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:


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