It is difficult to imagine that anything interesting or controversial ever happens in the car park of our local Lidl store. The concrete space sits off the busy Soroba Road and is opposite a Londis filling station and the Lorn Medical Centre, with the Black Lynn burn running along its back; an ordinary rural supermarket car park. Surely nothing remarkable occurs in these types of places – unless you are the guy who recently completed his six-year quest to park in all 211 spaces in the car park of the Bromley branch of Sainsbury’s whilst compiling a spreadsheet ranking each of them. Until I read that particular story when it came to national attention in April, I often worried that I was spending too much time worrying about the pointless minutiae of life. Things like the length of time it would take for my socks to dry on a clothes airer, the pollen count, or the procedure for changing lightbulbs in a Victorian-era height light fitting. I thought about how best to organise my tie rack, how I could use the can of chickpeas I had panic bought at the beginning of the first lockdown, and the hygiene of using a pedal bin versus a swing bin. But it turns out that I’m not alone, and in a way I felt vindicated.
I don’t know if there is anyone in Oban who is keeping a spreadsheet of all of the spaces in the Lidl car park, but if there isn’t then it seems reasonable to assume that there is nothing of consequence taking place there. That is until my own clandestine meeting there last week. I received a text message from the Plant Doctor asking me if I would be available to meet him and the owner of the Arctic Fox car in the Lidl car park at seven o’clock on Tuesday evening since Arctic Fox was leaving for a new job in Edinburgh at the end of the week and she was wanting to present me with a leaving gift. Traditionally it is the person who is leaving that receives gifts, not those who are left behind, but it seemed as though all norms had been thrown out the window by this point in 2021. I spent the day wondering what Arctic Fox was going to hand over in Lidl car park. A brightly coloured pair of socks, perhaps, since we had spoken about the importance of socks to me on occasion. Maybe a selection of beers after witnessing how protective I was of my cans when I fell in the mud on Kerrera without spilling a drop, or a bag filled with tennis balls that the Plant Doctor and I could entertain ourselves with in her absence.
The car park was practically empty at 7pm, making it even less remarkable than usual, though at one point, as I was standing talking to Arctic Fox and the Plant Doctor, a shoe did come flying out of the passenger side window of an oncoming car, soon followed by a girl of primary school age who ran out to chase after it. Arctic Fox was carrying an Amazon Prime box which was open at the top. Inside I could see not socks or beers or even tennis balls, but six houseplants of various types. She handed the box to me, a leaving gift that was effectively a box of mass murder. It’s not as though Arctic Fox didn’t know about my dire history of failing to keep houseplants alive for any significant time: on the flap of the box she had inscribed the words “it is okay if they all die.”
She and the Plant Doctor tried to employ scientific reason to make me feel better about the grave responsibility I had inherited. They speculated that the plants might have a chance of survival since they will have safety in numbers, and that statistically at least one out of the six should be able to live, but I didn’t believe it. It’s not like I was purposefully killing all of my houseplants or that I took any kind of enjoyment from their demise, it’s just something that happens when they come into my guardianship. Over my life as a single occupant, I have learned that I am no better at knowing how to properly care for houseplants than I am at knowing what to do with a can of chickpeas.
I lined the six plants across the edge of my mantelpiece, alongside a couple of cactus plants that have been gathering dust for a while and the Crassula ovata succulent I had bought from Lidl last September just to bring my shopping to £25 so that I could use a £5 off coupon and which was grimly clinging on to life. I was quite impressed with how the collection looked. My favourite was the plant that Arctic Fox had been growing inside a bottle. It was pretty cool, though most things that come in bottles tend to appeal to me. Seemingly the plants would only need to be watered once a week, and while that news should have been welcomed by my lackadaisical approach to horticulture, in my mind it somehow made things more difficult. You can get into a routine when you’re doing something every day, such as feeding a child or a cat. Having to remember to water your plants one day every week seemed awkward, the sort of thing that would be best done by keeping a spreadsheet. And who wants to be that kind of guy?
The health of my new houseplants has been on my mind quite a bit in the days since I was gifted them, though occasionally I have been distracted. Every night on the Esplanade, at exactly the same point, I passed a pair of pigeons who were sitting on the sea wall, always doing nothing but just staring at one another. It was impossible to say for certain that they were the same two birds, but they looked the same anyway. The pigeons were absolutely lovestruck, and I found myself wishing that there was someone who would look at me the way these pigeons were gazing at each other. I’ve heard of a doe-eyed look, but I had never seen this kind of doo-eyed look before.
Nearby, a few metres away from the romancing pigeons, an elderly couple were sitting on one of the benches which face out onto the bay. Their shopping bags were spread out on the ground by their feet, Marks & Spencer, I think, and the woman’s walking stick was balanced against the arm of the bench. She was leaning back into the chest of her partner, as though they were at home on their couch watching a film, and her right arm was stretched out in front of them holding a mobile phone. Presumably she was taking a selfie of the two of them. It was quite nice that they still felt that way about each other at their age, but it made me feel sad too. The Esplanade is full of couples strolling side-by-side these days, and sometimes it gets tiring to see. I think I preferred it when the only people who would be out were the joggers; even the guy who was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in winter. Apart from anything else, I think what bothered me most was the knowledge that the woman’s photograph won’t even have captured the beautiful sea view with the sunlight exploding off the water in front of them. Instead it will just be the two of them cuddled together with the Corran Halls car park in the distance behind. Though I guess, like the pigeons, they didn’t really care about what else was around them.
It wasn’t until I got my hair cut on Saturday morning that I was able to shed some of my cynicism, along with more hairs than I had ever had on my head. A sign on the door of the barbershop says that customers have to phone a number to make an appointment in line with government guidelines, but it turns out that the number is for a phone that the barber only uses when he is away on holiday and it is never answered and you simply go inside and write your name and the time in a large book. Business had seemingly been slowing down now that most people have had their first cut since restrictions eased, while some people are still cropping their own hair at home, and the barber reckoned that he probably wouldn’t really get busy again until weddings were allowed with more substantial numbers and women would insist that their partners get a proper haircut for the event. It never ceases to amaze me how much wisdom there is to be heard in the barber’s chair. I wanted to ask him about his thoughts on keeping houseplants, but I was meeting the rest of my family for breakfast at Poppies and I didn’t think that I had the time to get into it.
With my new haircut and wearing my favourite pair of beige chinos, I felt a lot like a garden chair that is retrieved from the shed and dusted down in spring after spending the winter in storage when I went out for drinks with my brother and the Plant Doctor. 143 days had come and gone since I last had a pint of lager poured from a pub tap, and nothing tasted better. There wasn’t a table to be had outside Markies or the Oban Inn, so we settled for a seat at Bar Rio, which looked quite nice with its new wooden plant boxes enclosing the outdoor drinking area from the rest of the pavement. It was a good spot for people-watching. The weather wasn’t especially inviting for a beer garden with overcast skies, though it was dry and reasonably mild and we had spent the best part of five months indoors. We deserved a drink.
Barely an hour had passed when a drop of rain fell from the sky and landed on the knee of my chinos. Such is the way of these things it was swiftly followed by a crescendo of the stuff. There was nothing we could do about it, not when we had bought another round of drinks, though the guy at the table next to us went inside the restaurant and ordered two cups of tea since they could be consumed indoors. From our vantage point we could see everyone across the street in the Oban Inn desperately trying to squeeze under the canopy. The Plant Doctor quipped that we should be drinking cocktails so that we could get those little cocktail umbrellas, and when it came time for me to order our next round of beers I couldn’t help but steal his joke when the barmaid arrived at our table. With her mask it was difficult to tell whether she smiled or if I received the same reaction I usually get when I try to make a woman laugh, but her eyes suggested that she enjoyed the line. A few moments later, the barmaid returned to our table with a small plastic box of the wee cocktail umbrellas and offered us our choice, which made us very happy.
The rain didn’t last terribly long, though the shower was heavy enough to leave us soaked and to water my Tennent’s Lager down from a 4% to a 3.9% ABV. Ordinarily such an experience might have left us feeling miserable, but after a year of almost nothing but misery, it was hard to be upset over a little rain. We dried out pretty quickly, and once we started drinking White Russians along with our beers, the whole world seemed to be singing and all the colours had come out. I couldn’t believe that I had lived for 37 years without trying one of those before. Seemingly when I arrived home after the ten o’clock curfew I planted the pink cocktail umbrella in the soil of one of my houseplants. It’s funny trying to decipher the crazy way that the heavily intoxicated mind works. The little umbrella wasn’t likely to make it any easier for me to remember to water the plants, and it wouldn’t protect them from the shower that probably isn’t going to come any better than it kept the rain out of my lager. But still, it was nice to look at.