Lockdown

When the lockdown was finally enforced on Monday 23 March 2020, it wasn’t unexpected or even unwelcome, but it still felt as though it had come from nowhere, a sudden jolt to the system.  In that respect, it was similar to going into school on the morning of your birthday. You knew that the bumps were going to come eventually, you knew that they were going to hurt a little, but it was accepted that really the intention was good and in the end, it would be worthwhile.  Although it was painful to have all but essential businesses closed and for us all to be unable to socialise in our favourite pubs, restaurants, theatres or public spaces for the foreseeable future, it seemed that it was for the best if we were wanting more people to have birthdays to look forward to.

Even before the full lockdown arrived, most things had ground to a halt over the previous weekend.  All through town the doors and windows of cafes, charity shops and some other retail premises had been plastered with sheets of white A4 paper carrying all sorts of information on the coronavirus.  Some were very matter of fact, while others were more personal and one explained that their store was closed because the virus had reached the owner’s home island of Easdale.  The scene down George Street reminded me of the once or twice every year that the circus or the fairground would come to town, and somehow overnight the posters advertising their attractions would appear seemingly everywhere, in every shop window and on every lampost.  For a solid week, you wouldn’t be able to go anyplace in Oban without being reminded that Wednesday was half-price night at the shows.  It was the same with Covid-19, although this time it seemed like a much more dangerous and entirely less welcome visitor was coming to town.

With the announcement of the lockdown at eight-thirty on Monday night came a great wave of restrictions that would greatly affect everybody’s lives.  The only people who were permitted to leave their homes were so-called key workers:  doctors, nurses, health care professionals, food workers, delivery drivers, and anyone else whose job was essential to the running of the country.  Everybody else could go outdoors once a day for basic exercise and to go shopping for necessities, and there were even rules about how many people from any household could go out at one time, similar to when we were children and had been grounded, and one of us would quietly leave the bedroom to scope out whether things had calmed down yet.  

I officially became a furloughed worker, which effectively meant that the UK government was going to pay me 80% of my wage in order to keep me at home and no longer exchanging potentially lethal oxygen with everyone else.  Fortunately with Aulay’s being shut I was saving around 20% of my monthly salary, so I probably wasn’t any worse off for it.

George Street, Oban’s main street, was deserted on Saturday afternoon

It felt strange waking in the morning without a purpose, sort of like how I imagine it must have felt to have been a boxer who was about to step into the ring with ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson in his prime, knowing that he was beaten before the fight had even started.  I decided early on that I was going to stick to as near to a normal routine as possible, even if I wasn’t going to work every day.  During the first week of lockdown, I was going to bed at around the same time each night, getting up not any later than nine o’clock in the morning, and eating the same meals as when life was normal.  It would have been easy to just spend every night endlessly drinking cans of Tennent’s Lager and shots of Jameson whilst listening to Ryan Adams songs, but I made it a policy that I would save the misery of drinking alone for the weekends only.

In addition to my attempt to keep my life as straight as I could, I resolved that I was going to use the free time to once again try and get back into a regular routine of practising yoga.  It had been around six years since I had last stuck with a proper schedule for doing yoga at home, and it did me the world of good, helping me to feel the healthiest I ever had in my life.  If anything good was going to come of the coronavirus lockdown, I planned on it being that I would finally be able to do yoga twice a day again – if nobody else was going to be touching my toes, I might as well do it myself.

After my morning session of yoga, once I had taken a shower and moisturised my face – because even if the world that we knew was changing dramatically, it was important to keep your cheeks feeling soft – it was a daily battle to try and fill the hours before going back to bed at night.  I would spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating dinner, maybe just as long scrolling through the home screen of Netflix unable to settle on something to watch before giving up completely, and usually I would just end up thinking about how much more fun other people were having spending their lockdown with loved ones or partners.  In a lot of ways, it was like how I would expect date night would go.

Every day I would give myself something to look forward to by saving my solitary government-sanctioned walk until early in the evening, by way of rewarding myself for the two sessions of yoga I had done, and putting to work the half a dozen cups of coffee I had consumed through the day.  It didn’t seem to matter when I treated myself to my daily walk, the place would always be close to deserted whenever I went out.  It was ghostly, and reminiscent of the couple of years when my sister hosted Christmas at her flat in Longsdale and I would be walking home through town in the early hours of Boxing Day, fucked up on gin, when everything was closed and there was barely a soul to be seen on the streets.  The only real difference being that gift exchanges of any sort were definitely unwelcome on this occasion.

Shades had been drawn down over the windows of both the Perle and the Royal Hotel, presumably to keep their bars out of sight of the public, but I preferred to think of it as them preparing for some grand unveiling in the near future; an arts exhibition or cultural installation, perhaps.  I could imagine soft, elegant music on opening night, cocktail waitresses carrying silver trays of sparkling wine and the little dressed toothpicks dad liked to serve guests at Hogmanay:  a square of red cheddar cheese on the bottom, some sliced ham in the middle, and a pickled onion gleaming at the summit, like a pearl finishing off a garish outfit.  There would be no advertising of the event beforehand and nobody would know what was going on, until one day the shades would be lifted and suddenly it was there, like a poster for the circus.  The excitement spreading by word of mouth would be tremendous, at least as much as social distancing would allow.

At the bus stop in station square, there was an older man who was dressed entirely in camouflage.  His feet were positioned at a ten to two stance, and between them was placed a small black rucksack and a Lidl bag for life which appeared to be stuffed full of clothing.  He was more than an hour early for the last bus to Glasgow of the day, but I supposed there was nothing else he could do but stand patiently in the enclosed space.  I spied his outfit as I walked past the bus shelter, considering how either I had been too quick to scoff at the idea of the army coming to Oban to lock down the hospital a week earlier, or the gentleman waiting for his coach to the city was taking the line about being “at war with coronavirus” much more literally than the rest of us.

By the time I had spent my first couple of days in isolation, I was finding that there was excitement in even the most minor of things in our new existence.  Most thrilling of all, so starved was I of human contact, was when I would happen to catch sight of another human being walking past my living room window, usually on the opposite side of the street.  When it happened it was like I was a little lovesick puppy, and if I was quick enough I would rush over to the window seat in the hope of getting a closer look, even if for just a second more, and then they were gone.  Although I was able to see them from my position behind the net curtain, the unknowing stranger would never notice me.  It was exactly how it was in the old world.

While I originally viewed the lockdown as having the feeling of being a terrible “social experiment” as part of a reality show for Dutch television in the early 2000s, as the week wore on and the days were beginning to blend into one the way the tomato sauce from baked beans converges with egg yolk on a breakfast plate, I began to see the situation as being like existing in a Radiohead song.

The premise of the song by Radiohead would have been something like this:  the subject finds himself in a situation where he still has his life exactly as he has always known it when he is inside his own home, but on the one occasion each day that he is permitted to go outside, he is forced to walk through this alternate universe that he recognises very vividly.  Wherever he travels it is only desolate streets lined with memories, almost ghostly in their appearance; good and bad memories; places where he has been before, places he would like to go again.  They are places where he has met friends, lovers; where he has laughed and cried.  As he walks the memories are repeated like a musical carousel, over and over again in his mind, but he can’t interact with them.  He isn’t allowed to go inside the buildings and he can’t see the people he has been thinking about.  Instead, all he can do is go home and repeat the whole thing all over again the next day.

My five o’clock excursion every evening was an eerie experience.  The streets were pretty vacant, as though the people of Oban had unconsciously come to an agreement that we were going to stagger our one piece of outdoor exercise over different times of the day.  Either that or it was like high school all over again, when everybody was gathering in one spot and I was off minding my own business somewhere else.  It was weird seeing the Oban Bay Hotel in darkness at the start of what would once upon a time have been tourist season, its car park completely bereft of vehicles or visitors.  The shutters had been pulled down at Aulay’s for more than a week, a sight I would ordinarily only see through hazy eyes at the end of another long and rewarding night. Nobody could get a six-inch sub from their favourite Subway sandwich artist.  Everything had fallen silent, the sort of silence that is so quiet you can’t help but hear it, except for the squawking seagulls, who were seemingly untroubled by Covid-19.  All that was missing was a killer riff from Jonny Greenwood.

Off in the distance, as I was walking along the seafront, I could see that I was steadily approaching a group of what appeared to be three teens and a slightly older male travelling from the opposite direction.  Deep within me I could sense my internal monologue summoning the fury of a cartoonish grumpy old man as it bemoaned the quartet’s flagrant disregard for the guidance against groups of people meeting outdoors. They were fanned out across the pavement, like conkers on a string, and I dreaded the moment that our paths would inevitably cross.  All I could think about was what would happen if they were the mischief-making sort who were only out to cause trouble.  The closer I was walking towards the group, the more clearly I could picture them all taking it in turns to cough in my direction, each of them the embodiment of the popular eighties film franchise starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

In the end my fears were unfounded, and as I stepped out onto the road to avoid the group, they twisted around themselves like a hairpin, clearly with no intention of infecting me, and more than that, quite probably holding the same concerns about the anxious-looking man in the long black coat.  Following a discreet distance behind the group of teenagers was a lovestruck young couple who were strolling along the promenade hand in hand.  It was the type of romantic scene which left me far colder than it usually did.  Even in the grip of a global health emergency, people were always going to find a way of rubbing their happiness in everybody else’s faces.

In the space of a week the entire world as we had known it had changed.  We were in the rare position of living through a historic event, something far-reaching, frightening, challenging, and mad.  Who knew what was going to be waiting to be unveiled behind the shades at the end of it all, whenever that would be.  The best I could hope for was going to be a full head of hair if the barber was to be closed for much longer.

Links & things:
If you are social distancing, as well as working from home, and finding it difficult to remain as active and as healthy as you ordinarily might, please consider having a look at the online resources available from a local Oban charity Lorn & Oban Healthy Options, whose valuable work with the elderly and vulnerable in our community has also been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their Facebook page can be found by clicking on this link.

Fast March – my Spotify playlist for the month of March

Click through the link to my Instagram page for more photographs of empty hotel car parks in Oban taken using the iPhone’s “noir” camera filter.

This week I have been mostly listening to:

And something a little more uplifting…

Diaries of a social distancer

If there was one thing that I could be confident of being good at, it would be the art of ‘social distancing’.  Even at my most modest, I would say that I was the best social distancer I knew. After all, it was something I had been perfecting for years – for most of my adult life, actually.  Though for as much as my skill could be lauded, it wasn’t always intentional. Often it was the result of having said something stupid to a woman who I was trying to talk to at the bar, or when I would attempt a joke in a room full of people, such as the night at The Rockfield Centre when I read my story about asking the staff to assist me in finding a self-help book in Waterstones.  That was different from what we were all being advised to do from the middle of March, however.  That was accidental social distancing; this was the real thing.

Everybody in the country was being asked to reduce their contact with others down to a minimum in order to help contain the spread of Covid-19.  Businesses were closing or operating behind closed doors, some people were working from home, coffee shops were beginning to operate on a delivery only policy, and the population was generally staying indoors unless it was essential to leave the home.  Despite it being the UK government’s decree that people shouldn’t gather in places like pubs or restaurants, they refused to order the closure of them until the weekend, a strategy which was akin to telling a toddler that they weren’t allowed to have any more biscuits while leaving an entire jar of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies open and within reach on the kitchen counter as you went into the next room to do the laundry or manage your stock portfolio.

In the new Coronavirus age of social distancing, even an act which was previously so insignificant and minuscule could seem like the most daring thing in the world.  When I left my flat to venture outdoors for an evening walk after an entire Sunday afternoon spent staring at Henri Matisse’s 1905 painting ‘Open Window’, which two years earlier I had thought would be funny to hang on the wall next to the living room window, it felt like a bold departure from the things we were supposed to be doing.  

It struck me how the walk reminded me of the first time I smoked a cigarette, when I knew that it was wrong and it was probably pretty bad for me, but everyone else was doing it and they seemed to be having a great time.  In some ways, the smokers were looking cool, not at all dissimilar to the conditions those who were briskly striding by my window looked to be enjoying.  As I sauntered idly through the streets of Oban at four, or maybe five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, noticing it to be no different to any other sabbath in times when we hadn’t been facing a global pandemic, I couldn’t help but think of the things mum would have been telling me if she was still around.  “Walking is a filthy habit,” she might have said.  “You’ll never find a girlfriend if you’re always out walking – don’t you know that kissing a walker is as good as kissing a petri dish?” Although I was a smoker for a time, I had never put my mouth to an ashtray to find out what it was like, probably in part due to mum making it sound like the most revolting thing a person could do.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – A Friday night at home.

In the new reality we had all found ourselves in, it quickly became clear that when it was all stripped away, there was only one thing that separated humans from one another; one trait which above all else could sort the good guys from the bad guys, the strong from the weak.  What people were really looking for in others was their ability to transfer from the cold outdoors into a stuffy and well-heated room without so much as a cough.  Coughing had become the ultimate sign of weakness in 2020, the one single act that was absolutely guaranteed to attract scornful looks and see a person painted as a pariah.  All it would take was for a person to walk into a room and cough, even just once – and it wasn’t important if it was the only occasion that individual had coughed all month – and the rest of civilisation would cast visual daggers towards them, the sort of look that once upon a time was only ever reserved for the type of person who would waltz into a church during a beautiful Christening service and declare that the baby is “a stupendously ugly cunt.” 

As the penultimate week of March coughed into its dying embers, it brought with it the unusual paradox of Thursday being the first day of Spring – a beautiful blue day of brilliant, albeit cold, sunshine – as well as it being the day of greatest panic during the outbreak of Covid-19.  From early in the day a wild rumour was spreading through Oban like, well, a virus, that the army was on its way to the town to “lockdown” the hospital. Quite why the army was going to bypass every major city in the UK on its way to this tranquil seaside town, and without even a whisper of it happening on social media, was unclear, but the story was taken as gospel in no time.  All around the place, normally level-headed people were reacting like when a pot of pasta has been left on the hob for a minute too long and salted water begins to bubble and boil from beneath the lid like an active volcano.  It quickly spiralled out of control, and all I could do was wonder where such stories even come from and who thinks them up to begin with.  Is it something that is exclusive to small towns like ours, or were people in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen also buzzing around like bees surrounding the most ridiculous honeypot imaginable, frantic over the notion that soldiers were about to seize their city’s hospitals?

In the situation, there must have been dozens of different fables that would have been more believable, and which might even have gone some way to alleviating the anxiety and dread that was creeping through society.  A spokesman from the World Health Organisation might have been heard talking on Radio Scotland, for example, about how they were hopeful that the grains of sand at Ganavan were discovered to have contained some rare quality which could be used to produce a vaccine against Covid-19.  Or maybe people had been seen belly-flopping into the Black Lynn on account of reports that swimming front crawl in the burn acted as an antidote to the virus.  It could have been reported that Tesco had a stock of potatoes, that anyone who was born in Dunbeg had immunity, or that I was going to find true love during my spell of social distancing. 

Long before Friday, people were telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do the responsible thing and keep out of the pub.  I didn’t see the sense in going and had no intention of continuing my weekly habit, but there was a part of me which knew that later in the night I would be tempted to walk along the road to Aulay’s when the government hadn’t yet closed the bars and restaurants, like a little boy spying an open container of chocolate chip cookies on the countertop.  My detractors attempted to sweeten the deal by talking about how “this could be the weekend when you actually pull.”  I thought about it for a moment, and once we had all stopped laughing, I knew for sure that I was going to spend the night in my flat.  What a bittersweet thing it would be, I considered, if I was actually able to convince a woman to spend some time in my company and it later transpired that one of us was carrying Covid-19.  Me, I would happily take the hit.  But for her it would probably be a catastrophe when five days later a dry cough would remind her of the most awkward romantic encounter of her life.

There was the paradox of brilliant sunshine and a crippling global pandemic.

I always knew that it was going to be difficult to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s when I was practising social distancing in my own living room on a Friday night.  The bar was a place where I would go to get away from my five or six other nights of ordinary isolation, even if it did often result in accidental social distancing, and now in the Coronavirus age I was going to have to find a way of recreating the escape to the pub in my own home.  To begin with, I lit a tealight candle to burn a heap of incense, hoping that it would help to create a weird smell around the place.  Someone had once described my use of incense as giving my living room the fragrance of a church, and specifically a funeral service, but my friends and I had always seen our weekly visit to Aulay’s as being like going to chapel, so it made sense to me

In the cupboards in my kitchen I had six pint glasses of various brandings which I had inherited from the previous owner of the flat.  Initially I was reluctant to hold on to them, both due to the fact that they were obviously stolen from some establishments in town, and because I didn’t feel comfortable owning drinkware that someone else had been using.  But they were useful for filling a space in the cupboards and making it look as though I had made some effort, so I decided to hold on to them.  I used one of the Tennent’s glasses to pour a can of the golden stuff into, replicating my habitual Friday night tipple, though it wasn’t the same when the 440ml can didn’t quite fill the pint glass, and the drink almost immediately fell flat anyway.  Something about the mechanism of an ill-begotten Tennent’s glass clearly wasn’t the same as when used at the bar.  As a barman to myself, I was hopeless.

Between trips to the fridge for my next drink, I would force myself to wait for a couple of minutes with an empty glass in front of me in an effort to replicate the time our group would usually spend trying to determine whose round it was next, though it was different without the tenuous puns, the excitable interjections from the moonlighting banker or the marine biologist barmaid’s suggestions of recipes for vegan curry dishes.  In the meantime, I played a Spotify playlist of mostly cheesy pop hits and charged myself a pound to add three songs of my own liking to the queue, in keeping with the jukebox system in Aulay’s.  On occasion I would play something by The Smiths, expecting to see the delighted grin on Geordie Pete’s face when he heard the familiar opening beats, or I would put on some Tears For Fears knowing how much Brexit Guy enjoyed his eighties synth, but in the end, I was just lining my own pockets with musical misery.

No matter what I tried, nothing came close to being in Aulay’s.  There wasn’t the same tangible thrill as when a barstool became free and you could park your load for a while, since the stools at the breakfast bar in my kitchen were always empty and I could sit in one of them whenever I liked.  I tried leaning against the mantelpiece, but it was just too high, and it didn’t have the same feeling of nonchalant coolness that standing by the icebox at the bar did.  Although it was welcome being able to go to the bathroom without the fear of having to engage in conversation over the urinal, I found myself going much more frequently when I knew that it was there.  People are always going to do something that feels good when it is just there and readily available.  

By the end of the night, I had grown tired of sitting around drinking by myself, and I was in bed before midnight.  Once again I had been unable to make conversation with a woman, and I wasn’t any closer to finding true love.  It was just like any other Friday night.  When I awoke the following morning I was fresh and hangover-free – it was a strange sensation.  The government had announced that all bars and restaurants were to close, and so I was going to be forced into making my own breakfast, rather than attend our usual Saturday morning family gathering at Poppies.  It was only the first weekend of social distancing and there was a long way left to go, but I was already craving a chocolate chip cookie.  The best I could hope for was a short walk.

Links & things:

If you are social distancing, as well as working from home, and finding it difficult to remain as active and as healthy as you ordinarily might, please consider having a look at the online resources available from a local Oban charity Lorn & Oban Healthy Options, whose valuable work with the elderly and vulnerable in our community has also been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their Facebook page can be found by clicking on this link.

This week I have mostly been listening to the following songs by Bruce Springsteen and Eagles Of Death Metal:

Two-ply envy

Although everything in the world around us seemed to be changing on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, the one thing that the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 couldn’t affect was the gloomy weather of a Monday in March on the west coast of Scotland.  All day the sky was thick with a heavy blanket of rain which was similar in shade to the style of jacket you would usually associate with an elderly woman, one which also happened to closely resemble the colour of the throw cushions on my bed.  It was at its most ferocious at five o’clock when I was leaving work, as was always the case, and so instead of taking my nightly walk along the Esplanade, I ventured to Tesco to top up the credit on my electricity key.  Even by the time I had travelled the short distance to the supermarket I was soaked from head to toe, my toes particularly suffering due to my continually poor judgment in the purchasing of footwear.

I approached the post office counter with the gait of a sodden bath towel and fished the small green and blue token from my jacket pocket.  There was no line, and the woman behind the desk was counting a bundle of Euros, as well as the minutes until the end of her shift. My long black coat was slick with pearly raindrops, my hair was as wet as it was after my morning shower, and my glasses kept slipping down the bridge of my nose, like a baby seal on a flume.  They wouldn’t stay still.  Despite these obstacles, and after the cashier twice checked that I had asked for thirty pounds of credit and not thirteen, the transaction was completed with minimal fuss.  My index finger was nudging my glasses back up my nose as the two of us were waiting for the terminal to splutter out its receipt confirming our success.  The post office woman took a good look at me and asked if it was still raining.  I told her that it was.

The first sign that people in Oban were becoming worried about the growing emergency surrounding the outbreak of the new Coronavirus came on a Wednesday morning that, aside from it being a double bin collection day, was quite unremarkable.  It was said that two police cars were seen racing through Argyll Square in the direction of Combie Street, although the ability of one of the vehicles to race to the scene of the crime was seemingly frustrated by the traffic which often chokes that particular road.  It emerged that the cops were responding to an incident of graffiti on the wall of the builder’s merchant along the street from my flat.  Someone had sprayed the words “CLOSE SCHOOLS” in gold paint, and although the town’s high school was in near proximity, it was to be presumed that it wasn’t intended as a helpful street direction.  

This seemingly had occurred earlier in the day, and the vandal returned some hours later, this time armed with the less luxurious although more visible white paint to complete the job.  The white letters were larger than their predecessors, as though more confident, like when Leonardo Da Vinci had sold a few pieces and realised that he was quite good at painting, so he attempted the Mona Lisa.  This time the concerned citizen daubed the phrase “CLOSE SCHOOL”, possibly after having remembered that the rest of the schools in Oban were considerably further away from the centre of town.  The lettering was oddly-sized on the second effort, with the bottom row clearly getting smaller and smaller, until eventually there wasn’t enough space for the final ‘S’, the way that my neat handwriting in my notebook would noticeably squeeze closer together when it became obvious that I would be struggling to finish my sentence without having to use a brand new page.  On the next section of the wall was a broadly more political statement, reading “Boris Johnson is killing us”, though the perpetrator was presumably apprehended as he or she had moved on to their next message, leaving behind only the letters ‘S’ and ‘P’.  Every time I passed the board I couldn’t help but wonder which letters would have followed “SP” and the word it would have formed.  There were some nights when I was lying in bed that it would be all I could think of to keep my mind off the Coronavirus and whether or not I had washed my hands before getting under the covers.

Two police cars had raced to an incident of graffiti.

People were slowly coming to terms with the global situation when the Scottish government announced that public gatherings of five hundred people and more would be banned from the start of the following week.  After the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies had initially been cleared of anti-bacterial hand gel, the panic buying had moved on firstly to toilet roll, and then to pasta, rice, canned foods, UHT milk, coffee, paracetamol, and frozen vegetables.  The first reports of the desperate demand for toilet paper were met with bemusement and amusement, and I struggled to understand why so many people were stocking the stuff in bulk when diarrhoea wasn’t a symptom of Covid-19 in adults, and nor even was sneezing or a runny nose.  Indeed, the panic buying of goods in general just struck me as being a hysterical reaction to a health emergency, the equivalent of dealing with a wine stain on your carpet by laying a brand new one, or sending two police cars screeching through town to arrest a graffitist.  What good, I wondered, was 5kg of penne and half a dozen Lidl own brand toilet rolls going to be when you’re laid up in bed and feeling lousy with a fever?

I scoffed when I thought of those people who were wasting their time piling trolleys full with tins of baked beans and cream of chicken soup, while I was doing useful things such as studying facts about the country of Romania for The Lorne’s pub quiz, writing notes on Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album for the inaugural meeting of an album club, and trying to find a use for two lemons I had been left with after buying a net of three in order to get one.  It wasn’t until later in the week when I saw the rapidly emptying shelves in Lidl, the difficulty supermarkets were facing in restocking them and the signs around the place advising that certain products were being rationed that I began to question my attitude towards shopping.  I was becoming panicked about my failure to panic buy.  As I slumped around barren aisles, considering if I would have any use for the canned chickpeas and jars of gherkins that nobody else seemed to be wanting, it was all I could do to think about the cupboards in my kitchen and how things would turn out for me if I was forced into a fourteen-day period of self-containment, different from my usual nights spent in isolation.  All I would be left to survive on would likely have been around half a pint of semi-skimmed milk, four free-range eggs, some frozen pork chops, wholewheat fusilli, porridge oats, two satsumas, some dried herbs and spices, a packet of pistachio nuts, three bottles of Jameson, six bottles of red wine, and a lemon.  I supposed that, if nothing else, the multitude of Lidl bags for life in the boiler cupboard would be useful for panic-induced hyperventilation.  I had, almost inevitably, reached a state of toilet roll envy.

Sleet was falling late on Wednesday night.

Fears about the spread of Covid-19 had escalated significantly by the end of the week, and it was becoming evident that things were not going to be the way we had become used to them being for quite some time.  By late on Friday night the streets of Oban had become like the ninth song on the 1988 Cheap Trick record Lap of Luxury.  Along with five other like-minded individuals, I was attending the first meeting of a monthly album club in the bar of the Perle hotel.  The group, which was like a book club but with the medium of literature substituted for a piece of music which we would all listen to and convene to discuss, was the brainchild of my friend who enthuses in studying birds, and together we had fine-tuned the concept to make it something that a group of people could do on a Friday night.

The lounge bar in the Perle was easily the most elegant of all the hotels in Oban.  Gleaming white columns stood from floor to ceiling, like the entrance to some Ancient Greek spa or a great site of interest.  Spotlights sparkled from the roof overhead like little stars separated from the rest of their constellation, creating a lighting that was soft and intimate, ideal for discussing Tracy Chapman.  Although the price of a pint of the tasty St Mungos seemed prohibitive at £4.10, it was probably worth it by the time the beer had travelled out the other end and it afforded the opportunity to use the Hebridean Seaweed handwash in the bathroom.  Although no excuse should have been required to wash our hands in this new world we had found ourselves in, the fragrant organic soap was a good reason all the same.  

We appeared to be the only people in the lounge, which from my previous experiences of the Perle was unusual, and it was quite eerie to think that in the world outside and all around us everything had fallen pretty silent while our geeky social endeavour continued unabated.  It was nice to have something else to think about for a few hours, different from the worries over whether I had enough toilet roll or lentils to last until summer.  I liked to imagine that, in a way, this must have been how it was when small groups of people were getting together in the hidden back storerooms of restaurants or apothecaries during the prohibition era, only now we would be trading in anti-bacterial hand sanitiser.

Momentarily our peace was disturbed by the racket of a cocktail shaker at the bar, though it wasn’t at all clear who the barman could have been preparing a cocktail for.  I supposed that, as with any other profession, a good mixologist had to practice his craft every now and again.  As we were getting down to discussing the detail of our chosen album, it occurred to us that it would have been useful if we could hear some of the tracks as we were talking about them, particularly the record’s most renowned single, Fast Car.  In a scene that could have been taken straight from a cheesy Hollywood script, the opening chords of the song were heard revving from the speakers in the bar.  We couldn’t quite believe our ears or our luck.  Within seconds it became obvious that the song was one of those cheap and crappy imitations that are often played in public places, likely due to licensing restrictions, and the entire episode neatly summed up our thoughts on Fast Car:  a story of hope and youthful excitement and the thrill of escaping which is betrayed by the disappointment of reality.

Our group’s first meeting ran much later beyond the two hours we had planned for, leaving us with only an hour to enjoy our reflective post-gathering drinks in the Oban Inn.  The bar resembled more of a Tuesday afternoon crowd than a Friday night, and there were so few people that we were able to walk in and easily pick a table, which were coveted and usually rare to find.  At closing time, three of us retired to my flat, where we listened to music, ate salted peanuts and drank bottles of beer until after five in the morning, when my supply had been exhausted. We were only hours into the new global crisis and already I had run out of my most critical item.  I dreaded how things were going to go once the shit really hit the fan and all I had was my usual stock of toilet paper.

This week I have been mostly listening to It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.:

Human touch

Fears about the Coronavirus were slow to take hold in Oban.  At least that seemed to be the case when I found myself in the gent’s bathroom in Aulay’s after the Lorne pub quiz on Wednesday night and I had somehow become involved in a discussion with my co-habitant at the urinal about the wet floor.  He was drunk – a Saturday night kind of drunk – and insisted on advancing his theory that, much like the way that you can judge the quality of a restaurant by how busy it is, you can tell how good a pub is by how wet the floor around the urinal is.  “It’s a sign that the lager is good and that people are drinking lots of it,” he claimed in his role as the only true authority on the matter.

I had learned quite early in my adult life that in situations where one is grasping one’s penis in hand it is usually a good idea to agree with whatever anyone in close proximity is saying.  It was a strategy that had served me well up until the night in question, and in keeping with it, I suggested that the bar would probably appreciate the comment about the bathroom floor being left in a review on TripAdvisor.  His meandering thoughts continued as he approached the wash hand basin, where he activated the sensor under the tap and sprinkled his hands with enough water to wet a pinky nail. The hand dryer was given a cursory glance, like a driver checking the wing mirror, and then he was gone.  It was a scene I had witnessed countless times over the years in bars, but it was surprising to see in the current circumstance.  The absence of handwashing was either a worrying disregard for his and everybody else’s hygiene, or it was symbolic of a bold – and equally as worrying – confidence in the strength of his own immune system.

By the middle of the first week of March, guidelines had been released by government agencies advising the public of the importance of washing their hands and on the best method of doing so as confirmed cases of the new strain of Coronavirus were beginning to rise.  The common advice seemed to be that a person should wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing the Patty and Mildred Hill song “Happy Birthday” twice, while a small band of people progressed the idea that citizens should sing the lyrics of “God Save The Queen” whilst washing their hands, though I had always preferred Pretty Vacant, and at over three minutes in length I was worried about wrinkling my skin.

There were reports that the shelves of every store around town had been cleared of anti-bacterial hand gel, while at St. Columba’s Catherdral they were no longer initiating the ‘sign of peace’ during mass and Holy Communion was being offered by hand only.  In several walks of life, the handshake was being temporarily outlawed, and people were becoming increasingly vigilant of their contact with others. At a time when my prospect of making human contact was already minimal, the outbreak of Coronavirus was threatening to make it completely impossible. 

Even though any kind of romantic encounter of a physical nature was seemingly unlikely, and for more than just the usual reasons, I was still hopeful that my personality would shine through and I could find the right line to disarm a woman in an epidemic situation.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to date her immediately, but if I was able to make enough of an impression with a memorable line, I had it in mind that we could perhaps exchange contact details and organise something for six months in the future, once the worst of the virus had been predicted to pass.  I just needed to conjure the ideal combination of words.

“For a moment there I was worried that I might have the Coronavirus, but it turns out that you just took my breath away.”

“This silver pocket square isn’t just for catching coughs, you know.”

“Do you have a fever, or are you always this hot?”

“I’m tired of self-containing.  How about you and me get it on instead?”

For the first few weeks of the Coronavirus outbreak, Guinness proved to be an effective vaccination, even if it couldn’t prevent a hangover the next day.

Oban’s premier purveyor of cheesy chart music was spinning his compact discs in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn on Friday night when my brother and I went along after the usual pilgrimage to Aulay’s.  We were encouraged to join the marine biologist barmaid and her boyfriend at their table in the corner, which posed a problem since I could never remember his name.  Despite knowing the two of them for a few years, there was always an awkward blank in my mind when it came to his name, like removing all of the vowels from a box of Scrabble and nothing that is left synchs.  I could be midway through a conversation when it would occur to me that I couldn’t recall his name, or I would blurt out a different name entirely.

A sense of awkwardness was only heightened when, in much the same way as a drop of water falls from a leaky faucet, it gradually soaked my consciousness that I had previously met the young woman who was in the company of the couple.  They had all been to see the critically-acclaimed film Parasite at the local cinema with a wider group of scientists, and it wasn’t until I focussed on the richly-coloured scarf which was wrapped around the woman’s neck that the realisation ate into me that I had talked to her just a few months earlier.  On that occasion I had been unable to take my mind off the beautiful piece of knitwear she was sporting, and it had affected my ability to communicate with her.  All I had wanted to talk about was the scarf.  This time it was a little different and I didn’t know what to say to her.

“Your colour scheme is very rustic.  It’s quite Autumnal looking.”

“It’s almost Spring,” she noted, quite matter of fact.  There wasn’t any way I could dispute it.  In my mind I could see a large green combine harvester being driven through the silence, churning its way through a field thick with grains.  Although the girl with the golden scarf had remembered all about my liking for matching the colour of my tie to my socks and pocket square, and we resumed a brief conversation about her plans for the weekend, which involved meeting up with her friend who was visiting from Puerto Rico, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had once again blown it with my fixation on fashion.  Nevertheless, I had decided that I was going to plough on and trial one of the lines I had been going over in my head.

“Imagine you are in Markies and the music is a little better than this,” I began, leaning closer to the two women across the table from me as Whole Again by Atomic Kitten was reaching its chorus.  “And I walk up to you and use the following line:  ‘For a moment there I was worried that I might have the Coronavirus, but it turns out that you just took my breath away.’  What would you think?”

The two women, who were both educated in science, looked at one another.  The girl wearing the Autumn-coloured outfit struggled to suppress an expression which suggested that she could throw up into her scarf, while the marine biologist barmaid offered the friendly advice that I should completely rethink the line.  The consensus around the table seemed to be that the whole idea should be put into quarantine.

I went downstairs to gather my thoughts and empty my bladder, acts which were not always mutual.  The floor appeared reasonably dry, while one man had taken the middle of the three urinals, a power move I would never consider making.  He briskly concluded his business and strode purposefully towards the sinks, where he checked himself out in the mirror sitting above them, before leaving the bathroom with some haste, as though there was an ongoing challenge amongst his group that anyone who spent more than three minutes in the toilet would have to buy a round of doubles for everyone.  The Pretty Vacant Challenge.  I was struggling to decide if I found it more or less worrying that there wasn’t even a pretence of preening.  All I knew was that Oban just wasn’t taking the Coronavirus seriously enough.  I was going to have a few months yet to perfect my lines.

Notes and links:

This post was written with the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch in mind.

Guidance on how to wash your hands can be found on the NHS website.

This week I have been listening to Pretty Vacant, not God Save The Queen, by The Sex Pistols:

Dream island

It wasn’t just for the fact that I was struggling to operate with one hand that I decided I was going to dine predominantly on food from my freezer for most of the week.  Although onions, peppers, garlic, and ginger had become a real chore to cut – as was evident in the exceptionally chunky curry I had painstakingly prepared on Sunday – it was a discussion with a colleague that truly forced me into sourcing my meals from items I had previously frozen.  It had always seemed quite easy to just throw the spare chicken breasts from a packet of four into blue bags and find a space for them in the freezer, almost like some Disney-themed game of Tetris.  There never had to be any thought about how or when I was going to use the chicken in the future, because the freezer was just a place where food could be stored indefinitely.  My colleague disputed this logic, insisting that meats especially would still deteriorate in the freezer, and he would throw away anything that he knew had been in there for more than a year.  Upon hearing this I was feeling like a semi-defrosted salmon fillet as I imagined all of the pieces of fish, poultry and beef I had been stockpiling since becoming a single occupant being consigned to the bin.

Unwilling to give up on the meal I might someday enjoy at some unspecified date in the future, I sought clarification on the frozen food matter from my dad one Saturday when he, my brother and I were sitting in Wetherspoons.  It was like any other weekend night in the pub chain, which always seemed to be packed full of people and somehow almost all of them were strangers.  Even the staff appeared unrecognisable from one visit to the next.  The place always had an unfathomable smell.  It was by the pier but never smelled of the sea. There were dozens of different dishes on the menu, yet you couldn’t pick out one from its fragrance.  It could only be described as being a bouquet of disappointment. Whenever we went to Wetherspoons for dinner, it always made me think that a great calamity must have taken place somewhere, and the body of a pub had been built but accidentally filled with the soul of an aircraft hangar.

We were sitting at table number nine, although it could have been six depending on how you looked on it and the number of drinks consumed.  It was the deepest into the place we had ever sat.  Usually we liked to be as near to the entrance as possible, because it was closer for leaving for Aulay’s at the end of the meal, but the place was so busy that we had to go all the way to the back of the great hall, closer to the bathroom than the bar.  Right in our eye-line was the only television in the joint.  It was broadcasting some talent show or other, and it seemed a blessing that the volume was muted.  As was often the case with my dad and my brother after a glass or two of red wine, the conversation soon turned to politics.  It seemed too much to ask that there would be a sudden fire alarm, so I sat nursing a pint of Innis & Gunn and my useless injured fingers, until I remembered about my frozen food dilemma.  Considering that in our house growing up there were almost as many freezers as there were children, I was convinced that dad would be an expert in all things frozen.  And if nothing else, it would serve as an icebreaker from the numbing political chat.

I interrupted the ensuing debate and asked dad how long food could be kept in the freezer.  He immediately contradicted the advice I had previously received, stating that food would keep for thirty years when frozen.  I pressed him on whether he was sure about this, because I had heard differently, but he strengthened his position.  

“How do you think Birdseye discovered frozen food?”

It wasn’t something I had ever considered.  It took me all of my might to summon the possibility that Birdseye was a real person, let alone contemplate the idea that there was a time when frozen food had to be discovered.  Dad seemed to be very familiar with the story of Birdseye, however, and retold the vital aspects to my brother and me.  As far as I understood it, the man known as Birdseye was out fishing on an icy lake one day, when from deep within the bowels of the water he managed to retrieve a fish which had been frozen over and was perfectly preserved.  It wasn’t mentioned which species of fish had been caught, but I didn’t suppose that it mattered.  The purpose of the anecdote seemed to be that since nobody had any way of knowing how long the fish had been frozen in the lake, it could be assumed that food could be frozen for many years and still be safe to eat.  I was unconvinced, and even more so when I later read the history section of the Birds Eye frozen food company’s website.  It seemed that the truth about frozen food was probably in between the two theories, so I took the decision to start using some of the goods I had stored away.

Amongst the excessively chunky pieces of vegetable I had haphazardly cut for a curry were chunks of chicken breast, the edges of which were slightly freezer burned and reminded me of the scabs on my fingers from the horrible accident I had recently suffered.  As time went on my two injured fingers were slowly healing, though for a while they resembled the colour of the new traffic lights which had been installed a few yards from my flat.  They weren’t quite red, nor even green, but somewhere in the middle.  They were sitting there, waiting to move on.

The last weekend of February was traditionally reserved for the Royal Rumpus music festival, which took place in the Royal hotel every year.  Although the variety of music wasn’t to my taste, I usually liked to go for at least one of the nights.  Next door in Aulay’s, the diminutive barmaid was trying to talk up the event for mine and the plant doctor’s benefit.  She spoke of how there was always a lot of women who attended the festival and that many of them were from the islands and “hadn’t seen a man for months.”  Apart from wondering where these offshore places were that had populations of nothing but single ladies and how I could go about relocating, I found myself thinking about what must have been going through the minds of the island women who had had no contact with men for such a long time.

“What do you think you’ll do when you find your man, Amy?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  It’s been so long that I don’t even know what I’d say!”

“What do men talk about these days anyway?”

“I wonder if they still look the same.”

“I can’t wait to see how they dance.”

Then I thought about the disappointment they would feel if I was the first man the women encountered in months, and even though the entire thing wasn’t even real, I had a tinge of guilt about it.

Upstairs in the Royal, it was difficult to tell the island women from the locals.  There was nothing to distinguish them, and no-one was going to come out with a sticker indicating their place of living plastered over their party dress.  I ordered some drinks at the bar for my brother and I, having to dig deep into my wallet for the £8 and change that they were asking for a bottle of Budweiser and a Jack Daniels and coke.  We were informed that the bar was about to close, and with the music coming to an end it seemed that we had left it too late to enjoy much of the Royal Rumpus.  Soon a bombastic, wild-eyed work colleague bounded across the room to talk to me, and like a force of nature she accidentally knocked the drink out of my hand.  The bourbon sprayed across my tan shoe, painting it with the likeness of a pissed Picasso.  It wasn’t the connection with an island woman that I had been hoping for.  I had often been told that there was plenty of fish in the sea, but when I was standing on the dancefloor in the Royal hotel at the end of the night it was reaching the point where I was wondering how long they were going to stay frozen.

Links & things:

The history of the Birds Eye frozen food company can be read here.

There are 28 other days in February – my Spotify playlist for the month of Valentine’s Day

This week I have mostly been listening to the following song…