Diaries of an isolating man: days 9 & 10

Day nine:

Under ordinary circumstances, I don’t care very much for bin collection day, least of all the six-weekly uplift of all six recycling and general waste bins from our block.  It might not seem like very much, but I have always resented the five minutes it adds onto my morning routine to bring the emptied receptacles in from the pavement.  My responsibilities were even doubled recently when the upstairs neighbours who would put the bins out the evening before collection moved away before Christmas.  None of this mattered, though, seeing that bin collection day presented me with the opportunity I had been waiting for since my isolation began more than a week ago.

Shielded by the cover of darkness and beneath a thin cloud of drizzle, I was able to leave my flat under the guise of taking the bins out; though unfortunately it wasn’t just a ruse and I did have to actually take the bins out.  Still, it felt great to breathe in the fresh night air – even when it was tinged with the stench of rubbish that had been sitting in the bulging waste bins for weeks.  Doing my civic and environmental duty had never been so invigorating.  It felt similar to when I was walking to and from work during the strict original lockdown in April 2020 or, further back, in the days when I was smoking cigarettes:  although what I was doing wasn’t wrong, I didn’t especially want to be spotted doing it and I would feel as though I had to almost sneak around to prevent any disapproving glances.

Isolation, like everything in life, brings with it its own set routine, and when you can break out of it, even for something as simple as seemingly mundane as putting the bins out, it is utterly freeing and thrilling.  My daily routine while in isolation hasn’t been much to speak of.  I’ve been tending to waken at what I’d consider a normal hour, when I’ll get up and eat my usual breakfast of overnight porridge oats with no fewer than 25 blueberries mixed in.  Most mornings I have awoken with at least one affection from my mixed bag of Covid symptoms.  Today it was nasal congestion and a headache.  Since I’ve still been having some difficulty falling asleep at night and wake up feeling very fatigued, I’ve been going back to bed and playing a Spotify playlist whilst I doze off for another three or four hours.  Even when I finally emerge again in early afternoon, I haven’t felt fully awake in more than nine days.

My days have mostly been spent watching dozens of YouTube travel vlogs on Sarajevo, Mostar and Belgrade.  I can’t get enough of them, and when I’m not taking the bins out to the pavement, it’s the closest I can get to feeling like I’ve left my flat.  As much as possible I’ve been trying to journal my experience in isolation, but it isn’t always easy when attempting to focus on something for more than twenty minutes or so tends to invoke the brain fog.  That’s usually when I’ll listen to the Beatles album Let It Be once again.  I must have played it about a dozen times by now.  In the early evening, I have set aside 45 minutes for yoga and meditation, which has become a great deal easier – and cleaner – than it was in the early days of my sickness.  

After eating dinner, I repeat my afternoon activities with some Netflix streaming thrown in, usually a handful of episodes of Seinfeld, before spending several hours repeating the charade of trying to fall asleep. It’s difficult to avoid the feeling that my time in isolation could have been more productive, but the alternatives have been fairly limited. Sometimes taking the bins out is the best you can do, and that’s fine.

The most risible positive test ever recorded was on day 10 of my isolation

Day ten:

I registered yet another positive lateral flow test today, and it really had to be the most pathetic positive result ever recorded.  It just might be the most feeble thing I’ve seen.  The line was threadbare, best described as a ghost of Covid – which by tomorrow it effectively will be.  Even if an LFT shows me as being positive tomorrow I will be free to leave my self-containment providing that I don’t have a fever, and not before long.  Ten days have never felt as protracted as they have this year.

There has been much to learn from and reflect over during this last week-and-a-bit.  For example, I used to be concerned that I didn’t know how to take a lateral flow test properly when I was returning negative results despite suffering from a heavy cold, but now I can be sure following seven positive outcomes that not only have I been doing the LFTs correctly, but I really did just have a cold – at least until recently.  It’s strangely reassuring to know that I have been swabbing my nostrils in the right manner all along.

I believe that after this experience I can comfortably offer the advice to anyone who will listen that it is a good idea to make a sensible meal plan before being forced into isolation.  I hadn’t done this, but my failure to have a Covid meal plan in place did result in me learning that mince can be a more versatile meat than I had ever allowed myself to imagine.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned during this whole ordeal is that – no matter what it is – if you can breathe through it, it can’t be that bad. Even if your breathing is pretty fucked up.

A stock image from January 2019

For ten days all I have been able to think about is being allowed to leave my flat again.  Not just for a brief walk around the communal garden or to haul the bins through the close and out to the pavement for them to be emptied.  I’ve been craving a social interaction beyond the last one I enjoyed ten days ago when the young woman at the test centre calmly explained how I was to put my nasal swab into the solution so that it could be sent off for diagnosis.  

In my mind, there are grand plans to take advantage of my newfound freedom from tomorrow.  I’m going to arrange a trip to Bosnia and Serbia as soon as I can.  It likely won’t be the full train trek around the Balkans I was planning for prior to the pandemic, on account of the arduous testing that would be involved when going from country to country, but I figure I can split it up over a couple of separate trips.  In the meantime, I can see myself walking all over the place and participating in all sorts of different social activities.  It will be life like I’ve never lived it before.  Of course, the reality is that I will be back to striding to and from the war memorial with my earphones in every day.  And since tomorrow is Friday I will be in Aulay’s at the first opportunity, toasting the freedom I haven’t had in ten long days.  Things will quickly return to the way they were before I ever had Covid.  And I can hardly wait for it.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 7 & 8

Day seven:

Until a week ago, I had gone through the entire pandemic without seeing a positive Covid test, now I have received four of them in quick succession.  The latest one, which I took whilst waiting for a tin of tomato soup to cook on the hob, means that my hopes of returning to the outside world early from my isolation are practically dashed.  Although the second line on the test cassette has been getting fainter by the day, so too have my chances of leaving the flat before Thursday.

At times during this period of isolation, it would be easy to allow myself to feel the same way Ringo Starr looks in the opening scenes of episode two of the Get Back documentary when he glumly glances around an empty studio the morning after George Harrison has left the band and realises that neither of the other two Beatles has turned up for rehearsal.  In my quieter moments – the much quieter moments – I’ll think back to my last face-to-face interaction with another human being at the test centre, where the young woman instructed me on how to take a swab of my tonsils.  Right now it’s still all I have to look back on from my 2022 to date.

Most of the time, though, I’ve tried to remain mindful by focussing on things such as the meditation practice I listened to this afternoon which encouraged me to picture all the colours in a rainbow, which was useful since my Facebook feed was filled with people who had photographed an actual rainbow that appeared over Oban yesterday.

Much like it has been more than a week since I last tested negative for Covid-19, when I got out of bed today it had also been over seven days since I last trimmed my stubble.  This was out of sheer carefree laziness more than any consideration of a future facial fashion statement, particularly when as unruly strands of hair appeared they seemed to be overwhelmingly salt in colour rather than pepper.  There was some curiosity, I’ll admit, not least because of the high regard men who have beards seem to be held in by the opposite sex.  But when I looked at my rugged and ragged face in the mirror this morning, I just couldn’t see it.  Of course, it was only a week of growth, so not even close to being a proper beard, but I couldn’t help from thinking that my face resembled an unfinished drawing by a child.

Even if I’m not going to be able to go anywhere for another few days yet, I figured that it’s time to grow up rather than grow out and get myself ready for the outside world again. So I trimmed the hairs back down to their usual 1.0mm stubble, leaving a trail of clippings in the sink that gave the impression of an atrocity in a condiment factory. A weight has been lifted from my cheeks, if not my shoulders, and my face now looks like 1969 John Lennon – even if I’m yearning to get up and walk out like George.

A felt tip line on my day 8 test

Day eight:

I accidentally read a thread on Twitter earlier today about the long-term effects of Covid. It’s hard to go from reading something like that to brushing the oak flooring in my flat, but it hadn’t been done since I began isolating and I need to get a grip. One thing I don’t understand is where all the dust and debris on my floor has come from. I haven’t left the place in over a week, save for the thirty seconds I spent out at the recycling bins on Thursday, and goodness knows when anybody was last in here. There were indistinguishable strands of thread, shards of paper, tiny grains of dirt, and spent pieces of discarded sellotape all over the place. My flat looked like the aftermath of the world’s most underwhelming craft fair. All I’ve been doing for eight days is travelling from my bed to the couch, to the kitchen, to the couch, and back to bed again in some robotic trance. It’s implausible to consider where all the dirt had come from, and in the end, I don’t want to think about it any more than I’d like to know what being infected with Covid will do to my lungs and heart six months from now.

A stock image from January 2021 since I am still unable to leave the flat

I woke up this morning feeling more symptoms at once than I have for several days.  A pitiful cough, the frustrating brain fog and an exaggerated difficulty breathing all rolled out of the revolving door at once.  I felt better as the day went on, however, it came as no surprise when I registered my fifth positive test in a row in the afternoon.  The line was the faintest it has been yet, appearing as though it had been drawn on by a red felt tip pen that has almost run dry.  All of which means I have another two days of isolation to keep my stubble trimmed and my flooring free of dust before I can be reintroduced into society.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 5 & 6

Day five:

Aside from a bit of fatigue, I woke up this morning feeling virtually free of Covid symptoms for the first day since Monday.  Due to my decision to refrain from drinking alcohol last night, it’s probably the first Saturday that I’ve had a clear head in a very long time.  I’m not sure that I like it.  Of course, with the tiredness from my inability to sleep for much of the night, I turned over and dozed off for another four hours.  I still don’t know what a Saturday morning actually looks like.  

In a turn of events that can only be described as being one of the worst things that could have happened to me this week, I discovered today that the battery in my watch has stopped working.  On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much importance in wearing a watch when I’m stuck in isolation.  I can’t go anywhere for another three days yet and my sleep pattern has been turned upside-down and back-to-front by Covid.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s 6:50 pm, as it currently is at the time of writing, or half-past ten, as my watch seems to be under the impression it is.  In isolation, I have all the time in the world, but you wouldn’t know it from my watch.

I have always worn a watch.  I think I prefer the theatre of glancing at a timepiece on your wrist to simply reaching into a pocket to fish out your smartphone.  It’s great for indicating your boredom with a situation, even if there is sometimes a risk that you are misinterpreted as giving that impression.  I enjoy how wearing a watch feels, the way that it’s sort of like underwear for the wrist when it covers the modesty of an ill-advised tattoo.

Despite being into my fifth day of isolation, I am still wearing my watch around the flat. At this point, as the second hand staggers back and forth between two numbers in a manner strikingly similar to a drunk who is unsure of which door will take him out of the pub, it is nothing short of galling to look at my struggling watch and be reminded that I can’t even travel the short distance to the electrical shop next door for a new battery. From the mantelpiece, the clock ticks tauntingly in the background, for it knows that unlike my watch, it is there only for decorative purposes – but I am now relying on it.

This is an archived image on account of the fact that I am unable to leave my flat

Day six:

If I could give one piece of advice based on the previous six days, it would be to prepare a meal plan and shop for it long in advance of receiving a positive result and the subsequent period of isolation.  I ate pretty well last week, practically as normal, but there was scant thought for what I would do once I reached the latter part of my quarantine.  I’ve been quite fortunate and incredibly touched by the fact that since I became sick I have received offers from no less than six different people to do some shopping for me, though I have to date turned them down since my cupboards are fairly well stocked – it’s just that I am discovering that the ingredients I have can’t really be brought together into a coherent and edible recipe.

I took inventory of my kitchen supplies this afternoon when it became clear that I didn’t know what I could eat for dinner tonight, not to mention because I don’t have anything better to be doing.  I was surprised to find that I have four different shapes of pasta in my cupboard; I don’t remember buying so many different varieties of pasta, let alone cooking them.  Alongside those, I found several cans of tuna, many tins of soup, baked beans, haggis, wholegrain rice, flour, porridge oats, straight to wok noodles, and the chickpeas that I panic bought in March 2020.  I still have 250g of mince, two lemons, some eggs, and all of the herbs and spices you could name if presented with a thirty-second challenge to list things you might find on a spice rack.  In the freezer, there are frozen vegetables, some other random items, as well as a few pieces of unidentified meats.  There are meals to be found in my kitchen, I’m just not quite sure what yet.

Today is the first day I have looked forward to this year.  Under the Scottish Government’s updated guidance, anyone who has tested positive for Covid-19 can cut their 10 day isolation period short to seven days if they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven.  This is the day that would effectively determine whether I would be allowed to leave the flat on Tuesday or be forced to isolate for at least another day.  Considering my virtually symptom-free Saturday, I have never been as excited by the prospect of sticking a cotton swab up my nostrils as I was on this occasion.

As tends to be the case before taking most tests, however, nerves and anxiety kick in.  I woke up this morning and coughed for the first time since Friday, while the brain fog and accompanying headache has returned.  It was reminiscent of standing in front of the bathroom mirror on the morning of a Standard Grade exam and discovering that you have a massive plook on your face – only, of course, I have one of those today, too.

Last night, so enthused was I by the lack of Covid symptoms I was experiencing, I was intending that I would take the lateral flow test as soon as I got out of bed, kind of like a kid on Christmas morning.  But given the plook, I put it off until after I had eaten some poached eggs.  After taking my sample, I set the timer on my smartphone for fifteen minutes and went off to clean the bathroom.  The alert sounded and I returned to the kitchen to read the result, my heart pounding away in my chest – either through nerves or yet another Covid symptom.  There was the faintest of lines visible across the ‘T’ panel of the cassette, indicating that I am still testing positive for the virus.  I couldn’t believe it; I felt certain that I’d be getting out on Tuesday.  As it turns out, time is moving very slowly, and I still have a lot of it on my hands.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 3 & 4

Day three:

My positive PCR test result was confirmed by text message at 9.11 pm last night.  I can’t recall the last time I ever received good news in an SMS at nine o’clock at night.  Indeed, I don’t remember the last time anybody sent me a text at that hour.  The result wasn’t a surprise, of course.  I already knew from the lateral flow test I took on Tuesday afternoon and the way that I had been feeling for most of the week that I have Covid.  I hadn’t been more confident of a test outcome in my life, not even when I sat my Higher Modern Studies and History exams.  But I suppose it’s always nice to have administrative confirmation of these things.

I treated myself to a rare bit of fresh air today when I went outside to the recycling bins with a bag full of empty 500ml Highland Spring water bottles.  It’s the first time I have been outdoors since I went for my PCR on Tuesday, though the novelty very quickly wore off once I had tipped my recycling into the blue bin.  The communal garden at the back of our block of flats isn’t very much to look at.  It’s a small area, with enough space for a clothes rotary, while the grass has all the appearance of winter about it.  You could easily walk around it without having to stop to catch a breath, even if at present that says more about me than the size of my garden.  On the other side of the fence, the garden looks onto a handful of parking spaces and behind those stands the back of a solicitors office.  In hindsight, I could have done with a bigger garden and a better view, but then when people were in the property market back in January 2018 nobody was thinking about what would happen if they needed to isolate during a global pandemic.

To compensate for the shortage of space in my surroundings, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the trip to the Balkans that I’ve missed out on making during these last two years.  I have long been hopeful that if international travel becomes less complicated in 2022 then I will be able to go on my cross-country rail journey, and having a ‘Covid recovery’ on my vaccine passport might even go some way to making me look good.  Specifically, I have been researching Bosnia, which has quickly become the country I am most interested in seeing.  Even though tensions seem to be simmering again in the region, it is still quite a bit more appealing than the view from my garden.

Reading TripAdvisor reviews of bars in Sarajevo and taking out the recycling can’t fill an entire day in isolation, however, so to add a bit of excitement to my afternoon I decided to put on a load of washing. Filling the washing machine has never been an activity that I would describe as being thrilling, but when even so much as walking from one room to another seems to be running the gauntlet of another episode of sneezing or a coughing fit, it brings an element of adventure to the chore. I don’t even have that much of a need for all of the freshly-laundered clothing I now have considering that I won’t be going anywhere for another five days and I’m not exactly dressing in my finest corduroy to sit amongst dying houseplants, but it passed another day and at the moment that’s all that counts.

The communal garden isn’t very much to look at

Day four:

Tonight is the first Friday I haven’t spent in a pub since the restrictions in Scotland were eased to allow indoor hospitality to resume last June, as well as being the first Friday that I can remember where I haven’t had a single beer, which is ironic since I don’t remember most of the Fridays when I do drink beer.  Despite having a fridge full of lager and nothing better to do, it seems that it would be fairly foolish to load my body up with alcohol when my immune system is already busy trying to fight off something it has never dealt with before.  So instead of sitting in Aulay’s and having the Plant Doctor make fun of my new-found fondness for corduroy, listening to Geordie Dave address me as Penfold, or hearing all about whether the barmaid who has a talent for naming business ventures has done better with her resolution to stop drinking than she was when I last saw her on Hogmanay, I am guzzling water and watching the second – 2 hours and 57 minutes long – episode of the Beatles documentary Get Back.  For the first time, I am experiencing regrets over having ever joked about a hangover as being me “suffering from the Tennent’s variant.”

All things considered, my experience with Covid to date hasn’t been as terrible as it might have been.  I’m determined not to become one of those bores who tells people that the virus is no worse than the common cold but, really, my own symptoms have not been all that different to the cold – it just isn’t any cold I have ever had before.  Covid shares many of the same symptoms, only they’ve all been jammed into a revolving door and you can’t be sure which one is going to fall out and introduce itself next.  I began to try and keep track of them in my notebook, but my head started spinning even more than it already was with the Covid fog by doing so:

  • When I awoke on Monday morning, I felt as though I had something small and fairly insignificant sitting on top of my chest; a throw cushion or a library book, something like that.  It meant that I had to work a little harder to regulate my breathing, which isn’t the kind of effort you want to be making first thing in the morning.
  • Additionally, I had a persistent cough and a steady sneeze.  I felt certain that it was Covid, but I tested negative on the final lateral flow test in my box.  Monday was probably the day where my symptoms were at their worst, yet I didn’t show as being positive until the following afternoon after I got my hands on another box of LFTs from the test centre.
  • This is a virus that seems to be all about producing sounds:  the sound of the phlegm trembling at the top of my chest each time I inhaled before coughing on Monday; the way my breathing went from resembling a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory to the slow opening of a bottle of soda water.  It is fairly normal today.
  • Subsequently, the coughing and sneezing have tapered off.  I had recently bought a packet of 10 packs of pocket tissues and a box of 225 facial tissues, and with the way I was feeling on Monday, I was concerned that I might not have enough paper to see me through my isolation.  But as of today, I have blown my way through about half of one pack of pocket tissues.
  • On Tuesday I couldn’t do more than 15 minutes of yoga without my nose dripping all over the mat.  By Wednesday I had developed into something of a shy sneezer.  I could go several hours without so much as a sniffle, then I would stand up to walk through to the kitchen and I would suddenly fire off eight sneezes in a row.  It made me think of the one guy in a group who never says very much until he’s had a couple of beers in the pub and then you can’t shut him up.  A shy sneezer.
  • Many of my symptoms seem to come out at night.  During the day I can be sitting around eating the potato and leek soup I made while I thought I was still healthy and feel almost nothing, making a mockery of the idea that I am confined here until next Tuesday.
  • There is pretty much a constant dull sensation in my head – a sort of brain fog – that only ever becomes a headache at night, or first thing in the morning, or if I’m trying to focus on something.  This is by far the worst of my symptoms.
  • I struggle to sleep at night and often I have had to get up two or three times within an hour or so to use the toilet.  It’s hard to say if this is a symptom of Covid or of getting older.
  • I haven’t experienced any fever, but there have been times when my hands have become pretty cold.  However, my flat is notoriously chilly, so it could be that.
  • My ribs felt a little sensitive on Wednesday morning, which was likely from all the coughing the night before.
  • My thighs were sore on Thursday, but I think that was from the yoga I tried on Wednesday.
  • There is definitely muscle fatigue, and a 39-minute yoga video is about the limit of what my body can do at the moment, although today I managed it without once falling over and I was so happy about it that I could have wept.
  • The constant brain fog is like trying to find the right radio frequency, back in the days when people still had to turn a dial to tune into radio stations.  I’m looking forward to when it finally finds a song I like.

With the exception of the brain fog and accompanying headache as well as the occasional pitiful cough, I feel I’m more or less over the worst of my Covid symptoms.  Having said that, given the option, I would much rather be waking up tomorrow with the Tennent’s variant.

Diaries of an isolating man: days 1 & 2

Day one:

After nigh upon 707 days, my unbeaten run against Covid-19 has finally come to a shuddering and sniffling halt.  A positive lateral flow test four days into 2022 is the sort of turn of events that makes the drunken wishes of a “happy new year” on Hogmanay sound preemptively ironic.

In reality, with the reported increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant, avoiding sickness over the Christmas period always seemed to be like Road Runner’s constant effort to outrun Wile E. Coyote: every so often the bird would be caught, but it never ended up quite as terribly for him as the coyote intended.

Aside from the obvious downside of experiencing an unpleasant illness, the worst part about testing positive for Covid is the requirement to isolate for 10 days.  My self-containment happens to be coming after a 13-day break from work over Christmas and New Year, which was an isolation of a different sort.  Boredom had already set in with that one around the same time as the first festive hangover started to wear off on the 27th.  I was looking forward to getting back into a normal routine with healthy habits and social interactions that don’t just take place across the bar.  The difference between this isolation and the one over Christmas, and indeed those through various lockdowns, will be that I can’t leave my flat to go for a walk, buy some milk or sit in a beer garden.  This is proper isolation, where the last person I will have had any interaction with for the next 10 days was the young woman at the test centre this afternoon who explained how I had to stick a swap up my nostril and make ten rotations.  I thought I was lightening the mood when I asked if I could at least pick which nostril, but it turns out that’s all I’m going to be thinking of for the next week and a half.

Since I am going to be stuck inside the modest four walls of my single occupancy for 10 days with nowhere to go, I have resolved to at least try and do some yoga to keep myself exercised.  I thought that a low impact, slow flow working on my hips would be something I could handle in the circumstances, but I was forced to give up after no more than fifteen minutes.  Not only was the flow of snot from my nose impossible to contain, but I struggled with stretching my legs as wide as the video demanded.  Though that was less to do with Covid and more an indictment of my own flexibility.  It was the same when I attempted a breathing exercise yesterday, when my symptoms had first developed, although on that occasion it probably was Covid that was making me sound like a hurricane blowing through a whistle factory.

Day two:

The Scottish Government today reduced the isolation time for positive cases to 7 days provided they take a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven, so without even trying I have already gone through a chunk of the isolation I was expecting to be subjected to yesterday.  It is a Pyrrhic victory, but in this situation, I believe in grasping any small successes.

Despite my efforts to focus on the tiny triumphs, I’ve been finding it difficult to fill the time during my first two days of isolation and I can’t help from feeling that I might have made a mistake by watching all of the films that I had been saving for the Christmas break. If I’d thought that I would have another 7 days at the end of it all I might have spread them out a bit more evenly so that I could savour them over time, like a carton of Celebrations. But, really, who lives life like that? So I was quite relieved when I remembered about the new three-part Beatles documentary Get Back that I had been putting off from watching because it is so long. Each episode clocks in at an average of 150 minutes, which should mean that by the time I have managed to watch them all, my isolation will be over with.

The preemptively ironic New Year celebrations

After sleeping longer than I have ever slept on a Wednesday, I got out of bed today and sought to reaffirm my commitment to continue with my yoga practice every day.  Following my troubles yesterday I wanted something a bit more mindful, as well as less likely to make my nose run.  The brain fog meant that some of my transitions weren’t exactly graceful, but I was able to last all the way through the 39 minutes of my chosen video.  It felt like a big deal, even more than waking up to find that my isolation had been cut by three days.  My Ujjayi breathing was a mess, of course.  Every time I exhaled through my nose it sounded like when you open a bottle of soda water very slowly.  But there was no snot nor a sneeze.  Today has been a good day.

A vaccine for small talk

Even to my unskilled eye, it looked very much as though I had finally succeeded in making a cheese sauce roux at the umpteenth time of asking.  There had been a block of cheddar sitting in the fridge for a while, and the best way I knew of using excess cheese was to make some macaroni, with the added bonus that it would be a big bowl of comfort at a time when comfort was in short supply.  Shorter supply than cheese, at least.  It was difficult to say where all of my previous attempts at making a roux had gone awry, since you can never really tell what wrong looks like if you have never seen right.  I didn’t know if I had used too much flour or not enough butter; whether I had been too impatient when adding the milk or if I hadn’t stirred everything together carefully enough.  Whatever I ended up with, it just never seemed to be a sauce that was a roux, but would somehow always be a culinary escapade I would rue.  

The outcome was invariably indescribable in substance and colour, that was until I pulled from my bookcase a cookbook which had been gifted to me by my sister the Christmas after our mum had passed, presumably in the knowledge that none of the rest of us would have the first idea about how to prepare a dish like macaroni cheese on our own.  This particular book was seemingly marketed towards students who were preparing to move into adulthood with only five ingredients available for each meal, while a few of the pages had been bound together with the residue of what was doubtless another calamity in the kitchen.  On this occasion, the recipe I was following appeared to be pretty straightforward and even used the phrase “don’t worry if it looks like things are going horribly wrong; they’re not,” which could just as easily have been my meditative mantra for life when spread out in savasana at the end of a session of yoga.  Somehow everything blended together into one seamless sauce:  butter, flour, milk, cheese.  When I placed the bubbling mixture of short pasta and cheese sauce into the oven, it was the most accomplished thing I had done since mid-March.  As I set the timer on my phone for ten minutes, there was an unexpected knock at the front door.

Nothing good can ever come from answering the door at six-thirty on a Monday evening, or at least that’s what I was thinking when I paused the Spotify playlist I had been listening to and straightened my tie on my way out of the kitchen.  I couldn’t even pretend that I wasn’t home, since the walls were so thin and my music was so loud.  Without even peering through the peephole – since I was never that fond of spoilers – I swung open the door in a most emphatic fashion and was met with a man and two young people who I speculated were his teenage children; a boy and a girl.  He apologised for interrupting my evening, having presumably mistaken the volume of my music for some kind of party, and I wasn’t minded to shatter his illusions by admitting that all I had been doing was congratulating myself for not botching a roux for the first time in my life.  The gentleman proceeded to ask me if I knew which flat in the block Nathan* lived in, explaining that Nathan had been taken into hospital and the three of them had come to take his black labrador dog out for a walk.  It occurred to me that the man they were looking for was probably my new neighbour across the landing, and I pointed them in that direction.  “I always thought his name was Nigel,” I commented to looks of bemusement.

Nathan’s guardian angel was holding a large bunch of keys, the sort of collection you would ordinarily only see in the hands of a janitor or on display in Timpsons, and as he was gradually working his way through the keys without success, I was growing anxious that I may have unwittingly sent the guy to the wrong door.  My immediate instinct was to pre-emptively defend myself.  “I’m sure he lives in there…moved in around a month ago,” I protested in the manner of a question.  “I’ve definitely seen a black labrador cutting about the place.  Not by itself, obviously…”  My words trailed off.  I had never used the phrase ‘cutting about’ in conversation before, and I couldn’t fathom why I had chosen that moment to debut it; I wasn’t exactly the kind of guy who could be taken seriously using colloquialisms like ‘cutting about’.  It was one of those phrases that I had often heard other people use, but was never confident enough to add to my own repertoire.  Fortunately any blushes I might have been feeling were spared when the man eventually found a key that worked, and as soon as he got the door open a large dog came bounding out into the close.  The hound looked delighted, though I don’t suppose it had any way of knowing what was going on. 

I returned inside to my macaroni, and for a few moments as the timer on my phone ticked down, I wondered if I had in some freaky cosmic way been partly responsible for Nathan’s hospitalisation.  My thoughts went back to the days after he had knocked on my door to ask about the missed delivery slip which had been left with him by Royal Mail, and the way that I had cursed my new neighbour for not being a single, lonely and impressionable woman who was desperate for some company – even mine.  Of course, it was a ridiculous notion to have that some divine power had acted on my words now and smited my neighbour when for years my more reasonable demands had fallen on deaf ears, and it wasn’t until much later in the night that I began to replay the events of the day in my mind.  I cringed when I thought about the interaction outside my door, still questioning why the words ‘cutting about’ had tripped from my tongue.  The macaroni cheese was good, though it would probably have been better if I had used less mustard.

It had taken approximately eight months of the pandemic of 2020 for everybody to exhaust the topics of conversation that would ordinarily assist in the passing of everyday human events.  That much was clear from the night the strangers arrived to walk Nathan’s dog.  By November there was nothing left for us to talk about.  Virtually everyone had been sharing the same experiences since the country was placed into lockdown in late March, and during the months of restrictions which followed, where we would go to work, walk home in the evening, make dinner, binge Netflix, go to sleep and repeat the pattern over again until it was the weekend, when the ‘going to work’ part was substituted either with more Netflix or large volumes of alcohol consumed at home.  Sure, there was the occasional marriage or baby for other people to get excited about, but not much else.  Very few folks were going to sit outside the pubs which were still open, people couldn’t host large dinner parties, only the most optimistic had any holidays booked, and even the subject of the weather – traditionally a favourite of British people – had dulled.  Suddenly the monotony of life in a pandemic had made every conversation resemble those first few moments after I had tried talking to a woman at the bar:  the awkward silence drifting across the floor, nobody really sure what is supposed to happen next, both parties just waiting for the appropriate moment to get back to whatever it was they were doing.

McCaig’s Tower was dressed in the saltire to celebrate St Andrew’s Day on 30 November

My own experiences, which had never really been all that interesting in the best of times, had been reduced to asking anyone I would meet why they thought it was that all of the picture frames in my flat had sloped to an angle; was that something that happens gradually, unnoticed, over time, or had something cataclysmic taken place which caused the frames to slant slightly to the right?  If I wasn’t questioning friends over the frequency with which they were forced to straighten their own frames, then my only other source for discussion was the evening where I was looking after my four-year-old niece and she arrived with two packets of the Dairylea cheese dunkers.  The foil on the package was stuck more closely to the plastic than the pages of a recipe book, and naturally, she had to ask me for assistance.  Once I had peeled the wrapping away, I observed as my niece methodically crunched her way through all of the miniature breadsticks without dipping a single one of them into the portion of cheese before looking across at me from her seat and indicating that she would like the second tub opened.  The breadsticks were clearly delicious, but I couldn’t help from thinking how much better they would surely have tasted when accompanied by the cheese they were made for.  

Still though, such things weren’t the concern of a four-year-old, and my niece proceeded to munch every last one of the sticks, once again leaving the cheese untouched.  Under ordinary circumstances, if I was in the company of an adult, I would expect that the cheese would be the first thing to go.  After all, it was my experience that the cheese board was always the most exciting part of any grand meal.  I asked my niece if she was going to eat the cheese, thinking that this was perhaps similar to when people leave the best item on their dinner plate until last, but she informed me that she didn’t like it.  “You can have it,” she kindly offered.

I glanced at the empty side of the container.  “But you’ve eaten all of the sticks.”

“Use your fingers,” came the response, very matter of fact.  Admittedly, if for a moment, I considered dipping my index finger into the soft cheese, but I became concerned about what kind of example it would set if I was the uncle who ate a creamy cheese dip from his fingers in the midst of a global pandemic where hygiene was being practised more seriously than ever.  The uneaten cheese was just going to have to be the small nugget of conversation I would squirrel away to see me through the winter months.

The absence of conversation during 2020’s months of restrictions wasn’t all that different to the years in high school where I was socially distanced from most other people for different reasons; when I would go to my bedroom and listen to late-night talk radio stations for hours before falling asleep, or until the am frequency became too distorted to make the voices out.  I marvelled at the fact that I could lay in bed and listen to people from all over the country, and sometimes even the world, phone in to talk to the host about their thoughts on anything from politics to the break-up of the popular boy band Take That.  My favourite shows were the paranormal-themed ones where they would discuss ghosts and aliens, or occasionally a psychic would perform readings over the airwaves, apparently in contact with some dead relative of the caller; the faint crackling of the frequency only added to the atmosphere.  Sometimes there would be interference from an American sports broadcast or a heavy metal station and it would be difficult to tell whose voice belonged to which show, and indeed whether they were living or dead.

Speech radio lost much of its interest for me once I realised that I was developing my own taste in music and I would spend nights listening to CDs on repeat, or later when I finally discovered pubs where people would talk about all of the same things I had been listening to on the radio, only somehow the people at the bar seemed to be speaking with more gravitas and wisdom.  The voices the psychics had once summoned in the studio were replaced by spirits of a more tangible form.  I didn’t listen to another radio phone-in show until the country was placed into lockdown in March, at which point I thought that it would be a good idea to seek out conversation of some kind when it seemed as though it might be months before I would see another person again.  On the first night I happened upon Colin Murray’s show on BBC Radio Five Live, and almost immediately the presenter’s Northern Irish brogue sounded like the warm hug I was needing.  It was heartening to hear voices from towns and cities from all parts of the UK expressing the same fears I was having; about the virus, their livelihoods and the impact on the society around them.  At 37 years of age, just as at 15, it was the case that the only other voice I was hearing in my bedroom belonged to a caller on a late-night radio phone-in who was from Newcastle or Prestatyn.

Over the months, Colin Murray’s show became a part of my nightly routine – or at least it was on Monday through Wednesday, when it aired – and the discussions I heard helped to make sense of the world around me more than anything else.  A frequent contributor to the programme was a virologist by the name of Dr Chris Smith, who Colin would refer to as ‘the naked scientist’.  Some nights his insight would leave me feeling as though I knew more about coronavirus than I did myself at that point, and his description of how the newly-developed vaccine would work in the immune system was easier to understand than the instructions that came with the new toilet seat I had bought.

In mid-November, when news broke about the encouraging efficacy of the first two vaccines to be tested, there was an hour dedicated to the naked scientist answering various questions about the vaccine.  After more than eight months of almost unrelenting gloom, it was macaroni cheese for the ears.  One listener called in to ask if the vaccine would be safe to take for people who suffer from an egg allergy, which was a question that seemed so baffling and outrageous to me that I instantly assumed it was one of those prank calls that late-night radio was famous for.  I scoffed into my pillow.  Why wouldn’t you be able to get the vaccine if you’re allergic to eggs?  But it turns out that there are two vaccines in the UK which contain tiny traces of egg protein:  the vaccine for MMR, which is grown on cells from chick embryos, and the flu vaccine, which is grown on hens’ eggs.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and I told anyone who would listen all about it the following day.  The doctor said that he believed the coronavirus vaccines would be safe for those with an egg allergy, but I wasn’t able to stop thinking about the discussion for days.  Even more than a week later, on the Saturday morning after another of our Zoom beer chats, I was standing over my kitchen stove wondering how many eggs I would have to add to my breakfast of scrambled eggs to cure me of the hangover I was suffering, and whether or not it would make a difference if I used some cheese.

With Argyll & Bute still lingering in tier one of Scotland’s coronavirus restrictions, we were still using the Zoom platform as a substitute for our weekly visits to Aulay’s.  Unable to meet in the bar, as many as six of us stocked up on a variety of beers in our own homes and took to the video chat to discuss such wisdoms as how many varieties of mustard we stored in our fridge, the multiple layers of a Viennetta ice cream, and the animated television series Mike Tyson Mysteries.  More recently it became a regular feature where I would be interrogated by the others in the group about whether or not I had managed to talk to the young woman who I passed on my way home most evenings, the one who was always wearing a yellow bobble hat and walked a canine who bore an uncanny resemblance to Eddie, the dog belonging to Frasier Crane’s father in the sitcom Frasier.  The dying bulbs in the chandelier in my living room made the entire thing feel like I was in a war movie.  Every week I would tell my friends that I had not been able to make conversation with the woman:  how could I possibly speak to her now that I had started using phrases like ‘cutting about’ in everyday situations?  It would be a catastrophe.  If only I could follow the advice offered by my recipe book and stop myself from worrying that things looked like they were going horribly wrong, but not everything was as easy as taking a shot of egg protein to the arm.

*Nathan’s name has been changed.  At least, I think it has.

Colin Murray’s segment from 17 November 2020 discussing the coronavirus vaccines can be listened to HERE on the BBC iPlayer. The segment begins approximately 38 minutes in.

Tiers for fears

It had been a week since Maria, the Escape Room game moderator who was using Tinder to find new friends, had last messaged me, and I was beginning to suspect that she had found a way out of our interaction.  By the ninth day of silence, I decided that Covid had created enough real-life friendships with people who I couldn’t see or talk to without adding another through messaging apps, and I unmatched myself from Maria, a step which felt more bold and powerful than I could ever have imagined.  She would never know what became of me; a dapper and elusive stranger who existed briefly before he disappeared into the darkness the day after the clocks had changed, or perhaps just someone who had spoken a little too much about his penchant for killing houseplants.  If only every problem was as straightforward to solve as simply blocking it out and forgetting that it had ever existed.

Argyll & Bute, like every other local authority in Scotland, was on tenterhooks as it waited to learn which of the government’s new tiers of coronavirus alert it would be placed in when the announcement was made two days before Halloween.  There was due to be five different levels in the system, with each level carrying various restrictions regarding things like household meetings and the sale of alcohol in hospitality settings which would be enforced on the people living in the council areas involved.  The lowest tier – level 0 – was described as being “nearly normal”, which is how things were said to have been for everybody back in August, whereas the highest tier in the system – level 4 – was effectively the lockdown we all experienced earlier in the year.  Very little was known about how areas could progress up or down through the levels, which only made them sound to me like when I used to play Super Mario Brothers as a young boy and I would get fed up with trying to figure out a way of beating the big monster at the end.   I knew that it could be done – because, otherwise, what would be the point in playing the game? – but actually getting the better of the beast and moving on to the next level of the game was always beyond me, and once I had used up all of my lives I would give up and do something else.  There were certain times in my life when I would find myself contemplating how different things might have been if I wasn’t one of the few people my age who had never completed the Super Mario console game; if only I had saved my invincibility stars or had better used the power-up mushrooms, who knows what I could have made of myself.

Throughout October, when most of the country to the north and south of the Central Belt was on the same level of restrictions which prohibited the sale of alcohol in indoor settings but still allowed people to enjoy a drink outdoors in a beer garden, all sorts of cunning canopies and tarpaulin shelters were being erected by those pubs and hotels that were fortunate enough to have the space to do so.  Some even went so far as to install those enormous patio heaters with the flame, and in a way the town was beginning to resemble an old Pagan festival, as though an exciting ritual was about to take place.  It made for quite a sight on some of my walks home in the evening.

Those autumn walks were a wonderful thing, a calm amidst life’s storm, for a little while anyway.  The dynamics of my nightly constitutional changed completely either side of the final Friday of British Summer Time.  Before quarter past five that evening there was still daylight, the sea had an uncanny calmness, and the leaves on the trees – those that remained anyway – had the appearance of a hoppy IPA; heavy grapefruit notes.  Deep into the seafront, the sun would set the windows of empty guest houses ablaze, staining the glass on the side of the church with splendid colour as it made its way back into the sea.  My progress was impeded when I found myself trapped behind a slow walking elderly couple, whose own stride was being stunted by the man’s trouble with lighting his pipe in the face of the sea breeze.  The frustration of being a fairly fast walker having my pace tempered by dawdlers in front of me was the pedestrian version of an agitated motorist whose journey has been held up by a caravan, or at least that’s what I imagined.  Eventually the old man succeeded in resuscitating his pipe, and a cloud of stinking smoke wafted its way back along the pavement in my direction, moving like a memory.  The stench clung to the hairs in my nostrils, somehow smelling stale by the time it had even travelled the short distance from mouth to nose.  

Even though it had been nigh upon six years since I had stopped smoking (in a phase of my life which wasn’t as much cold turkey as it was a leftover sandwich on Boxing Day) I had found myself thinking about it quite a bit during the seven months or so of the pandemic.  Not out of any desire to light up again, but more the sense of marvel I would feel any time I saw someone on the street who had reached to their mouth and pulled down the face covering which had been mandated to protect the wearer and everybody else from the spread of a potentially deadly disease, leaving it dangling under their chin like an extra layer of skin, just so that they could smoke a cigarette.  It wasn’t contempt I was feeling, though, but rather it was envy.  Smoking was a hobby, an outdoor pursuit for some; a momentary escape from everything else that was going on, when for a few minutes the only thing the smoker had to think about was the exciting fact that they were holding fire between their fingers.  I envied them greatly for having something different to do.

The pension-age pair had formed an impassable spread across the tarmac, making it difficult for anybody to walk around them, the way all couples seem to have a habit of doing.  Ahead of us, a tour bus had pulled into the bus stop, where a steady stream of tourists unloaded themselves and their baggage.  Once upon a time it would have been a regular sight in Oban, but not in late-October, and certainly not in 2020.  The holidaymakers were making their way across the North Pier to the Columba Hotel, one after another, like a line of lemmings, most of them wearing masks.  I was finally able to use the wide berth of the pier’s car park to stride past the elderly couple and most of the tourists, giving myself a clear passage once again.  In the distance I could see a familiar bobble hat which was the colour of mustard; Dijon or English, maybe somewhere in between.  I came to recognise the dog walker as someone who I was passing most evenings after work, usually around the same place at the same time, though it was impossible to know if she had noticed me the same way.  I had been seeing her for several months, throughout most of the pandemic to date, and soon that fleeting moment when we would walk the same stretch of pavement became the highlight of my day, like a cigarette break.  

There were times when I couldn’t be sure if I had become physically attracted to the young woman, or if my interest was due to the striking resemblance her dog had to that of Kelsey Grammar’s titular character in the hit television comedy Frasier.  Regardless, it seemed difficult to attract the attention of a complete stranger in the times of social distancing, particularly when it was not something I was all that good at in ordinary circumstances.  “Just say hello” friends would advise, as though they were talking to somebody else.  I could never say hello.  Instead, I was thinking that the best way of gaining the woman’s attention was through her dog, and I began devising ways that I could befriend man’s best friend.  Short of offering myself as some sort of personal dog walking service to my friends and family, the best I could come up with was the idea that I could tie a string of sausages around one of my ankles in the hope that her little dog would sniff them out and come bounding across the pavement towards me.  The pooch’s amorous attention to my ankle would, in my imagining of the scenario, pique the strolling stranger’s interest in me, perhaps causing her to ask herself how she hadn’t noticed me before.  She would shyly apologise for her dog’s sudden affection towards me as its nose desperately rooted around the hem of my trouser leg, while I would assure her that no apology was necessary.  “Don’t worry, people are always looking to see if the socks match the tie.”

The only flaw I could see in my plan was the possibility that the dog might actually get to the sausages.  How would I explain it if the mutt came away from my ankle with a mouthful of pork, like a successful raid on a butcher’s shop?  There was no plausible reason I could think of for the discovery of a chain of sausages beneath my trousers.  I could feel the awkward silence even just thinking about the moment when the dog is gleefully tearing the sausages apart with its bare teeth, me left staring at my feet as the young woman tries to drag the hound away.  Finally I would call out in vain:  “I was just hoping for a link!”

By quarter past five the following evening, which was the last Friday of British Summer Time before the clocks fell back an hour that weekend, the scene had changed.  The royal blue sky was gradually giving way to dusk, and as so often was the case for the time of year, a fine day erupted into rainfall as the heavens opened.  The downpour began as I was making my way as usual back up the Esplanade, just as my Spotify playlist started playing the song Prayers For Rain by The Cure, though that was a detail that nobody was bound to believe in the retelling of the story.  It was difficult to tell exactly how heavy the rain was, but the drops were at least the size of pistachio nuts.  Outside Bar Rio, a couple was sitting at one of the restaurant’s pavement tables, surrounded by another three or four tables which were unoccupied and soaked.  They had clearly just been served their drinks and so were in no mood to abandon them in the face of the weather, while the rules forbade them from taking their alcohol indoors.  The woman held a grey umbrella over their heads while the pair continued to sip at their drinks, sheltering them with defiance; he with his pint of Tennent’s Lager and she with a tall glass of white wine – Sauvignon Blanc, I think, since the glass remained dry.  In Scotland we had often envied the pavement cafe culture on the continent, but it seemed we hadn’t considered that the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain, whereas this was just plain misery.

I kind of admired their commitment, though I couldn’t be sure that it would have been me in the same circumstances, especially given my distrust of umbrellas.  With that said, I received an insight into the couple’s dilemma later that same night when I came to cook the pizza which I had bought from Lidl using a 20% off voucher from their app.  The offer was for any of the pizzas from their ‘Deluxe’ range of meals, which certainly sounded like it would be a luxurious treat, and I looked forward to enjoying it with a cold beer before joining our weekly pub replica Zoom meeting.  I selected the box which declared in large white lettering that the pizza was topped with buffalo mozzarella, salami, tomatoes, and bell peppers, though I didn’t come to realise until I removed the thing from its wrapping that there were also mushrooms present, a fact which was detailed in the smaller text on the front of the package.  It was like sitting in the pouring rain with a freshly-served pint of Tennent’s:  I had spent £3.29 on the pizza and I was determined to get my money’s worth, so I left the fungi where they were.   Eating the mushroom pizza became more than a meal that was slightly more expensive than I was used to having; it was a test of my character, a chance to prove to myself that I had grown up from the wee boy who would never even contemplate eating a mushroom.  I think I had eaten two of the four slices I had carved for myself before I decided that enough was enough and I had had all the mushrooms I could take.  For all that I had wanted to believe otherwise, I was still that guy who had never completed Super Mario Bros; who didn’t know how to properly use his mushrooms.  And mushrooms were still the most revolting thing I had ever put in my mouth.

When Scotland’s new system of tiered restrictions came into effect at the beginning of November, Argyll & Bute was placed into tier two, which wasn’t all that different to how things had been for us in the area beforehand; the main change being that bars and restaurants were now allowed to serve alcoholic drinks indoors with a main meal – a few weeks too late for the couple outside Bar Rio, perhaps.  Winter was beginning to close its bony arms around the year, dragging the morning out later and drawing the night in, as though closing a pair of curtains on the day between.  Somehow the November nights seemed darker than I could ever remember them being, though I couldn’t be sure if that was simply a symptom of the year in general or if it was because most of the hotels and guesthouses on the Esplanade were closed.  The winds were picking up around the hills, while lighthouses flickered in a ghostly sea.  I had taken a week off work, though with the restrictions being what they were across the country, the only things I had planned to do were to get my hair cut, buy some new notebooks and go for a drink outdoors with some friends.

On separate occasions I was able to meet with the plant doctor and the Subway girl, and it was remarkable how suddenly the gloom was lifted by the company of others.  The sartorial considerations of outdoor drinking were different from my usual visits to the pub, it now being about scarves and layers rather than colour schemes and pocket squares.  Though part of me felt that it was probably still warmer than drinking in my flat.  Under the canopy in Markies, the breeze coming in from the sea transformed the piece of paper with our contact details into a different sort of track and trace as it was blown to the ground.  The plant doctor observed that the bells from the cathedral chimed at eight o’clock, but not at nine or ten, and we wondered whether this was out of consideration for the neighbours because of the noise, or if the bell ringer had been flexibly furloughed.  Closer to us, the Corran Esplanade church seemed to have taken on the appearance of a frightened policeman in the darkness.  Once we had noticed it, it was difficult to unsee.  All things considered, the new system of tiered restrictions didn’t seem as bad as some had been fearing.  We just had to find a way of moving through the levels.

Indian summer

The early onset of autumn had fallen back into summer in mid-September – for a few days, anyway – reigniting the most perplexing question of the time of year:  which jacket should I leave home wearing?  Nothing could make a fool out of a person quite like being seen in a heavy coat on a sunny day. Temperatures had soared into the high-teens, a good day for August, let alone anything after.  The sun was hanging low on the bright blue sky, looking exactly like it would in a child’s drawing:  enormous, shiny and orange.  Along the Esplanade, for three or four evenings straight, it was a scene of an Indian summer.

Across the road from the Regent Hotel, which was once an art deco gem in the display case of Oban Bay but had recently become a ghost and fallen into a sad state of disrepair, a casualty of the economic cost of Covid, a man was reclining in a garden chair, opposite what I presumed was his brown campervan.  He was a picture of comfort, his bare legs outstretched, baseball capped-head thrust skywards, though his position on the pavement, between his van and the railing by the sea, made it awkward to pass.  Other people were using the designated benches to soak up the rays and read, while out on the sea powerboats were cutting through the white waves like scissors.  All of the slipways leading from the street down into the water were lined with people who were enjoying takeaways from the town’s plentiful chip shops, or just one another’s company.  On one concrete strip, just beyond the cathedral, a labrador emerged from the sea with a stick clenched between its teeth which looked to be at least as long as its body.  As it bounded triumphantly up the slipway, water cascaded from the dog’s coat like a burst hosepipe, splashing all the way up the dry surface.  A young woman was sitting on a step with her legs crossed, staring out at the horizon in thoughtful meditation whilst smoking an e-cigarette.  Cherry, I think.  On the next set of steps, a young woman wearing a backpack was being directed by a man on where to stand.  Her companion, whom I presumed to be her partner, was holding a camera in his hands, looking for the perfect shot that would mark their romantic seaside adventure, the coastal scene with the buoys in the background over her shoulder.

 Further along the shoreline, a bespectacled man was crouching amongst the weeds, washing a pair of shoes in the water.  From a distance, it was difficult to tell if the scene was as it appeared, but the closer I got, the clearer it was.  In the man’s right hand he was holding a peach scouring brush, which he was using to scrub the soles of the shoes with all of the studied intensity of a cardiologist performing complex surgery.  Who could know how this man’s life had taken him to the point where his only option was to clean his shoes – although not the shoes that he was wearing – in the sea.  If I was ever feeling down on my luck, I would always remember that at least I wasn’t washing my footwear in the bay.  

On the North Pier, outside the restaurants EE-Usk and Piazza, which both have floor-to-ceiling windows offering a prime view overlooking the harbour, two large Ferguson Transport lorries were unloading goods onto a vessel which was moored nearby.  I always found the scene quite fascinating whenever I encountered it, wondering what was in the enormous plastic cases and where they were being shipped to, but it must have been an irritation for the diners who had booked their tables by the window anticipating enjoying an early evening meal whilst looking out on the sun-kissed west coast.  By the time I had walked back around to the bus station, the heavy beating of the sun on the back of my brown tweed suit jacket was so constant and so warm that I could feel the beads of sweat gathering on my spine in groups larger than those I had witnessed through town.  I was regretting my decision to wear the jacket at all.

Considering that I held a regard of warm summer days similar to that of the misery crooner Morrissey, as a single occupant there were few things which truly brought joy to life in the strange times of 2020.  The pinnacle of my excitement was probably any time I received an email from Netflix telling me about a new docuseries they were streaming.  There was the night that The Unlikely Lads won the pub quiz in The Lorne for the second week running, after fifteen months of not winning it at all, although that was more of a group achievement than anything I had done.  But when the supermarket chain Lidl released their new rewards app in September it appealed to all of the thrifty senses of a guy like me.  Every week they would make available four digital coupons for products that I either didn’t particularly need at the time or wouldn’t usually buy; things like a certain type of cheese, hot chocolate, bacon, laundry detergent or tissues, and I would eat them up because I was saving 15% off the price.  Each time I would scan the coupon at the checkout it felt like a small victory.  These smartphone apps were always shiny and exciting to swipe through, offering the user the promise of something they might not otherwise get:  coconut-flavoured Greek yogurt from Lidl, or a date with a woman on Tinder.

The big attraction was the offer of receiving £5 off a £25 spend during the first month of signing up.  Ordinarily it would be a big week if I spent as much as £25 on my food shopping over the course of seven days, let alone in one visit, but I figured that if I planned ahead and bought things that I might need in the future then I could probably reach the target.  It was a bit like the hoarding everyone was doing back in March, a skill I had already shown to be quite bad at.  My first attempt didn’t get me anywhere near the number needed to make my saving, and over the following week I spent a lot of time plotting how I was going to do better next time, as though I was trying to beat the high score in an arcade game.  I measured how many tins of tuna I would realistically be able to store in the cupboard and considered how much toothpaste a person could buy before it became obsessive, helping me put together a list that would surely earn me the five pounds discount I deserved.  Excluding alcohol, which cannot feature in promotional offers in Scotland, my shopping came to a total of £22.22, which sounded more like a bingo call than the sum of the food I would be eating for the next week.  It was frustrating, especially when I arrived home and realised that I had forgotten to pick up a couple of items, including the toothpaste.  The episode seemed to me to be the equivalent of matching with a girl on Tinder who immediately stops talking to you when you make a stupid pasta pun.

I did finally manage to spend twenty-five pounds and seven pence in a single transaction a week later, but only after I had bought a houseplant to bulk out my basket.  The purchase went against a vow I had made to myself more than a year earlier to never buy another houseplant again, which was sworn mainly as a result of my ineptitude in caring for the things.  I think that the longest a plant had survived under my guardianship was a couple of months, and my inability to keep them alive had given me a complex. The way I saw it, if I couldn’t look after a simple houseplant, how could I possibly trust myself to cultivate my human relationships?  It seemed that the best way of forgetting about all of that and preserving my confidence was to stop replacing my plants when they died.  But with yet more lockdown restrictions arriving towards the end of September, it felt like a good time to give my green fingers another go, if for no other reason than to have some company for a little while, so I bought a potted plant alongside my regular groceries.  When I got it home the first thing I did was to remove the small plastic stick from the soil which carried the name of the plant I was now caring for.  I thought it would be a good idea to search the internet for the best ways of looking after a ‘Crassula ovata’, since although succulents were almost indestructible I had a pretty mean history of killing them.  I learned that the houseplant I had purchased purely to bring my shopping up to a total of £25 just so that I could finally make use of my £5 off coupon is more commonly known as a lucky plant, money plant or money tree.  It was rare that these moments of irony occurred to me so quickly.

As the cases of Covid began to rise across the country again, new measures were introduced during the last week of the month to combat the virus.  Pubs and restaurants were told to implement a 10pm curfew, while households in Scotland were no longer allowed to mix, other than in exceptional circumstances.  In many respects it was a return to the way things had been pre-July, and when we went to the pub on Friday the 18th of September, it was to mark the end of our Indian summer in more ways than we knew at the time.  The plant doctor, my brother and me had met in the beer garden of the Whisky Vaults, though by the time we did the sun had set and we were as much in the dark as we always were.  The air wasn’t exactly cold, but I was feeling nostalgic for the sweat I had felt under my shirt on the walk home earlier in the day.   Once inside, we were one of only four or five groups, and the only time I can remember feeling uncomfortable was when we had forgotten to wear our masks as we walked from the beer garden into the pub.  It was a mild discomfort, mostly brought on from the embarrassment of having to be reminded during times of a pandemic that we should be wearing a mask when walking around a pub, though the feeling was soon offset by the unbridled bliss that was to be found from wearing a mask at an empty urinal.

We were in conversation with the ladies at the table next to us, a pair who we knew from the bars and who were serious about their drinking, ordering bottles of red wine and glasses of Jameson; unlike us amateurs who were only drinking pints of beer.  During our discussion I made a joke in relation to the cravat that the man at the farthest away table had brandished.  The comment drew no response amongst the rest of the group, which wasn’t unusual; but what was out of the ordinary was the fact that the girl on the opposite side of the room erupted into howls of laughter, even nudging her friend to ask if she had heard the remark.  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  Even accounting for the way the sparseness of the room made every sound echo like a gunshot in a canyon, this laugh was loud.  It was exciting to know that this young woman had apparently been listening in on our conversation, though I had little experience with the sound of laughter and wasn’t sure how to act on it, especially in the midst of a global health emergency.  I couldn’t very well saunter over and join her table when groups were limited to two households at that point, and sauntering wasn’t something I had been able to do in the best of times, anyway.  Finally somebody had laughed at something I had said, and I didn’t even have to say it directly to them.  I just had to sit there and let the words blunder out, but I couldn’t follow up on it.    Not long after, the girls finished their drinks and left the bar.  So much for the fucking lucky plant.

In Aulay’s, we were reunited with our cross-table companions from earlier in the night, though my ability to focus on anything that was being said was compromised by the man who was sitting by himself at the table to my right.  He was making an effort to integrate himself into our conversation, though I was the only one in the group who was paying him any heed.  There was something mesmerising about the character; his wispy white hair resembling fluffy mashed potatoes sitting on a dinner plate alongside a medium-rare steak; the way he was dressed entirely in blue; his choice of drinking a “half and half”, a combination of a half-pint of Export and a glass of whisky (a half) which was traditional amongst men of a certain generation; the fact that every so often he would briefly burst into song.  When he spoke, the man’s voice had a lyrical lilt that was common with the north of Scotland, so pronounced that it was almost like a vocal caricature.

It was impossible to resist the stranger’s attempts to involve himself in our discussion for too long, and when I finally indulged him I learned that he had travelled down from Thurso that day, a journey of around 215 miles.  He had to take three buses to reach Oban:  the first left his hometown at nine o’clock that morning and took him to Inverness, where he then caught the bus down to Fort William, and after around an hour’s wait he made the final leg of his journey to Oban, arriving here at twenty minutes past seven.  Just hearing about it had me feeling exhausted.  His reasons for wanting to visit Oban, seemingly on a whim, were twofold.  As he told me, he had recently taken trips to Skye and Fort William, but he had never been to Oban – and he thought “why not?”  The other cause for travelling 215 miles from Thurso to Oban was a desire to learn the full lyrics of the old folk song Bonnie Oban Bay, as it turned out that the tune he had been serenading us with for much of the night wasn’t the full version.  “I was struggling to find it on YouTube.”

I was feeling pretty guilty that I had lived in the town for my entire life and had never even heard of the song Bonnie Oban Bay, while here was a man who ventured half the length of the country in three buses during a pandemic in which his age group was probably the most vulnerable just because he had a romantic vision that everyone here would be so familiar with the song that they could easily fill in the verses that he was missing.  It was hard not to be impressed with the man, who had also been unsuccessful in asking the woman in the hostel where he was staying about the words of the song, as he just shrugged his shoulders and looked down at his diminishing half-pint of Export.  “Ocht, somebody will know,” he said confidently, before his fairytale voice lifted into the single verse of the song he had been singing all night.

Less than a week had passed when there was frost seen on the windscreens of cars.  The mornings had taken on an icy demeanour, while the temperature on some days had nearly halved.  It used to be that I felt excited by being able to see my breath in the air on crisp, cold mornings, when I would exhale as much as I possibly could because it made me feel like I was a mighty dragon.  But like everything else, that had changed in these times of Covid, when now it was only possible to see how easily an entire village could be scorched.  In the end, our Indian summer lasted only a few days, and our break from the tightest of the lockdown restrictions seemed like it was going to be the Indian summer of our 2020.  As it was, we were all going to to be spending some time on our knees on the shoreline, scrubbing our shoes in the salty water.

Masked man seeks masked woman for socially distanced shoegazing

On one of my final drunken misadventures before the world changed beyond recognition in March, I injured my hand whilst trying to rescue a recycling bin from the Oban Inn as it was carried into the middle of the road by a powerful gust of wind during a late-winter storm.  The lid snapped shut on the errant fingers of my right hand as my friends and I were trying to position the bin in a secure place, immediately drawing as much blood as I had ever seen and leaving them swollen and bruised almost beyond recognition as fingers.  My hand was useless for at least a couple of weeks after the incident, leaving me to tend to everyday tasks such as tying my shoelaces, fastening my belt, brushing my teeth, scrolling through Netflix and holding a can of lager with only my left hand.  At the time it seemed like the greatest inconvenience imaginable.

When it came to applying plasters to my wounds, it appeared to be a futile and pointless task.   The damage had already been done and thus it was a little late to be taking preventative measures, I thought, even if the idea of the piece of fabric was more to protect others from being infected by me.  On several occasions, I was forced into describing to different people the grisly detail of my injury and the foolhardy events surrounding it, and it seemed that the act of wrapping Elastoplast around my fingers was only drawing attention to my plight, the way large “50% SALE” signs are placed in shop windows.  If I was awkward and uncomfortable to begin with, the plasters were akin to putting sellotape on a burst pipe.

I thought once again about that week or so in February where my two fingers were covered by plasters when the Scottish government announced that wearing a face covering when entering a shop was going to be compulsory from the tenth of July.  It was a rule which was designed to reduce social distancing from two metres to one in certain situations and to allow businesses in the hospitality trade to reopen safely, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  Change of such a magnitude to our everyday living always unsettles people in the beginning, but my main concern was that it was already difficult enough for me to find socks which matched the colour of the tie I was wearing without also having to buy a similarly shaded face mask, and I knew that I would need one in every colour of the rainbow just to keep up with my wardrobe and the sartorial expectations I had placed on myself.  People who knew me and all about my habit of matching the colour of my apparel would often challenge me on why my socks weren’t coral or aqua, seemingly without an understanding of the limitations in men’s sock wear, and I worried that the same thing would happen with the masks.

Throughout the first four months of the Coronavirus crisis, protective masks were, largely, a rare sight around supermarkets in Oban.  Most people weren’t wearing them, and whenever I did encounter someone who had a face covering on, the predominant feeling I had was one of discomfort.  For some reason, it was still quite a shocking thing to see in a shop in Scotland.  It was a reminder of this terrible thing that was unfolding in the world outside the store, when all I wanted was to buy a mango and some milk.  It was a strange reaction to have – I knew that – particularly when of the people involved in the scene, I was the dick and the mask wearer was a responsible adult who was looking out for my safety as well as their own and everybody else’s.  We were all going to need to get used to the idea of carrying a mask with us every time we went shopping, the same way that you had to remember to pick up your wallet and a couple of bags for life before leaving home, it would just become routine.

I tried to look at the positives of wearing a mask in shops, apart from the obvious health advantages.  The most favourable factor I could think of was my theory that it should make it easier to avoid having to talk to people, which was the thing I dreaded most about shopping.  It always seemed to be the way that you would meet somebody you knew in the fresh produce aisle, usually somewhere around the tomatoes, and they would be keen for a stop and chat.  As in most social situations, I would feel awkward and lacked confidence in making suitable supermarket small talk.  Other people seemed to be having engrossing conversations in the biscuit aisle or by the frozen food, but I could never understand how they were doing it.  It was a skill I couldn’t comprehend.  Even more tricky for me than the actual act of conversation was finding a natural breaking point, which was usually difficult to judge and would often lead to me blurting out some exclamation like:  “Oh, I’ve just remembered that I need to get tartare sauce.”  On reflection, it was a possible explanation for why I occasionally ended up with items in my store cupboard that I didn’t especially need.

One other aspect which I found in favour of face coverings was the idea that if everybody was wearing one, then they would all be dragged down to my level of physical attraction.  If we were all reduced to having only our ears and eyes visible to others, instead of also showing our noses and smiles, it could only benefit a person like me who rarely smiled and who never had all that much of a notable nose.  With that in addition to the restricted ability to talk to other people, and therefore less opportunity for saying something stupid, masks really had the potential to prove quite advantageous to me, I thought, and I began to warm to the prospect of wearing them.

With renewed enthusiasm, I took to a well-known online retailer and found that I could buy a packet of four different coloured machine washable face masks for £8.54, which although I had never before purchased a mask and had no guide for comparison, seemed too good a deal to be ignored.  It wasn’t going to be enough to cover every colour of tie that I owned, but it would be a start.  I felt pleased with myself for having done a grown-up thing; until I noticed that the email which was sent with my dispatch notice attached stated that it could take up to ten days for the masks to be delivered to my door, and I was left resigned to the likelihood that I was going to have to talk to people in the fruit aisle for a little while longer, with the additional catastrophic potential that I might not have been able to go shopping for beer over the weekend.  It was a rare stroke of luck that the package arrived a couple of days later, much earlier than promised.  The masks were black, light blue, pink, and a sort-of-white-sort-of-grey colour that resembled a bowl of porridge or the kind of tracksuit you would sometimes see a drunk person wearing at two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon.  I immediately decided that the last one would be my ‘back-up’.

When I held the pink mask in my hands, I quickly changed my mind about how keen I would be to go as far as wearing something so bright on my face in front of other people.  I had an image of myself walking through the foyer in Lidl, beyond the houseplants and the debris of soil, and into the shop in the manner of Prince at the beginning of the music video for Purple Rain, in which the audience is staring at him, as though unsure of what he is doing on the stage, and Prince is looking back at them with equal uncertainty as a great awkward silence ensues.  This lasts for 42 seconds, during which it is clear that nobody knows what to expect or where they should be looking.  Somehow it seemed different to those times when I had worn the combination of a baby pink tie, pocket square and socks that were virtually a perfect match to the pub, almost as though with the mask I would be deliberately drawing attention to myself, and it didn’t feel like a global health emergency was the right time to be making such a bold fashion statement. 

In the end, I used the pink one as my practice mask, the piece which I wore around the flat a couple of times so that I could get used to how it felt before I had to go outside and use it in public on the tenth, almost like breaking in a new pair of shoes.  I walked around my flat performing a variety of everyday tasks as I tried to familiarise myself with the new fabric which was stretched across my face:  brushing the oak flooring, carrying a load of empty beer cans out to the recycling bins, watching a show on Netflix, cooking some fish.  While it was undeniably different, and difficult to ignore the feeling that there was something on my face – which, of course, there was – it wasn’t all that terrible.  The only trouble I really experienced while I was trialling my pink mask was when it came to exhaling and the lenses of my glasses would mist up with a cloud of my own breath.  It seemed unavoidable since there was nowhere else for the carbon dioxide to go, and with every breath out I was left with the same inconvenient feeling I had any time I had walked into the bank on a rainy day.

Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had in July

 

Around two or three days before the new legislation surrounding face coverings came into effect, I caught myself spending an inordinate amount of time in the morning clipping my eyebrows.  To begin with, it was something I was doing for only thirty seconds or so after I had noticed a couple of particularly long hairs, but as time grew on, so did my eyebrows, and my morning routine was increasingly about taming those wild forehead whiskers.  When I looked in the bathroom mirror, all I could see were those hairs sticking out in every direction over the black frame of my glasses, the way my tie had been restlessly flapping in the breeze during recent walks along the seafront.  If only the government had made eye coverings mandatory too, in the fashion of Batman’s crime-fighting partner Robin, I would have been saving myself a good deal of time in the morning.

Wearing a covering across the eyes wasn’t as ridiculous as the sight often seen around the town of people who had pulled their mask down to rest under the chin.  I could never figure out if it was an act of laziness and a reluctance to have to put a mask on to enter a shop, take it off when leaving, and then having to put it back on again when going into the next shop, or more worryingly, if it was a misunderstanding of what the mask was supposed to be covering and why.  One person who has used their hands to move their mask from their mouth down beneath the chin didn’t seem all that different to another person who might be driving down a motorway using only their elbows and with the seat belt draped across their body but not clipped in place:  there’s a chance that it might not cause any damage to you or anybody else, but it seemed silly to take the risk.

Masks were an increasingly common sight in Oban after they became mandatory in shops on the tenth of July, as the town gradually began to busy following the further easing of restrictions which enabled hotels, restaurants and bars to open for the first time since March.  It felt strange to suddenly be seeing people where for almost four months there had only been open space and fresh air.  Car parks were filling as quickly as they ever had, vehicles decked with bike racks and coloured by canoes.  Roads were no longer an extension of pavements, a safe void where you could walk to avoid oncoming people.  Outside pubs and coffee shops, extra tables and chairs were popping up like eyebrow hairs.  While restaurants operated with reduced service areas due to distancing measures, space for eating was at a premium and anything that could be found was prized:  steps, slipways, entire families enjoying two-course dinners on the sea wall.  It could have been July in any year, but for the sombre skies and the pre-teen temperatures.  And the masks.

In shops, everybody complied with the request to wear them and it was no longer daunting or overwhelming to see a mask.  It very quickly became normal, almost right away.  Indeed, perhaps the only unusual element of the whole thing was that for the first time in my life, I was wearing exactly the same thing as everybody else.  I just had to figure out what to do with my pink mask.

This week I have been mostly listening to…

Hair today, still hair tomorrow

Being back at work in the office while the lockdown was still ongoing brought a challenging balance of trying to return to something like the old way of life while also living in the new reality we were all still coming to terms with.  I now had an excuse to leave the flat more than once a day, and while I always liked to take the longest possible route to work in the morning to make sure that I got a good walk out of it before my proper hour of outdoor exercise later in the day, I was careful to make it look like I wasn’t enjoying it.  In that respect, it was similar to still being stood at the bar long after last orders have been called, and the barman is calling out in increasingly agitated tones about how “we all have homes to get to” while you still have half a pint of Tennent’s to finish and you think that it will make things better if you are looking as though you hate each mouthful every bit as much as the bar staff who are trying to sweep the floor around you.  

When I was suddenly thrust back into a routine like the one Dolly Parton sang about many years earlier, I felt thankful that I had stuck fairly closely to my regular day-to-day way of living since the lockdown started at the end of March.  In that time I had become quite rigid in performing two daily sessions of yoga, which was ironic since the exercise was making me remarkably flexible.  When I returned to work, it wasn’t any trouble getting out of bed just a little earlier to ensure that I could still do my morning stretches, and when I opened my living room curtains on those late-April mornings it was the closest thing to joy I had felt in weeks when I could feel the sun on my back as I creaked into a cobra.  What wasn’t quite as joyful was the sudden appearance of a bright fluorescent jacket on the other side of the net curtain, and the realisation that the street sweeper was busily brushing debris away from beneath my window.  He wouldn’t be able to see me through the curtain, but it was unsettling all the same, and difficult to focus on my downward dog when this man was reaching to scrape some chewing gum from the pavement.  Would it have been too much to ask, in this time of mass social distancing, for a little peace in the morning to practice my yoga?

There was hardly an April shower to speak of in the entire month, and the consistently pleasant temperatures were a sure sign that it was time to swap soups for salads on the lunch menu.  My salads were never likely to be the source of controversy or lead to me being spoken about as an enterprising ‘king of luncheon’ since they almost always consisted of a base of leaves, a handful of halved cherry tomatoes, some sliced cucumber and either tuna or coleslaw to add some taste.  They were inoffensive, yet one Friday afternoon as I embarked on my extended walk through town after work, my simple salad had become part of a small chain of events which ordinarily I might not have thought about, but in April 2020 it was all that there was to consider.

God’s work, and the painting of his church, doesn’t stop for a pandemic

The last full week of the month had been set ablaze by day after day of spring sunshine, with the temperature approaching a level where the fact that I was still wearing a denim jacket seemed to almost attract as many sidewards glances as a cough would.  I was walking up a sparse George Street when I became aware of a piece of salad which was stuck in a gap between two teeth in the upper left-hand side of my mouth, like a leaf caught in a drain, though I couldn’t be sure whether it was green or red.  My tongue was the only tool at my disposal, and I used it to try and prise the ghost of my lunch free from its purgatory, in the manner of a diligent street sweeper.  The tongue proved to be quite a futile instrument on this occasion, however, and no matter how much I agitated the leaf, I couldn’t loosen it.  The more I tried, the more I began to concern myself with how it would look if I was to happen upon another person on the empty pavement while my tongue was making these lascivious movements in a flawed mission to floss.  No pavement could be wide enough to be socially distant in that scenario.

As it was, I didn’t encounter anybody else until I reached the Esplanade, which was its usual attraction for dog walkers and runners.  When I reached the Corran Esplanade Church I was passed by an approaching cyclist who was shirtless, his torso as white as the peeling paint of the church building.  I wondered what the temperature had to be for a person to decide that they were going to leave home without wearing a shirt, particularly when it took so much deliberation for me to eventually decide to ditch my jacket.  It was presumed, of course, that it was a conscious decision the cyclist had made, and it wasn’t the case that he simply hadn’t gotten around to doing the laundry, since household chores were all anybody had the time for.  I checked my phone later in the evening, and the AccuWeather app said that there was a high of eighteen degrees in Oban.

My thoughts about the shirtless cyclist were suddenly interrupted when an ambulance went screaming by, louder than before, or so it seemed.  It was stark and reminded me of how I had often thought about the dark irony of being struck and injured, perhaps even killed, by a speeding ambulance.  While that wasn’t a fear of mine, it did occasionally trouble me that I could be listening to something totally absurd, a real guilty pleasure, at the moment I was involved in a road traffic accident and I would be discovered with my earphones flailing by the side of my head and the Limp Bizkit album Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavoured Water playing on my phone.  I remember mum often telling me that I should never leave home with a hole in my socks or my underwear in case of exactly that situation happening, and it seemed that you should be equally as careful over what you are listening to when you are out walking.  None of that seemed quite as grim, though, as the prospect of being out on your daily hour of exercise during the global pandemic, either walking, running or cycling, when the rest of the time we are staying indoors to avoid the killer virus, and you are hit and killed by an ambulance.  To me, it sounded no more ridiculous than meeting your maker simply because you had picked up a box of 50 Earl Grey teabags in Lidl.

Further along the seafront, beyond St. Columba’s Cathedral, I could see my barber some way off in the distance, walking towards me, and I realised that he was probably the person I was most worried about seeing five weeks into the lockdown.  As we neared, I could sense his eyes falling upon my hair, although maybe it was all in my head.  I couldn’t remember when I had last seen him or when my hair was last cut, but I expect that he probably did.  Even without being able to see the back of my head, he would know just how wild and unruly the hair was growing, the way it would be curling back up on itself.  I was concerned about what he was seeing and thinking about me, and I imagined that in a way it was like seeing an ex:  when you would always be wanting to look your best just to show him that you have moved on and have been coping just fine without him, that you are happy and breezy and have learned that you never really needed him after all.  Even though, deep down, I knew that it just wouldn’t be the same if I was to do it myself.

One of the most difficult adjustments to make when switching from the former way of life in the office to the new global reality was the once or twice during the week when I would go to the supermarket during lunch.  There was a lot of pressure when you went into a supermarket, and you really had to know exactly what you were needing and to have meals planned several days in advance, which I was never very good at doing.  Most places had stuck markers on the ground to indicate a safe two-metre distance, and in some stores there were even restrictions about which aisles a shopper could walk up or down.  It was a drastic departure from normality, and for even the most intelligent and sensible of people it was difficult to get your head around, and even more so for me when I was trying to shuffle through my Spotify playlist to make sure that I was playing the right songs.  On occasion, you would have to feign interest in flavoured yoghurts that you ordinarily wouldn’t buy or plant-based mince while you waited for the person who was two metres ahead of you to finish their own browsing and move forward.  It was an interminable wait which felt like the slow, solemn funeral march out of the church after a requiem service, when the coffin is being carried towards its final destination, and before you knew it, you had gone all the way around the shop and forgotten to pick up something for that night’s dinner.  When I realised that this had happened to me as I was striding down the frozen food aisle in Lidl, nigh upon twenty metres from the checkouts, I didn’t have the heart or the common sense to figure out which was the correct way of walking all the way back around the store, and so in my panic, I picked up a box of Linda McCartney Vegetarian Mozzarella Burgers.  They were surprisingly tasty, and not something I would have imagined enjoying back in olden times of yonder, when my hair was neat and people were wearing shirts when cycling.

Something that was noticeable with the great reduction in the number of people around town, particularly with there being no al fresco dining at the coffee shops and restaurants, and with the absence of tourists sitting on seaside walls enjoying their takeaways from the chip shops, was that there were very few seagulls loitering about.  It was a rough guesstimate, but I would have said that for every tourist in Oban during the season there would usually have been two seagulls waiting for them to drop a chip.  Somehow they could see the potential for mishap from miles away, a quality in them which I always envied.  It was only when I saw the gull that was always stalking the pavement across the road from my flat outside the Grill House that it occurred to me that the birds were also being forced to adapt to the new world.  How would a bird even understand that it could no longer expect to find an easy snack when we couldn’t?

I watched the seagull adopt its usual routine of sitting on top of the red letterbox which was situated several metres away from the fast-food takeaway, staring towards the doorway with a beady look of hope, before sometimes leaping down to the ground to get a closer look.  Although the place was still remarkably busy with customers, especially on a Friday night, there wasn’t any chance of the bird scoring its feast when most people were getting straight into their cars and driving off.  The gull was becoming increasingly emboldened as it stepped closer to the building, edging its way onto the two red tiled steps leading up to the entrance.  Twice the little thing poked its head inside before flapping back down to the pavement, and I was becoming worried about its desperation, which made me think of how it must have looked to my friends when I used to procrastinate over whether or not I should approach a woman at the bar.  I’d read reports of wildlife in towns and cities all over the world “reclaiming the environment”, but this one seagull was clearly still clinging to the way of life that we had created for it.

Just as I was beginning to feel a sense of real pity for the bird, one of the workers from the Grill House came outside and emptied what looked to be a tray of chips onto the side of the road, and as the seagull eagerly approached its prize, around a dozen more gulls flocked from the sky and joined it.  I didn’t have any idea where they had all come from, but the food was gone in an instant, and it was the happiest sight I had seen in more than five weeks.  Then I remembered about the salad leaf that was still lodged in my tooth, and I got up and fetched a cocktail stick from the shelf in the cupboard where I kept my books, liquor and bar paraphernalia.  Finally there was a Friday night which ended with success.

Links & things:

Can we really party in April? – my Spotify playlist for the month of April

Over the last two weeks I have been mostly listening to…