While reading through the 2022 Oban Winter Festival programme, I realised that the forthcoming festive season would be the first we have had without restrictions in three years. It’s striking the way that something so momentous and life-altering can now barely merit a thought. These days, talking to others about the timeline of the pandemic is like trying to tell someone about the film you watched last weekend while you were drunk and half-asleep. Everybody’s perception of the Covid years is different. For something that at the time seemed totally unforgettable to be living through, it has suddenly become very difficult to remember.
There were definitely no restrictions last winter quickly turns to, ah, but I remember that I could only sit at a table in the pub on Hogmanay. Did they change the rules after Christmas? Celebrating Christmas was only strongly advised against last year, remember. Was it last December that we had to provide a negative lateral flow test to be able to go to the work party? I could have sworn that was the year before. 2020 quickly converges with 2021 and even seeps into 2022. Are you sure we were supposed to wear a mask when we were shopping for Easter eggs this year? I know that I stopped wearing mine long before then. Talking about it nowadays, the whole thing seems absurd; completely make-believe. Imagine future generations reading about this stuff in their history books. What do you mean they went outside onto their doorsteps every week for two years to clap for the ‘brave and heroic’ NHS workers then refused to pay them a proper wage when the economy collapsed?
Clearly, Covid won’t ever go away, but it’s different now. It comes as a surprise when you hear that someone has tested positive for it, sort of like how it is with a road traffic accident. You know that it’s something that happens, but you don’t imagine it happening to anybody you know. People have more important issues to be thinking about these days: The Russian invasion of Ukraine; the cost of living crisis; Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup; Taylor Swift dropping Midnights without warning.
Of late, when I haven’t been writing profile prompts on the dating app Bumble I’ve been listening to Midnights, like everybody else on the planet. Although things have felt more like the pre-2020 version of normal lately, and this year I have been able to do things such as go to the cinema with friends, attend gigs, and travel all the way to Sarajevo, it was when I heard the new Taylor Swift album that I truly began to feel that we are out of the woods in terms of Covid restrictions and lockdowns. A couple of weeks after it was released, we had a community play of the album on Guy Fawkes Night, when the birdwatching accountant invited a doctor of words and me to his place to watch the fireworks display. I don’t know when I last listened to music in a social setting, but I was quickly reminded of the joy of it when we were dissecting the lyrics of Lavander Haze and entrenching ourselves in the back catalogue of Edinburgh’s Young Fathers over beer and mulled wine.
The birdwatching accountant’s kitchen offers a birdseye view of the bay, over which the fireworks were being set off. We gathered around the chrome sink as the display began and the sky was quickly lit up in technicolour. A window was opened to enable us to enjoy the authentic experience of hearing the crackle and sizzle of exploding rockets whilst shivering and pretending that we were enjoying ourselves. A fireworks display always has a limited ceiling of interest, I find. Mine is usually between twenty and thirty seconds – so twenty-five seconds, I guess. That’s the point when people start discussing things like how was it that the first pyrotechnic discovered that fireworks could make all of these shapes and colours, and then you find yourself standing in hushed reverence as the thing goes on and on for an interminable period.
Not all important occasions need fireworks or a Taylor Swift album to make them special, and so it was when a group of us went out to celebrate the Doctor of Words’ birthday over cocktails and chaos. We went from the Lulu Lounge to The View, where Oban’s best bar band The Fold were rocking the place. Usually the bar is filled with people who are half my age and you’re left feeling as though you are standing out more than an antler at the town’s reindeer parade. On this night, however, it belonged to us. Our gang of forty and near-fortysomethings had staged an accidental coup and reclaimed the dancefloor for our generation. We danced and drank like twenty-year-olds; shots of Tequila going down faster than our butts could brush the ground. It was the most fun night, the sort that just didn’t seem possible two years ago and now you don’t know why it wasn’t.
Outside after closing time, when the alcohol on my breath wheezed into the night like an underwhelming Catherine Wheel, I was approached by a young woman who wanted to talk to me. She began with the words “me and my boyfriend”, which is an immediate damp squib of an opening line. It turns out that the couple had been in the audience on the night when I read from my notebook as the support act for the comedian Gary Little and they recognised me from that performance. I didn’t consider until long after the encounter that if the couple had witnessed my emphatic moves on the dancefloor inside there is a danger they might be second-guessing their original impression of me being the hapless loser that my carefully crafted persona says I am, but that’s just the way it’s going to be now that we can all party like it’s 1999 again.
The boyfriend quickly lost interest in anything I had to say and wandered off up George Street, but his partner stuck around. She had taken a shine to my navy corduroy jacket, which despite once being told that it gives me the appearance of someone who has gotten lost on their way to a yacht club AGM is still one of my favourite items to wear. People often seem incapable of stopping themselves from stroking the arms, even if there is nothing immediately impressive about them. This particular woman went one step further and asked me if she could wear the thing. I have been longing for a woman to invite me out of my clothes, but the idea isn’t usually for her to wear them instead.
I removed the valuables from the pockets of my corduroy jacket: my phone, the keys to my flat, and my leather cover notebook. Who knows what someone would want with a book where the most recent, barely legible entry was of a conversation I had had with a woman at the bar in Aulay’s after that week’s quiz, but I know that I would feel naked without it. She was unsure which variety of rum she should order for her friend since she has never drunk the spirit herself. “Has a bottle of rum in her kitchen cupboard that predates everything in the house” reads the note, followed by a reminder of the story of the time her father had visited from Australia and brought a gift he had picked up at the airport, only he had mistaken her favourite drink, Jim Beam bourbon, for this bottle of rum that still sits in the cupboard.
Sometime after two o’clock on a Sunday morning in the middle of November, I entered into a jacket swap with a young woman I had just met. She wore my corduroy piece, while I tried on hers, which I believe was made from Merino wool and had more colours than a fireworks display. The fit was terrible for my physique, but it was still comfortably the warmest thing I have worn on my body. This exchange wasn’t enough for the young lady, however. These things need to be memorialised, not like a pub conversation in a notebook, but on video. And so she propped her mobile phone against the foot of the MacIntyres Countrywear clothing store, walked back out to the edge of the pavement and hooked her arm around my elbow. Instinct took over and we strutted across the slick concrete as if it were a catwalk in Milan, the two of us modelling our brand-new wears for the Winter 2022 collection. Who knows where these things wind up once they have been committed to film; an Instagram reel or on Tiktok, I presume. After two years where nobody seems to remember much about how they have passed the time, it feels important to store these moments somewhere.
Nobody I spoke to could confirm it due to their collective lack of degrees in meteorological sciences, but most people agreed that November had at least felt wetter than usual. It must have rained nearly every day, and the weekend the Winter Festival got underway was the worst of them all. Things had been dry and mild during much of that Friday, but by the time the Reindeer Parade was due to leave the Corran Halls, pellets of water the size of wholegrain rice had begun to crash to the ground. People were still keen to get out and support their community, though, and the various craft markets around town were bustling with souls braving the elements. Dozens of local artisans had stalls at the Corran Halls, Oban Distillery, the Perle Hotel, and The Rockfield Centre where they displayed and sold their own goods crafted from glass, wood, metal, paint, and paper.
We took a family trip to The Rockfield Centre on Sunday, where we had heard they were offering free mulled wine. Before we could help ourselves to the wine, which was homemade by the cafe manager, we made sure to wander around the entire room and cast glances of vague interest towards each of the stalls, sometimes nodding and commenting on how beautiful the products are with the sort of quiet admiration usually reserved for a fireworks display. Although there is no denying the impressive talent and dedication we saw, I don’t believe that any of us had any intention of putting our hands in our pockets. The charade just felt like something we should do to at least earn our sweet alcoholic beverage.
The town’s Christmas lights were officially switched on the following weekend in the first full-scale festive event since 2019. I don’t remember a time when the display was as full, vibrant, and busy as it is this year. When I walked home through the station that first night and encountered an enormous penguin casually sitting against the clock tower, I couldn’t be sure if I had had too much to drink or if the town was going all-out to make up for the years lost to Covid. Everyone is doing their best to recover that time. Since the night of the birthday celebrations in The View, I have discovered that I have a liking for Tequila that I didn’t have before the pandemic, and now I’m drinking it whenever it is offered. In the way that many people struggle to recall the timeline of restrictions, I can hardly remember a time before I liked Tequila. Of course, I don’t remember anything after Tequila, either. I awoke the morning after seeing the giant Christmas penguin, wearing my pyjama bottoms and the shirt I was dressed in the previous night. My orange chinos and pyjama top were strewn across the bedroom floor, Midnights still playing on repeat from the speaker in the living room. Out in the hallway, the keys to my flat were lying by the door alongside a solitary earpod with no sign of its partner. There are some things that are best forgotten.