Indian summer

The early onset of autumn had fallen back into summer in mid-September – for a few days, anyway – reigniting the most perplexing question of the time of year:  which jacket should I leave home wearing?  Nothing could make a fool out of a person quite like being seen in a heavy coat on a sunny day. Temperatures had soared into the high-teens, a good day for August, let alone anything after.  The sun was hanging low on the bright blue sky, looking exactly like it would in a child’s drawing:  enormous, shiny and orange.  Along the Esplanade, for three or four evenings straight, it was a scene of an Indian summer.

Across the road from the Regent Hotel, which was once an art deco gem in the display case of Oban Bay but had recently become a ghost and fallen into a sad state of disrepair, a casualty of the economic cost of Covid, a man was reclining in a garden chair, opposite what I presumed was his brown campervan.  He was a picture of comfort, his bare legs outstretched, baseball capped-head thrust skywards, though his position on the pavement, between his van and the railing by the sea, made it awkward to pass.  Other people were using the designated benches to soak up the rays and read, while out on the sea powerboats were cutting through the white waves like scissors.  All of the slipways leading from the street down into the water were lined with people who were enjoying takeaways from the town’s plentiful chip shops, or just one another’s company.  On one concrete strip, just beyond the cathedral, a labrador emerged from the sea with a stick clenched between its teeth which looked to be at least as long as its body.  As it bounded triumphantly up the slipway, water cascaded from the dog’s coat like a burst hosepipe, splashing all the way up the dry surface.  A young woman was sitting on a step with her legs crossed, staring out at the horizon in thoughtful meditation whilst smoking an e-cigarette.  Cherry, I think.  On the next set of steps, a young woman wearing a backpack was being directed by a man on where to stand.  Her companion, whom I presumed to be her partner, was holding a camera in his hands, looking for the perfect shot that would mark their romantic seaside adventure, the coastal scene with the buoys in the background over her shoulder.

 Further along the shoreline, a bespectacled man was crouching amongst the weeds, washing a pair of shoes in the water.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell if the scene was as it appeared, but the closer I got, the clearer it was.  In the man’s right hand he was holding a peach scouring brush, which he was using to scrub the soles of the shoes with all of the studied intensity of a cardiologist performing complex surgery.  Who could know how this man’s life had taken him to the point where his only option was to clean his shoes – although not the shoes that he was wearing – in the sea.  If I was ever feeling down on my luck, I would always remember that at least I wasn’t washing my footwear in the bay.  

On the North Pier, outside the restaurants EE-Usk and Piazza, which both have floor-to-ceiling windows offering a prime view overlooking the harbour, two large Ferguson Transport lorries were unloading goods onto a vessel which was moored nearby.  I always found the scene quite fascinating whenever I encountered it, wondering what was in the enormous plastic cases and where they were being shipped to, but it must have been an irritation for the diners who had booked their tables by the window anticipating enjoying an early evening meal whilst looking out on the sun-kissed west coast.  By the time I had walked back around to the bus station, the heavy beating of the sun on the back of my brown tweed suit jacket was so constant and so warm that I could feel the beads of sweat gathering on my spine in groups larger than those I had witnessed through town.  I was regretting my decision to wear the jacket at all.

Considering that I held a regard of warm summer days similar to that of the misery crooner Morrissey, as a single occupant there were few things which truly brought joy to life in the strange times of 2020.  The pinnacle of my excitement was probably any time I received an email from Netflix telling me about a new docuseries they were streaming.  There was the night that The Unlikely Lads won the pub quiz in The Lorne for the second week running, after fifteen months of not winning it at all, although that was more of a group achievement than anything I had done.  But when the supermarket chain Lidl released their new rewards app in September it appealed to all of the thrifty senses of a guy like me.  Every week they would make available four digital coupons for products that I either didn’t particularly need at the time or wouldn’t usually buy; things like a certain type of cheese, hot chocolate, bacon, laundry detergent or tissues, and I would eat them up because I was saving 15% off the price.  Each time I would scan the coupon at the checkout it felt like a small victory.  These smartphone apps were always shiny and exciting to swipe through, offering the user the promise of something they might not otherwise get:  coconut-flavoured Greek yogurt from Lidl, or a date with a woman on Tinder.

The big attraction was the offer of receiving £5 off a £25 spend during the first month of signing up.  Ordinarily it would be a big week if I spent as much as £25 on my food shopping over the course of seven days, let alone in one visit, but I figured that if I planned ahead and bought things that I might need in the future then I could probably reach the target.  It was a bit like the hoarding everyone was doing back in March, a skill I had already shown to be quite bad at.  My first attempt didn’t get me anywhere near the number needed to make my saving, and over the following week I spent a lot of time plotting how I was going to do better next time, as though I was trying to beat the high score in an arcade game.  I measured how many tins of tuna I would realistically be able to store in the cupboard and considered how much toothpaste a person could buy before it became obsessive, helping me put together a list that would surely earn me the five pounds discount I deserved.  Excluding alcohol, which cannot feature in promotional offers in Scotland, my shopping came to a total of £22.22, which sounded more like a bingo call than the sum of the food I would be eating for the next week.  It was frustrating, especially when I arrived home and realised that I had forgotten to pick up a couple of items, including the toothpaste.  The episode seemed to me to be the equivalent of matching with a girl on Tinder who immediately stops talking to you when you make a stupid pasta pun.

I did finally manage to spend twenty-five pounds and seven pence in a single transaction a week later, but only after I had bought a houseplant to bulk out my basket.  The purchase went against a vow I had made to myself more than a year earlier to never buy another houseplant again, which was sworn mainly as a result of my ineptitude in caring for the things.  I think that the longest a plant had survived under my guardianship was a couple of months, and my inability to keep them alive had given me a complex. The way I saw it, if I couldn’t look after a simple houseplant, how could I possibly trust myself to cultivate my human relationships?  It seemed that the best way of forgetting about all of that and preserving my confidence was to stop replacing my plants when they died.  But with yet more lockdown restrictions arriving towards the end of September, it felt like a good time to give my green fingers another go, if for no other reason than to have some company for a little while, so I bought a potted plant alongside my regular groceries.  When I got it home the first thing I did was to remove the small plastic stick from the soil which carried the name of the plant I was now caring for.  I thought it would be a good idea to search the internet for the best ways of looking after a ‘Crassula ovata’, since although succulents were almost indestructible I had a pretty mean history of killing them.  I learned that the houseplant I had purchased purely to bring my shopping up to a total of £25 just so that I could finally make use of my £5 off coupon is more commonly known as a lucky plant, money plant or money tree.  It was rare that these moments of irony occurred to me so quickly.

As the cases of Covid began to rise across the country again, new measures were introduced during the last week of the month to combat the virus.  Pubs and restaurants were told to implement a 10pm curfew, while households in Scotland were no longer allowed to mix, other than in exceptional circumstances.  In many respects it was a return to the way things had been pre-July, and when we went to the pub on Friday the 18th of September, it was to mark the end of our Indian summer in more ways than we knew at the time.  The plant doctor, my brother and me had met in the beer garden of the Whisky Vaults, though by the time we did the sun had set and we were as much in the dark as we always were.  The air wasn’t exactly cold, but I was feeling nostalgic for the sweat I had felt under my shirt on the walk home earlier in the day.   Once inside, we were one of only four or five groups, and the only time I can remember feeling uncomfortable was when we had forgotten to wear our masks as we walked from the beer garden into the pub.  It was a mild discomfort, mostly brought on from the embarrassment of having to be reminded during times of a pandemic that we should be wearing a mask when walking around a pub, though the feeling was soon offset by the unbridled bliss that was to be found from wearing a mask at an empty urinal.

We were in conversation with the ladies at the table next to us, a pair who we knew from the bars and who were serious about their drinking, ordering bottles of red wine and glasses of Jameson; unlike us amateurs who were only drinking pints of beer.  During our discussion I made a joke in relation to the cravat that the man at the farthest away table had brandished.  The comment drew no response amongst the rest of the group, which wasn’t unusual; but what was out of the ordinary was the fact that the girl on the opposite side of the room erupted into howls of laughter, even nudging her friend to ask if she had heard the remark.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Even accounting for the way the sparseness of the room made every sound echo like a gunshot in a canyon, this laugh was loud.  It was exciting to know that this young woman had apparently been listening in on our conversation, though I had little experience with the sound of laughter and wasn’t sure how to act on it, especially in the midst of a global health emergency.  I couldn’t very well saunter over and join her table when groups were limited to two households at that point, and sauntering wasn’t something I had been able to do in the best of times, anyway.  Finally somebody had laughed at something I had said, and I didn’t even have to say it directly to them.  I just had to sit there and let the words blunder out, but I couldn’t follow up on it.    Not long after, the girls finished their drinks and left the bar.  So much for the fucking lucky plant.

In Aulay’s, we were reunited with our cross-table companions from earlier in the night, though my ability to focus on anything that was being said was compromised by the man who was sitting by himself at the table to my right.  He was making an effort to integrate himself into our conversation, though I was the only one in the group who was paying him any heed.  There was something mesmerising about the character; his wispy white hair resembling fluffy mashed potatoes sitting on a dinner plate alongside a medium-rare steak; the way he was dressed entirely in blue; his choice of drinking a “half and half”, a combination of a half-pint of Export and a glass of whisky (a half) which was traditional amongst men of a certain generation; the fact that every so often he would briefly burst into song.  When he spoke, the man’s voice had a lyrical lilt that was common with the north of Scotland, so pronounced that it was almost like a vocal caricature.

It was impossible to resist the stranger’s attempts to involve himself in our discussion for too long, and when I finally indulged him I learned that he had travelled down from Thurso that day, a journey of around 215 miles.  He had to take three buses to reach Oban:  the first left his hometown at nine o’clock that morning and took him to Inverness, where he then caught the bus down to Fort William, and after around an hour’s wait he made the final leg of his journey to Oban, arriving here at twenty minutes past seven.  Just hearing about it had me feeling exhausted.  His reasons for wanting to visit Oban, seemingly on a whim, were twofold.  As he told me, he had recently taken trips to Skye and Fort William, but he had never been to Oban – and he thought “why not?”  The other cause for travelling 215 miles from Thurso to Oban was a desire to learn the full lyrics of the old folk song Bonnie Oban Bay, as it turned out that the tune he had been serenading us with for much of the night wasn’t the full version.  “I was struggling to find it on YouTube.”

I was feeling pretty guilty that I had lived in the town for my entire life and had never even heard of the song Bonnie Oban Bay, while here was a man who ventured half the length of the country in three buses during a pandemic in which his age group was probably the most vulnerable just because he had a romantic vision that everyone here would be so familiar with the song that they could easily fill in the verses that he was missing.  It was hard not to be impressed with the man, who had also been unsuccessful in asking the woman in the hostel where he was staying about the words of the song, as he just shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his diminishing half-pint of Export.  “Ocht, somebody will know,” he said confidently, before his fairytale voice lifted into the single verse of the song he had been singing all night.

Less than a week had passed when there was frost seen on the windscreens of cars.  The mornings had taken on an icy demeanour, while the temperature on some days had nearly halved.  It used to be that I felt excited by being able to see my breath in the air on crisp, cold mornings, when I would exhale as much as I possibly could because it made me feel like I was a mighty dragon.  But like everything else, that had changed in these times of Covid, when now it was only possible to see how easily an entire village could be scorched.  In the end, our Indian summer lasted only a few days, and our break from the tightest of the lockdown restrictions seemed like it was going to be the Indian summer of our 2020.  As it was, we were all going to to be spending some time on our knees on the shoreline, scrubbing our shoes in the salty water.

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