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.
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…