During any conversation on the west coast of Scotland, it is usually only a matter of time before the subject turns to the weather, as if it were written into the local council bylaws that it must be discussed at every available opportunity. I don’t know if it’s because there isn’t much else going on in some of the small communities around here, especially during these last ten months of lockdown, or if the weather is just such a dominant and dramatic part of the landscape that it demands attention. After all, when you see the distant snow-capped hills rising from the sea looking like Tunnock’s Teacakes with the tops sliced off, it’s hard not to tell everybody about it. Whatever it was, the topic of the weather always lingered in the air. There were some people who you could tell wanted to talk about nothing but the state of the weather, while for others it took a little bit longer, but like a gentle breeze coming towards the shore from the sea, it would eventually get there.
Although the veil was slowly being lifted on winter and the daylight was nudging towards the evening, lasting as long as five o’clock by the end of the first week in February, the winter would still bear its fangs, and for much of January the talk seemed to be about how cold it was. It had been freezing for weeks, with the temperature according to the Met Office sharing a lot in common with me, in that we were both a struggling single figure. I had heard others say in conversation that it was the most prolonged cold spell they could remember, and I even used the phrase a couple of times despite not having any evidence to back it up. I never wrote such things in my notebooks – weather reports, essentially – instead focussing on something I had eaten or worn on a particular day. Recently I had written about a small purple blemish the size of a sunflower seed which had appeared on my right cheek, just below the rim of my glasses and in a position where a face covering wouldn’t hide it. I noted that it was typical such a thing would happen to me just before Valentine’s Day, but when I read it back I couldn’t fathom why it would make any difference. Other things I had scribbled into my book included a recipe for Beef Stroganoff, minus the mushrooms, and a congratulatory piece about how I had managed to get out of bed to perform a session of yoga on three mornings one week, an achievement which I attributed to the fact that I had put a fresh filter in the coffee machine the night before – but nothing about the weather. So much for my theory that a pretty notebook would encourage me to write better.
All through the chilly winter, I was wearing a brand new housecoat around the flat that probably turned out to be the best investment I had made in 2020. I wore the robe every night and it provided great comfort and warmth in the face of the dire cold. The coat was a fluffy navy blue colour with red trim around the lapels, and the belt tightened the garment snug around the waist, in keeping with its brand name; snuggaroo. On either side there was a pocket which was about the size of a fist, and for the life of me, I couldn’t fathom what people were supposed to keep in those pockets. They were big enough for a packet of tissues or a mobile phone, maybe, but if the whole purpose of a housecoat is that it is an item of clothing to be worn in the home, then everything you need is presumably within reach anyway. It bothered me more than it should any reasonable person, but that’s what the long periods of lockdown had done to us; giving us nothing but time to sit and think about the reason for there being pockets on a housecoat. I concluded that the only sensible use for the pockets would be to use them to stage my own Punch and Judy show if the options on Netflix ever dried up, but fortunately things hadn’t become that desperate yet.
Whilst pondering the potential uses for the pockets, it struck me that I hadn’t owned a housecoat since I was a small boy, and the idea of getting one for myself hadn’t once occurred to me in the years since. The way I saw it, the only types of people who owned a housecoat were children and the elderly. I had never heard of anyone in the hinterland between the two groups wearing one, therefore it followed that by becoming a man who wears a housecoat I was accepting my fate as an older man. I didn’t care about that, though. The coat felt luxurious, and there were times when I was strutting about my flat where I felt almost as though I was Hugh Hefner. An appreciation of robes is where the similarities with the founder of Playboy magazine started and ended, though, Rather than being a millionaire publisher who spends his time partying in an extravagant mansion in Los Angeles surrounded by beautiful models, I was a single man who was happy to be breaking even, claiming a 25% discount on my council tax for being a single occupant in a tiny flat on Combie Street. As for what Hugh Hefner would have kept in the pockets of his robe, the mind boggles.
With a slither more light in the morning, it was remarkable how things just seemed that little better than they had been a few days before. While the country’s Coronavirus vaccination programme started to pick up some pace, the brighter mornings were a bit like a vaccine for the soul, and along with the promise of a fresh filter in the coffee machine, I was finding myself able to get out of bed earlier to indulge in my morning routine most days. As well as being able to do a session of yoga, I finally started reading the English version of J.R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. The book did a good job of making me miss my own local bars even more than I already was, particularly Aulay’s. Many of his passages reminded me of the warmth of the pub, which is what I think I was missing most of all. Not only the companionable warmth of another drinker, but the physical warmth of the pub, especially those nights where it was so cold that someone would fire up the little halogen heater which sat in the corner by the door that took you from the lounge to the public bar. I don’t remember the heater ever making that much of a difference, but at least it was always warmer than my flat would have been. I came to realise that there were times when I was going to the pub for the heat as much as for the company.
My breakfast bar was finally being put to the use that I had always imagined, and if I wasn’t reading a book in the morning then I was flicking through the latest issue of Private Eye magazine during my lunch hour or reviewing the rare items of post I would receive. Usually the letters were just a notification that the cost of my electricity or broadband was going up, or it was yet another leaflet from the Scottish Conservative Party that went straight into the recycling bin, but in the last week I received a pamphlet from NHS Scotland about the new organ donor legislation in the country. Basically, from 26 March 2021, anyone who is older than 16 will be considered to have agreed to be a donor when they die; an ‘opt-out’ system rather than the current process where people have to make their own decision to sign up to the register. Usually in early February it was heart donations of a different sort which were being exchanged by mail, or at least it was for other people.
I think most folks believed that the change in the donor system was for the best, and for perhaps the first time it got me to thinking about what would eventually become of my own organs. I presumed that my lungs would be useless to anybody on account of the years I had spent as a part-time smoker in my twenties, and even though it was known that the liver could regenerate healthy cells over time, I didn’t fancy the chances of mine being accepted by the health service, even in an emergency; though I did at least hold out hope that maybe my liver would be displayed in a beautiful glass case above the bar in Aulay’s, next to the really expensive malt whiskies, the way some other bars kept shinty trophies or golf shields. That would be when I knew that I had truly made it. As for the kidneys, I never fully understood what it was they did, other than sharing their name with a variety of bean, and I imagined that there would probably be plenty of them going around.
After some consideration, I decided that my heart would be the most likely candidate for any organ donation after my death. I liked to think that I had a good heart, even if I had no expertise in cardiology to support this belief. In the days after receiving my pamphlet from the government, I found myself walking around Oban sizing people up as potential recipients for my heart. It made a change from judging them for the way they were dressed, or how they were wearing their masks – if they were even wearing one at all. It wasn’t unusual for me to be looking at people and thinking of ways I could convince them to accept my heart, but this time it was different; this was for their own good. Over the week I began to worry that any procedure might be like one of those countless science-fiction plots where the brain of some maniac is transplanted into the head of an innocent host who subsequently inherits all of the evil traits of the psychopath, leading him to an unwitting criminal rampage, and the scenario played on my mind.
I got to thinking about the poor sap who would eventually end up with my heart; how he would likely be a ruggedly handsome figure who has all of the most attractive personality traits such as charm, intelligence, a razor-sharp wit, and he always knows exactly the right thing to say. All that he was ever missing was a good heart, and when the day comes that he receives one from a donor, he is filled with joy and hope; finally his ills have been cured and he will be able to live a normal life. But slowly, like in a bad sci-fi movie, he realises that something isn’t right. He has become the kind of guy who opens a Tinder conversation with the line: “Usually if I make a match on here I assume someone has swiped in the wrong direction.” He’s a romantic illiterate and his love life has suddenly been ruined, to the extent that any time he approaches a woman he is filled with the same apprehension he experiences on the one day a year when he wears a red shirt and he knows that eventually he’s going to have to put it in the washing machine, so once he takes it off he stuffs it down into the bottom of the laundry basket and forgets about it until he next feels like wearing red. It is woefully obvious to him that the heart he has been donated is a lonely heart, and in time he is spending his evenings performing puppet shows with the pockets on his housecoat.