My single occupancy has what might best be described as a ‘lived in’ scent to it. It isn’t bad or good, neither a stench nor a fragrance, it just exists. The flat is a small one, four little rooms crammed together into a tight space like a block of Shredded Wheat, and a whiff in one room will soon spread to all the others. In the morning the place smells of shower gel and Joop! Homme; by afternoon the fumes of passing traffic have wheezed in through the open bedroom window, and at night the dominant aroma comes from whatever I have prepared for dinner. It is a classic Potpourri, though ironically I have always had a deep mistrust of actual Potpourri.
For a while, I liked to burn heaps of incense that I had bought in jars from a specialist bookstore in London until a friend asked me why my flat smelled like there was a funeral service being conducted. It is the kind of thing that is difficult to forget about once you’ve heard it, and matters weren’t improved by my failed attempts at keeping houseplants alive over the years. Other than experimenting with some scented candles that had been gifted to me during the original lockdown, I just learned to live with the ‘lived in’ bouquet around my flat. It wasn’t something I ever spent much time thinking about, at least not until Lidl had an offer on reed diffusers recently. I didn’t really know what a diffuser is or how one functions, but since there is still a lot of time to be spent sitting around at home with nothing better to do while most of the country is in Coronavirus protection level 1, I decided to buy a couple and figure them out for myself.
The diffuser isn’t very much to look at. You wouldn’t make it the centrepiece of your living room, which is why I ended up hiding mine by the side of the television. The diffuser I bought resembles something you might see on a table in a craft gin bar: a small glass jar with a clear liquid filling it and eight wooden sticks which are poking through a gap in the silver lid like straws. Apparently the sticks – or reeds – are porous and act to draw the fragrant oil out of the jar until it reaches the tip, where it evaporates into the air in my living room. Even as I stared at the thing from across the room, I just couldn’t see how it would work; but it clearly is since now when I inhale during my yoga practices it is like crawling open-mouthed through a field of lavender. Now I wonder if the cotton variety is going to give me an insight into how it is to be suffocated with a pillow.
Basking in the brand new essence of my living room, I got to thinking about how the diffuser hadn’t really transformed my life in the ways I was hoping. I mean, sure, the place no longer smells of a funeral mass, nor even of exhaust fumes or that evening’s garlicky pasta dish, but it was hardly like baking a loaf of bread or learning how to play an instrument. Other people seem to have made some real use of their time during these various lockdowns. At least a dozen of my contacts across social media appear to have become committed Munro baggers. My sister has taken the leap of starting her own business and is finally teaching fitness classes in person again. While it is difficult to imagine that I would ever have bought a diffuser in ordinary times, there’s just no way of convincing anyone that unscrewing the lid of a jar and dropping eight reeds into some pungent liquid is any kind of achievement, even if I can now tell them about how the droplets evaporate in the air to create a pleasant smell. I don’t feel guilty about it or consider it a waste of time, however. Apart from the ongoing threat of a deadly airborne virus, my life feels as close to normal as it ever has been, which is to say that it is simply an ongoing succession of events taking place between Sunday and Thursday while I am waiting to go back to Aulay’s again, and that’s just the way I like it.
When I returned to Aulay’s, it had been a week since some guy had threatened to bite my nose off during the Scotland versus England Euro 2020 game, and since then Scotland had been eliminated from the tournament after a defeat at the hands of Croatia. I had put the dispute to the back of my mind by the time the following Friday had come around, only to walk into the pub and find the Plant Doctor and Geordie Pete sitting in the company of the big bearded bloke’s companion from that fateful night. What were the chances? This guy seemed a decent lad, though, and he confided in us that his friend had received a piece of bad news before the football started and that as a result his behaviour during it was out of character. These things happen, I suppose, but really, it sounded as though you wouldn’t want to be around this guy when he receives a parking ticket or if the bin men refuse to uplift his recycling because a glass bottle has found its way into the wrong bin.
Geordie Pete vanished like a benevolent spectre through the night shortly after some distant members of his family had been turned away from the bar on account of there being no tables, presumably to go in search of them for a drink elsewhere. After a while, the older couple who were sitting at the table next to ours called it a night, and the Plant Doctor moved into their seat before it had a chance to cool. He wanted to save the space for Geordie Pete and his family in the event that they all came back, but it was becoming obvious that he wouldn’t be returning. It’s the same with everybody – there comes a time when you have to accept that a loved one has gone and they aren’t coming back. So when the Plant Doctor saw that a couple of guys were being turned away because there were no available tables, he vacated the space he was reserving and ceded it to the men, who were thankful to have a place to drink. The two of them were fantastically handsome; so strikingly good looking that I almost felt ashamed to even be sitting near them. Even in the gloomy light of the bar, they appeared to have a sickeningly healthy glow about them. You could just tell that their home didn’t smell of scrambled eggs on a Saturday morning.
In time we learned that they were visiting Oban for the weekend from the Borders – one of the men is a chiropractor of Taiwanese origin from Galashiels, and the other owns a floor fitting business in Hawick. They have been using the restrictions on international travel as an opportunity to discover more of Scotland, which seemed like a good idea to me. I became involved in a conversation with Hawick about the Common Riding festivities which take place through many of the Scottish Border towns during the summer months. The Common Ridings commemorate a practice from the 13th and 14th centuries in which an appointed townsperson would go out on horseback and ride the town’s boundaries to protect against raids from the English or rival clans. Each town has its own little traditions, and I found it fascinating, not only to hear about how drunk people would get but also about the pageantry and colour of it all.
Meanwhile, across the table, I could hear as the Plant Doctor asked Galashiels how the two men had met. It was a bold question, I thought, but not an unreasonable assumption. Galashiels looked ready to respond with what was sure to be a powerful and romantic anecdote recounting the events leading to this handsome coupling when the perfect joke occurred to me, and I couldn’t stop myself from interrupting.
“Let me guess! Galashiels had an accident at work and asked Hawick to help him hide the body under the floorboards?”
They both smiled, but it was a smile I recognised well; an uncomfortable sort of smile. It was obvious that neither of them knew what to say to that. Why is it that I can’t help myself from saying stupid things when I’m around beautiful people? Galashiels later asked the Plant Doctor when it was that he first realised that he is gay, and he seemed surprised when the answer was that the Plant Doctor isn’t gay. It could even have been disappointment. Had the two men been under the impression for the entire time that we were talking that the Plant Doctor and I are a couple? And if we were viewing Hawick and Galashiels as this magnificently handsome pairing, then how were they seeing us? This is what happens when the Plant Doctor decides to wear a shirt as opposed to his usual holey t-shirts.
While cases of Covid continued to rise in Argyll like in the rest of Scotland, including the Borders, people around Oban were becoming concerned about the numbers. As is usually the way in a small town, stories of the virus were spreading faster than the actual illness, and by the end of last week people were talking about there being hundreds of cases in Oban when the true figure was less than 40, which was still higher than we had maybe ever seen. These things get whipped up quite quickly here. After hearing of a couple of positive cases from some of the pubs I decided that it would be a good idea to get myself tested, as a precaution more than anything else. Although I felt perfectly healthy after a Monday morning session of yoga during which I inhaled yet more evaporated droplets of lavender, by the time I was booking a PCR test online I was overwhelmed with dread. Even though I didn’t feel sick or have any reason to believe that I was, I felt as though I could be.
The Covid test site at Mossfield Stadium car park effectively amounts to a series of tents. This was the same place that I went to the shows as a child, where I would ride on the dodgems and eat pink candyfloss, but you wouldn’t have known it from looking at it now. After you have had your appointment QR code scanned by a man who is shielded behind a plastic screen you have to sanitise your hands, and you practically sanitise them after every little thing you do while you’re in the various tents. I was guided through the testing process by a friend who I had once described as being amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s, and while we had since joked about the remark, it was hard to escape the suspicion that he was quite enjoying this. First you are handed an envelope which you open and are asked to carefully place the contents on the table in front of you. Inside there was a swab, a test tube, a small plastic bag for rubbish, and a tissue. Looking at them laid out before me was as though I had just been caught shoplifting from Boots and was being forced to own up to my crime.
You hold the cotton swab against your tonsils for ten seconds, which you have to count out in your head yourself, before being instructed to place it up your nostril “until you experience some slight resistance.” I found that phrase incredible since ordinarily, the resistance comes before I even think of sticking something up my nose, but I suppose I should have considered it generous that I was at least offered the option of which nostril the swab went in. After all that is done, you put the swab into the test tube, which has some kind of medical solution in it that didn’t look unlike the oil in my diffuser, and then seal it up in a bag. I could scarcely believe that my life had brought me to this.
My nose was sensitive for hours after the test, and it was difficult to stop thinking about what would happen if the result came back positive, even if it was the most confident I was feeling about a test since my Higher Modern Studies exam. I received the result by text message at eight o’clock the following morning, right after I had done my yoga. My heart was racing when I heard my phone ping from the next room. This was when I realised how bad an idea the message preview notification on the home screen of your phone is. The words stopped right before the part of the message where it told me the outcome. I felt a wreck having to open up my phone to get into my messages just to find out that I don’t have coronavirus. The rest of the text is pretty bland, advising you that you should still wash your hands, adhere to social distancing, and wear a mask; all the things we’ve become accustomed to doing over the last sixteen months. Would it have killed them to put a wee ‘congratulations’ in there, or even a ‘thank you for doing your bit to help protect society’?
I was given two boxes of seven lateral flow testing kits from the centre, and I’ve been testing myself fairly frequently since. Not necessarily out of any worry that I could have the virus, but I figured that if I have the things then I might as well use them, similar to the attitude I have towards the jars of dried oregano or thyme I keep in the cupboard. I quite like having that peace of mind before I go to the pub on a Friday or visit my dad, though there’s something that doesn’t sit right about poking a swab around my nose in the same space in my kitchen where I cut onions and prepare bowls of overnight oats. It’s hard to imagine that there will ever be a time when I don’t feel uncomfortable conducting one of these tests, or anxious as I wait 30 minutes for the result to show, but I suppose that it is just another of these things that we’re going to have to get used to in life, like a ‘lived in’ smell or a stupid joke made in the company of a beautiful person.