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…