The first night

By the time the first day of August had arrived it had been 141 days since I was last in a pub, and boy did it show.  It isn’t that I had been keeping count of the days, just that it was easy enough to enter the dates into a search engine and let the internet do the work.  There were very few things in life that I could count in increments of a hundred days, and dates between visits to Aulay’s would usually only ever require the fingers from one hand to keep score.  The number of days since I had last been able to interest a woman in my company would run into multiples of hundreds, it had maybe been close to a hundred days since I had last thought to dust the dado rails in my living room since things had become lax during lockdown without the hope of being able to invite someone around after the pub, while the pre-pandemic panic purchase of a nine pack of toilet rolls was probably going to be good for another week or so.

Life in the intervening months had been transformed into something unrecognisable and unfathomable, like the sight of me wearing a t-shirt.  Masks were everywhere by this point, most commonly in shops and supermarkets, but also on the streets, where they were not as much seen on faces as they were found on street corners, by the sides of pavements amongst leaves and litter, or lost between park benches.  For something that was designed to preserve lives I struggled to comprehend how people could be so careless with their masks.  The more I saw them kicking around in the dirt, the more I thought of them as being no different to a pound coin left stranded in a supermarket trolley, a forgotten umbrella in a shop doorway, an abandoned baby’s boot, a jacket left behind on the coat rack in the pub, a woollen glove in winter, or, most worryingly, a pair of tights brazenly discarded in the drunken haze of a night out.

A sign that things were gradually getting back to some form of the normality we had previously known was when glossy leaflets for Mica Hardware started arriving in my postbox again, alongside another which informed me that I could buy three Bramley apple pies for the price of £10 from the frozen food retailer Farmfoods, when for months the only items of mail I had received were official pamphlets from the government advising me how to properly wash my hands and what I should do if I thought I had symptoms of Coronavirus.  Even though the sheets of paper usually went straight into the recycling bin alongside crushed cans of Tennent’s Lager and empty milk containers, it was nice to be getting them again.  I’d often heard people use the saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” and while I don’t think that anyone had ever said it about promotional leaflets, it seemed to be true.

The three bicycles that had gathered next to the stairs outside my front door in early April had been reduced back down to one by late July, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t seeing as many cyclists around town as I had been in the early days of the pandemic.  It used to be that you couldn’t walk through Oban without feeling like you were intruding upon some kind of a tribute to the Tour de France, and if people weren’t riding a bicycle then they were walking a dog, which was another sight that didn’t seem as frequent in the new near-normal, or normal adjacent.  I found myself in the chorus of a Paula Cole song when I wondered in my internal monologue where have all the doggies gone?  Dogs and bicycles had been replaced by tourists and masks on the streets, and there was soon the usual worry over how many perfect family photographs I had unwittingly walked through just as the shot was being taken.  There were always so many people lined up along the Esplanade, trying to create the ideal Instagrammable snapshot, that it seemed impossible to avoid ending up in some of them.  Being photobombed by a seagull I imagined the holidaymakers would be comfortable with, since it’s part of the charm of taking a seaside break and they were probably expecting it, but they couldn’t have been anticipating the awkward-looking man in tweed with a four-month-old haircut.  I wondered if it would be obvious when they returned home to view their photographs on some sweet family slideshow that I had been listening to the Taylor Swift song cardigan at the moment I became a blur in their album.  I couldn’t see how it would be, but I thought about it all the same.

Ever since restrictions were eased and bars and restaurants were able to open in mid-July I had been thinking about when, or even if, I would go back to the pub.  Hanging out with friends and like-minded people at the bar had always been a large part of my life.  It was important to have that escape from the miserable monotony of single occupancy by sitting around the bar and feeling miserable whilst in the company of others.  But after 141 days away from the pub, I wasn’t sure how I felt about going back.  Not from any fear of catching the virus – although it was naturally occupying part of my thoughts – it was more a sense of anxiety that things were going to be terribly different from the places I had loved in the past.  I had read about the measures that had been put in place in bars since they had reopened, and for as much as they sounded safe and sensible and necessary, it was hard to picture myself enjoying such a sanitised version of the bar life we used to know.  In my mind, a pub without the bar to socialise around would be akin to a church without an altar.  I was torn, though ultimately while there was a part of me that enjoyed spending a Saturday night alone in the quiet darkness of my flat, drinking craft beers and watching Bruce Springsteen concert footage on YouTube until three o’clock in the morning, it was becoming difficult when for the better part of twenty Saturdays the only company I had were the three mini cactus plants which I kept on the end of the mantel place, and they bristled any time I tried to start a conversation.  Those 141 days could as well have been 1041 for all I’d known, and by the end, I’d been starting to feel like a face mask lost under a rain-splattered bench; forgotten about, disposable, and more than anything else that feeling forced me into deciding that it was time to get out of my solitary confinement.

The plant doctor and my brother had already been to the pub some weeks earlier, and we decided that it would be best to go for the halfway house of the beer garden at the Whisky Vaults, which in practice was really more of a car park which had been transformed into a garden by way of adding some outdoor furniture and a few plants, which the bees seemed to be enjoying at least.  It had been very well done and looked quite chic, which was the first time I had ever described anything in that way.  More importantly, the Guinness was amongst the best I had tasted in town, with each creamy mouthful bringing me a little closer to comfort.  

For an August night it was cool, certainly not like the humid July day it had preceded, though it was at least dry, which was more than could be said for that aforementioned evening when without a coat to shield me I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was walking home from work, the sort of rainfall that was reminiscent of when you turn on the shower in the morning and leave it to run for a few seconds to warm up.  The only difference being that when I eventually step into the shower I’m not usually wearing a shirt and tie.  

Seating was so well spaced out in the garden that it was almost possible to feel as though ours was the only group there, even when most of the other tables were occupied.  Social distancing wasn’t a priority of the swarm of midges we had quickly been surrounded by, however.  The blood-hungry pests were everywhere, which it occurred to me was the first time in a very long time where I had attracted any kind of attention in a bar situation, though as usual I ended up without a bite.  The absence of music in the outdoor setting was compensated for by the backing track of an excited squeal of swallows who were swooping and swerving in synchronised formation overhead, having clearly spied the bothersome midges as an opportunity for a wholesome nighttime snack.  They made for splendid entertainment, different from the usual boxing matches which might typically be screened on television in a pub on a Saturday night.  Since beer gardens could only be licensed until ten o’clock we enjoyed a couple of pints outside before venturing indoors, leaving the birds and the beasties to decide things amongst themselves.

Inside the Whisky Vaults, the tasting room – which had become the main bar area since it could safely accommodate more people than the regular, much smaller tavern – had the appearance of a trendy city-centre pub featured in a television drama, the sort of place that would be popular with successful twentysomethings who had careers and relationships and where people like me wouldn’t ordinarily be welcome.  Its centrepiece was a recently installed ‘washback tasting table’, which since the lockdown had become more of a decorative feature, just like any other part of the bar, really.  The room was easily the most aesthetically pleasing place I had drunk a pint of Guinness in Oban, and it seemed a shame that it wasn’t able to be used in its natural function.

In these heady new times of hygienic consideration, there was almost as much alcohol being squirted onto hands as there was being poured down throats.  Hand sanitiser was available and encouraged to be used at all opportunities, and you could tell that the bottles in the Whisky Vaults were the really good high volume stuff by the way that they stank.  The liquid would cling to your hand the way a cobweb did when you were a kid, when no matter what you did the sensation of it would stay there for ages.  Every few minutes you would see someone returning from the bathroom and they would be rubbing their hands together in exactly the same way, somewhere on the scale between glee and Machiavellian plotting, or just a kid who couldn’t shake off that cobweb.

It was remarkable how quickly things began to seem just as they were before the fourteenth of March, as though the entire global pandemic had been the product of some wild sleep theatre.  After discussing a variety of topics, from our favourite kitchen hob to a comparison of our face masks, we made our way to our chapel – Aulay’s – where we managed to score the last table in the place.  The new one-way system took you in through the door to the lounge bar and exiting from the public bar, which was a route we were familiar with.  Just beyond the entrance was a small foldaway table that had been set up with some pieces of paper and a few pens.  It had the appearance of a stall at a summer feis selling raffling tickets, but in actuality was a contact tracing hub, the sort of lottery where you were hoping that your number wouldn’t come up.  I had often pictured what it would be like to be asked for my phone number by a barmaid, but when Maciej approached us in his surgical mask, it somehow wasn’t as romantic as I had been imagining.

We were seated at the table closest to the entrance, by the stained glass window, which I think was the furthest I had ever been beyond the fruit machine.  The vantage point offered a different perspective of the bar, like taking a painting you have been looking at for six years and moving it to a different wall.  Hanging above the bar at the precise place where we would ordinarily have been standing, by the ice bucket, was a thin, narrow sheet of plastic which was being suspended by a couple of flimsy-looking steel wires, not entirely dissimilar to a particularly garish Christmas decoration.  We found amusement in the fact that the protective shield had been positioned only at the part of the bar we inhabited, and wondered why they hadn’t thought of putting it up years ago.

Towards the end of the night, as the bar was slowly emptying and last orders were close to being called, we were approached by a woman who sat down at our table and introduced herself by telling us about how she and her group had travelled to Oban for the weekend to celebrate her husband’s birthday.  Her skin was the colour of a chestnut left in the microwave for too long, and it looked like it would have had the same texture, too.  The visiting woman’s hair had seen more bleach than even the plant doctor’s, and if I forced to guess I would have speculated that she was in her fifties, though she had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to dissuade people from reaching that conclusion.  She seemed a little surprised to learn that we were all local to the area, and proceeded to take it in turns to ask each of us about our occupations.  She didn’t seem particularly interested in our responses, although her painted lips curled when I mentioned that my work had kept me busy since the beginning of the pandemic, and she promised to come back to me.  We were then invited to guess which line of work the woman was in, which was when it became clear that the entire purpose of her coming over to join our table was a visual representation of when I have thought of something clever and I just have to get it into the conversation.  It felt strange to see it happening before my very eyes.  None of the three of us seemed to be especially good at the pub game of guessing a perfect stranger’s job, and after several fruitless attempts, the woman decided to put us out of her misery.

“I’m an undertaker,” she proclaimed.  And then, looking across the table at me, she returned to my earlier comment.  “Like you, I’ve seen a real uptake in business.”  

Ordinarily it would be the polite thing to do to wish someone you had met in the pub well in their future endeavours, but it seemed counter-productive in this instance.  Usually I was the person making deeply uncomfortable remarks in the mistaken belief that they sounded funny or clever, and despite all of my experience in the field, I didn’t know what to say in this instance.  I think all I could muster as a response was to remark to the woman that she didn’t look like an undertaker, but really, my only frame of reference for what an undertaker looks like was the WWF wrestler from the nineties.

After 141 days where everything had changed, suddenly nothing had changed at all.  People were being enticed into buying frozen desserts and power drills again, tourists had returned to Oban in their droves, and unusual and unexpected conversations were being conducted in the corners of bars.  It had been a while since I had become a blur in someone else’s holiday memories.

Recently I have been listening to:

Click through to my Instagram for some more photographs of masks seen in unusual places.

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