It had been a week since Maria, the Escape Room game moderator who was using Tinder to find new friends, had last messaged me, and I was beginning to suspect that she had found a way out of our interaction. By the ninth day of silence, I decided that Covid had created enough real-life friendships with people who I couldn’t see or talk to without adding another through messaging apps, and I unmatched myself from Maria, a step which felt more bold and powerful than I could ever have imagined. She would never know what became of me; a dapper and elusive stranger who existed briefly before he disappeared into the darkness the day after the clocks had changed, or perhaps just someone who had spoken a little too much about his penchant for killing houseplants. If only every problem was as straightforward to solve as simply blocking it out and forgetting that it had ever existed.
Argyll & Bute, like every other local authority in Scotland, was on tenterhooks as it waited to learn which of the government’s new tiers of coronavirus alert it would be placed in when the announcement was made two days before Halloween. There was due to be five different levels in the system, with each level carrying various restrictions regarding things like household meetings and the sale of alcohol in hospitality settings which would be enforced on the people living in the council areas involved. The lowest tier – level 0 – was described as being “nearly normal”, which is how things were said to have been for everybody back in August, whereas the highest tier in the system – level 4 – was effectively the lockdown we all experienced earlier in the year. Very little was known about how areas could progress up or down through the levels, which only made them sound to me like when I used to play Super Mario Brothers as a young boy and I would get fed up with trying to figure out a way of beating the big monster at the end. I knew that it could be done – because, otherwise, what would be the point in playing the game? – but actually getting the better of the beast and moving on to the next level of the game was always beyond me, and once I had used up all of my lives I would give up and do something else. There were certain times in my life when I would find myself contemplating how different things might have been if I wasn’t one of the few people my age who had never completed the Super Mario console game; if only I had saved my invincibility stars or had better used the power-up mushrooms, who knows what I could have made of myself.
Throughout October, when most of the country to the north and south of the Central Belt was on the same level of restrictions which prohibited the sale of alcohol in indoor settings but still allowed people to enjoy a drink outdoors in a beer garden, all sorts of cunning canopies and tarpaulin shelters were being erected by those pubs and hotels that were fortunate enough to have the space to do so. Some even went so far as to install those enormous patio heaters with the flame, and in a way the town was beginning to resemble an old Pagan festival, as though an exciting ritual was about to take place. It made for quite a sight on some of my walks home in the evening.
Those autumn walks were a wonderful thing, a calm amidst life’s storm, for a little while anyway. The dynamics of my nightly constitutional changed completely either side of the final Friday of British Summer Time. Before quarter past five that evening there was still daylight, the sea had an uncanny calmness, and the leaves on the trees – those that remained anyway – had the appearance of a hoppy IPA; heavy grapefruit notes. Deep into the seafront, the sun would set the windows of empty guest houses ablaze, staining the glass on the side of the church with splendid colour as it made its way back into the sea. My progress was impeded when I found myself trapped behind a slow walking elderly couple, whose own stride was being stunted by the man’s trouble with lighting his pipe in the face of the sea breeze. The frustration of being a fairly fast walker having my pace tempered by dawdlers in front of me was the pedestrian version of an agitated motorist whose journey has been held up by a caravan, or at least that’s what I imagined. Eventually the old man succeeded in resuscitating his pipe, and a cloud of stinking smoke wafted its way back along the pavement in my direction, moving like a memory. The stench clung to the hairs in my nostrils, somehow smelling stale by the time it had even travelled the short distance from mouth to nose.
Even though it had been nigh upon six years since I had stopped smoking (in a phase of my life which wasn’t as much cold turkey as it was a leftover sandwich on Boxing Day) I had found myself thinking about it quite a bit during the seven months or so of the pandemic. Not out of any desire to light up again, but more the sense of marvel I would feel any time I saw someone on the street who had reached to their mouth and pulled down the face covering which had been mandated to protect the wearer and everybody else from the spread of a potentially deadly disease, leaving it dangling under their chin like an extra layer of skin, just so that they could smoke a cigarette. It wasn’t contempt I was feeling, though, but rather it was envy. Smoking was a hobby, an outdoor pursuit for some; a momentary escape from everything else that was going on, when for a few minutes the only thing the smoker had to think about was the exciting fact that they were holding fire between their fingers. I envied them greatly for having something different to do.
The pension-age pair had formed an impassable spread across the tarmac, making it difficult for anybody to walk around them, the way all couples seem to have a habit of doing. Ahead of us, a tour bus had pulled into the bus stop, where a steady stream of tourists unloaded themselves and their baggage. Once upon a time it would have been a regular sight in Oban, but not in late-October, and certainly not in 2020. The holidaymakers were making their way across the North Pier to the Columba Hotel, one after another, like a line of lemmings, most of them wearing masks. I was finally able to use the wide berth of the pier’s car park to stride past the elderly couple and most of the tourists, giving myself a clear passage once again. In the distance I could see a familiar bobble hat which was the colour of mustard; Dijon or English, maybe somewhere in between. I came to recognise the dog walker as someone who I was passing most evenings after work, usually around the same place at the same time, though it was impossible to know if she had noticed me the same way. I had been seeing her for several months, throughout most of the pandemic to date, and soon that fleeting moment when we would walk the same stretch of pavement became the highlight of my day, like a cigarette break.
There were times when I couldn’t be sure if I had become physically attracted to the young woman, or if my interest was due to the striking resemblance her dog had to that of Kelsey Grammar’s titular character in the hit television comedy Frasier. Regardless, it seemed difficult to attract the attention of a complete stranger in the times of social distancing, particularly when it was not something I was all that good at in ordinary circumstances. “Just say hello” friends would advise, as though they were talking to somebody else. I could never say hello. Instead, I was thinking that the best way of gaining the woman’s attention was through her dog, and I began devising ways that I could befriend man’s best friend. Short of offering myself as some sort of personal dog walking service to my friends and family, the best I could come up with was the idea that I could tie a string of sausages around one of my ankles in the hope that her little dog would sniff them out and come bounding across the pavement towards me. The pooch’s amorous attention to my ankle would, in my imagining of the scenario, pique the strolling stranger’s interest in me, perhaps causing her to ask herself how she hadn’t noticed me before. She would shyly apologise for her dog’s sudden affection towards me as its nose desperately rooted around the hem of my trouser leg, while I would assure her that no apology was necessary. “Don’t worry, people are always looking to see if the socks match the tie.”
The only flaw I could see in my plan was the possibility that the dog might actually get to the sausages. How would I explain it if the mutt came away from my ankle with a mouthful of pork, like a successful raid on a butcher’s shop? There was no plausible reason I could think of for the discovery of a chain of sausages beneath my trousers. I could feel the awkward silence even just thinking about the moment when the dog is gleefully tearing the sausages apart with its bare teeth, me left staring at my feet as the young woman tries to drag the hound away. Finally I would call out in vain: “I was just hoping for a link!”
By quarter past five the following evening, which was the last Friday of British Summer Time before the clocks fell back an hour that weekend, the scene had changed. The royal blue sky was gradually giving way to dusk, and as so often was the case for the time of year, a fine day erupted into rainfall as the heavens opened. The downpour began as I was making my way as usual back up the Esplanade, just as my Spotify playlist started playing the song Prayers For Rain by The Cure, though that was a detail that nobody was bound to believe in the retelling of the story. It was difficult to tell exactly how heavy the rain was, but the drops were at least the size of pistachio nuts. Outside Bar Rio, a couple was sitting at one of the restaurant’s pavement tables, surrounded by another three or four tables which were unoccupied and soaked. They had clearly just been served their drinks and so were in no mood to abandon them in the face of the weather, while the rules forbade them from taking their alcohol indoors. The woman held a grey umbrella over their heads while the pair continued to sip at their drinks, sheltering them with defiance; he with his pint of Tennent’s Lager and she with a tall glass of white wine – Sauvignon Blanc, I think, since the glass remained dry. In Scotland we had often envied the pavement cafe culture on the continent, but it seemed we hadn’t considered that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, whereas this was just plain misery.
I kind of admired their commitment, though I couldn’t be sure that it would have been me in the same circumstances, especially given my distrust of umbrellas. With that said, I received an insight into the couple’s dilemma later that same night when I came to cook the pizza which I had bought from Lidl using a 20% off voucher from their app. The offer was for any of the pizzas from their ‘Deluxe’ range of meals, which certainly sounded like it would be a luxurious treat, and I looked forward to enjoying it with a cold beer before joining our weekly pub replica Zoom meeting. I selected the box which declared in large white lettering that the pizza was topped with buffalo mozzarella, salami, tomatoes, and bell peppers, though I didn’t come to realise until I removed the thing from its wrapping that there were also mushrooms present, a fact which was detailed in the smaller text on the front of the package. It was like sitting in the pouring rain with a freshly-served pint of Tennent’s: I had spent £3.29 on the pizza and I was determined to get my money’s worth, so I left the fungi where they were. Eating the mushroom pizza became more than a meal that was slightly more expensive than I was used to having; it was a test of my character, a chance to prove to myself that I had grown up from the wee boy who would never even contemplate eating a mushroom. I think I had eaten two of the four slices I had carved for myself before I decided that enough was enough and I had had all the mushrooms I could take. For all that I had wanted to believe otherwise, I was still that guy who had never completed Super Mario Bros; who didn’t know how to properly use his mushrooms. And mushrooms were still the most revolting thing I had ever put in my mouth.
When Scotland’s new system of tiered restrictions came into effect at the beginning of November, Argyll & Bute was placed into tier two, which wasn’t all that different to how things had been for us in the area beforehand; the main change being that bars and restaurants were now allowed to serve alcoholic drinks indoors with a main meal – a few weeks too late for the couple outside Bar Rio, perhaps. Winter was beginning to close its bony arms around the year, dragging the morning out later and drawing the night in, as though closing a pair of curtains on the day between. Somehow the November nights seemed darker than I could ever remember them being, though I couldn’t be sure if that was simply a symptom of the year in general or if it was because most of the hotels and guesthouses on the Esplanade were closed. The winds were picking up around the hills, while lighthouses flickered in a ghostly sea. I had taken a week off work, though with the restrictions being what they were across the country, the only things I had planned to do were to get my hair cut, buy some new notebooks and go for a drink outdoors with some friends.
On separate occasions I was able to meet with the plant doctor and the Subway girl, and it was remarkable how suddenly the gloom was lifted by the company of others. The sartorial considerations of outdoor drinking were different from my usual visits to the pub, it now being about scarves and layers rather than colour schemes and pocket squares. Though part of me felt that it was probably still warmer than drinking in my flat. Under the canopy in Markies, the breeze coming in from the sea transformed the piece of paper with our contact details into a different sort of track and trace as it was blown to the ground. The plant doctor observed that the bells from the cathedral chimed at eight o’clock, but not at nine or ten, and we wondered whether this was out of consideration for the neighbours because of the noise, or if the bell ringer had been flexibly furloughed. Closer to us, the Corran Esplanade church seemed to have taken on the appearance of a frightened policeman in the darkness. Once we had noticed it, it was difficult to unsee. All things considered, the new system of tiered restrictions didn’t seem as bad as some had been fearing. We just had to find a way of moving through the levels.