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.
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.
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: