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.
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.
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.
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.