If there was a surface anywhere that was colder than my bathroom floor at seven-thirty on a Thursday morning I was yet to discover it. There wasn’t really such a thing as a surface which was pleasing underfoot in my flat, but the bathroom especially was like if someone had taken the proverbial other side of the pillow and manufactured linoleum tiling out of it. It was because of this that I always resented the fact that my morning routine was the busiest part of my day. Although it was tempting in my weaker moments to consider that – particularly in the spring of 2020 – people had other things to worry about besides the appearance of my face, I would never have forgiven myself if I had neglected to trim my stubble to a fine 1.0mm every other morning and ended up having to care for a fully-grown beard, the way that someone feeds a stray kitten once and is eventually forced into giving it a home.
I was applying moisturiser to my face when the rough realisation occurred to me that the sound coming from the roadworks which had been ongoing outside my window since the beginning of the week was not too dissimilar to the album by the Scottish band The Twilight Sad that we had been listening to for the upcoming meeting of the album club. Constant, loud, and often unsettling. And just when you were beginning to think that they had finally stopped, they start banging all over again. The noise didn’t trouble me so much since I had become used to living on a busy street during my two years as a single occupant, but I was worrying intensely about how much air freshener I would need to use if I wanted to open the windows.
Whilst brushing my teeth I would usually rotate my gaze around the entire room and study various features around me. The nearly empty bottle of Joop! Go aftershave which I had suddenly stopped using years earlier when I noticed that it was turning the collars of my shirts a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle shade of green, the almost whole toilet roll sitting atop the cistern because I had been too lazy to attach it to the wall yet – although I didn’t have a traditional toilet roll holder anyway and would usually have it dangling from the towel rail with a red ribbon. Anything to avoid making eye contact with myself in the foggy mirror. I glanced out of the open bathroom door across the landing to my bedroom, which had been illuminated by the marvellous morning sunlight and the flashing amber of the road maintenance vehicle stationed across the street. My eyes screwed up as I tried to bring into focus a tiny green object which was moving slowly across the floor, almost like a small piece of thread being agitated in a breeze. I would have felt more worried by the vision if I’d thought that it could have come from one of my shirts, but I knew that fabric couldn’t crawl. It was either a centipede or a millipede, but I couldn’t really be sure of the difference between the two. All that I did know was that there were at least ninety-eight legs more than there had ever been in my bedroom.
I had seen the occasional spider or moth milling around my flat, but never a centipede. They always seemed like one of those insects that only ever existed in children’s books. Where would one even come from? And what would it want on my bedroom floor? I rinsed my mouth and thought about how best to rid my flat of an interloping insect, but there didn’t seem to be a straightforward way of dealing with a centipede. It wasn’t like a spider, whose black spindly legs would carry the creature into a glass before it had even realised where it was, like a drunk spilling into a taxi at the end of the night. The little thing appeared to be making its way towards the exit anyway, an act which in itself convinced me that the centipede was surely a female of the species, and I figured that eventually it would leave on its own accord.
I was in a sort of a blind rush that morning since I had made the sudden decision that it would be the day where I would wash my bedsheets. Changing the bedding had always been my most loathed of household chores, and the one I was most inept at performing. It always seemed to me that it was something a couple would do together and share the benefit of their efforts, like building lawn furniture, and I never knew why I should care if the duvet was the right way round or the bottom sheet was fitted perfectly snug around the mattress. Nobody was ever going to know. I went through the charade every other week all the same, though, and the entire process was always a farce from morning to night.
Hanging the wet linen on the airer in my kitchen was a particularly crude exercise, with the sheets being so much bigger than the contraption that it gave the appearance of a seriously underwhelming haunting. I never used the much more spacious rotary airer in the garden through fear of being judged by my neighbours. My hanging technique was never especially confident, going back to the days where as a youth in the summer holidays I would often snare the job of hanging out the washing since our parents were running a bed and breakfast and there was always a lot of it, so it was a good opportunity to earn some extra pocket money. My work often looked sloppy and shapeless, though, and I always suspected that mum would go outside a little later and re-hang some of the items, especially duvets and shirts, though I could never prove it.
Worse than having my ability to hang laundry critiqued would be the idea of others judging the clothes themselves, which seemed ridiculous when I didn’t think twice about being seen wearing pink socks paired with a baby blue shirt, but somehow having them viewed on a washing line seemed different. As though they were on display. I felt that if I was going to use the communal concertina then I would have to stand by it at all times in the event that anyone should approach and I could explain that I also had a coral pink tie to match and that I had put together the outfit the previous Friday and had been feeling unusually good about myself at the time, in the manner of a guide at the Natural History Museum.
When putting fresh sheets on the bed I would always change the pillowcases first, since it was the easiest part of the process and I could convince myself that things were going well this time. It wouldn’t last, however, and it wasn’t long before the other end of the bottom sheet was unravelling as I tried tucking in the last corner. Matters with the duvet were even more complex, and trying to convince the thing into the white cover was as difficult as trying to convince a woman that it would be a good idea to talk to me. It would never lie straight and flat, and after a period of breathless frustration, the whole episode had taken on the resemblance of a really bad game of hide and seek, where one of the participants had thought that hiding in the bed would be a good idea, only to be given away by the lumpy outline of his body under the duvet. By the time I had finally gotten it right, I had spent nigh upon forty minutes making my bed.
Thursday 28 May was also the day that the Scottish Government announced that from Friday the country would be moving into the first phase of the easing of lockdown restrictions, meaning that, amongst other things, people would now be allowed to meet up with one other household outdoors and with social distancing in place. It was such a small thing to be told that you could now see another person, previously unthinkable that it would even be a thing, but it felt enormous. Until then the most pressing concern on my mind was the shoe which had been cast astray on the shoreline amongst a tangle of seaweed and debris the day after a storm the previous weekend. It was black, and maybe more like a trainer than a shoe. I found myself looking out for it every day on my walk; in a weird way it had become a kind of monument to the hopelessness I’d been feeling.
I had always taken an interest in discoveries like these. A glove by the side of the road or a sandal standing on a wall, but a shoe washed ashore seemed like it would have a more fascinating story behind it. It was impossible not to wonder how it had arrived there or to consider where the other half of the pair was. Somewhere, there was surely someone who had woken up on Sunday morning and wondered where the fuck their right shoe had gone. For five days straight I was peering over the top of the railings, eager to see if the shoe was still there, whether the tide had reached it to drag it back into the sea, or if the rightful owner, presumably hobbling around on one foot all this time, had spotted their missing footwear like I had and had been reunited with it. I had taken someone else’s drama and made it my own since there was nothing else I could be invested in.
At various points around town, the smell of fresh paint punched you on the nose as you walked the streets. I couldn’t be sure if it was people preparing their businesses for reopening in the weeks and months ahead, in line with the different phases of the lockdown plan, or if they simply had nothing better to do. The washing was on the line, the bed had been made and they had half an hour to spare.
This week I have mostly been listening to…