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: