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.
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.
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.: