Getting jiggy with it

It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody when the lockdown that was initially announced on 4 January for the entire month was extended until at least the middle of February in Scotland.  For all the promise of a fresh start at midnight on New Year’s Eve, suddenly we were living a longer version of the old one; the worst house of mirrors that anyone had ever thought of.  It didn’t seem to matter which direction we turned, we just expected to find the reflection growing larger and in the most ridiculous shapes.  This lockdown is different from the original one ten months ago, which felt almost like a novelty at the time, similar to the first day of snowfall in winter or when you buy a new pair of shoes.  Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and that made it exciting in a way, at least for a while.  There was naturally some uncertainty in the beginning, like when you can’t be sure how those new shoes are going to feel when you’re wearing them all day so you ‘break them in’ around the house to see if it hurts.  Gradually you feel confident enough to wear them outside, and before you know it you’re walking all over the place like it’s nothing.  That was the case until you realised that there was only so far you could go and so much you could do without the threat of falling flat on your face on a patch of ice.

Unlike in March, the winter lockdown has been dark, cold and wet, and because of it, people are truly forced to stay at home when they aren’t taking care of essential tasks.  It was difficult to tell exactly when it happened, but there came a point in the pandemic where we could measure our lives in lockdowns the way we used to with birthdays or summer holidays or football seasons.  I realised when I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t seen her since the beginning of the first lockdown; it was the period between the initial restrictions and the introduction of the tier system when I last had a drink in Aulay’s; I last had my hair cut the week before the second lockdown started, when the barber told me that he had trimmed my hair a little shorter than he usually does because he wasn’t expecting to be able to open again before the spring, as though the hairs falling from my head were tea leaves or some foreboding tarot cards and he saw some terrible events in them.  

The first lockdown was like the novelty of snowfall in winter

I took a real fascination in hearing about some of the different ways other people were passing the time during the extended experience of lockdown, mainly because they were more interesting than anything I was doing.  I had heard from at least a couple of friends who were watching the reality television series Married at First Sight Australia, in which complete strangers seemingly meet for the first time at their wedding.  I couldn’t get a single match on Tinder yet in Australia people were being married without having to put in any of the effort; without so much as a solitary swipe.  I never knew that such a show existed, and I asked what the point in it was if the people taking part had already got what they came for.   The viewer never saw the winning family proudly holding their prized fondue set at the start of The Generation Game, after all.

“It’s just easy television to binge,” it was explained to me.  The interesting part wasn’t the fact that these complete strangers were getting married without having never met, it was what happened after the wedding.  They would be followed by the cameras as they went on their honeymoon; when they met their new in-laws for the first time; when they moved into a home together.  And all the way through this they would be getting to know one another.  “Basically they’re doing everything in reverse.”  To me that meant that eventually the couple would reach a point where they are standing at their local bar and the man nervously approaches his wife with what in his head is a killer joke, but it only leads to a prolonged awkward silence before she turns and goes off to talk to the cool guys who are standing by the jukebox while he’s left wondering what he’s doing with his life.  He orders another pint, the camera cuts and the credits roll.

As well as binge-watching television shows, I knew of people who were reading as many as three books a week during the lockdown.  Others were engaging in crafts at home, while some had taught themselves how to cook some exquisite meals.  Most evenings the seafront was transformed into a cross between a running track and a camera club, and if the photographers were lucky they would get one of those clear winter skies that looked almost as though a nuclear reactor had gone off in the distance, or like a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon.  In my own social circle, there were as many people who had bought themselves a telescope as were watching Married at First Sight Australia.  The habits I had adopted were a bit more passive.  On a Sunday night, I liked to round off the weekend by lying in my bed and listening to the Absolute 90s radio station, which played nothing but music from the decade of its name.  I didn’t do this on any other night, just a Sunday.  It struck me as being a little peculiar, especially when I hadn’t paid much attention to the songs the first time around.  I wasn’t really into music at that age, and the only time I would hear it was when I played Nintendo in my brother’s room, where he’d usually be listening to Manic Street Preachers or Oasis, or occasionally Radio 1.  The only radio I ever listened to in the nineties was TalkRadio, where the presenters discussed the news of the day and took calls from listeners rather than play music, yet here I was in 2021 going to bed on a Sunday night with Absolute 90s playing until I fell asleep.  I suppose nostalgia is always comforting.

Through the week I often found myself gazing upon the drinks globe my sister had given me for Christmas with the same sense of wonder that I imagined other people must have for their children.  It’s so beautiful.  Sometimes I could just stare at it for minutes at a time without doing anything else.  I would think about a night when I could finally have folk around to serve them drinks from it, though I would need to invest in some more spirits since at the moment all that is inside the globe is three bottles of Jameson whiskey, along with some Jack Daniels on the bottom shelf of the trolley.  Although a generous supply of whiskey and bourbon wasn’t really giving any visitors a great deal of choice, I always liked to believe that Jameson could open up the world to anyone, and now I could actually see it happen.

When I wasn’t listening to music from a bygone decade or staring adoringly at my new bar, I most often passed the time by writing in my notebook.  My current book is a standard, unglamorous one picked up from WH Smith.  It has a black plastic cover which is bound by flimsy spirals, and there are 160 lined A5 pages.  I was down to the last few sheets when I started to take note of any old crap I could think of, so desperate was I to finish the notebook and move on to the new one I had bought towards the end of last year.  This is the drinks globe of notebooks:  a chestnut brown vegan leather hardcover; ivory white pages which are as thick as a fingernail; solidly bound.  I had ordered the journal from the London-based store Beechmore Books, and at £12.95 it was the most I had ever spent on a notebook.  I had convinced myself that if the book is prettier then the words I write on its pages will somehow be better and more meaningful.

This is the drinks globe of notebooks

To use up the remaining pages I took note of a story that appeared recently in The Scotsman newspaper about a DNA breakthrough made from the discovery of the 6,000-year-old remains of two men which were found in a cave in Oban.  According to the article, DNA analysis from a team led by a professor from Harvard University established that the men were descended from immigrants from the continent and were most likely related.  The report mentioned how the discovery tied in with previous research which has demonstrated that immigrant farmers from Northern France arrived in Britain in around 4,000 BC and brought with them a way of life that was entirely different to that of the indigenous population, who mainly relied on hunting, fishing and foraging.  These incomers had slightly lighter skin and darker eyes, and it is said that their DNA almost overwhelmed the indigenous DNA signature.  However, it has been discovered that seven people who were buried during the Neolithic period in Scotland were carrying a mix of both types of DNA, which perhaps shows that the immigrants were lovers and not fighters.  This was bourne out in a quote from Dr Allison Sheridan, who revealed the latest findings in a series of lectures.  She said:  “It is clear that some locals did get jiggy with some of the farmers.”  I underlined this line in my notebook and wondered if Dr Sheridan was also spending her weekends listening to vintage nineties music.

I often wrote down snippets from unusual news reports in the hope that I could use them later in conversation, making myself appear more interesting for knowing such things in the process.  I don’t know why I preserved this particular story about 6,000-year-old bones, however, other than to use up the last few pages of my notebook.  It’s not like I’m going to have any immediate use for the information with the country being in lockdown for the foreseeable future.  Yet despite that, it is hard to say how good an idea it would be to bring up the subject in the pub.  While I was often the butt of my own jokes whenever I tried talking to women, even I knew that I couldn’t approach a complete stranger at the bar when we aren’t even already married and bring up a story about 6,000-year-old remains and how there is evidence that even they had sex.  For the first time it seemed a good thing that the pubs weren’t open.

As the bars, like everything else, remained closed, our Zoom beer club continued to thrive into the new year, doing a good job of replicating – if not quite replacing – the Friday nights we used to spend in Aulay’s.  It was nice to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, even if it basically amounted to sitting in a different seat in my flat to stare at a screen.  Recently the plant doctor suggested that as a way of bringing some excitement to one of the meetings we could try playing an online Escape Room game, and he went ahead and bought us access to The Sinister Soirée.  Although only six people could participate in the game, a record high of eight people logged in to our beer club that night, ranging from such exotic locations as the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Italian Peninsula, to Campbeltown, by the Kintyre peninsula.   

A winter sky that looked as though a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon

The premise of The Sinister Soirée is that your niece, Victoria, has recently been the victim of an attempted murder at the party she had hosted to announce her engagement.  You, as a bumbling detective of no repute, are called upon to find the cloaked assailant, and you suggest that Victoria invites the same six people back for another dinner in the hope that you can figure out who the culprit was.  In order to solve the mystery and apprehend the would-be murderer, the players are presented with a number of puzzles that, once completed, offer up further clues which should help to crack the case.  The puzzles were said by the makers of the game to be of easy-to-medium difficulty, but I could feel myself floundering on the first one, which involved counting the number of petals on flowers around a fountain and coordinating them with the same colour of letter on the key to find the passcode that would unlock Victoria’s journal.  Everybody else seemed to get it without much fuss, which only heightened my anxiety.

As the games went on and I could tell that I was taking much longer to complete them than the rest of the group, I could feel myself becoming hot under the collar.  Deep down, I think everyone harbours some kind of belief that they would make an excellent detective, usually after watching a Columbo or Sherlock Holmes movie, when those characters make it seem like such an exciting living.  I was furious that my dreams were being torn apart in the cruellest fashion.  I was resorting to using the hints to help me solve the easy-to-medium difficulty puzzles, with the third hint being when the game would simply tell you the answer.  Somehow it didn’t seem like that would work in a real-life scenario.  I think my downfall was that I spent too much time focussing on the minutiae, jotting down into my notebook every small detail that might potentially be of use in the future.  Cecily spilt her wine; Franklin was behaving mockingly; Oliver doesn’t eat peppers; Adelaide is left-handed.

When it came time to guess which of the six suspects each of us believed had attempted to kill Victoria on the night of her engagement, my deduction was immediately met with derision.  I had somehow arrived at a theory that the dastardly diner was Victoria’s own fiancé, a fact that I had overlooked.  It went without saying that my guess was the worst, but in reality, nobody in the group managed to correctly identify the crook.  Considering that there were six of us playing the game, and that we had six options to choose from, that none of us managed to get it right was nothing less than an embarrassing sham.  I guess we were all pretty drunk, but since when has that been an excuse for not being able to do your job?  If there is one thing I learned from The Sinister Soirée as I looked around the screen at the faces of the rest of the beer club, it was that if there was ever a time when my bones would be discovered – maybe not 6,000 years from now, and perhaps not in a cave but somewhere else equally dark and cold, such as my flat – I hoped that no-one there would be responsible for investigating what had happened to me. 

DNA breakthrough of two men buried in a cave near Oban 6,000 years ago: click here to read the full article in The Scotsman.

Portrait of a Hogmanay at home (aka Accidentally maudlin)

When I first moved into my new flat and became a single occupant in January 2018, I had grand plans in mind for my morning routine.  I wasn’t necessarily a “morning person” by nature – it was something I had fallen into the same way I imagine some people fall into selling drugs:  you have to do something to earn a living.   I was forced into learning to live with early mornings after more than eight years of working six a.m. shifts in the Co-op, though by the time I was living in my own flat the Co-op had been closed for three years and my interest in mornings was reduced to a desire to keep the impressive breakfast bar in the kitchen from going to waste.

In the weeks before I was handed the keys, I would picture myself waking early in the morning and turning on the radio to catch up with the day’s events before getting up and stretching out in a session of yoga.  Feeling energised, I would savour my luxurious shower and skincare routine, leaving me fresh and nourished and eternally youthful.  After getting dressed, with the colour of my tie and socks being a near-perfect match, it would be time to sit down at the breakfast bar with a cup of Lidl’s own Fairtrade roast and ground Colombian coffee and a book, fuelling my body and my mind before walking to work.  I suppose it wasn’t so much a breakfast bar as it was just a place to sit, since in those days I didn’t really eat breakfast, but the rest of it sounded pretty good to me. 

And for a while it worked.  I was getting out of bed before daybreak, doing my exercises and moisturising my face, with enough time until I left for work to sit with a fresh cup of coffee.  The morning had almost become my favourite part of the day, a couple of hours of bliss before the reality screams in your face.  However, over time, as is so often the way of things in life, what is easy soon overwhelms what can make you happy.  It started when I grew tired of having to clean out the coffee machine every other day, lifting soggy, mud-coloured filter papers out of the tray and making sure the entire thing was ready to be used again the next morning.  Once I’d figured out that I could give myself another fifteen minutes or so in bed by giving up the coffee for a glass of orange juice, that was it for the coffee machine.  Gradually I would find myself stealing even more time in bed, using the sound of rain beating on the window as justification for not taking the long way to the office, or convincing myself that it wouldn’t matter if I missed my morning yoga because I could do it in the evening.  Sometimes I even moisturised my face without first using the deep cleansing facial scrub like some kind of hard-skinned heathen.

The first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 helped me to refocus a little and I at least managed to get into a habit of doing yoga twice a day, even if the rest of my routine was still lacking.  My new-found enthusiasm didn’t last for long, though, and by the bleak winter months I was staying in bed later than ever, only giving myself enough time to get washed and dressed and little more.  Darkness was yawning long into the morning, and when I would waken and ask my little Google Play device to tell me the latest news headlines, I usually lost any interest I had in getting out of bed to do anything productive.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in getting up early during the pandemic when every day was the same as the last.  I don’t know how anybody else was getting through December, but for me it was the moments after Google’s computerised female voice told me that she had played all of that morning’s news stories and I would sink back into my pillow and fall asleep until the next alarm went off.  It was an almost companionable silence.

A while ago I had promised myself that I would never make another New Year’s resolution, but it was difficult not to see the advancing of 2021 as anything other than an opportunity for improvement.  It just had to be a better year, even for those people who had vowed to afford themselves some more alone time or to do some work around the house and who were probably quite content with how 2020 turned out.  I decided that I was absolutely going to stick to my vaunted morning routine no matter how dark or wet the day was, or how often I had to clean the coffee machine, but that I would do it from the fourth of January since I knew that I would be suffering from a hangover on the first three mornings of the year, and there’s no point in setting yourself a target that you know is impossible to reach.

I was never a big fan of Hogmanay and the pressure that came with the 31st to be this picture-perfect landmark of the passing of time, and for maybe the first occasion during all of the tiers (and tears) of lockdown restrictions I was quite glad for the opportunity to not be expected to make any plans.  There was a relief that came with knowing that I wouldn’t be forced into spending ten minutes queuing at the bar to be served a Jack Daniels and Coke in a plastic tumbler, and that the reason I wouldn’t be sharing a kiss at the bells this New Year wasn’t due to my own ineptitude but was instead because a global pandemic had made everybody else just like me.

Earlier in the day I had taken a crisp afternoon walk along the Esplanade in what not only were the fading embers of the day, but also the year.  As I was nearing St Columba’s Cathedral, I happened upon the multi-talented young woman who had previously curated the successful Let’s Make A Scene events in town.  She was out walking with another gentleman who I didn’t immediately recognise.  As I approached her, I pulled the earphones out of my ears and she remarked that “this must be where all the Catholics go walking.”  It wasn’t until she happened to mention her companion’s name after a few minutes that it registered with me who he was.  It turned out to be my best friend from primary school who I hadn’t seen since leaving Oban High, though in my defence he didn’t have the wispy beard back then and his voice wasn’t nearly as deep.  Almost immediately he reminisced that, as a boy, I was the one who was responsible for wrestling being banned from St Columba’s primary school, though that wasn’t how I remembered it.  There was certainly a time when my brother refused to watch WWF shows with me anymore because I always insisted on having matches with him during the ad breaks, and it was during one of these impromptu bouts that I burst his bottom lip open with a stray knee, but I just figured that he was a sore loser.  Nevertheless, this chance encounter on the seafront was very nearly the perfect ending to 2020, and it probably would have been had there not been another eight hours of the year left.

Until now I had never fully understood why mum always cried at the bells, though it was undoubtedly part of the reason why I never particularly cared for New Year.  My memories of the night were mostly of the generous spread of finger food that would gradually begin to appear before midnight:  dishes of salted peanuts, bowls of crisps, sausage rolls, and cocktail sticks which were loaded with a block of cheddar cheese the size of a small piece of lego, a slice of ham, and a pickled onion.  The cocktail sticks were everybody’s favourite part of the 31st of December.  In some ways they were even better than Christmas.  Every year dad would wait until a couple of minutes before the countdown to open his bottle of Whyte & Mackay, and once we had passed into the new year he would take his first drink.  He only ever drank whisky at new year, one of those little traditions that people have around this time, and it was funny how drunk it would make him.  On the television we would watch BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Hogmanay street party in Edinburgh, where the countdown to midnight ended with the firing of the gun from the castle.  We always muted the sound so that we could hear the CalMac ferries sounding their horns in the bay, and then mum would start to cry.  It wasn’t until we were talking about it at my sister’s over Christmas that I realised they weren’t tears of sadness.  Not an unhappy sadness, anyway.  They were tears for the people who weren’t there; for memories and nostalgia.  

As things turned out, spending New Year’s Eve at home alone wasn’t any better than previous years spent in a packed pub, surrounded by a sea of people I didn’t know, barely enough room to wave a cocktail stick in the air.  I thought about the people who I couldn’t be with – not only that night, but all through the year – and I felt nostalgic for previous Hogmanays, even the ones where I felt anxious over not having any plans or not enjoying the celebrations as much as everybody else seemed to be.

I tried everything I could think of to amuse myself until midnight, but it wasn’t easy when the only living company I had was the crassula ovata houseplant that I’d bought in September just so that I could make up the minimum spend to use a £5 off coupon in Lidl.  At least I think the succulent was still living, it was hard to tell.  I wasn’t sure how those plants were supposed to look when they’re healthy and thriving; it was more common for me to see them when they were withered and miserable.  My entertainment for the evening was my Spotify playlist of the year, which was 43 hours and 47 minutes long, and to pass the time until the gun was fired from Edinburgh Castle I played some YouTube videos in the background of some of the places I had planned to visit during the year but couldn’t due to the pandemic.  I watched videos of Ljubljana, Zagreb, a 4K walking tour of Belgrade, the fountain in the square in Sarajevo where all the pigeons frequently gather, and even footage of Edinburgh.  Places that all felt a lot further away now than ever before.

In an effort to fend off some of the weariness I was feeling after a few beers, I put a tray of sausage rolls into the oven at around ten o’clock.  It wasn’t pickled onions and cheese on a stick, but it was the best I could do to keep myself interested.  The trouble with hot pastry goods is that once they are there, it is close to impossible to stop yourself from eating them, especially when I was the only one who could eat them.  After a handful of the sausage rolls I was feeling bloated and queasy, and my thoughts turned to trying to figure out how long the bag had been sitting open in the drawer of the freezer.  It isn’t the sort of thing that you ever think you’re going to have to remember, not like the date your home insurance is due for renewal or when you last had a dental check-up.  There was no way of knowing when I had opened the sausage rolls, but given that the bag was advertising the goods as being part of a Christmas party range and they weren’t typically the type of food I would eat if I was on my own, it was reasonable – if not entirely safe – to assume that it wasn’t within the last year.

The point at which I started to feel at my most lonely wasn’t when I had ignored any sense of uneasiness and continued to polish off the entire plate of sausage rolls, but rather it was when I downloaded yet another dating app.  The way I saw it, I couldn’t have been the only person that was sitting alone on New Year’s Eve and feeling nostalgic for the company of others, and surely out of all those numbers someone was going to be drunk and lonely enough to swipe on my profile.  To sweeten the deal, I considered an addendum to my biography that would let the single women of Scotland know that I had excess sausage rolls which I could do with a partner to help me finish, but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words.  A better man than me would have known how to make it sound romantic, but I just never had that ability.  Besides, any potential match would have been prevented from visiting my flat under the restrictions of the time anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to start a relationship with a promise that I knew I couldn’t keep.  I imagined the disappointment on her face when she arrived to discover that I had already eaten all of the sausage rolls, the sort of look that summed up so many Hogmanays before it.  Is that it?  By the time I had finished my beers and taken myself off to bed it was long after 3 a.m. and I hadn’t found a single match across any of my dating apps.  When I asked my Google Play device to play some Ryan Adams, the robotic voice all of a sudden wasn’t sounding so companionable. 

As a mass vaccination programme began in Scotland on the fourth of January, the government announced that the country would be going into a full lockdown until at least the end of the month to support it, though most people believed that it would go on much longer.  It wasn’t unexpected, but you could tell that everyone was demoralised by it all the same.  When I arrived home for lunch on the fifth, the front door to my close was pinned open and the concrete floor was strewn with a blanket of pine needles.  Someone in the block was really taking the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ seriously.  It was a mess, like a road traffic accident where the only recognisable piece of debris is the air freshener.

I had been doing a pretty decent job of sticking to my morning routine during the first week of the year, managing to get out of bed at half-past six on three out of the five days, and I was feeling good about myself for it.  The town seemed to be stuck in a perpetual frost that week, with the temperature mimicking the number of my recent romantic encounters, in that it was struggling to climb above zero.  I couldn’t remember a cold like it, though it made for a fantastic Instagrammable scene with the snow-capped hills hugging the backdrop of the town.  Some of the pavements around the station and George Street seemed particularly slippy underfoot, which was something that I had felt especially anxious about since the morning in either 2009 or 2010 when I fell on some ice three times on my way to a 6 a.m. start in the Co-op.  I bruised the bone at the bottom of my spine quite badly and for weeks it would hurt to sit down, though the damage to my pride lasted much longer.  Every winter I felt the same fear whenever the weather turned cold enough for the ground to freeze.  To any casual observer I must have looked like a trauma victim learning to walk again for the first time after a terrible accident.  I could hear the physiotherapist by my side, coaching me along, becoming exasperated.  “If you could just take your hand off the rail and put your left foot forward, it isn’t that hard.”  It was difficult to enjoy the winter landscape when I could see the ground approaching with every step I took.

On at least three evenings I passed the same guy who was out running, always wearing a pair of black shorts, a t-shirt that was a shade only slightly darker than my cheeks, and a winter hat.  I felt like the Michelin Man every time he jogged by me.  Here I was wearing as many layers of clothing as I could fit into, and this guy was in shorts and a t-shirt like it was nothing.   Just seeing him was enough to make me feel colder.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could be out running on those pavements when I could hardly even walk on them.

Soon the sight of this guy’s t-shirt became like a rag to a bull for me.  I had never hated anyone; sure, like anybody else I held on to petty disputes, but hate was a bit strong, something I reserved mostly for mushrooms and Boris Johnson.  But by the end of the week I found myself wishing that the runner would find a thick patch of black ice.  It wasn’t anything I could say out loud, even though it wasn’t like I was wanting him to be severely injured – just a minor sprain, enough to help me feel better about myself.  With my luck it likely wouldn’t make much difference anyway.  The guy would display all of the natural balance of Christopher Dean, and would probably manage to save a small child in the process.  Meanwhile I would be seen off in the distance, unable to move from the one spot I knew for certain was safe, shivering and helpless.  Obviously I knew that deep down what I was feeling towards the runner wasn’t hatred at all, it was more like envy, which in some ways was worse.  I was jealous of the confidence he had on his feet, the fact that he was seemingly impervious to the lowly temperatures.  I could tell just from looking at him that he wasn’t the type of guy who had to bargain with himself to get out of bed in the morning, like a contestant on a TV game show.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be leaving the flat in shorts and t-shirt, but maybe 2021 was going to be the year where I could at least settle for a cup of filter coffee.

As Scotland’s Covid vaccine programme begins, this song seems like the ideal anthem for the month of January: