By now it has been a few days short of a year since the first coronavirus restrictions were put in place across the UK, and depending on who one talks to it either ‘feels like yesterday’ since lockdown was originally announced on 23 March 2020 or it is as though this entire situation has been dragging on for years. Days, weeks and months have blended into a single huge block, like the puddle that forms by the side of the pavement on George Street across from WH Smith on rainy days and is near-impossible to walk beyond without being sprayed by a passing vehicle. You know it’s there and that you’re going to have to do something about it, but in the end, what does it really matter if you get soaked when there’s nowhere else to go but home? I felt about Tuesdays and Wednesdays, February and March the same way I felt about that damn puddle.
Reading through old entries in my notebook from the time was almost as surreal as living through it. Now that we have almost become accustomed to wearing face coverings wherever we go, social distancing, and pubs and restaurants either being severely limited in how they can operate or at times being closed entirely, it is incredible to remember that there was a time when everybody believed that the best way to combat an airborne virus was to stock up on as much toilet roll and pasta as we could fit in our cupboards and to wash our hands whilst singing God Save The Queen. The latter was official advice from the UK government, and I still haven’t used the tin of chickpeas I had bought that first weekend in a blind panic because the rest of the shelves had been emptied. At a time when some countries had closed their borders to international travellers, I was standing at the urinal in Aulay’s listening to a fellow drunk espouse his theory about how you can tell the quality of the lager in a pub from how wet the bathroom floor is. His claim was that the more fluid there is to be seen on the floor of a pub’s toilet, the better the beer is because it proves that people are drinking a lot of it. There wasn’t much opportunity to put the idea to the test before the lockdown eventually came, though it was clear that some puddles are to be avoided more than others.
In the week that the Scottish government revealed further details outlining its ‘roadmap’ out of the current set of lockdown restrictions that have been in effect since 26 December, Oban has enjoyed some brilliant early spring sun that started earlier and stretched later into the day than had been seen for some time. Some days the temperature even threatened to reach the low-teens, which was reason enough for me to walk around town with my coat opened. Nothing marks the changing of the seasons better than the first day of the year where it’s mild enough to unbutton your coat. The weather was a welcome break from the grey and dreary period of rain we had recently been enduring, when at times the stuff seemed to be falling vertically and horizontally at the same time, and it didn’t matter how tightly your coat was buttoned because it would still find a way in. Hailstones the size of fish food pellets lashed off the ground, and while it isn’t for me to suggest that Mother Nature was showing any kind of preference in the field of Scottish football, it was fairly compelling that the bad weather struck within hours of Rangers winning the Scottish Premier League title.
Like many Celtic fans, I had been resigned to the idea that the team would lose the championship since around October time, and even the most optimistic knew by the turn of the year that Rangers were on course to win it. That gave me plenty of time to prepare myself for the inevitable sight of triumphant bluenoses in the spring, and when it came I was quietly relieved that lockdown restrictions meant that I wouldn’t have to witness it first-hand in the town’s pubs. If the ostrich can survive for centuries by employing similar techniques, then I reckoned it was good enough for me. I did everything I could think of to distract myself from the reality of the event: undertaking a spring clean of my flat in keeping with the season, watching classic films I had missed over the years and immersing myself in music. On YouTube, I came across the final television appearance of the rock star Warren Zevon on The Late Show With David Letterman in October 2002, some months after he had been diagnosed with a form of lung cancer that killed him a year later. The host asked him if there was anything he understood now, facing his own mortality, that he didn’t before, and Zevon responded: “You put more value in every minute. It’s more valuable now. You’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich.”
For days I was trying my best to avoid my Facebook feed, which was filled with Rangers supporters who were enjoying the cheese and pickle sandwich of a Scottish Premier League title win, while the memories feature of the app was busy reminding me that five years ago I was embarking on my second trip to New York City. As much as I enjoyed looking back at some of the old photographs from the holiday, it felt as though I was being taunted by a ghost when the furthest I can travel these days is the war memorial. I decided to put the internet to better use in the hope of learning a new skill, and while it may not sound as impressive as some of the talents other people seemed to be cultivating during the extended period of being indoors, I was feeling quite pleased with myself when I cooked egg-fried rice for the first time. As usual, the most difficult part of the dish was my attempt at measuring the amount of rice I would need when I was preparing it the evening before. Rice is even more difficult to measure than pasta, which I always manage to cook too much of. My ability has undoubtedly been hampered by the fact that the battery in the kitchen scales I bequeathed from home when I moved into my single occupancy has since died, and because I have never bothered to replace it I have been forced to measure certain ingredients ‘by eye’. I believed that this was something I would get better at with experience, and especially now that I have my new glasses, but it turns out that I can no more remember how much pasta I poured into a pot two weeks ago than I can which day of the week it is.
They say that you can never have too much of a good thing, though, and I wasn’t about to complain about having a bowl which was piled with rice as tall as a molehill, especially not when it turned out to be so tasty. That the egg-fried rice was so easy to make and just as delicious had me feeling ashamed that I had been buying the prepared packaged stuff from the supermarket for so long. I wasn’t even put off eating those pouches of rice after the night in Aulay’s when the diminutive barmaid told me about the reason she had stopped buying them. I was nursing a pint of Tennent’s at the end of the bar on a Wednesday night following another quiz defeat when for some reason the conversation turned to rice. The barmaid mentioned that she had stopped buying the packaged rice as a consequence of a dinner-time disaster when she was squeezing the grains from the pouch into a stir fry and a dead mouse flopped into the wok. All I can remember thinking was why she had felt it necessary to emphasise the fact that the mouse was dead when surely it was unlikely that it was going to appear amongst some processed food in any other condition. The story never put me off buying the product, mainly because it seemed worth the very unlikely risk of finding a mouse in the packet for all the effort it saved from making egg-fried rice from scratch, though that no longer seems to be a reasonable excuse now that I know how simple it is to prepare egg-fried rice on my own.
It wasn’t much, but mastering even the most basic dish would be enough to allow me to leave lockdown feeling confident that the last year hadn’t been a complete waste. Restrictions are due to start easing from the beginning of April, with beer gardens due to be reopened from the 26th and indoor hospitality resuming from the 17th of May. I always imagined that if people still kept calendars in 2021 then those are the dates I would have been circling on mine, so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I was listening to the First Minister outlining the Scottish government’s plans for relaxing the rules and it wasn’t the proposed dates for pubs being able to open that had me most excited, but the one where barbers could trade again. It is early December since I last had my hair cut, and by now it is resembling the sketch a toddler might produce after being asked to draw a scarecrow. There are hairs branching off in all directions, like rain falling on an early March day.
The notion that a man who is as follically challenged as I am should be wishing his hairs away seemed absurd, but at the same time I am almost missing the barber as much as I do spending time with my own family, or seeing some of the friends I have lost touch with over the last year. I miss the barber’s chair nearly as much as I do the barstool, even if for reasons of vanity more than anything else. My ability to deal with unruly hair is on a level with my judgment when it comes to measuring rice, in that I am forced to do it ‘by eye’ and no matter what I do, there is always too much of it. The more I think about it, the more I appreciate what Warren Zevon was getting at when he spoke about enjoying every sandwich, but I’ve come to realise that it’s more than sandwiches. When the time comes, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of that hair cut.