Masked man seeks masked woman for socially distanced shoegazing

On one of my final drunken misadventures before the world changed beyond recognition in March, I injured my hand whilst trying to rescue a recycling bin from the Oban Inn as it was carried into the middle of the road by a powerful gust of wind during a late-winter storm.  The lid snapped shut on the errant fingers of my right hand as my friends and I were trying to position the bin in a secure place, immediately drawing as much blood as I had ever seen and leaving them swollen and bruised almost beyond recognition as fingers.  My hand was useless for at least a couple of weeks after the incident, leaving me to tend to everyday tasks such as tying my shoelaces, fastening my belt, brushing my teeth, scrolling through Netflix and holding a can of lager with only my left hand.  At the time it seemed like the greatest inconvenience imaginable.

When it came to applying plasters to my wounds, it appeared to be a futile and pointless task.   The damage had already been done and thus it was a little late to be taking preventative measures, I thought, even if the idea of the piece of fabric was more to protect others from being infected by me.  On several occasions, I was forced into describing to different people the grisly detail of my injury and the foolhardy events surrounding it, and it seemed that the act of wrapping Elastoplast around my fingers was only drawing attention to my plight, the way large “50% SALE” signs are placed in shop windows.  If I was awkward and uncomfortable to begin with, the plasters were akin to putting sellotape on a burst pipe.

I thought once again about that week or so in February where my two fingers were covered by plasters when the Scottish government announced that wearing a face covering when entering a shop was going to be compulsory from the tenth of July.  It was a rule which was designed to reduce social distancing from two metres to one in certain situations and to allow businesses in the hospitality trade to reopen safely, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  Change of such a magnitude to our everyday living always unsettles people in the beginning, but my main concern was that it was already difficult enough for me to find socks which matched the colour of the tie I was wearing without also having to buy a similarly shaded face mask, and I knew that I would need one in every colour of the rainbow just to keep up with my wardrobe and the sartorial expectations I had placed on myself.  People who knew me and all about my habit of matching the colour of my apparel would often challenge me on why my socks weren’t coral or aqua, seemingly without an understanding of the limitations in men’s sock wear, and I worried that the same thing would happen with the masks.

Throughout the first four months of the Coronavirus crisis, protective masks were, largely, a rare sight around supermarkets in Oban.  Most people weren’t wearing them, and whenever I did encounter someone who had a face covering on, the predominant feeling I had was one of discomfort.  For some reason, it was still quite a shocking thing to see in a shop in Scotland.  It was a reminder of this terrible thing that was unfolding in the world outside the store, when all I wanted was to buy a mango and some milk.  It was a strange reaction to have – I knew that – particularly when of the people involved in the scene, I was the dick and the mask wearer was a responsible adult who was looking out for my safety as well as their own and everybody else’s.  We were all going to need to get used to the idea of carrying a mask with us every time we went shopping, the same way that you had to remember to pick up your wallet and a couple of bags for life before leaving home, it would just become routine.

I tried to look at the positives of wearing a mask in shops, apart from the obvious health advantages.  The most favourable factor I could think of was my theory that it should make it easier to avoid having to talk to people, which was the thing I dreaded most about shopping.  It always seemed to be the way that you would meet somebody you knew in the fresh produce aisle, usually somewhere around the tomatoes, and they would be keen for a stop and chat.  As in most social situations, I would feel awkward and lacked confidence in making suitable supermarket small talk.  Other people seemed to be having engrossing conversations in the biscuit aisle or by the frozen food, but I could never understand how they were doing it.  It was a skill I couldn’t comprehend.  Even more tricky for me than the actual act of conversation was finding a natural breaking point, which was usually difficult to judge and would often lead to me blurting out some exclamation like:  “Oh, I’ve just remembered that I need to get tartare sauce.”  On reflection, it was a possible explanation for why I occasionally ended up with items in my store cupboard that I didn’t especially need.

One other aspect which I found in favour of face coverings was the idea that if everybody was wearing one, then they would all be dragged down to my level of physical attraction.  If we were all reduced to having only our ears and eyes visible to others, instead of also showing our noses and smiles, it could only benefit a person like me who rarely smiled and who never had all that much of a notable nose.  With that in addition to the restricted ability to talk to other people, and therefore less opportunity for saying something stupid, masks really had the potential to prove quite advantageous to me, I thought, and I began to warm to the prospect of wearing them.

With renewed enthusiasm, I took to a well-known online retailer and found that I could buy a packet of four different coloured machine washable face masks for £8.54, which although I had never before purchased a mask and had no guide for comparison, seemed too good a deal to be ignored.  It wasn’t going to be enough to cover every colour of tie that I owned, but it would be a start.  I felt pleased with myself for having done a grown-up thing; until I noticed that the email which was sent with my dispatch notice attached stated that it could take up to ten days for the masks to be delivered to my door, and I was left resigned to the likelihood that I was going to have to talk to people in the fruit aisle for a little while longer, with the additional catastrophic potential that I might not have been able to go shopping for beer over the weekend.  It was a rare stroke of luck that the package arrived a couple of days later, much earlier than promised.  The masks were black, light blue, pink, and a sort-of-white-sort-of-grey colour that resembled a bowl of porridge or the kind of tracksuit you would sometimes see a drunk person wearing at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.  I immediately decided that the last one would be my ‘back-up’.

When I held the pink mask in my hands, I quickly changed my mind about how keen I would be to go as far as wearing something so bright on my face in front of other people.  I had an image of myself walking through the foyer in Lidl, beyond the houseplants and the debris of soil, and into the shop in the manner of Prince at the beginning of the music video for Purple Rain, in which the audience is staring at him, as though unsure of what he is doing on the stage, and Prince is looking back at them with equal uncertainty as a great awkward silence ensues.  This lasts for 42 seconds, during which it is clear that nobody knows what to expect or where they should be looking.  Somehow it seemed different to those times when I had worn the combination of a baby pink tie, pocket square and socks that were virtually a perfect match to the pub, almost as though with the mask I would be deliberately drawing attention to myself, and it didn’t feel like a global health emergency was the right time to be making such a bold fashion statement. 

In the end, I used the pink one as my practice mask, the piece which I wore around the flat a couple of times so that I could get used to how it felt before I had to go outside and use it in public on the tenth, almost like breaking in a new pair of shoes.  I walked around my flat performing a variety of everyday tasks as I tried to familiarise myself with the new fabric which was stretched across my face:  brushing the oak flooring, carrying a load of empty beer cans out to the recycling bins, watching a show on Netflix, cooking some fish.  While it was undeniably different, and difficult to ignore the feeling that there was something on my face – which, of course, there was – it wasn’t all that terrible.  The only trouble I really experienced while I was trialling my pink mask was when it came to exhaling and the lenses of my glasses would mist up with a cloud of my own breath.  It seemed unavoidable since there was nowhere else for the carbon dioxide to go, and with every breath out I was left with the same inconvenient feeling I had any time I had walked into the bank on a rainy day.

Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had in July


Around two or three days before the new legislation surrounding face coverings came into effect, I caught myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the morning clipping my eyebrows.  To begin with, it was something I was doing for only thirty seconds or so after I had noticed a couple of particularly long hairs, but as time grew on, so did my eyebrows, and my morning routine was increasingly about taming those wild forehead whiskers.  When I looked in the bathroom mirror, all I could see were those hairs sticking out in every direction over the black frame of my glasses, the way my tie had been restlessly flapping in the breeze during recent walks along the seafront.  If only the government had made eye coverings mandatory too, in the fashion of Batman’s crime-fighting partner Robin, I would have been saving myself a good deal of time in the morning.

Wearing a covering across the eyes wasn’t as ridiculous as the sight often seen around the town of people who had pulled their mask down to rest under the chin.  I could never figure out if it was an act of laziness and a reluctance to have to put a mask on to enter a shop, take it off when leaving, and then having to put it back on again when going into the next shop, or more worryingly, if it was a misunderstanding of what the mask was supposed to be covering and why.  One person who has used their hands to move their mask from their mouth down beneath the chin didn’t seem all that different to another person who might be driving down a motorway using only their elbows and with the seat belt draped across their body but not clipped in place:  there’s a chance that it might not cause any damage to you or anybody else, but it seemed silly to take the risk.

Masks were an increasingly common sight in Oban after they became mandatory in shops on the tenth of July, as the town gradually began to busy following the further easing of restrictions which enabled hotels, restaurants and bars to open for the first time since March.  It felt strange to suddenly be seeing people where for almost four months there had only been open space and fresh air.  Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had, vehicles decked with bike racks and coloured by canoes.  Roads were no longer an extension of pavements, a safe void where you could walk to avoid oncoming people.  Outside pubs and coffee shops, extra tables and chairs were popping up like eyebrow hairs.  While restaurants operated with reduced service areas due to distancing measures, space for eating was at a premium and anything that could be found was prized:  steps, slipways, entire families enjoying two-course dinners on the sea wall.  It could have been July in any year, but for the sombre skies and the pre-teen temperatures.  And the masks.

In shops, everybody complied with the request to wear them and it was no longer daunting or overwhelming to see a mask.  It very quickly became normal, almost right away.  Indeed, perhaps the only unusual element of the whole thing was that for the first time in my life, I was wearing exactly the same thing as everybody else.  I just had to figure out what to do with my pink mask.

This week I have been mostly listening to…


A crisis of condiments

The question of when is a feta cheese and olive salad not a feta cheese and olive salad had never occurred to me until the night before the first big thunderstorm of the summer struck.  I was sitting in my dimly lit living room considering the events of the day for my handwritten journal when I noticed that the room had become even darker than usual as the fourth of five bulbs in the claw-like chandelier which hung sternly from the ceiling had flickered for the final time, leaving the entire space to be lit by one flimsy little filament.

It had been an otherwise unremarkable day where all I had found it worth writing on my page was the following, which occurred to me, and was originally used, during a telephone conversation with a colleague at work:  Note to self:  “much like the song by the theatrical vocalist Meat Loaf, it’s all coming back to me now.” <- – – a line to use when you have slowly begun to remember the details of something.  As I was writing the line, I literally saw the light go out before my eyes, which ordinarily was how I would have expected anyone to react when I was speaking it, but my colleague only burst into song over the phone.  It wasn’t often that you could see a light expire in that way, and it was only in that moment of clarity that I realised the reason people had been criticising the poor lighting in my flat for weeks, and even months, on Zoom meetings was because another three of the bulbs had already been extinguished.

It didn’t seem like it was all that long since I had last changed some of the bulbs in the chandelier, and I only felt indignation that I was going to be forced to do it once more – indignation in the dark being the less romantic version of a popular Bruce Springsteen song.  None of the other lights in the flat needed replacing so frequently and I couldn’t remember changing the bedroom light at all during my first two years living there, though it perhaps wasn’t surprising since it was the room which experienced the least activity.  Installing new lightbulbs in the living room would mean having to get up from the couch and go all the way through to the bedroom to get the stepladder, which would then be positioned precariously around the coffee table while I stretched to reach the high Victorian era ceiling.  It seemed like a lot of effort, especially with everything else that was going on at the time, and besides, there was so much more daylight in the summer months, and when I did feel the need to close the curtains, the claws of the chandelier made for brilliant shadows on the walls.  So instead, as a temporary measure, I decided to invest in a desk lamp which was on special offer in Lidl, and my fellow Zoom meeting participants were thrilled to see me in a new light, although I couldn’t be sure how long that joy would last.

The same June afternoon in Oban, at the same time.

I was finding myself in a period of tremendously underwhelming lunches when the feta cheese and olive non-salad salad occurred.  On the previous Sunday, I had been cooking sausages whilst listening to Jay-Z’s The Black Album during a break in Sky’s Super Sunday programme of English Premier League football, which was proving to be less super and more Sunday.  I never knew when or why having a roll with sausages at the half-time interval of televised football games became a thing, but I would always go to dad’s on a Saturday afternoon with a bag of six pork sausages from Wynne’s the butchers, and I didn’t see any reason for that to change in the circumstances of 2020.  The bangers would sizzle beneath the grill, making a sound that was not too dissimilar to a distress flare being set off into a drizzly, darkened sky, and sometimes I would wonder if the sausages were okay – which was silly since they obviously hadn’t been alright for some time.  To pass the fourteen minutes it took for the sausages to be fully cooked, I went about the task of preparing a couple of lunch boxes for the first two days of the working week.  It never took that long to put together a tuna salad, but I liked to take my time after the incident a year earlier where I ended up slicing my finger open on the lid of a tuna can, which left me with the most absurd of all of my scars.  Tuna mayonnaise was the easiest salad I knew how to make, since it only required two ingredients to be mixed together and spooned onto a bed of mixed leaves, maybe with a squeeze of lemon juice or some sweetcorn if I was feeling flamboyant or adventurous.  It was ideal for preparing on a Sunday afternoon spent in a hungover haze.

Things were going rather well that day since I had already done a full load of washing, and in these days my success was measured purely by how many tasks and chores I had completed by the time I sat down to eat.  Two was good going for a Sunday.  Once the salads were ready and refrigerated for future use, I still had time to cut open a roll and garnish it with mustard before the sausages were cooked.  I always preferred Dijon, since it seemed considerably more exotic than some of the other cast of characters which were usually found in my fridge:  the punnet of blueberries, the pint of semi-skimmed milk, the tub of Lidl own-brand Heavenly Butterly butter, four free-range eggs, ten cans of Tennent’s Lager.  There were times when a helping of Dijon mustard could almost take you away to a different place, to that foreign holiday I wasn’t able to take in 2020, although the research for my trip hadn’t quite reached the stage where I learned which type of mustard is most commonly used in Bosnia.  I wasn’t anticipating that my roll with sausage and Dijon mustard would make me feel as though I was sitting in a street cafe in Mostar, but I hoped that it would at least be something different.  To my dismay, I found that I hadn’t replenished my favourite mustard since I had used the last of the previous jar several weeks earlier, and all that I had left in the fridge was the English variety, which was strange when I couldn’t remember even buying it.

The most concerning thing about the English mustard was the colour, which although yellow and not completely unlike mustard, was deeper and more watery than I could recall that particular type of mustard being.  As though it was imitating mustard.  It was a colour that even I would struggle to wear on a tie, and even then I didn’t really notice it until it was already becoming familiar with the bread.  I happened to take a cursory glance at the lid on the mustard as I was returning it to the fridge and realised that it was dated ‘Best Before End December 2018’.  Of the other condiments which were kept on the shelf on the inside of the refrigerator door, the wholegrain mustard had expired in August 2018, the tube of El Paso chunky guacamole was last good in November 2018, there was a half-used bottle of tonic water which I had opened for some guests prior to Christmas 2019, and somehow I had procured two jars of tartare sauce.

It was difficult to tell how something like this could have happened.  As much as I tried while I was biting into a roll with Cumberland sausage and eighteen-months-past-its-best-before-date mustard, I couldn’t put myself in mind of my shopping habits two or three years earlier, and so the recriminations were more difficult to apportion than those, say, from an argument during the summer of 2010 were.  

The summer of 2010, as well as being forty-one years later than and not nearly as sexy sounding as the summer of ‘69, was the year that I did four festivals with a former girlfriend.  She had sent me a text message the Friday before since it was the decade anniversary of our journey to the Isle of Wight Festival and the satellite channel Sky Arts was screening highlights of the weekend.  It was the first time I had heard from her in around five years, and while it was very nice to spend an evening reminiscing over old memories, it also served to reopen the old wound of our decision to see The Black Eyed Peas instead of Muse at that years T in the Park.

The trek to the Isle of Wight was a lot longer for me than it was my friend since she was studying in Portsmouth at the time, and I never could remember very much about the journey, which I think consisted of a train to Glasgow, the overnight National Express bus from Glasgow to London Victoria, a further bus journey to Portsmouth and then a hovercraft across the Solent to the Isle of Wight, before taking one final bus to the site of the festival.  The route, in all, took almost twenty-four hours, and back in a day where I hadn’t yet discovered that you could enjoy alcohol between places as well as at your destination.  

It would be the festival, and the summer, where I discovered a surprising love of the hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who I was aware of but had never taken the time to listen to before he was the headline act on the first night of the festival, where we also saw such artists as The Strokes, Blondie, Biffy Clyro, Vampire Weekend, Pink, Crowded House, and Paul McCartney, though it was Jay-Z who stuck out the most.  I was never as blown away by a musician as I was the first time I saw Jay-Z perform, and I spent the rest of that summer listening to The Blueprint 3, which was the album he had released the previous year and something I would never have considered listening to before the Isle of Wight.  We saw him play again the next month at T in the Park, where he was below Kasabian on the main stage billing and it didn’t make any kind of sense.  Even ten years later we could agree that 2010 was the summer of Jay-Z.

We had the type of falling out that two people can only ever have at a music festival the following afternoon when we couldn’t agree on which band we would see early in the day.  The Hold Steady were one of my favourite bands and played on the main stage, while at the same time on the second stage, a band my friend really liked – Bombay Bicycle Club – were appearing.  It was the only split we disagreed on over the weekend, and it didn’t seem fair for one to make the other miss a band they wanted to see, so we decided to go our separate ways and meet at an agreed point after their respective sets finished.  The Hold Steady came to an end first, and since I was at the meeting point early, I decided to walk a little further to the large open-air area where a large screen had been erected so that people could watch the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was taking place in South Africa at the time.  I was able to see the final ten minutes or so of the match between Argentina and Nigeria, though the game’s only goal had already been scored much earlier and nothing of any significance happened in the parts I saw.  By the time I returned to the agreed meeting point my friend had already arrived, and I could tell that she was furious at having to wait for me.  My case wasn’t helped by my defence that, in actual fact, I had been there first but decided that rather than wait around I would go and watch the football, and besides, she couldn’t have been waiting for all that long anyway.  The ensuing argument was still in my mind the following month when we were trying to decide whether we should see Muse or The Black Eyed Peas in the headline slot on the Friday night of T in the Park.  Although I had no strong feelings about either act, my preference as a fan of music would have been to see Muse, while my friend believed that The Black Eyed Peas would be more fun.  I had no appetite for debating it, so we went to the second stage and saw Fergie, and co.  We never did see the summer of 2011.

In the dark

The recriminations from ten years earlier were fresh in my mind the night before the first big thunderstorm of summer 2020 was about to strike.  In reality, a thunderstorm to me seemed to be a lot like a really beautiful romantic relationship, in that they were always something I saw other people talking about or posting pictures of on social media, yet they somehow always passed me by.  It was a Wednesday evening and I was thinking about the salad boxes I would prepare for the last two days of the working week.  I had decided whilst shopping earlier in the day that I would buy some feta cheese and make use of the jar of green pitted olives that was sitting in the kitchen cupboard, just in case they too had expired in 2018.  In my mind, they were going to make for the most delicious lunches of the week, and I could hardly wait to put them together.  I went through to the kitchen and took the ingredients from the fridge and cupboard with the sort of enthusiasm I imagined eating my lunches with.  It was in that moment, like the words of the theatrical vocalist Meatloaf, that it was all coming back to me.  The question of when a feta cheese and olive salad isn’t a feta cheese and olive salad would be asked and answered with the realisation that while I had gone out of my way to remember to buy Dijon mustard, I had forgotten to buy salad leaves.

Links and things:

Six months and all I have to show for it is this Spotify playlist – my Spotify playlist for the month of June 2020

This week I have mostly been listening to…