Spring in the lockdown age

It had become undeniable that spring was in the air, not that there was anyone around to argue the point.  Oban had enjoyed a week which was largely blessed with blue skies, consecutive days of which were always enough to bring legions of locals out in their shorts, showing off legs that were similar in shade to the few wisps of cloud still clinging to the horizon, as sure a sign as any that the thermometer had crawled into double digits and spring had arrived.  The ongoing lockdown taught us that every man and his dog in Oban had a canine companion, and if people weren’t out walking their dogs then they were either on a bicycle or had taken up running, and each of those daily acts of exercise required shorts.

Sometimes it was easy to forget everything else when the things happening all around us were so beautiful.  Trees were almost full again and flowers of all colours were beginning to pop up everywhere, signalling the end of winter right there at your feet.  You could become lost just watching the boats moving in the harbour like they always did, waiting for the very precise moment when they would appear to be great bulbous fish caught on the end of the sun’s golden line.  The warmth brought out the soft fragrance of the seaweed from the shore, while from the heart of town the distinctive smell of whisky wheezed into the atmosphere from the distillery.  Barbeques had been dusted down, and in late afternoon every other street you turned onto was marked by burning charcoal.  On George Street, on the sea wall approximately opposite the high street book and stationery store WH Smith, two pigeons copulated without a care in the world.  

Meanwhile, on High Street, a conversation between two older people – a man and a woman – was overheard.  “How are you coping with it all?”  She asked, in a neighbourly fashion.

“Oh, I’m loving this,” he responded.  “It’s nice and peaceful.”

“Yes, you can hear the birds chirping,” she observed, against a backdrop where, admittedly, birds could be heard chirping.  It was like there wasn’t a global pandemic at all.

The Oban Hills Hydropathic Sanatorium is the town’s best hidden landmark

During one afternoon walk, the tranquillity was challenged when two police cars and a van appeared on the Esplanade.  Their lights weren’t blaring, but the vehicles were coughing up some dust.  I could see them approaching from the distance; the cars arriving on the scene in uniform first, followed shortly afterwards by the van.  Since there was only one other man walking the pavement at the time, I began to wonder which of us was the vagrant who the officers were looking for.  Could it have been possible that they had heard me sneezing earlier in the day?  Did they know about the time when I had forgotten to scan a carrier bag at the checkout in Lidl?  I guess these things always have a way of catching up with a person.  

I ducked my hands deep into my pockets, like a schoolboy presuming it to be the most innocent posture to take, and continued on my way, the whole time eyeing my fellow suspect off in the distance with distrust.  We neared, although it was more a case of me nearing him since he didn’t seem to be getting very far.  It quickly became obvious that the man was disoriented and had a glazed stare in his eyes, like they were doughnuts on a coffee shop counter.  At that point it seemed unlikely that he was even aware of Coronavirus.  He was possibly drunk, or since it was four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Oban, most likely off his face on drugs, and when a squad of police officers ushered him into the back of their van for a different sort of lockdown, I felt relieved that my misdemeanours hadn’t caught up with me.

Entering the fourth week of the regular lockdown was getting as tough for the rest of us as it was the man on the Esplanade, and the things I was missing were stacking up quicker than police vehicles.  It was a bad idea, but it was difficult not to spend my days sitting and thinking about how different things might have been in the alternate universe where Coronavirus hadn’t spread.  I would be in the final weeks of planning my trip to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, and Scotland might recently have qualified for the European football Championships being held in the summer.  The Unlikely Lads would surely have finally won the Lorne pub quiz.  The company behind the jukebox in Aulay’s could have bowed to public demand and added the George Harrison song Wah-Wah to its catalogue.  Oban would have been thriving with visitors enjoying weeks of unprecedented warm weather, and although the threat of COVID-19 had been appeased before it could become a global pandemic, people had taken heed of the warning and were now thoroughly washing their hands after going to the bathroom.  At the bar on a Friday night I might even have made a woman laugh, although some thoughts were more outrageous than others.

The longer the days went on, the more difficult it was becoming.  At times my eyes were red and streams of water would roll down my cheek, wetting the top of my stubble.  Sometimes it was all I could do to sniffle my nose, again and again.  Hayfever wasn’t making like any easier.  For most of my adult life, I had resented the fact that I was afflicted by something that I was supposed to be able to count but couldn’t:  some people had described the Coronavirus as being an “invisible enemy”, but mine was pollen.  At one point my hayfever was so bothersome that I was becoming worried about leaving the flat for my one hour of outdoor exercise.  My concern over how other people would react if they witnessed me sneezing in public grew so great that I spent a morning considering how I would go about fashioning a lanyard with the message:  “Please don’t be alarmed, I only have hayfever.”  Alongside it would be a link to the diagram I had found online by the pharmacy chain Boots which showed the different symptoms of hayfever and Coronavirus side-by-side, though in the end I accepted that it would be futile since I didn’t have access to a laminator, and people would need to get really close to read the statement anyway.  In the end, like in the Tom Petty song Crawling Back To You, most of the things I worried about never happened, and my symptoms actually eased when I was outdoors.  It was rare for my body not to take any opportunity to humiliate me.

It was nigh upon twenty-four hours after I had been unfurloughed – a lot like a flag but without the trumpets – when the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reassembled to bring the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night into our homes by way of a group video chat.  Twenty-four hours after that, our album club held its third meeting, and second virtual meeting, to discuss the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden, and without even leaving my couch it seemed like my social life was better than it had been before the lockdown.  It was a relief to have some form of human interaction to look forward to, no matter how distant it was.  With the rising popularity of communicating from home, my usual insecurities were being forced to adapt to the change.  Rather than worry about how my outfit looked and whether I was going to say something stupid, I was thinking about how my flat would look on camera and whether I was going to say something stupid.

The boredom I had been beginning to feel about my interior decor after four weeks of staring mostly at my living room walls was only enhanced by seeing other people’s arrangements and how much better they were than my own.  Bookshelves teeming with paperbacks, soft lighting, nicer seating, inviting artwork, a guitar, cats.  I looked again across the room to the canvas print on my wall, which was taken from the mural by Banksy protege Mr Brainwash, of The Beatles wearing bandanas over their faces.  The small rectangle had taken on a dark irony over the previous four weeks, and once I had seen what other people were doing with their living rooms, I felt inspired to do some online shopping for fresh art for my walls.  It was just like any other night in the pub, when after a certain number of pints of Guinness I started to dream of bigger and brighter things.

Lockdown was teaching us a lot about ourselves and the small world around us; the various uses for technology and the differences between the symptoms of hayfever and Coronavirus.  After having lived in Oban for more than thirty-six years, I took a weekend to walk up to The Oban Hills Hydropathic Sanatorium for the very first time.  The ruins of the proposed hydropathic hotel, which started construction in 1881 but was never completed due to financial difficulties, is one of the town’s best hidden landmarks since the growth of vegetation around the stone structure has left it barely visible from the streets below.  On my way up the hill, I passed houses where couples were out tending to their garden in the sunshine, elderly neighbours sat drinking coffee across their boundaries, and benches were having a fresh coat of paint applied.  The only protection the handyman required was a hat to shade him from the sun.  The Hydro was easier to reach than I expected it would be, and once I got there, there was nothing but solitude.  It was as though nobody had ever been there before, and just for a moment, nothing else existed, not even a pandemic.  Nothing, that is, but the distant sound of birds chirping.

Links & things:

It may come as no surprise that I have written two previous stories about my trouble with hayfever, and they both came at this time of the year.  They can be found here:
15 April 2019: The day of the spring clean
14 April 2018: The week I remembered that I have hayfever

Click through the link to my Instagram account for more photographs of my first walk to Oban’s old Hydro

This week I have mostly been listening to this song by U2 which seems fitting for the current climate:

An Easter like no other

As far as religious holidays went, I always preferred Easter to Christmas.  It wasn’t so much that I found the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection two days later more believable than that of a virginal woman giving birth to the child of God in a barn, just that it felt more laid-back and relaxed.  Easter never came with the pressure of making sure that you had bought a suitable present for everyone like there was at Christmas, there wasn’t the same concern over outfits for parties or if there would be enough food for the entire family to feast on, and to me, the Easter bunny was clearly a less threatening character than an old bearded man who would travel the world to creep around your house late at night, especially so in the era of social distancing.  It would be interesting to see how parents would talk their way around that one come Christmas 2020.

It probably wasn’t until I became an adult that I really started to appreciate Easter, or at least it would have been when I reached an age at which most people consider that you should be an adult.  A long weekend of four whole days was to a grown-up what Christmas morning was to a child, and with it usually came the opportunity to spend four nights in the pubs – all our Christmasses arriving at once.  It wasn’t always like that, though, and my abiding memory of Easter Sunday from when I was growing up was of how long the mass in the cathedral felt.  The service easily went on much later than every other Sunday of the year, and for a ten-year-old boy who had given up eating chocolate for Lent it seemed torturous to have finally reached the day on which my sacrifice for Jesus would be rewarded with a large Cadbury’s egg, only to have to first sit through a mass which certainly went beyond midday, and God only knows when it actually ended.  In that respect, it was almost like going into a busy bar and patiently waiting for your turn to be served, only for the keg to need changing when you reach the front of the queue.

Church was always busy on Easter Sunday, and everybody seemed to be wearing their very best outfit for the occasion, though in later years it was difficult to recall if that was really the case, or if it was just the technicolour of nostalgia.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but the likelihood was that most of them had reservations for lunch in one of the town’s restaurants or hotels in the afternoon.  Like my siblings and I straining for that first mouthful of milk chocolate in more than six weeks, these people were all being forced to listen to a seemingly endless stream of readings, some of them delivered by people we had never even seen before, and all of them having obviously been carefully practised since Christmas.  It was all quite reminiscent of the Medieval-themed restaurant we visited in Orlando as a family in the late nineties where we had to watch a joust or a duel unfold in front of us before we could eat our meal.

The streets in Oban were empty on Easter weekend

Almost as arduous as having to endure mass for what felt like many hours on Easter Sunday morning was the chore we would undertake in primary school the week or two prior to the big day of making our Easter bonnets.  I was never artistically inclined and probably spent most of the time thinking to myself how I would much rather be writing an essay about how disappointing my attempt at crafting a bonnet would inevitably be. Practically, a paper hat would surely be useless anyway, particularly if an April shower should come and cause the yellow crayon of chicks, the green stems of daffodils and the blue cloudless sky to weep as the material turned to mush.  It didn’t help that I had always felt tremendously insecure about things that would be seen by other people when I was in school, or at any age, really.  Art projects, picture frames in woodworking class, wearing shorts in PE.  When I thought about it all as I got older, I wondered if people were born with the inherent ability to be gushing in their praise of garish Easter bonnets and to be convincing in the mythology of Santa Claus, or if it was a skill that parents learned as they went, in the way of burping or changing a nappy.

Easter started to become something I would look forward to when I reached adulthood, when I no longer had to sit through mass to eat a piece of chocolate if I didn’t want to, and when the fashion was arguably better and undoubtedly more appropriate.  Although Good Friday was the start of a four day weekend, and a day which I would spend lounging around my flat in a pair of jeans and a casual checked shirt, kind of resembling a rejected advertisement campaign for if GAP were targetting the single and undateable market, I still felt the desire to suit up when it came time to go to Aulay’s at night.  I had spent years carefully crafting my sartorial image as the guy who always matched the colour of his socks to his tie and pocket square, and just because Jesus had sacrificed himself for mankind didn’t mean that I had to sacrifice colour coordination, even if it did draw looks of suspicion and curiosity from those who knew me and who were aware that I wasn’t working on Good Friday.  

There was no al fresco dining at Piazza restaurant

Spending Easter weekend in the bars often resulted in a phenomenon which was broadly similar to the story of Easter itself, if it was told in reverse:  Good Friday would see a person feeling revitalised and full of the vigours of life, but by Sunday they would be beaten, lifeless and ready to be hidden away in a dark cave.  Sometimes, if you took it easy on Saturday, you could get the story back on track and experience a resurrection of fortunes by Sunday morning, but it almost always went the same way in the end.  That turned out to be the case in 2017, when my brother and his girlfriend at the time had recently moved into his flat together and they hosted a combined Easter Sunday and flat warming celebration.  

The three of us, along with my bearded work colleague who in a later transformation of miraculous proportions would go from being the Shane MacGowan-like figure of our group to becoming completely teetotal, spent the afternoon drinking a salted caramel liquor out of the hollow shell of Kinder eggs, since we had been too late to buy anything larger or more in keeping with a traditional Easter.  The chocolate quickly sagged from the warmth of the alcohol and it was only possible to drink two shots of the stuff before it began leaking through the base, like some sweetly decadent plumbing problem that could only be fixed by using the tool of our mouths.  In another unorthodox use of chocolate, we removed the small yellow and white marbles from the popular children’s action board game Hungry Hippos and substituted them with bags of Malteasers.  Many of the sweets were too large for the plastic spring-activated mammals to swallow whole, resulting in a chaotic bloodbath as tiny pieces of chocolate flew all across the board like shrapnel, until eventually some shapes were stripped completely down to their honeycomb.  It was difficult to determine the winner of the contest when, for the first time in our lives, we were all feeling like winners.

Our game of Hungry Hippos with Malteasers in 2017 became a bloodbath.

Once our stash of alcohol had been exhausted and the threat of diabetes was high, we decided to venture into town, where Coasters was packed full for its annual Easter disco.  Before we left the flat, Kim presented us each with a fluffy little yellow chick, no bigger than the Malteasers we had just seen devoured by the hippos.  She said that if I wanted to, I could offer mine to a woman in the pub and it would surely lead to me befriending her, though it seemed an unusual method of seduction to me, a chick for a chick.  When I recently dipped my hand into the left breast pocket of my denim jacket, I discovered the small Easter chick, its fluffy coat much less buoyant than I remembered it, and its tiny orange legs contorted in on themselves, looking like something even the committee for the Turner Prize wouldn’t entertain.  It was a reminder that not every Easter ends with a miracle.

Many of the Easters of our adulthood did produce some remarkable events, and that was undoubtedly the case on the last Good Friday before the world changed; a Good Friday which itself changed some of the things we knew.  I had a tinge of trepidation when I arrived in Aulay’s that night following the events of twenty-four hours previous, when I had accidentally befriended my brother’s pub enemy.  If we are to accept that the concept of having a pub enemy exists, and that such a nemesis is a figure who constantly seems to have a presence when something goes wrong, despite your best efforts to not acknowledge them, then my pub enemy would be the fresh-faced homosexual who was present for at least two of my failures during 2018, the diminutive barmaid’s would be the top shelf where the malt whiskies are kept, and my brother’s pub enemy would be the Brexit Guy.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, my brother and I found ourselves in conversation at the bar with a pleasant and soft-spoken man who had blonde hair to match the tanned complexion of his skin.  My attention drifted when the subject turned to politics, though I was soon aware of my brother’s tone becoming animated in the way it does when he disagrees with something.  The soft-spoken man didn’t stick around for long after that, and it transpired that despite living in Colombia for half of the year, he was in favour of Brexit because it would curb the number of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work, a paradox which didn’t sit well with my brother.  Every time we saw him in Aulay’s after that night he was referred to as the Brexit Guy, and we never talked to him.

I couldn’t be sure how I ended up speaking to him the night before Good Friday, but I presumed that it was a drunken mistake, the way someone picks up the wrong jacket or drinks a rum and coke instead of a Jack Daniels.  Once again I found him to be pleasant and softly-spoken, though in the back of my mind there was a pang of gnawing (Catholic) guilt that if my brother could see the scene he would be disappointed by my interaction with his pub enemy.  When it reached the point where the Brexit Guy was offering to buy a Jameson for me, I had to come clean and remind him of the incident a year earlier before I could accept the whiskey and at the same time force the diminutive barmaid to confront her own pub enemy.

The Brexit Guy remembered the evening well and implied that he feels awkward every time he sees my brother and me at the bar.  This made me feel strangely powerful, that for the first time in my life I was intimidating another person, even if it had all been the work of my brother.  I imagined that the Brexit Guy viewed us as figures similar to the Kray twins, unlike most other people in Aulay’s who see us as something closer to the Chuckle Brothers.

I was able to accept a drink from the Brexit Guy when he confessed that he was very drunk on the night in question and was probably taking a contrary opinion to my brother’s because he enjoys winding other people up when he has had too much to drink.  I wasn’t sure how much I believed his story, but he seemed genuine and I, myself, have often considered the sporting merits of taking an opposing view to my brother, though have never had the guts to see it through.  On Good Friday the Brexit Guy again approached me at the bar, and we were chatting when he told me that he felt the need to apologise to my brother.  He called across to him and extended a hand, in place of an olive branch, which my brother shook. Brexit Guy apologised for “being a dick” in that initial meeting, and my brother conceded that he had probably been a dick too.  It was an Easter miracle that I had brought these two pub enemies together, and over the months he became so woven into the fabric of our group that we all brought in the bells together in Aulay’s, when we left 2019 and entered what would become the strangest year of our lives.

We were into the third week of lockdown following the worldwide spread of Coronavirus when Easter arrived.  At the beginning of the week, everyone in the country received a letter from the government about the measures being taken to combat the pandemic, which stirred up a real mix of emotions for me.  As a single occupant, it was very rare for me to receive any form of communication in the post that wasn’t a leaflet detailing the special offers in Farmfoods or offering life insurance cover for the over fifty-five-year-olds, so when I opened my front door to find a white envelope sticking out of the mouth of my postbox, like a Malteaser shredded of its chocolate and caught in the jaws of a hungry hippo, it was exciting.  The thrill quickly dissipated into disappointment when the contents were revealed, and the Shakespearian twist was complete when later that night it was reported that the Prime Minister had been taken into intensive care with the virus.  I didn’t have much care for the man himself, but the gravity of the situation in the country was difficult to ignore.

Two Calmac ferries social distancing in Oban Bay.

As time was wearing on, one listless day bleeding into another like white clouds on the horizon of a vast blue sky, considerations of fashion seemed to become less important.  It had been weeks since I had worn a tie, and at one point I realised that I had taken to wearing printed socks which I received as a Christmas present.  One pair, which were black, had several tigers on them, around eleven on each foot.  The big cats were full-bodied and prowled around the ankles, though the stretch of the material made it difficult to make out their faces.  Wearing the socks was a move that was so far out of step with the real world for me; I could never have worn them in ordinary circumstances.  There probably wasn’t a tie that would match socks which have tigers on them, and even if there was it would likely be hideous and look ridiculous on me, like a formal Easter bonnet, and as though I was a walking advert for a frosted flake cereal. And even if there was a tie to match the socks, who even knows what kind of pocket square would go with them to complete the triumvirate?  Though by this point in the lockdown it was hard to care about such things, and the character socks became just another new thing we would all have to get used to.

Everything in the new Coronavirus reality was taking some getting used to.  Even after a few weeks, I had to catch myself when I was walking towards another person on the pavement and from several yards away they took the decision to cross over to the other, empty, side of the road.  It was instinctive to wonder what you had done wrong, if your gait had unsettled them or if they simply didn’t like the way that you were dressed, until you remembered that they probably just didn’t want to get sick, and few people knew exactly how wide a pavement was.  To some it seemed easier to cross the road than to engage in the uncomfortable stand-off when two people were approaching one another from opposite directions, and because the pavement never got any wider, someone would have to step out onto the road to make the gap between them feel distant enough, creating the unusual dynamic where there was either the threat of walking into oncoming traffic, or of being infected by another human.  Would you rather die instantly from being hit by the Soroba to Dunollie bus, or fourteen days later from severe respiratory failure?

Easter in Oban, like anywhere else, was unlike any other we had known.  There were no church services to sit through before we could enjoy a piece of chocolate.  All of the restaurants and hotels were closed, while the outdoor dining areas that were usually crackling with the hum of tourists in the spring were as empty as the inside of a Kinder egg.  After a family video chat on Saturday evening, during which we discussed how when we were younger we would go and roll our eggs at “the rolly polly place”, which I now know most people refer to as the war memorial, it was back to the silence and stillness of lockdown.  Even the boats in the harbour seemed to be enacting social distancing, while the two seagulls I saw sitting at opposite ends of a lamp post on the Esplanade were either stringently following the rules or were involved in a serious tiff.  From McCaig’s Tower I had an eagle-eye view of the empty streets through town; this wasn’t the Easter anyone had imagined.  Even a handshake was out of the question.

Links & things:

The previous two Easter stories that I have written can be found here:
22 April 2019: The night of the handshake
3 April 2018: The morning I re-started yoga

Follow the link to my Instagram account for more pictures of Oban looking empty on Easter weekend

This week I have been mostly listening to the following songs:

And, really, just all of Laura Marling’s latest record Songs For Our Daughter…

Time on my hands

A sliver of light crept through the crack of my bedroom curtains on Sunday morning, splashing all the parts of the room its bony fingers could reach with colour and creating a more natural intrusion than the nearby streetlight which was often my bedfellow on a night.  Between my sheets I was stirring awake, and although my eyes were as heavy as a shopping trolley filled with toilet rolls and scented handwash, I was free of the hangover which ordinarily had me practically chained to the bed on a weekend, the result of my living room once again failing to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s for the night.

As I rolled over to the right-hand side of my bed, my eyes were flickering open like a pair of moths flailing inside a lampshade, and without glasses, they were made to force themselves into a squint to make out the shapes on the digital clock on the bedside table.  They didn’t make any sense to me, but then I couldn’t recall the last time that a figure by the side of my bed did.  The clock was reading 06:30, which confused me since all through the lockdown I had been waking up naturally at around seven-thirty. I put the discrepancy out of my mind and turned to go back to sleep, though within forty-five minutes I was wide awake again.  I had no choice but to accept defeat, so I grumbled my way out of bed and put on a pot of coffee.  The digital display on the machine reminded me of my early rise, taunting me in much the same way as the gloating face on my watch and the clock on the mantelpiece in the living room were.  Like the coffee machine, I was steaming.

I returned to bed with a cup of coffee and reached for my phone from the bedside table, figuring that since I was awake at 7.15 on a Sunday I might as well torture myself further with a cursory swipe through Twitter.  It was when I had my iPhone in hand, with its smart in-built capability to tell the time no matter the day of the year and without the need for human intervention like all of my other timepieces, that it occurred to me that the clocks had sprung forward into British Summer Time and the actual time was an hour later than I had been led to believe.  For the first time in my adult life, I was able to appreciate the method behind mum’s thinking when we were growing up, whereby she would go around the entire house at around ten o’clock on the Saturday night and make sure that every clock was set forward or brought back an hour, depending on whether it was March or October.  Even if we all had a couple of hours where we would have to look twice and do a little bit of mental arithmetic on Saturday night, it would be worth it come Sunday morning when we could be sure of exactly what time it was.  I could hardly believe that I had forgotten all about the clocks moving forward, although in the current situation it didn’t seem like losing an hour was going to make very much of a difference to anybody.

The country was in its second official week of lockdown in the fight against COVID-19, and it was beginning to show.  Suddenly every other person I would see on the street was wearing these blue plastic gloves, like they were on their way to work a shift in a sandwich deli on Great Western Road in Glasgow.  They were everywhere, and it was hard to imagine where they had all come from or what would happen to those who truly needed the gloves if, or when, we ran out of them – the deli workers slicing ham, or the nurses tending to the sick in Intensive Care Units.

In one instance I witnessed as a heavyset man sauntered past my window on a morning towards the end of the week when the temperatures had dropped again and the sky had clouded over.  He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, as well as his blue plastic gloves, whilst carrying a bag of shopping in each hand.  Ordinarily the t-shirt would seem like a terrible idea to me anyway, just from the perspective of fashion alone, but it was especially so on a day which felt much colder than those preceding it, and when such consideration over hygiene had been taken as to wear plastic gloves outside.  Was he operating under the belief that Coronavirus stopped at the wrists?

It was early into the second week when I suffered my first real scare of the lockdown.  I was preparing a basic pasta dinner when it quickly occurred that the shards of wholewheat fusilli that were loitering at the bottom of my pasta jar would scarcely feed a family of squirrels, if the reds and the greys had given up gathering nuts in favour of dining out on tasty Italian cuisine.  I had to go back to the cupboard to source some more pasta to make up a full human portion, and before I even opened the door again I knew that all I was going to find was the most oddly-shaped pasta shells of them all:  conchiglie. Even putting the two different kinds of pasta into the same pot felt wrong, like wearing medical gloves with a t-shirt, or putting me into a social situation with any woman.  As I was bringing the pot to the boil I could feel all sorts of questions about my pre-lockdown shopping simmering beneath the surface.  Perhaps I should have put some more effort into it after all.  And yet, somehow, mixing the different pasta shapes together was the most daring thing I had been able to do in weeks.  This is really living, I thought to myself as I spooned the floppy brown and white shapes into my bubbling homemade sauce.

Frozen in time: the ice cream menu at Bossards

 

Aside from knowing what kind of meals to cook, there were some other challenges that came with the lockdown.  Since we were only allowed out of our homes for specific purposes, we had to use our supplies sensibly.  I was taking great care to limit the amount of milk I was using to lighten caffeinated drinks in an effort to ensure that the bottle was emptied at roughly the same time as most of the other goods in my kitchen.  The way I saw it, was going to Lidl to buy a bottle of Rioja for the album club on Saturday night really an essential reason for leaving home?  Probably not.  But venturing to the supermarket for milk, potatoes, cheese, eggs, fruits, wholewheat fusilli, and two bottles of Spanish red wine for our virtual music gathering couldn’t be anything other than a necessity.

Being stuck indoors 23/7, adjusting for the hour or so it would take for me to go on my daily walk, brought with it difficulties alongside the expected boredom and loneliness.  With all of my business being conducted in the same place, my flat quickly developed a potpourri of fragrances.  It was especially noticeable how long orange zest would linger in the atmosphere after the citrus had been peeled; often hours later.  Meanwhile, a broccoli and stilton soup that I ate for lunch imbued the close confines of my living space, canoodling with the wet washing which was hanging on the airer in the kitchen, which in turn consorted with the onion and garlic from the pasta sauce I had cooked for dinner.  There was incense burning like a funeral service in the living room, fighting for attention with the stench of the furniture polish which had earlier been used to give the mantelpiece mirror a fresh complexion.  All of this was against the backdrop of endeavour – though perhaps not yet sweat – earned twice a day on the yoga mat by the window, and the barely matched joy of a freshly opened bottle of Jameson.  It was as though someone had spent an entire month in isolation working on their dream project, which was a range of scented oils, candles and perfumes titled “The Smells of Societal Lockdown” and they had selected my flat as the base for their online store.  I couldn’t imagine that any of them would be the aftershave I would choose to wear on my first night back in the bars once this was all over.

It always seemed important to have goals, though, and if someone was going to use this time to create their line of natural essences, then I wanted to do something positive.  If nothing else, I thought, the lockdown would be an opportunity for us all to forge our generation’s “back in my day” moment.  It was always the way that people who were older than even myself, usually by around twenty or thirty years, could hark back to the way things were when they were younger, either to demonstrate how much better life was in those days or as a way of making you sympathise with them for how difficult they had it, whichever best suited their argument at the time.  They would reminisce about being able to play football in the streets, half-day closing on a Wednesday or going to the pub during lunch hour on a Friday and not going back to work.  Sometimes it would be pointed out that in generations gone by there were only three channels on the television, the internet didn’t exist or food was rationed with stamps.  Now we were spending our entire days with nothing but the internet, and pre-lockdown stockpiling had brought about the rationing of some products.

Most people around my age had it pretty good, I reckoned, and there wasn’t really very much we could use in our experience as a “back in my day” example to a younger person.  The nearest thing we might cite would be how “back in my day we had to dial-up to connect to the internet,” or maybe “we had to wait a whole week to see the next episode of our favourite television show.”  But really, when it was stacked up against the blitz of the Second World War or the strikes of the seventies, it sounded pretty weak.  It would be difficult to convince a youth that things were better when we could go to Woolworths on a Monday after school to browse the latest singles and album releases, or of the hardship of having to rewind a videotape before returning it to Blockbusters.  Finally the lockdown was going to give people of my generation the scope for finding the “back in my day” instance that, years from now, would really stick it to anyone who dared to think that things were tough.  “You have to remember that back in my day we were only allowed to leave the house once a day…the pubs were closed for months…there was no toilet roll to be found anywhere…we couldn’t see our family or friends…we mixed together different types of pasta because that’s all we had.” 

Amidst the mind-numbing tedium of the new lockdown reality, there were little echos of distant times and reminders of the way things used to be, such as on Wednesday morning when I was slowly coming out of sleep.  Rays of light from the rising sun nestled between the curtains, like shining a torch into the cupboard underneath the stairs, while my eyes were opening the same way a jar of honey is – slowly, with a great deal of effort and a little grunting.  I could hear the bin lorry stop on the street outside my window as the green bins were being emptied.  It was a sound I had heard dozens of times before, but this time it was savoured, not least because it would give a good reason to spend a couple of minutes outside later in the morning when the bins needed to be brought back in. 

Usually the clattering of rubbish being swallowed by the mammoth lorry would act as an alarm clock of sorts, letting me know that it was sometime around seven and probably time to think about getting out of bed.  Now it was more a faint memory of a bygone world, a little like the memories which sometimes popped up on Facebook, such as the recent reminder I received of a joke I posted five years earlier asking, “when people genuinely thanked Einstein, do you think it sounded sarcastic?” and which achieved one like.  I felt a certain comfort in the sound of the bin lorry, and I turned over and closed my eyes again.  After all, I could be sure that it was seven o’clock, and I had all the time in the world.

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 this poignant song which was possibly written because Rod Stewart learned how to play a new instrument…