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.
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.
This week I have been mostly listening to:
And something a little more uplifting…