The first occurrence of rainfall in a while always had me reaching firstly for the coat I had discarded in hope and haste a few days earlier, and then a few hours later for the website dictionary.com, where I would use the opportunity to review one of my favourite words. I could never remember when or how I had first heard petrichor used, but I know that it immediately grabbed my attention, and every time it rained after a prolonged dry spell I would search for it in the dictionary, just to be able to look at it again. It was impossible to say exactly why I had a habit of doing it or what purpose it served, much like adding the accoutrement of a pocket square to my suit before going out on a Friday night, other than that I liked the way it looked.
It was the first Friday of May and it had been raining through the previous night, leaving the morning ground with a light glaze of moisture and the atmosphere heavy with petrichor. The scent was as distinctive as the one which funnelled from the Oban Distillery every other day, though not nearly as frequent since it was rare for there to have been so many days without rain as there had been towards the end of April. It was all I could do to inhale every whisper of it in, finally a use for the breathing techniques I had been learning in my daily yoga sessions.
Accompanying the earthy fragrance was a thick silver curtain of mist that always seemed to cling around the edges of the town at times like these. I could have sworn that such a sight must have been unique to the west coast of Scotland, where somehow the mist on a day like this one in May would resemble a stage curtain and the audience was in the throes of anticipation, just waiting for it to lift and reveal the theatre of the landscape. I adored the vision, and even if the mist was simply acting to hide something beautiful, it was itself quite beautiful. In that sense, it reminded me of a long striking red dress I had once seen.
This particular Friday was the start of a bank holiday weekend to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day and the end of the Second World War in Europe, though I hadn’t been aware of the holiday until a couple of people who I was talking to through work made mention of it. By this point, weekends had become an extension of a Tuesday night, inconsequential and indistinguishable from any other day, and it hadn’t occurred to me that bank holidays would still be a thing. It was towards the end of this weekend that stories began to emerge surrounding the UK government’s plans to ease the lockdown in England, where it was reported that the “stay at home” message was going to be replaced by a new advisory to “stay alert”. Nobody could really understand how they were supposed to be alert to virus particles, given that they weren’t like potholes on a road or a thronging beehive. It seemed fortunate that the Scottish government’s approach was still focussed more towards public health, and the only easing of our restrictions was to allow us to exercise outdoors as often as we liked. While I felt a certain bitterness that the second piece of exercise I had been able to sneak since returning to work was no longer just my own special thing, it felt good to be rewarded for our efforts in keeping each other safe. The announcement reminded me of when we were told at the beginning of the school holidays that if we were well behaved and carried out certain chores around the house we would be given £5 pocket money every week, and if we kept it up and maybe even did some extra dusting without being asked or made a special trip to the shop for milk or Ruskoline, there would be more of where that came from by the end of the summer.
Around Oban there were signs that people and businesses were slowly beginning to find ways of adapting to the changing situation. There was a gradual reopening, on a limited basis, of some places which had been closed since the end of March, mostly takeaway restaurants, chip shops, and a couple of bars which were offering a delivery service. However, after more than five weeks of sitting in an empty flat with a case of Tennent’s Lager on a Friday night trying to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s, I had come to the realisation that it wasn’t the pint of cold draft beer I was missing, but rather the people around the bar who I would have been talking to, or too scared to talk to, as was sometimes the case. I couldn’t imagine ordering four pints of Tennent’s to drink at home, because I would still be alone, and although Zoom was great for keeping in touch with people and offering some form of social interaction, it was difficult to escape the feeling that our entire lives were now being conducted through a screen. Drinking with friends on a Friday or a Saturday night was like watching a scene from a bar in a poorly shot indie film where the small budget didn’t extend to hiring a hairstylist.
Elsewhere, I had noticed that the Oban Cycles shop was finally permitted to open for three days a week as the rules slackened and exercise became more of a priority. Since the majority of the people I would see when I was out walking were either running or cycling, and far more people than ever before seemed to have access to a bicycle, it struck me that the bike shop being able to open six or seven weeks into the lockdown would be like waiting all summer to receive planning permission to open a lemonade stall, only for it to be granted the day after the heatwave had broken.
Further south on George Street, I found myself approaching a young woman who was emerging from the drizzly distance carrying a tray which had three potted houseplants sitting in it. It seemed like a very typical bank holiday purchase to have made, even in the new world. For a moment it had me considering if it was time for me to make another attempt at keeping houseplants in my flat, but I just as quickly reckoned that there was enough suffering without me needlessly adding to it. The young woman was methodical with her footsteps, very cautious, almost shuffling along the pavement, as though her boots were cast from clay. She was cradling the tray of plants like it was the most precious thing in the world to her, like a mother carrying her child, or me back in the days when I was trying to ferry a round of drinks to a table in the pub without spilling anything.
I had only learned – or, perhaps more appropriately, bothered to try learning – a few weeks before the lockdown was enforced how to schedule a recurring event in the calendar on my phone. Up until then, I would have to go through each individual week and plug in the same event at the same time, no different to when I was circling dates with a pen on my old glossy Celtic calendars as a boy. All of this meant that at eight o’clock on a Wednesday night my phone was still pinging and I would receive a reminder that the pub quiz in The Lorne was due to start in an hour. I never had the heart to cancel the calendar entries, partly through fear that when the normal life we had known resumed I wouldn’t remember how to create a weekly event again. I missed my quiz team and the weekly hope that this time we would finally win, the revolving door of characters we would convince to join our pursuit of the £25 bar voucher. I was becoming rusty in my knowledge of the nationality of football players, and what little I knew about the different lines on the London Underground had all but vanished. It wasn’t all the time, but there were moments when it felt as though the lockdown was getting harder to deal with and it was difficult to find that same kind of hope that arrived as the picture round was being distributed on wet tables, the belief that the veil of mist would soon be lifted and we could see the beautiful islands once more.
Everybody was missing friends they couldn’t be with, the family they couldn’t see, though a lot of people seemed to be using the time to find new hobbies and pick up different skills, like building a fence, playing the guitar or riding a bike. At the bottom of the stairway in my block of flats, where once there was one lone bicycle chained to the railing and before that there were two buggies – although only ever one toddler – there were now three bikes. They were arranged in a neat cluster so that people could still easily access the back garden, sort of in a triangle formation where each of the front wheels was touching. I was talking to one of my upstairs neighbours when I arrived home for lunch one afternoon, and she was delighted about the Scottish government’s announcement that we could exercise more than once a day. I noted the multiplying numbers of bicycles in the close and she looked at them and said, “I don’t know where I would be without my bike.” It wasn’t until a couple of days later that the perfect line in response came to me. How hilarious it would have been, I thought, if I could have joked: “Presumably you’d be in the same place, but you got there more slowly.” But by then it was too late, like reopening the bike shop after everyone had bought a bicycle.
I hadn’t quite developed a knack for a new hobby during the lockdown. Rather, the furthest I had gotten was to consider replacing the net curtains I had inherited when I bought my flat with Venetian blinds, but it was hard to make the argument that transforming my living room and bedroom into places where a thirty-six-year-old man, rather than an eighty-three-year-old lady, might live would be an essential purchase. In another instance, I caught myself thinking about investing in a proper spice rack, since my method at the time of storing jars in a cupboard meant that I couldn’t always see them, and often I would forget exactly what I had stock of and would end up buying duplicate basil. I was reluctant to make such an important decision on matters of kitchen storage in the uncertainty of a global pandemic, however, and I baulked at the idea of having to reorganise my counter space. Would I be forced to move the toaster to make room for a spice rack? Where would the glass pouring jars of olive oil and vinegar go, and what would fill the vacated space in the cupboard? It was becoming clear that I needed a proper past-time, rather than a better way of storing thyme.
Things were changing day-to-day, and the only constant was that nothing was certain. Mixed and often unclear messages from different governments, especially from London, weren’t helping anybody. Walking through the eerily quiet streets in town no longer felt like being in a Radiohead song, as it had in the beginning, but instead was more like standing on the set of a western movie minutes before the big climactic gunfight takes place. The streets were empty, but there was an unmistakable air of threat looming. Dust coughs under shuffled footsteps; a seagull stands on the sea wall, starved of chips, squawking as loud as a rattlesnake. An older man sits on a bench reading the newspaper, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming trouble. A flag flutters defiantly against its pole. In the distance, a saloon door is swinging open ominously in the breeze, where inside it looks like a Zoom meeting. A beer bottle is heard breaking, and it sounds as though things might kick off. Tumbleweed briskly rolls by whispering “stay alert”, and soon the faint whiff of gunpowder is evident in the atmosphere. Or was it just petrichor?
Links & things:
Over the last two weeks I have mostly been listening to the following song by Israel Nash: