place, but you got there more slowly.”  But by then it was too late, like reopening the bike shop after everyone had bought a bicycle.

I hadn’t quite developed a knack for a new hobby during the lockdown.  Rather, the furthest I had gotten was to consider replacing the net curtains I had inherited when I bought my flat with Venetian blinds, but it was hard to make the argument that transforming my living room and bedroom into places where a thirty-six-year-old man, rather than an eighty-three-year-old lady, might live would be an essential purchase.  In another instance, I caught myself thinking about investing in a proper spice rack, since my method at the time of storing jars in a cupboard meant that I couldn’t always see them, and often I would forget exactly what I had stock of and would end up buying duplicate basil.  I was reluctant to make such an important decision on matters of kitchen storage in the uncertainty of a global pandemic, however, and I baulked at the idea of having to reorganise my counter space.  Would I be forced to move the toaster to make room for a spice rack?  Where would the glass pouring jars of olive oil and vinegar go, and what would fill the vacated space in the cupboard?  It was becoming clear that I needed a proper past-time, rather than a better way of storing thyme.

Things were changing day-to-day, and the only constant was that nothing was certain.  Mixed and often unclear messages from different governments, especially from London, weren’t helping anybody.  Walking through the eerily quiet streets in town no longer felt like being in a Radiohead song, as it had in the beginning, but instead was more like standing on the set of a western movie minutes before the big climactic gunfight takes place.  The streets were empty, but there was an unmistakable air of threat looming.  Dust coughs under shuffled footsteps; a seagull stands on the sea wall, starved of chips, squawking as loud as a rattlesnake.  An older man sits on a bench reading the newspaper, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming trouble.  A flag flutters defiantly against its pole.  In the distance, a saloon door is swinging open ominously in the breeze, where inside it looks like a Zoom meeting.  A beer bottle is heard breaking, and it sounds as though things might kick off.  Tumbleweed briskly rolls by whispering “stay alert”, and soon the faint whiff of gunpowder is evident in the atmosphere.  Or was it just petrichor?

Links & things:

The dictionary.com definition of the word ‘petrichor’ can be found here.

Over the last two weeks I have mostly been listening to the following song by Israel Nash: