Being back at work in the office while the lockdown was still ongoing brought a challenging balance of trying to return to something like the old way of life while also living in the new reality we were all still coming to terms with. I now had an excuse to leave the flat more than once a day, and while I always liked to take the longest possible route to work in the morning to make sure that I got a good walk out of it before my proper hour of outdoor exercise later in the day, I was careful to make it look like I wasn’t enjoying it. In that respect, it was similar to still being stood at the bar long after last orders have been called, and the barman is calling out in increasingly agitated tones about how “we all have homes to get to” while you still have half a pint of Tennent’s to finish and you think that it will make things better if you are looking as though you hate each mouthful every bit as much as the bar staff who are trying to sweep the floor around you.
When I was suddenly thrust back into a routine like the one Dolly Parton sang about many years earlier, I felt thankful that I had stuck fairly closely to my regular day-to-day way of living since the lockdown started at the end of March. In that time I had become quite rigid in performing two daily sessions of yoga, which was ironic since the exercise was making me remarkably flexible. When I returned to work, it wasn’t any trouble getting out of bed just a little earlier to ensure that I could still do my morning stretches, and when I opened my living room curtains on those late-April mornings it was the closest thing to joy I had felt in weeks when I could feel the sun on my back as I creaked into a cobra. What wasn’t quite as joyful was the sudden appearance of a bright fluorescent jacket on the other side of the net curtain, and the realisation that the street sweeper was busily brushing debris away from beneath my window. He wouldn’t be able to see me through the curtain, but it was unsettling all the same, and difficult to focus on my downward dog when this man was reaching to scrape some chewing gum from the pavement. Would it have been too much to ask, in this time of mass social distancing, for a little peace in the morning to practice my yoga?
There was hardly an April shower to speak of in the entire month, and the consistently pleasant temperatures were a sure sign that it was time to swap soups for salads on the lunch menu. My salads were never likely to be the source of controversy or lead to me being spoken about as an enterprising ‘king of luncheon’ since they almost always consisted of a base of leaves, a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, some sliced cucumber and either tuna or coleslaw to add some taste. They were inoffensive, yet one Friday afternoon as I embarked on my extended walk through town after work, my simple salad had become part of a small chain of events which ordinarily I might not have thought about, but in April 2020 it was all that there was to consider.
The last full week of the month had been set ablaze by day after day of spring sunshine, with the temperature approaching a level where the fact that I was still wearing a denim jacket seemed to almost attract as many sidewards glances as a cough would. I was walking up a sparse George Street when I became aware of a piece of salad which was stuck in a gap between two teeth in the upper left-hand side of my mouth, like a leaf caught in a drain, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was green or red. My tongue was the only tool at my disposal, and I used it to try and prise the ghost of my lunch free from its purgatory, in the manner of a diligent street sweeper. The tongue proved to be quite a futile instrument on this occasion, however, and no matter how much I agitated the leaf, I couldn’t loosen it. The more I tried, the more I began to concern myself with how it would look if I was to happen upon another person on the empty pavement while my tongue was making these lascivious movements in a flawed mission to floss. No pavement could be wide enough to be socially distant in that scenario.
As it was, I didn’t encounter anybody else until I reached the Esplanade, which was its usual attraction for dog walkers and runners. When I reached the Corran Esplanade Church I was passed by an approaching cyclist who was shirtless, his torso as white as the peeling paint of the church building. I wondered what the temperature had to be for a person to decide that they were going to leave home without wearing a shirt, particularly when it took so much deliberation for me to eventually decide to ditch my jacket. It was presumed, of course, that it was a conscious decision the cyclist had made, and it wasn’t the case that he simply hadn’t gotten around to doing the laundry, since household chores were all anybody had the time for. I checked my phone later in the evening, and the AccuWeather app said that there was a high of eighteen degrees in Oban.
My thoughts about the shirtless cyclist were suddenly interrupted when an ambulance went screaming by, louder than before, or so it seemed. It was stark and reminded me of how I had often thought about the dark irony of being struck and injured, perhaps even killed, by a speeding ambulance. While that wasn’t a fear of mine, it did occasionally trouble me that I could be listening to something totally absurd, a real guilty pleasure, at the moment I was involved in a road traffic accident and I would be discovered with my earphones flailing by the side of my head and the Limp Bizkit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavoured Water playing on my phone. I remember mum often telling me that I should never leave home with a hole in my socks or my underwear in case of exactly that situation happening, and it seemed that you should be equally as careful over what you are listening to when you are out walking. None of that seemed quite as grim, though, as the prospect of being out on your daily hour of exercise during the global pandemic, either walking, running or cycling, when the rest of the time we are staying indoors to avoid the killer virus, and you are hit and killed by an ambulance. To me, it sounded no more ridiculous than meeting your maker simply because you had picked up a box of 50 Earl Grey teabags in Lidl.
Further along the seafront, beyond St. Columba’s Cathedral, I could see my barber some way off in the distance, walking towards me, and I realised that he was probably the person I was most worried about seeing five weeks into the lockdown. As we neared, I could sense his eyes falling upon my hair, although maybe it was all in my head. I couldn’t remember when I had last seen him or when my hair was last cut, but I expect that he probably did. Even without being able to see the back of my head, he would know just how wild and unruly the hair was growing, the way it would be curling back up on itself. I was concerned about what he was seeing and thinking about me, and I imagined that in a way it was like seeing an ex: when you would always be wanting to look your best just to show him that you have moved on and have been coping just fine without him, that you are happy and breezy and have learned that you never really needed him after all. Even though, deep down, I knew that it just wouldn’t be the same if I was to do it myself.
One of the most difficult adjustments to make when switching from the former way of life in the office to the new global reality was the once or twice during the week when I would go to the supermarket during lunch. There was a lot of pressure when you went into a supermarket, and you really had to know exactly what you were needing and to have meals planned several days in advance, which I was never very good at doing. Most places had stuck markers on the ground to indicate a safe two-metre distance, and in some stores there were even restrictions about which aisles a shopper could walk up or down. It was a drastic departure from normality, and for even the most intelligent and sensible of people it was difficult to get your head around, and even more so for me when I was trying to shuffle through my Spotify playlist to make sure that I was playing the right songs. On occasion, you would have to feign interest in flavoured yoghurts that you ordinarily wouldn’t buy or plant-based mince while you waited for the person who was two metres ahead of you to finish their own browsing and move forward. It was an interminable wait which felt like the slow, solemn funeral march out of the church after a requiem service, when the coffin is being carried towards its final destination, and before you knew it, you had gone all the way around the shop and forgotten to pick up something for that night’s dinner. When I realised that this had happened to me as I was striding down the frozen food aisle in Lidl, nigh upon twenty metres from the checkouts, I didn’t have the heart or the common sense to figure out which was the correct way of walking all the way back around the store, and so in my panic, I picked up a box of Linda McCartney Vegetarian Mozzarella Burgers. They were surprisingly tasty, and not something I would have imagined enjoying back in olden times of yonder, when my hair was neat and people were wearing shirts when cycling.
Something that was noticeable with the great reduction in the number of people around town, particularly with there being no al fresco dining at the coffee shops and restaurants, and with the absence of tourists sitting on seaside walls enjoying their takeaways from the chip shops, was that there were very few seagulls loitering about. It was a rough guesstimate, but I would have said that for every tourist in Oban during the season there would usually have been two seagulls waiting for them to drop a chip. Somehow they could see the potential for mishap from miles away, a quality in them which I always envied. It was only when I saw the gull that was always stalking the pavement across the road from my flat outside the Grill House that it occurred to me that the birds were also being forced to adapt to the new world. How would a bird even understand that it could no longer expect to find an easy snack when we couldn’t?
I watched the seagull adopt its usual routine of sitting on top of the red letterbox which was situated several metres away from the fast-food takeaway, staring towards the doorway with a beady look of hope, before sometimes leaping down to the ground to get a closer look. Although the place was still remarkably busy with customers, especially on a Friday night, there wasn’t any chance of the bird scoring its feast when most people were getting straight into their cars and driving off. The gull was becoming increasingly emboldened as it stepped closer to the building, edging its way onto the two red tiled steps leading up to the entrance. Twice the little thing poked its head inside before flapping back down to the pavement, and I was becoming worried about its desperation, which made me think of how it must have looked to my friends when I used to procrastinate over whether or not I should approach a woman at the bar. I’d read reports of wildlife in towns and cities all over the world “reclaiming the environment”, but this one seagull was clearly still clinging to the way of life that we had created for it.
Just as I was beginning to feel a sense of real pity for the bird, one of the workers from the Grill House came outside and emptied what looked to be a tray of chips onto the side of the road, and as the seagull eagerly approached its prize, around a dozen more gulls flocked from the sky and joined it. I didn’t have any idea where they had all come from, but the food was gone in an instant, and it was the happiest sight I had seen in more than five weeks. Then I remembered about the salad leaf that was still lodged in my tooth, and I got up and fetched a cocktail stick from the shelf in the cupboard where I kept my books, liquor and bar paraphernalia. Finally there was a Friday night which ended with success.
Links & things:
Over the last two weeks I have been mostly listening to…