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