Even after a thrilling Easter weekend escapade on the island of Kerrera and even after discovering that, despite my worst fears, my washing machine is in perfect working order, I haven’t been feeling especially happy of late. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, but I figured that it’s due to a combination of lockdown fatigue and the annual reminder that I suffer from hayfever. It’s amazing the way that it always takes me by surprise when around the same time every April my eyes start to itch and my nose is streaming more than an addictive docuseries on Netflix. It’s reminiscent of going into Lidl and picking up a jar of paprika because of a nagging feeling in the back of the mind that says you are out of it, only when you take it home and open the kitchen cupboard there is already a full one on the shelf and you are left with two of them, their powder as red as your eyeballs.
Around the middle of April, I started checking the pollen count every morning as part of my daily routine, mostly out of boredom but also because I was interested to know which days I was likely to suffer the most. The Met Office website forecasted that it was ‘high’ during that week, though I still didn’t really understand what a high pollen count is or how people actually measure such a thing. Most days it said that the main type of pollen in the air was birch and some willow, which was only useful for telling me that I was going to have to go and figure out which type of tree it is I am allergic to. It seemed an inescapable truth that sometimes life is a birch.
My gloomy outlook wasn’t helped by yet another failed foray onto the smartphone dating application Tinder. It is extremely rare that my use of the app ever results in me being matched with another woman, but on one afternoon in April I received notification of two separate matches. The first young lady immediately messaged me with a red heart emoticon, to which my natural response was to comment on how I could “remember when those used to come as little candies with messages on them.” She unmatched me right away. The second young woman, who was named Kerys, had all of the physical attributes that I like in a person: a symmetrical face with two eyes, a nose and a mouth. I sent Kerys a message expressing my surprise at being matched with someone like her, though the truth was that I was surprised to be matched with anyone at all.
She responded by saying that “U look like an interesting person :)” and I wondered what that meant. What makes someone look like an interesting person? It bothered me. Was I interesting in the same way that I visited the Museum of Ireland – Archeology when I was in Dublin in 2017 because it was a rainy afternoon and it looked like an interesting way to pass the time? A man who has tattoos and piercings all over his face looks interesting, but it was difficult to see how my Tinder profile picture could be in the same category. I thanked Kerys without really knowing what I was thanking her for and told her that we would see if I could maintain her interest beyond two messages to back that up. “Don’t be silly! I’m interested in getting to know you xx” she swooned. Her attitude towards me seemed unusually positive, and I figured that I would try and learn a little more about her by asking about the fact that her Spotify anthem was the song Dreams by Fleetwood Mac. I haven’t heard from her since.
The Tinder snub didn’t bother me that much, but it was a small symptom of a larger malaise. During one of my walks along the Esplanade after work, I observed as a seagull stood patiently on the pavement by the side of a parked car, its little head tilted upwards towards the passenger door. I wondered what it was up to. As I neared it became clear that there was a couple eating their chip shop dinner in the car, such is the way of ‘eating out’ in the lockdown age, and the seagull was behaving the way a dog does when it sits at the foot of its dining owner. Even when I approached to within a metre or two of the bird it remained unmoved. It never flinched. Rather than the seagull being scared off by my approaching footsteps, I was the one worrying about why the gull was not intimidated by my gait. What does it say about me when even a seagull isn’t taking any notice of my existence?
More than ever I was craving the lifting of lockdown restrictions. It was obvious that I was spending too much time in my own company thinking about seagulls and pollen counts, and maybe the fucking seagulls are spreading the pollen. I was worried that if things went on this way for much longer my eyes would grow used to the gloom. Though the same was probably true of everybody. All over Oban, people were preparing for the 26th of April when the country would move into level 3 and non-essential shops and outdoor hospitality could open for the first time in 2021. Everywhere you looked buildings were receiving a fresh coat of paint and beautiful flower baskets were being hung, ready to woo the expected influx of visitors to the town. It felt like the day of the high school Christmas Jingles when people would spend their time fretting about their clothes and hair ahead of the big night. Though just like at the Jingles, where there was always one kid who wore a truly horrendous outfit that everyone would talk about for days, Oban’s spring reawakening had its own visual atrocity in the form of the newly purchased and renovated Regent Hotel.
The 1930s art deco architecture of the hotel had always made it one of my favourite buildings in Oban and it was sad seeing it fall into a state of disrepair when the pandemic forced it and a few other hotels in town out of business last year. Encouragingly it has recently come under new ownership, and like many other properties, it was repainted in advance of the 26th. Unfortunately the classic understated light cream shade was replaced with a sickly yellow coat with red flashes between the windows. One poster on the Information Oban Facebook group described it as “looking like a dirty tampon” but in my mind it was more similar to a plate of undercooked oven chips which have been smothered in ketchup in an effort to make them more palatable. Either way, it wasn’t a good look.
Safety was very clearly the message of the moment in the week leading up to the next phase in the lifting of restrictions. Around town – in the North Pier car park, at the station and along the Esplanade – there were large boards warning people to “avoid crowds” and reminding folk that they were to maintain a two-metre distance from one another. Some of them were wrapped around lamposts like a dress. There were also much smaller public information items found on most lamposts that were illustrated with two stick figures who were walking at a pace, presumably, two metres apart with the wording “keep a safe space”. The same posts were already fashioned with Scottish National Party colours ahead of the forthcoming Scottish Parliament elections. All around town the message was clear: Vote SNP, but form an orderly and socially distanced queue to do so.
On the final Saturday of lockdown as we knew it, it was a perfectly sunny day and evening, the sort that would perfectly illustrate why someone should visit Oban during spring – only no one could yet. With the new rule of six people from different households being able to meet up outdoors already in action, we took the opportunity to hold the next edition of our album club in the garden of a bird enthusiast. His residence near McCaig’s Tower had an almost unobstructed view of the entire bay if you were tall enough to see over the branches from the trees, which fortunately I was. When the sun began to set behind Kerrera it turned a regal purple, a colour I can’t remember seeing so vividly before. It was the most scenic album club we had put together. If hosting these meetings on Zoom over the past year was like watching a poorly shot indie film that didn’t have the budget to hire a hairstylist, then this was the Oscars. It wasn’t our first Jingles. We sat drinking beers, gin and whisky in the garden until close to two in the morning, kept warm by a fire bucket that had been lit and maintained so expertly by the bird enthusiast and a doctor of words that we could easily have been discussing a popular song by Keith Flint’s former band.
I had walked to the album club meeting with the doctor of words, and we were surprised by the almost total absence of noise from the surrounding gardens in the area, especially considering that it was such a glorious night and larger groups could now socialise outdoors. Near the Tower we passed the marine biology student who before the pandemic was occasionally a barmaid in Aulay’s. I stopped to talk to her for a few minutes, always delighted for an opportunity to tell somebody about our geeky club. The doctor of words said that the marine biology student seemed excited to see me and suggested that I should pursue something, but I didn’t believe her. I think that it’s just been so long since all of us have seen other people that it’s exciting to see anyone and to be able to talk to them face-to-face. It could also have been the fact that I was carrying my cargo of beers in a New Yorker tote bag. I don’t take the bag out often, but whenever I do it usually seems to attract compliments, as though other people see it and automatically assume that I must be intelligent and funny and someone who is worth talking to, when the truth is that my brother had once gifted me with a one-year digital subscription to the magazine and the tote bag came as a reward. Still, I quite liked the fact that people noticed the bag and seemed to appreciate it. I’m considering taking a photograph of the tote bag and using it as the main picture on my Tinder profile.
With non-essential retail open again, I was finally able to go shopping for a new pair of brown shoes. I had been in desperate need of one since my favourite pair had begun to fall apart before Christmas. Having only black shoes in my wardrobe severely limited my options when it came to deciding which outfit to wear on a daily basis. It was hard not to see how being unable to wear my brown tweed suit, for instance, wasn’t contributing to the gloom I had been feeling. The shoe shop seemed reasonably busy – there were maybe two or three other customers – and it didn’t feel any different to any other time. I went straight upstairs to browse the men’s footwear, where being met by row after row of neatly buffed smart dress shoes was everything I could have hoped it would be. I don’t know if it’s possible to immediately fall in love with a pair of shoes the first time you see them, but there was one particular pair of Josef Seibels that I at least wanted to take out for a drink to find out if there was something there.
I took the shoes downstairs to pay for them, though my route to the till was obstructed by an elderly man who was preparing to try on a pair of his own. He had as many as three different sets sprawled out across the ground in front of him, and his legs were as thick as tree trunks, making it impossible to walk around him as he sat there on the chair. I stood with my new shoes dangling from the index and middle fingers of my right hand, watching as this large old man used a cane to help him rise from the seat. Everything seemed to be happening in agonising slow motion. His foot looked to be wider than any foot I had ever seen and it was difficult to see how it was going to fit into any of the shoes he had chosen. Sure enough, the first shoe he managed to get his foot into was said to be too tight. “Should I try the other one anyway?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Why would you think to try on the left shoe when you already know that the right doesn’t fit? It was all I could do to keep from inviting him to try on my shoes as well. I couldn’t help but think that the old man was worse than the seagull I had seen on the Esplanade, completely unmoved by my presence. Fortunately the shop assistant recognised my plight after not too long, and she cleared the shoes aside to give me enough space to pass. As she was processing my purchase I noticed an A4 sign behind the counter advising the shoe store employees of all the occasions when they should wash their hands: before starting their shift, before making a sale, after making a sale, that sort of thing. It filled the entire page.
There was something almost inevitable about the dramatic drop in temperature and the return of overcast skies in the week that pubs could serve alcohol outdoors for the first time since December. Although it was cloudy and not nearly as warm as the previous week, it was at least still dry when our Zoom beer club met up in person for the very first time. Folk had come from Campbeltown and Glasgow for the occasion, which coincided with the scientist from Swansea University who has strong opinions on shoelaces celebrating his fortieth birthday. Since the town’s beer gardens and restaurants were packed out with people taking advantage of the May bank holiday weekend, we were happy to take our beers and sit on the grassy area overlooking the RNLI lifeboat station, which would have been a fortuitous location should any of us have fallen into distress from the magnitude of the event. Despite the cool night we never seemed to find it too cold up on the hill, though some of us did spend as much time kicking a football around the area as we did drinking our beers, so we might have been warm from that. It’s remarkable how much joy playing with a football brings to a group of thirty-something-year-old men.
We spent several hours up there, just drinking beers, eating Space Raiders and punting the football, and it wasn’t really any different to when we would talk online; just better. After a while, we were joined by three young ladies who were looking for somewhere to go after the beer gardens had closed. I liked the fact that after hearing all about my ineptitude with the opposite sex every Friday for the last year the other members of the beer club could witness me conjuring these three young women to join us, even if it didn’t really mean anything more than them wanting a place to drink their Smirnoff Ice. Two of the women were already known to the Plant Doctor and me after our last night out in The Lorne before Christmas. We had grown into a large group, but it was fun, reminiscent of the days when you could go to the pub and meet different people. On a bench further along the hill two guys were sitting playing guitar and smoking cigarettes. They joined us later in the night after admitting that they were initially sceptical because they believed that we looked and sounded like a group of socialists from Glasgow University. When you saw me in the tweed outfit that I was finally able to wear for the first time in months and the scientist with the strong opinions on shoelaces looking resplendent in a brilliant tweed blazer, the type which just demands a smoking pipe, it was easy to see how they came to that conclusion.
It turned out that the guys were former heroin addicts who have since found God, though they were reluctant to take song requests on their guitar. They did at least allow the red-haired biologist in our group who actually is from Glasgow to strum a few notes, however. One of the chaps seemed to take something of a shine to me and I spent a bit of time talking to him, though it was more of a wandering monologue than an actual conversation. Some of his experiences and stories belonged in a book, but I wasn’t brave enough to suggest that I have the stomach to write such a thing. At the end of the night, after we cleared away our cans and debris, we went our separate ways from the guests who had briefly joined us and made our way home. The streets were calm and still, allowing us the opportunity to play football on the road, as though we were kids in the 1970s. We agreed that whatever expectations we had for the night couldn’t have been anything like the Friday we actually experienced. Things immediately seem a lot less gloomy when you’re amongst good company, drinking beers and booting a football around the grass, meeting new people and hearing campfire tales you otherwise wouldn’t have if you were at home reading the pollen forecast. We parted with the promise that we would all meet up again the following afternoon to take a trip down to Easdale Island, where a whole new set of experiences would be had.
The second part of this story will be published in a week or so.