A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.