Oban in June would normally have been a hive of activity, a town brought out of hibernation around the Easter weekend and given new life by visitors seeking the spell of good weather that often straddled the end of May and the beginning of the sixth month. Cruise liners would ferry to shore day-trippers who were eager to sample the fresh locally-caught seafood and admire with wide-eyed wonder the coastal sights around town. BID4Oban’s flower baskets would hang from every lamppost, colouring in otherwise empty spaces. The restaurants and coffee shops thrived with the gentle hum of hungry customers, table after table of them. Around town, the predominant smell would be a heady mix of suncream and Lynx bodyspray and the sea breeze carrying the fragrance of fish and chips. Pubs would have been buoyant with guests who after their first dram of Oban Malt had lost all inhibitions when it came to sampling whisky. The native drinkers arrived without inhibition. There wasn’t a more brilliant place to be than Oban in June.
Nothing about 2020 was normal, though, and unusual sights were still popping up all over the place in the early days of June, like the most maddening puppet show ever produced. On the Esplanade, outside the Bishop’s house by St. Columba’s Cathedral, a small lorry had broken down. It was a warm Thursday evening, one of those days where I regretted leaving the flat with a denim jacket, and the sun looked like a brand new fork in an old cutlery drawer when it was cast onto the surface of the sea. The neck of the lorry was bowed forward, as though in prayer, while a man wearing a luminous vest was standing on the pavement across the road from the church waving oncoming traffic around the obstruction. I saw the scene from a mile away, figuratively speaking, and by the time I had neared the stricken vehicle, the driver had obviously grown tired of the steady stream of cars and he crossed the road and opened the driver’s side door before reaching inside and dressing it in a high-visibility jacket of its own. It was the most misshapen scarecrow I had ever seen, but it seemed to do the job.
I stepped around the stationary obstacle of the lorry driver on the pavement as he admired his traffic management and continued on my daily walk out to the war memorial, where on my way I witnessed as a seagull was scavenging amongst the scraps of wood and metal in a large skip outside a guest house which appeared to be under renovation. It was pure opportunism, no doubt driven by the desperation of a town without tourists who would happily toss chips towards the birds all day long, and it was hard to imagine that the seagull enjoyed any success from the bin. By the time I had doubled back on my footsteps, the driver was smoking a cigarette, and it occurred that rather than having become restless at having to constantly wave traffic around his broken-down vehicle, he simply needed his hand to hold the cigarette.
Further into town, I noticed that Webster’s camera shop was being coated with a new flash of yellow paint, while at the automated hole in the wall outside the Bank Of Scotland a man was withdrawing money from the machine. The scene really took me by surprise since I didn’t think that there were any places open which were still dealing in cash, as contactless card payments were considered to be much safer, and I wondered what the man was going to use the notes for. As I thought about it some more, I came to realise that I couldn’t remember the last time I even handled cash. I would guess that it was probably around February or early March when I last bought a beer in Aulay’s with cash, but I couldn’t be sure. It was much like my romantic relationships with women in that respect, though it was difficult to think which I was most likely to get my hands on first.
A week before the summer solstice, the sun was beating so brightly that there was no cause for me to be wearing a jacket, although having run out of time in my morning routine to iron a shirt I was still having to wear a sweater vest to hide my indiscrete creases. I had found myself in the habit for some months of wearing a sweater vest over my shirt to work, and most people had taken it as just another of my fashion quirks, when the truth almost always was that I just hadn’t bothered to iron. It was presumably after I had left the freshly reopened Oban Beer Seller shop to collect my second order of craft beer from Karen that I was spotted on the street by a Czech marine biologist who later appeared on one of our pub recreations on Zoom over the weekend and told me that I was looking very hot when she had seen me. I thanked her since I never had the opportunity to respond to a woman commenting on my appearance being hot, although I was aware that her words were more likely to have been in reference to my rosy cheeks rather than what yoga had been doing to my cheeks.
On another day, I passed a man at quarter to nine in the morning who was carrying four bottles of Yazoo flavoured milkshake – two in each hand. At least one of the bottles was the banana flavour, which I didn’t think people still bought. Chocolate or strawberry milkshake I could understand having a craving for, but not banana. The Coronavirus pandemic was affecting people in some terrible ways, it seemed. The man was moving with some haste – even quicker than I was, and I liked to power walk in the morning. It was as though he was concerned that several weeks or months of inaction on the shelves in the shop could have left the milk without much shake. Not only were people craving banana milkshake, but they were in a rush to drink it, too. It was as unfathomable to me as the snippet of conversation I overheard between two women as they were passing the window of my office, when one remarked to the other: “She was always getting her eyebrows and chin done.”
An article in the previous weekend’s edition of The Sunday Post newspaper reported that Oban’s economy had been the worst affected by the lockdown in the entire country, with consumer spending reducing by 68% according to their data. The news just didn’t seem to be getting any better. It wasn’t surprising that a town which relies so heavily on tourism would suffer the most when people couldn’t travel, but it was a blow to many to see it in black and white print all the same.
There was great relief around the middle of the month when the next phase in the gradual lifting of restrictions allowed some places which had previously been classed as non-essential to begin reopening, or at least to start preparing to operate again from the end of the month. Outlets offering takeaway food and drinks, like Costa Coffee, Subway, the Pokey Hat ice cream shop, and Bossards Patisserie, were opened up for the first time since March, though they had to adhere to strict guidelines. There were limits to the number of people who were allowed inside the premises at the same time – usually one or two, though it was twenty in WH Smith, and I struggled to remember a time that I had last seen twenty people in WH Smith. It was probably before they stopped selling CDs. Some places were operating a one-way system, where customers would enter through one door and exit by another, and there had to be visible signage to indicate a safe two-metre distance for those who were queuing. It was only when I saw the two metres set out in such an explicit way that I was reminded of what it used to be like when we were in bars and I was trying to talk to a woman. The first ‘2m’ marker looked to be approximately the distance she would have moved away after I had first tried a joke, and the next one would be where she would have been standing after I had repeated the line in case she just didn’t get it the first time.
Further stages in the second phase of lockdown were announced by the Scottish government which meant that even more ‘non-essential’ shops would soon be permitted to re-open, places of worship would allow individual prayer, the wearing of face masks on public transport would become compulsory, and larger groups of people would be able to meet outdoors and at a distance. Perhaps the biggest change in the guidance was that “certain household types” could now meet indoors and with no physical distancing to form an extended household. People immediately interpreted this to be relating to single people and those who were living alone. The single occupants like me who received a 25% discount on their council tax. For all intents and purposes, we had been given the green light to have sex. It all sounded very lovely, and I couldn’t help from feeling excited by the idea of it all. I had a spring in my step as I walked home from work that evening, another sunny Friday. Then I thought about it and realised that, of course, it wasn’t a government matchmaking scheme for lonely hearts and I was still going to have to actually talk to women first before I could form an extended household with anybody.
What good would Argyll & Bute council assigning me with another “certain household type” have done anyway? With my hapless luck, it would only have been yet another farce. We couldn’t extend our households in my flat on account of the crepuscular lighting and my inability to efficiently change the bedsheets. The chances are that I would have been coupled with someone who didn’t share my interests, who hated listening to Ryan Adams and U2, a woman who wasn’t amused by my sense of humour and who would have no desire to have sex with me anyway. It would have been like all of my other relationships. As ever, it was obvious that I was still going to be relying on the sweater vests to make me feel hot.
This week I have been mostly listening to…
There is an official music video for this 1997 single from the Britpop band Reef, but the album version is 2 minutes longer and is just that bit better.