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.
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…