Portrait of a Hogmanay at home (aka Accidentally maudlin)

When I first moved into my new flat and became a single occupant in January 2018, I had grand plans in mind for my morning routine.  I wasn’t necessarily a “morning person” by nature – it was something I had fallen into the same way I imagine some people fall into selling drugs:  you have to do something to earn a living.   I was forced into learning to live with early mornings after more than eight years of working six a.m. shifts in the Co-op, though by the time I was living in my own flat the Co-op had been closed for three years and my interest in mornings was reduced to a desire to keep the impressive breakfast bar in the kitchen from going to waste.

In the weeks before I was handed the keys, I would picture myself waking early in the morning and turning on the radio to catch up with the day’s events before getting up and stretching out in a session of yoga.  Feeling energised, I would savour my luxurious shower and skincare routine, leaving me fresh and nourished and eternally youthful.  After getting dressed, with the colour of my tie and socks being a near-perfect match, it would be time to sit down at the breakfast bar with a cup of Lidl’s own Fairtrade roast and ground Colombian coffee and a book, fuelling my body and my mind before walking to work.  I suppose it wasn’t so much a breakfast bar as it was just a place to sit, since in those days I didn’t really eat breakfast, but the rest of it sounded pretty good to me. 

And for a while it worked.  I was getting out of bed before daybreak, doing my exercises and moisturising my face, with enough time until I left for work to sit with a fresh cup of coffee.  The morning had almost become my favourite part of the day, a couple of hours of bliss before the reality screams in your face.  However, over time, as is so often the way of things in life, what is easy soon overwhelms what can make you happy.  It started when I grew tired of having to clean out the coffee machine every other day, lifting soggy, mud-coloured filter papers out of the tray and making sure the entire thing was ready to be used again the next morning.  Once I’d figured out that I could give myself another fifteen minutes or so in bed by giving up the coffee for a glass of orange juice, that was it for the coffee machine.  Gradually I would find myself stealing even more time in bed, using the sound of rain beating on the window as justification for not taking the long way to the office, or convincing myself that it wouldn’t matter if I missed my morning yoga because I could do it in the evening.  Sometimes I even moisturised my face without first using the deep cleansing facial scrub like some kind of hard-skinned heathen.

The first Coronavirus lockdown in March 2020 helped me to refocus a little and I at least managed to get into a habit of doing yoga twice a day, even if the rest of my routine was still lacking.  My new-found enthusiasm didn’t last for long, though, and by the bleak winter months I was staying in bed later than ever, only giving myself enough time to get washed and dressed and little more.  Darkness was yawning long into the morning, and when I would waken and ask my little Google Play device to tell me the latest news headlines, I usually lost any interest I had in getting out of bed to do anything productive.  There just didn’t seem to be much point in getting up early during the pandemic when every day was the same as the last.  I don’t know how anybody else was getting through December, but for me it was the moments after Google’s computerised female voice told me that she had played all of that morning’s news stories and I would sink back into my pillow and fall asleep until the next alarm went off.  It was an almost companionable silence.

A while ago I had promised myself that I would never make another New Year’s resolution, but it was difficult not to see the advancing of 2021 as anything other than an opportunity for improvement.  It just had to be a better year, even for those people who had vowed to afford themselves some more alone time or to do some work around the house and who were probably quite content with how 2020 turned out.  I decided that I was absolutely going to stick to my vaunted morning routine no matter how dark or wet the day was, or how often I had to clean the coffee machine, but that I would do it from the fourth of January since I knew that I would be suffering from a hangover on the first three mornings of the year, and there’s no point in setting yourself a target that you know is impossible to reach.

I was never a big fan of Hogmanay and the pressure that came with the 31st to be this picture-perfect landmark of the passing of time, and for maybe the first occasion during all of the tiers (and tears) of lockdown restrictions I was quite glad for the opportunity to not be expected to make any plans.  There was a relief that came with knowing that I wouldn’t be forced into spending ten minutes queuing at the bar to be served a Jack Daniels and Coke in a plastic tumbler, and that the reason I wouldn’t be sharing a kiss at the bells this New Year wasn’t due to my own ineptitude but was instead because a global pandemic had made everybody else just like me.

Earlier in the day I had taken a crisp afternoon walk along the Esplanade in what not only were the fading embers of the day, but also the year.  As I was nearing St Columba’s Cathedral, I happened upon the multi-talented young woman who had previously curated the successful Let’s Make A Scene events in town.  She was out walking with another gentleman who I didn’t immediately recognise.  As I approached her, I pulled the earphones out of my ears and she remarked that “this must be where all the Catholics go walking.”  It wasn’t until she happened to mention her companion’s name after a few minutes that it registered with me who he was.  It turned out to be my best friend from primary school who I hadn’t seen since leaving Oban High, though in my defence he didn’t have the wispy beard back then and his voice wasn’t nearly as deep.  Almost immediately he reminisced that, as a boy, I was the one who was responsible for wrestling being banned from St Columba’s primary school, though that wasn’t how I remembered it.  There was certainly a time when my brother refused to watch WWF shows with me anymore because I always insisted on having matches with him during the ad breaks, and it was during one of these impromptu bouts that I burst his bottom lip open with a stray knee, but I just figured that he was a sore loser.  Nevertheless, this chance encounter on the seafront was very nearly the perfect ending to 2020, and it probably would have been had there not been another eight hours of the year left.

Until now I had never fully understood why mum always cried at the bells, though it was undoubtedly part of the reason why I never particularly cared for New Year.  My memories of the night were mostly of the generous spread of finger food that would gradually begin to appear before midnight:  dishes of salted peanuts, bowls of crisps, sausage rolls, and cocktail sticks which were loaded with a block of cheddar cheese the size of a small piece of lego, a slice of ham, and a pickled onion.  The cocktail sticks were everybody’s favourite part of the 31st of December.  In some ways they were even better than Christmas.  Every year dad would wait until a couple of minutes before the countdown to open his bottle of Whyte & Mackay, and once we had passed into the new year he would take his first drink.  He only ever drank whisky at new year, one of those little traditions that people have around this time, and it was funny how drunk it would make him.  On the television we would watch BBC Scotland’s coverage of the Hogmanay street party in Edinburgh, where the countdown to midnight ended with the firing of the gun from the castle.  We always muted the sound so that we could hear the CalMac ferries sounding their horns in the bay, and then mum would start to cry.  It wasn’t until we were talking about it at my sister’s over Christmas that I realised they weren’t tears of sadness.  Not an unhappy sadness, anyway.  They were tears for the people who weren’t there; for memories and nostalgia.  

As things turned out, spending New Year’s Eve at home alone wasn’t any better than previous years spent in a packed pub, surrounded by a sea of people I didn’t know, barely enough room to wave a cocktail stick in the air.  I thought about the people who I couldn’t be with – not only that night, but all through the year – and I felt nostalgic for previous Hogmanays, even the ones where I felt anxious over not having any plans or not enjoying the celebrations as much as everybody else seemed to be.

I tried everything I could think of to amuse myself until midnight, but it wasn’t easy when the only living company I had was the crassula ovata houseplant that I’d bought in September just so that I could make up the minimum spend to use a £5 off coupon in Lidl.  At least I think the succulent was still living, it was hard to tell.  I wasn’t sure how those plants were supposed to look when they’re healthy and thriving; it was more common for me to see them when they were withered and miserable.  My entertainment for the evening was my Spotify playlist of the year, which was 43 hours and 47 minutes long, and to pass the time until the gun was fired from Edinburgh Castle I played some YouTube videos in the background of some of the places I had planned to visit during the year but couldn’t due to the pandemic.  I watched videos of Ljubljana, Zagreb, a 4K walking tour of Belgrade, the fountain in the square in Sarajevo where all the pigeons frequently gather, and even footage of Edinburgh.  Places that all felt a lot further away now than ever before.

In an effort to fend off some of the weariness I was feeling after a few beers, I put a tray of sausage rolls into the oven at around ten o’clock.  It wasn’t pickled onions and cheese on a stick, but it was the best I could do to keep myself interested.  The trouble with hot pastry goods is that once they are there, it is close to impossible to stop yourself from eating them, especially when I was the only one who could eat them.  After a handful of the sausage rolls I was feeling bloated and queasy, and my thoughts turned to trying to figure out how long the bag had been sitting open in the drawer of the freezer.  It isn’t the sort of thing that you ever think you’re going to have to remember, not like the date your home insurance is due for renewal or when you last had a dental check-up.  There was no way of knowing when I had opened the sausage rolls, but given that the bag was advertising the goods as being part of a Christmas party range and they weren’t typically the type of food I would eat if I was on my own, it was reasonable – if not entirely safe – to assume that it wasn’t within the last year.

The point at which I started to feel at my most lonely wasn’t when I had ignored any sense of uneasiness and continued to polish off the entire plate of sausage rolls, but rather it was when I downloaded yet another dating app.  The way I saw it, I couldn’t have been the only person that was sitting alone on New Year’s Eve and feeling nostalgic for the company of others, and surely out of all those numbers someone was going to be drunk and lonely enough to swipe on my profile.  To sweeten the deal, I considered an addendum to my biography that would let the single women of Scotland know that I had excess sausage rolls which I could do with a partner to help me finish, but I couldn’t bring myself to type the words.  A better man than me would have known how to make it sound romantic, but I just never had that ability.  Besides, any potential match would have been prevented from visiting my flat under the restrictions of the time anyway, and I wouldn’t have wanted to start a relationship with a promise that I knew I couldn’t keep.  I imagined the disappointment on her face when she arrived to discover that I had already eaten all of the sausage rolls, the sort of look that summed up so many Hogmanays before it.  Is that it?  By the time I had finished my beers and taken myself off to bed it was long after 3 a.m. and I hadn’t found a single match across any of my dating apps.  When I asked my Google Play device to play some Ryan Adams, the robotic voice all of a sudden wasn’t sounding so companionable. 

As a mass vaccination programme began in Scotland on the fourth of January, the government announced that the country would be going into a full lockdown until at least the end of the month to support it, though most people believed that it would go on much longer.  It wasn’t unexpected, but you could tell that everyone was demoralised by it all the same.  When I arrived home for lunch on the fifth, the front door to my close was pinned open and the concrete floor was strewn with a blanket of pine needles.  Someone in the block was really taking the ‘twelve days of Christmas’ seriously.  It was a mess, like a road traffic accident where the only recognisable piece of debris is the air freshener.

I had been doing a pretty decent job of sticking to my morning routine during the first week of the year, managing to get out of bed at half-past six on three out of the five days, and I was feeling good about myself for it.  The town seemed to be stuck in a perpetual frost that week, with the temperature mimicking the number of my recent romantic encounters, in that it was struggling to climb above zero.  I couldn’t remember a cold like it, though it made for a fantastic Instagrammable scene with the snow-capped hills hugging the backdrop of the town.  Some of the pavements around the station and George Street seemed particularly slippy underfoot, which was something that I had felt especially anxious about since the morning in either 2009 or 2010 when I fell on some ice three times on my way to a 6 a.m. start in the Co-op.  I bruised the bone at the bottom of my spine quite badly and for weeks it would hurt to sit down, though the damage to my pride lasted much longer.  Every winter I felt the same fear whenever the weather turned cold enough for the ground to freeze.  To any casual observer I must have looked like a trauma victim learning to walk again for the first time after a terrible accident.  I could hear the physiotherapist by my side, coaching me along, becoming exasperated.  “If you could just take your hand off the rail and put your left foot forward, it isn’t that hard.”  It was difficult to enjoy the winter landscape when I could see the ground approaching with every step I took.

On at least three evenings I passed the same guy who was out running, always wearing a pair of black shorts, a t-shirt that was a shade only slightly darker than my cheeks, and a winter hat.  I felt like the Michelin Man every time he jogged by me.  Here I was wearing as many layers of clothing as I could fit into, and this guy was in shorts and a t-shirt like it was nothing.   Just seeing him was enough to make me feel colder.  I couldn’t understand how anybody could be out running on those pavements when I could hardly even walk on them.

Soon the sight of this guy’s t-shirt became like a rag to a bull for me.  I had never hated anyone; sure, like anybody else I held on to petty disputes, but hate was a bit strong, something I reserved mostly for mushrooms and Boris Johnson.  But by the end of the week I found myself wishing that the runner would find a thick patch of black ice.  It wasn’t anything I could say out loud, even though it wasn’t like I was wanting him to be severely injured – just a minor sprain, enough to help me feel better about myself.  With my luck it likely wouldn’t make much difference anyway.  The guy would display all of the natural balance of Christopher Dean, and would probably manage to save a small child in the process.  Meanwhile I would be seen off in the distance, unable to move from the one spot I knew for certain was safe, shivering and helpless.  Obviously I knew that deep down what I was feeling towards the runner wasn’t hatred at all, it was more like envy, which in some ways was worse.  I was jealous of the confidence he had on his feet, the fact that he was seemingly impervious to the lowly temperatures.  I could tell just from looking at him that he wasn’t the type of guy who had to bargain with himself to get out of bed in the morning, like a contestant on a TV game show.  I knew that I wasn’t going to be leaving the flat in shorts and t-shirt, but maybe 2021 was going to be the year where I could at least settle for a cup of filter coffee.

As Scotland’s Covid vaccine programme begins, this song seems like the ideal anthem for the month of January:

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.

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…

Spring in the lockdown age

It had become undeniable that spring was in the air, not that there was anyone around to argue the point.  Oban had enjoyed a week which was largely blessed with blue skies, consecutive days of which were always enough to bring legions of locals out in their shorts, showing off legs that were similar in shade to the few wisps of cloud still clinging to the horizon, as sure a sign as any that the thermometer had crawled into double digits and spring had arrived.  The ongoing lockdown taught us that every man and his dog in Oban had a canine companion, and if people weren’t out walking their dogs then they were either on a bicycle or had taken up running, and each of those daily acts of exercise required shorts.

Sometimes it was easy to forget everything else when the things happening all around us were so beautiful.  Trees were almost full again and flowers of all colours were beginning to pop up everywhere, signalling the end of winter right there at your feet.  You could become lost just watching the boats moving in the harbour like they always did, waiting for the very precise moment when they would appear to be great bulbous fish caught on the end of the sun’s golden line.  The warmth brought out the soft fragrance of the seaweed from the shore, while from the heart of town the distinctive smell of whisky wheezed into the atmosphere from the distillery.  Barbeques had been dusted down, and in late afternoon every other street you turned onto was marked by burning charcoal.  On George Street, on the sea wall approximately opposite the high street book and stationery store WH Smith, two pigeons copulated without a care in the world.  

Meanwhile, on High Street, a conversation between two older people – a man and a woman – was overheard.  “How are you coping with it all?”  She asked, in a neighbourly fashion.

“Oh, I’m loving this,” he responded.  “It’s nice and peaceful.”

“Yes, you can hear the birds chirping,” she observed, against a backdrop where, admittedly, birds could be heard chirping.  It was like there wasn’t a global pandemic at all.

The Oban Hills Hydropathic Sanatorium is the town’s best hidden landmark

During one afternoon walk, the tranquillity was challenged when two police cars and a van appeared on the Esplanade.  Their lights weren’t blaring, but the vehicles were coughing up some dust.  I could see them approaching from the distance; the cars arriving on the scene in uniform first, followed shortly afterwards by the van.  Since there was only one other man walking the pavement at the time, I began to wonder which of us was the vagrant who the officers were looking for.  Could it have been possible that they had heard me sneezing earlier in the day?  Did they know about the time when I had forgotten to scan a carrier bag at the checkout in Lidl?  I guess these things always have a way of catching up with a person.  

I ducked my hands deep into my pockets, like a schoolboy presuming it to be the most innocent posture to take, and continued on my way, the whole time eyeing my fellow suspect off in the distance with distrust.  We neared, although it was more a case of me nearing him since he didn’t seem to be getting very far.  It quickly became obvious that the man was disoriented and had a glazed stare in his eyes, like they were doughnuts on a coffee shop counter.  At that point it seemed unlikely that he was even aware of Coronavirus.  He was possibly drunk, or since it was four o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Oban, most likely off his face on drugs, and when a squad of police officers ushered him into the back of their van for a different sort of lockdown, I felt relieved that my misdemeanours hadn’t caught up with me.

Entering the fourth week of the regular lockdown was getting as tough for the rest of us as it was the man on the Esplanade, and the things I was missing were stacking up quicker than police vehicles.  It was a bad idea, but it was difficult not to spend my days sitting and thinking about how different things might have been in the alternate universe where Coronavirus hadn’t spread.  I would be in the final weeks of planning my trip to Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, and Scotland might recently have qualified for the European football Championships being held in the summer.  The Unlikely Lads would surely have finally won the Lorne pub quiz.  The company behind the jukebox in Aulay’s could have bowed to public demand and added the George Harrison song Wah-Wah to its catalogue.  Oban would have been thriving with visitors enjoying weeks of unprecedented warm weather, and although the threat of COVID-19 had been appeased before it could become a global pandemic, people had taken heed of the warning and were now thoroughly washing their hands after going to the bathroom.  At the bar on a Friday night I might even have made a woman laugh, although some thoughts were more outrageous than others.

The longer the days went on, the more difficult it was becoming.  At times my eyes were red and streams of water would roll down my cheek, wetting the top of my stubble.  Sometimes it was all I could do to sniffle my nose, again and again.  Hayfever wasn’t making like any easier.  For most of my adult life, I had resented the fact that I was afflicted by something that I was supposed to be able to count but couldn’t:  some people had described the Coronavirus as being an “invisible enemy”, but mine was pollen.  At one point my hayfever was so bothersome that I was becoming worried about leaving the flat for my one hour of outdoor exercise.  My concern over how other people would react if they witnessed me sneezing in public grew so great that I spent a morning considering how I would go about fashioning a lanyard with the message:  “Please don’t be alarmed, I only have hayfever.”  Alongside it would be a link to the diagram I had found online by the pharmacy chain Boots which showed the different symptoms of hayfever and Coronavirus side-by-side, though in the end I accepted that it would be futile since I didn’t have access to a laminator, and people would need to get really close to read the statement anyway.  In the end, like in the Tom Petty song Crawling Back To You, most of the things I worried about never happened, and my symptoms actually eased when I was outdoors.  It was rare for my body not to take any opportunity to humiliate me.

It was nigh upon twenty-four hours after I had been unfurloughed – a lot like a flag but without the trumpets – when the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band reassembled to bring the experience of being in Aulay’s on a Friday night into our homes by way of a group video chat.  Twenty-four hours after that, our album club held its third meeting, and second virtual meeting, to discuss the Talk Talk album Spirit Of Eden, and without even leaving my couch it seemed like my social life was better than it had been before the lockdown.  It was a relief to have some form of human interaction to look forward to, no matter how distant it was.  With the rising popularity of communicating from home, my usual insecurities were being forced to adapt to the change.  Rather than worry about how my outfit looked and whether I was going to say something stupid, I was thinking about how my flat would look on camera and whether I was going to say something stupid.

The boredom I had been beginning to feel about my interior decor after four weeks of staring mostly at my living room walls was only enhanced by seeing other people’s arrangements and how much better they were than my own.  Bookshelves teeming with paperbacks, soft lighting, nicer seating, inviting artwork, a guitar, cats.  I looked again across the room to the canvas print on my wall, which was taken from the mural by Banksy protege Mr Brainwash, of The Beatles wearing bandanas over their faces.  The small rectangle had taken on a dark irony over the previous four weeks, and once I had seen what other people were doing with their living rooms, I felt inspired to do some online shopping for fresh art for my walls.  It was just like any other night in the pub, when after a certain number of pints of Guinness I started to dream of bigger and brighter things.

Lockdown was teaching us a lot about ourselves and the small world around us; the various uses for technology and the differences between the symptoms of hayfever and Coronavirus.  After having lived in Oban for more than thirty-six years, I took a weekend to walk up to The Oban Hills Hydropathic Sanatorium for the very first time.  The ruins of the proposed hydropathic hotel, which started construction in 1881 but was never completed due to financial difficulties, is one of the town’s best hidden landmarks since the growth of vegetation around the stone structure has left it barely visible from the streets below.  On my way up the hill, I passed houses where couples were out tending to their garden in the sunshine, elderly neighbours sat drinking coffee across their boundaries, and benches were having a fresh coat of paint applied.  The only protection the handyman required was a hat to shade him from the sun.  The Hydro was easier to reach than I expected it would be, and once I got there, there was nothing but solitude.  It was as though nobody had ever been there before, and just for a moment, nothing else existed, not even a pandemic.  Nothing, that is, but the distant sound of birds chirping.

Links & things:

It may come as no surprise that I have written two previous stories about my trouble with hayfever, and they both came at this time of the year.  They can be found here:
15 April 2019: The day of the spring clean
14 April 2018: The week I remembered that I have hayfever

Click through the link to my Instagram account for more photographs of my first walk to Oban’s old Hydro

This week I have mostly been listening to this song by U2 which seems fitting for the current climate:

An Easter like no other

As far as religious holidays went, I always preferred Easter to Christmas.  It wasn’t so much that I found the story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection two days later more believable than that of a virginal woman giving birth to the child of God in a barn, just that it felt more laid-back and relaxed.  Easter never came with the pressure of making sure that you had bought a suitable present for everyone like there was at Christmas, there wasn’t the same concern over outfits for parties or if there would be enough food for the entire family to feast on, and to me, the Easter bunny was clearly a less threatening character than an old bearded man who would travel the world to creep around your house late at night, especially so in the era of social distancing.  It would be interesting to see how parents would talk their way around that one come Christmas 2020.

It probably wasn’t until I became an adult that I really started to appreciate Easter, or at least it would have been when I reached an age at which most people consider that you should be an adult.  A long weekend of four whole days was to a grown-up what Christmas morning was to a child, and with it usually came the opportunity to spend four nights in the pubs – all our Christmasses arriving at once.  It wasn’t always like that, though, and my abiding memory of Easter Sunday from when I was growing up was of how long the mass in the cathedral felt.  The service easily went on much later than every other Sunday of the year, and for a ten-year-old boy who had given up eating chocolate for Lent it seemed torturous to have finally reached the day on which my sacrifice for Jesus would be rewarded with a large Cadbury’s egg, only to have to first sit through a mass which certainly went beyond midday, and God only knows when it actually ended.  In that respect, it was almost like going into a busy bar and patiently waiting for your turn to be served, only for the keg to need changing when you reach the front of the queue.

Church was always busy on Easter Sunday, and everybody seemed to be wearing their very best outfit for the occasion, though in later years it was difficult to recall if that was really the case, or if it was just the technicolour of nostalgia.  I didn’t realise it at the time, but the likelihood was that most of them had reservations for lunch in one of the town’s restaurants or hotels in the afternoon.  Like my siblings and I straining for that first mouthful of milk chocolate in more than six weeks, these people were all being forced to listen to a seemingly endless stream of readings, some of them delivered by people we had never even seen before, and all of them having obviously been carefully practised since Christmas.  It was all quite reminiscent of the Medieval-themed restaurant we visited in Orlando as a family in the late nineties where we had to watch a joust or a duel unfold in front of us before we could eat our meal.

The streets in Oban were empty on Easter weekend

Almost as arduous as having to endure mass for what felt like many hours on Easter Sunday morning was the chore we would undertake in primary school the week or two prior to the big day of making our Easter bonnets.  I was never artistically inclined and probably spent most of the time thinking to myself how I would much rather be writing an essay about how disappointing my attempt at crafting a bonnet would inevitably be. Practically, a paper hat would surely be useless anyway, particularly if an April shower should come and cause the yellow crayon of chicks, the green stems of daffodils and the blue cloudless sky to weep as the material turned to mush.  It didn’t help that I had always felt tremendously insecure about things that would be seen by other people when I was in school, or at any age, really.  Art projects, picture frames in woodworking class, wearing shorts in PE.  When I thought about it all as I got older, I wondered if people were born with the inherent ability to be gushing in their praise of garish Easter bonnets and to be convincing in the mythology of Santa Claus, or if it was a skill that parents learned as they went, in the way of burping or changing a nappy.

Easter started to become something I would look forward to when I reached adulthood, when I no longer had to sit through mass to eat a piece of chocolate if I didn’t want to, and when the fashion was arguably better and undoubtedly more appropriate.  Although Good Friday was the start of a four day weekend, and a day which I would spend lounging around my flat in a pair of jeans and a casual checked shirt, kind of resembling a rejected advertisement campaign for if GAP were targetting the single and undateable market, I still felt the desire to suit up when it came time to go to Aulay’s at night.  I had spent years carefully crafting my sartorial image as the guy who always matched the colour of his socks to his tie and pocket square, and just because Jesus had sacrificed himself for mankind didn’t mean that I had to sacrifice colour coordination, even if it did draw looks of suspicion and curiosity from those who knew me and who were aware that I wasn’t working on Good Friday.  

There was no al fresco dining at Piazza restaurant

Spending Easter weekend in the bars often resulted in a phenomenon which was broadly similar to the story of Easter itself, if it was told in reverse:  Good Friday would see a person feeling revitalised and full of the vigours of life, but by Sunday they would be beaten, lifeless and ready to be hidden away in a dark cave.  Sometimes, if you took it easy on Saturday, you could get the story back on track and experience a resurrection of fortunes by Sunday morning, but it almost always went the same way in the end.  That turned out to be the case in 2017, when my brother and his girlfriend at the time had recently moved into his flat together and they hosted a combined Easter Sunday and flat warming celebration.  

The three of us, along with my bearded work colleague who in a later transformation of miraculous proportions would go from being the Shane MacGowan-like figure of our group to becoming completely teetotal, spent the afternoon drinking a salted caramel liquor out of the hollow shell of Kinder eggs, since we had been too late to buy anything larger or more in keeping with a traditional Easter.  The chocolate quickly sagged from the warmth of the alcohol and it was only possible to drink two shots of the stuff before it began leaking through the base, like some sweetly decadent plumbing problem that could only be fixed by using the tool of our mouths.  In another unorthodox use of chocolate, we removed the small yellow and white marbles from the popular children’s action board game Hungry Hippos and substituted them with bags of Malteasers.  Many of the sweets were too large for the plastic spring-activated mammals to swallow whole, resulting in a chaotic bloodbath as tiny pieces of chocolate flew all across the board like shrapnel, until eventually some shapes were stripped completely down to their honeycomb.  It was difficult to determine the winner of the contest when, for the first time in our lives, we were all feeling like winners.

Our game of Hungry Hippos with Malteasers in 2017 became a bloodbath.

Once our stash of alcohol had been exhausted and the threat of diabetes was high, we decided to venture into town, where Coasters was packed full for its annual Easter disco.  Before we left the flat, Kim presented us each with a fluffy little yellow chick, no bigger than the Malteasers we had just seen devoured by the hippos.  She said that if I wanted to, I could offer mine to a woman in the pub and it would surely lead to me befriending her, though it seemed an unusual method of seduction to me, a chick for a chick.  When I recently dipped my hand into the left breast pocket of my denim jacket, I discovered the small Easter chick, its fluffy coat much less buoyant than I remembered it, and its tiny orange legs contorted in on themselves, looking like something even the committee for the Turner Prize wouldn’t entertain.  It was a reminder that not every Easter ends with a miracle.

Many of the Easters of our adulthood did produce some remarkable events, and that was undoubtedly the case on the last Good Friday before the world changed; a Good Friday which itself changed some of the things we knew.  I had a tinge of trepidation when I arrived in Aulay’s that night following the events of twenty-four hours previous, when I had accidentally befriended my brother’s pub enemy.  If we are to accept that the concept of having a pub enemy exists, and that such a nemesis is a figure who constantly seems to have a presence when something goes wrong, despite your best efforts to not acknowledge them, then my pub enemy would be the fresh-faced homosexual who was present for at least two of my failures during 2018, the diminutive barmaid’s would be the top shelf where the malt whiskies are kept, and my brother’s pub enemy would be the Brexit Guy.

During the 2018 FIFA World Cup, my brother and I found ourselves in conversation at the bar with a pleasant and soft-spoken man who had blonde hair to match the tanned complexion of his skin.  My attention drifted when the subject turned to politics, though I was soon aware of my brother’s tone becoming animated in the way it does when he disagrees with something.  The soft-spoken man didn’t stick around for long after that, and it transpired that despite living in Colombia for half of the year, he was in favour of Brexit because it would curb the number of immigrants coming to Britain in search of work, a paradox which didn’t sit well with my brother.  Every time we saw him in Aulay’s after that night he was referred to as the Brexit Guy, and we never talked to him.

I couldn’t be sure how I ended up speaking to him the night before Good Friday, but I presumed that it was a drunken mistake, the way someone picks up the wrong jacket or drinks a rum and coke instead of a Jack Daniels.  Once again I found him to be pleasant and softly-spoken, though in the back of my mind there was a pang of gnawing (Catholic) guilt that if my brother could see the scene he would be disappointed by my interaction with his pub enemy.  When it reached the point where the Brexit Guy was offering to buy a Jameson for me, I had to come clean and remind him of the incident a year earlier before I could accept the whiskey and at the same time force the diminutive barmaid to confront her own pub enemy.

The Brexit Guy remembered the evening well and implied that he feels awkward every time he sees my brother and me at the bar.  This made me feel strangely powerful, that for the first time in my life I was intimidating another person, even if it had all been the work of my brother.  I imagined that the Brexit Guy viewed us as figures similar to the Kray twins, unlike most other people in Aulay’s who see us as something closer to the Chuckle Brothers.

I was able to accept a drink from the Brexit Guy when he confessed that he was very drunk on the night in question and was probably taking a contrary opinion to my brother’s because he enjoys winding other people up when he has had too much to drink.  I wasn’t sure how much I believed his story, but he seemed genuine and I, myself, have often considered the sporting merits of taking an opposing view to my brother, though have never had the guts to see it through.  On Good Friday the Brexit Guy again approached me at the bar, and we were chatting when he told me that he felt the need to apologise to my brother.  He called across to him and extended a hand, in place of an olive branch, which my brother shook. Brexit Guy apologised for “being a dick” in that initial meeting, and my brother conceded that he had probably been a dick too.  It was an Easter miracle that I had brought these two pub enemies together, and over the months he became so woven into the fabric of our group that we all brought in the bells together in Aulay’s, when we left 2019 and entered what would become the strangest year of our lives.

We were into the third week of lockdown following the worldwide spread of Coronavirus when Easter arrived.  At the beginning of the week, everyone in the country received a letter from the government about the measures being taken to combat the pandemic, which stirred up a real mix of emotions for me.  As a single occupant, it was very rare for me to receive any form of communication in the post that wasn’t a leaflet detailing the special offers in Farmfoods or offering life insurance cover for the over fifty-five-year-olds, so when I opened my front door to find a white envelope sticking out of the mouth of my postbox, like a Malteaser shredded of its chocolate and caught in the jaws of a hungry hippo, it was exciting.  The thrill quickly dissipated into disappointment when the contents were revealed, and the Shakespearian twist was complete when later that night it was reported that the Prime Minister had been taken into intensive care with the virus.  I didn’t have much care for the man himself, but the gravity of the situation in the country was difficult to ignore.

Two Calmac ferries social distancing in Oban Bay.

As time was wearing on, one listless day bleeding into another like white clouds on the horizon of a vast blue sky, considerations of fashion seemed to become less important.  It had been weeks since I had worn a tie, and at one point I realised that I had taken to wearing printed socks which I received as a Christmas present.  One pair, which were black, had several tigers on them, around eleven on each foot.  The big cats were full-bodied and prowled around the ankles, though the stretch of the material made it difficult to make out their faces.  Wearing the socks was a move that was so far out of step with the real world for me; I could never have worn them in ordinary circumstances.  There probably wasn’t a tie that would match socks which have tigers on them, and even if there was it would likely be hideous and look ridiculous on me, like a formal Easter bonnet, and as though I was a walking advert for a frosted flake cereal. And even if there was a tie to match the socks, who even knows what kind of pocket square would go with them to complete the triumvirate?  Though by this point in the lockdown it was hard to care about such things, and the character socks became just another new thing we would all have to get used to.

Everything in the new Coronavirus reality was taking some getting used to.  Even after a few weeks, I had to catch myself when I was walking towards another person on the pavement and from several yards away they took the decision to cross over to the other, empty, side of the road.  It was instinctive to wonder what you had done wrong, if your gait had unsettled them or if they simply didn’t like the way that you were dressed, until you remembered that they probably just didn’t want to get sick, and few people knew exactly how wide a pavement was.  To some it seemed easier to cross the road than to engage in the uncomfortable stand-off when two people were approaching one another from opposite directions, and because the pavement never got any wider, someone would have to step out onto the road to make the gap between them feel distant enough, creating the unusual dynamic where there was either the threat of walking into oncoming traffic, or of being infected by another human.  Would you rather die instantly from being hit by the Soroba to Dunollie bus, or fourteen days later from severe respiratory failure?

Easter in Oban, like anywhere else, was unlike any other we had known.  There were no church services to sit through before we could enjoy a piece of chocolate.  All of the restaurants and hotels were closed, while the outdoor dining areas that were usually crackling with the hum of tourists in the spring were as empty as the inside of a Kinder egg.  After a family video chat on Saturday evening, during which we discussed how when we were younger we would go and roll our eggs at “the rolly polly place”, which I now know most people refer to as the war memorial, it was back to the silence and stillness of lockdown.  Even the boats in the harbour seemed to be enacting social distancing, while the two seagulls I saw sitting at opposite ends of a lamp post on the Esplanade were either stringently following the rules or were involved in a serious tiff.  From McCaig’s Tower I had an eagle-eye view of the empty streets through town; this wasn’t the Easter anyone had imagined.  Even a handshake was out of the question.

Links & things:

The previous two Easter stories that I have written can be found here:
22 April 2019: The night of the handshake
3 April 2018: The morning I re-started yoga

Follow the link to my Instagram account for more pictures of Oban looking empty on Easter weekend

This week I have been mostly listening to the following songs:

And, really, just all of Laura Marling’s latest record Songs For Our Daughter…

Time on my hands

A sliver of light crept through the crack of my bedroom curtains on Sunday morning, splashing all the parts of the room its bony fingers could reach with colour and creating a more natural intrusion than the nearby streetlight which was often my bedfellow on a night.  Between my sheets I was stirring awake, and although my eyes were as heavy as a shopping trolley filled with toilet rolls and scented handwash, I was free of the hangover which ordinarily had me practically chained to the bed on a weekend, the result of my living room once again failing to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s for the night.

As I rolled over to the right-hand side of my bed, my eyes were flickering open like a pair of moths flailing inside a lampshade, and without glasses, they were made to force themselves into a squint to make out the shapes on the digital clock on the bedside table.  They didn’t make any sense to me, but then I couldn’t recall the last time that a figure by the side of my bed did.  The clock was reading 06:30, which confused me since all through the lockdown I had been waking up naturally at around seven-thirty. I put the discrepancy out of my mind and turned to go back to sleep, though within forty-five minutes I was wide awake again.  I had no choice but to accept defeat, so I grumbled my way out of bed and put on a pot of coffee.  The digital display on the machine reminded me of my early rise, taunting me in much the same way as the gloating face on my watch and the clock on the mantelpiece in the living room were.  Like the coffee machine, I was steaming.

I returned to bed with a cup of coffee and reached for my phone from the bedside table, figuring that since I was awake at 7.15 on a Sunday I might as well torture myself further with a cursory swipe through Twitter.  It was when I had my iPhone in hand, with its smart in-built capability to tell the time no matter the day of the year and without the need for human intervention like all of my other timepieces, that it occurred to me that the clocks had sprung forward into British Summer Time and the actual time was an hour later than I had been led to believe.  For the first time in my adult life, I was able to appreciate the method behind mum’s thinking when we were growing up, whereby she would go around the entire house at around ten o’clock on the Saturday night and make sure that every clock was set forward or brought back an hour, depending on whether it was March or October.  Even if we all had a couple of hours where we would have to look twice and do a little bit of mental arithmetic on Saturday night, it would be worth it come Sunday morning when we could be sure of exactly what time it was.  I could hardly believe that I had forgotten all about the clocks moving forward, although in the current situation it didn’t seem like losing an hour was going to make very much of a difference to anybody.

The country was in its second official week of lockdown in the fight against COVID-19, and it was beginning to show.  Suddenly every other person I would see on the street was wearing these blue plastic gloves, like they were on their way to work a shift in a sandwich deli on Great Western Road in Glasgow.  They were everywhere, and it was hard to imagine where they had all come from or what would happen to those who truly needed the gloves if, or when, we ran out of them – the deli workers slicing ham, or the nurses tending to the sick in Intensive Care Units.

In one instance I witnessed as a heavyset man sauntered past my window on a morning towards the end of the week when the temperatures had dropped again and the sky had clouded over.  He was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, as well as his blue plastic gloves, whilst carrying a bag of shopping in each hand.  Ordinarily the t-shirt would seem like a terrible idea to me anyway, just from the perspective of fashion alone, but it was especially so on a day which felt much colder than those preceding it, and when such consideration over hygiene had been taken as to wear plastic gloves outside.  Was he operating under the belief that Coronavirus stopped at the wrists?

It was early into the second week when I suffered my first real scare of the lockdown.  I was preparing a basic pasta dinner when it quickly occurred that the shards of wholewheat fusilli that were loitering at the bottom of my pasta jar would scarcely feed a family of squirrels, if the reds and the greys had given up gathering nuts in favour of dining out on tasty Italian cuisine.  I had to go back to the cupboard to source some more pasta to make up a full human portion, and before I even opened the door again I knew that all I was going to find was the most oddly-shaped pasta shells of them all:  conchiglie. Even putting the two different kinds of pasta into the same pot felt wrong, like wearing medical gloves with a t-shirt, or putting me into a social situation with any woman.  As I was bringing the pot to the boil I could feel all sorts of questions about my pre-lockdown shopping simmering beneath the surface.  Perhaps I should have put some more effort into it after all.  And yet, somehow, mixing the different pasta shapes together was the most daring thing I had been able to do in weeks.  This is really living, I thought to myself as I spooned the floppy brown and white shapes into my bubbling homemade sauce.

Frozen in time: the ice cream menu at Bossards

 

Aside from knowing what kind of meals to cook, there were some other challenges that came with the lockdown.  Since we were only allowed out of our homes for specific purposes, we had to use our supplies sensibly.  I was taking great care to limit the amount of milk I was using to lighten caffeinated drinks in an effort to ensure that the bottle was emptied at roughly the same time as most of the other goods in my kitchen.  The way I saw it, was going to Lidl to buy a bottle of Rioja for the album club on Saturday night really an essential reason for leaving home?  Probably not.  But venturing to the supermarket for milk, potatoes, cheese, eggs, fruits, wholewheat fusilli, and two bottles of Spanish red wine for our virtual music gathering couldn’t be anything other than a necessity.

Being stuck indoors 23/7, adjusting for the hour or so it would take for me to go on my daily walk, brought with it difficulties alongside the expected boredom and loneliness.  With all of my business being conducted in the same place, my flat quickly developed a potpourri of fragrances.  It was especially noticeable how long orange zest would linger in the atmosphere after the citrus had been peeled; often hours later.  Meanwhile, a broccoli and stilton soup that I ate for lunch imbued the close confines of my living space, canoodling with the wet washing which was hanging on the airer in the kitchen, which in turn consorted with the onion and garlic from the pasta sauce I had cooked for dinner.  There was incense burning like a funeral service in the living room, fighting for attention with the stench of the furniture polish which had earlier been used to give the mantelpiece mirror a fresh complexion.  All of this was against the backdrop of endeavour – though perhaps not yet sweat – earned twice a day on the yoga mat by the window, and the barely matched joy of a freshly opened bottle of Jameson.  It was as though someone had spent an entire month in isolation working on their dream project, which was a range of scented oils, candles and perfumes titled “The Smells of Societal Lockdown” and they had selected my flat as the base for their online store.  I couldn’t imagine that any of them would be the aftershave I would choose to wear on my first night back in the bars once this was all over.

It always seemed important to have goals, though, and if someone was going to use this time to create their line of natural essences, then I wanted to do something positive.  If nothing else, I thought, the lockdown would be an opportunity for us all to forge our generation’s “back in my day” moment.  It was always the way that people who were older than even myself, usually by around twenty or thirty years, could hark back to the way things were when they were younger, either to demonstrate how much better life was in those days or as a way of making you sympathise with them for how difficult they had it, whichever best suited their argument at the time.  They would reminisce about being able to play football in the streets, half-day closing on a Wednesday or going to the pub during lunch hour on a Friday and not going back to work.  Sometimes it would be pointed out that in generations gone by there were only three channels on the television, the internet didn’t exist or food was rationed with stamps.  Now we were spending our entire days with nothing but the internet, and pre-lockdown stockpiling had brought about the rationing of some products.

Most people around my age had it pretty good, I reckoned, and there wasn’t really very much we could use in our experience as a “back in my day” example to a younger person.  The nearest thing we might cite would be how “back in my day we had to dial-up to connect to the internet,” or maybe “we had to wait a whole week to see the next episode of our favourite television show.”  But really, when it was stacked up against the blitz of the Second World War or the strikes of the seventies, it sounded pretty weak.  It would be difficult to convince a youth that things were better when we could go to Woolworths on a Monday after school to browse the latest singles and album releases, or of the hardship of having to rewind a videotape before returning it to Blockbusters.  Finally the lockdown was going to give people of my generation the scope for finding the “back in my day” instance that, years from now, would really stick it to anyone who dared to think that things were tough.  “You have to remember that back in my day we were only allowed to leave the house once a day…the pubs were closed for months…there was no toilet roll to be found anywhere…we couldn’t see our family or friends…we mixed together different types of pasta because that’s all we had.” 

Amidst the mind-numbing tedium of the new lockdown reality, there were little echos of distant times and reminders of the way things used to be, such as on Wednesday morning when I was slowly coming out of sleep.  Rays of light from the rising sun nestled between the curtains, like shining a torch into the cupboard underneath the stairs, while my eyes were opening the same way a jar of honey is – slowly, with a great deal of effort and a little grunting.  I could hear the bin lorry stop on the street outside my window as the green bins were being emptied.  It was a sound I had heard dozens of times before, but this time it was savoured, not least because it would give a good reason to spend a couple of minutes outside later in the morning when the bins needed to be brought back in. 

Usually the clattering of rubbish being swallowed by the mammoth lorry would act as an alarm clock of sorts, letting me know that it was sometime around seven and probably time to think about getting out of bed.  Now it was more a faint memory of a bygone world, a little like the memories which sometimes popped up on Facebook, such as the recent reminder I received of a joke I posted five years earlier asking, “when people genuinely thanked Einstein, do you think it sounded sarcastic?” and which achieved one like.  I felt a certain comfort in the sound of the bin lorry, and I turned over and closed my eyes again.  After all, I could be sure that it was seven o’clock, and I had all the time in the world.

Links & things:
If you are social distancing, as well as working from home, and finding it difficult to remain as active and as healthy as you ordinarily might, please consider having a look at the online resources available from a local Oban charity Lorn & Oban Healthy Options, whose valuable work with the elderly and vulnerable in our community has also been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their Facebook page can be found by clicking on this link.

This week I have been mostly listening to this poignant song which was possibly written because Rod Stewart learned how to play a new instrument…

Lockdown

When the lockdown was finally enforced on Monday 23 March 2020, it wasn’t unexpected or even unwelcome, but it still felt as though it had come from nowhere, a sudden jolt to the system.  In that respect, it was similar to going into school on the morning of your birthday. You knew that the bumps were going to come eventually, you knew that they were going to hurt a little, but it was accepted that really the intention was good and in the end, it would be worthwhile.  Although it was painful to have all but essential businesses closed and for us all to be unable to socialise in our favourite pubs, restaurants, theatres or public spaces for the foreseeable future, it seemed that it was for the best if we were wanting more people to have birthdays to look forward to.

Even before the full lockdown arrived, most things had ground to a halt over the previous weekend.  All through town the doors and windows of cafes, charity shops and some other retail premises had been plastered with sheets of white A4 paper carrying all sorts of information on the coronavirus.  Some were very matter of fact, while others were more personal and one explained that their store was closed because the virus had reached the owner’s home island of Easdale.  The scene down George Street reminded me of the once or twice every year that the circus or the fairground would come to town, and somehow overnight the posters advertising their attractions would appear seemingly everywhere, in every shop window and on every lampost.  For a solid week, you wouldn’t be able to go anyplace in Oban without being reminded that Wednesday was half-price night at the shows.  It was the same with Covid-19, although this time it seemed like a much more dangerous and entirely less welcome visitor was coming to town.

With the announcement of the lockdown at eight-thirty on Monday night came a great wave of restrictions that would greatly affect everybody’s lives.  The only people who were permitted to leave their homes were so-called key workers:  doctors, nurses, health care professionals, food workers, delivery drivers, and anyone else whose job was essential to the running of the country.  Everybody else could go outdoors once a day for basic exercise and to go shopping for necessities, and there were even rules about how many people from any household could go out at one time, similar to when we were children and had been grounded, and one of us would quietly leave the bedroom to scope out whether things had calmed down yet.  

I officially became a furloughed worker, which effectively meant that the UK government was going to pay me 80% of my wage in order to keep me at home and no longer exchanging potentially lethal oxygen with everyone else.  Fortunately with Aulay’s being shut I was saving around 20% of my monthly salary, so I probably wasn’t any worse off for it.

George Street, Oban’s main street, was deserted on Saturday afternoon

It felt strange waking in the morning without a purpose, sort of like how I imagine it must have felt to have been a boxer who was about to step into the ring with ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson in his prime, knowing that he was beaten before the fight had even started.  I decided early on that I was going to stick to as near to a normal routine as possible, even if I wasn’t going to work every day.  During the first week of lockdown, I was going to bed at around the same time each night, getting up not any later than nine o’clock in the morning, and eating the same meals as when life was normal.  It would have been easy to just spend every night endlessly drinking cans of Tennent’s Lager and shots of Jameson whilst listening to Ryan Adams songs, but I made it a policy that I would save the misery of drinking alone for the weekends only.

In addition to my attempt to keep my life as straight as I could, I resolved that I was going to use the free time to once again try and get back into a regular routine of practising yoga.  It had been around six years since I had last stuck with a proper schedule for doing yoga at home, and it did me the world of good, helping me to feel the healthiest I ever had in my life.  If anything good was going to come of the coronavirus lockdown, I planned on it being that I would finally be able to do yoga twice a day again – if nobody else was going to be touching my toes, I might as well do it myself.

After my morning session of yoga, once I had taken a shower and moisturised my face – because even if the world that we knew was changing dramatically, it was important to keep your cheeks feeling soft – it was a daily battle to try and fill the hours before going back to bed at night.  I would spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating dinner, maybe just as long scrolling through the home screen of Netflix unable to settle on something to watch before giving up completely, and usually I would just end up thinking about how much more fun other people were having spending their lockdown with loved ones or partners.  In a lot of ways, it was like how I would expect date night would go.

Every day I would give myself something to look forward to by saving my solitary government-sanctioned walk until early in the evening, by way of rewarding myself for the two sessions of yoga I had done, and putting to work the half a dozen cups of coffee I had consumed through the day.  It didn’t seem to matter when I treated myself to my daily walk, the place would always be close to deserted whenever I went out.  It was ghostly, and reminiscent of the couple of years when my sister hosted Christmas at her flat in Longsdale and I would be walking home through town in the early hours of Boxing Day, fucked up on gin, when everything was closed and there was barely a soul to be seen on the streets.  The only real difference being that gift exchanges of any sort were definitely unwelcome on this occasion.

Shades had been drawn down over the windows of both the Perle and the Royal Hotel, presumably to keep their bars out of sight of the public, but I preferred to think of it as them preparing for some grand unveiling in the near future; an arts exhibition or cultural installation, perhaps.  I could imagine soft, elegant music on opening night, cocktail waitresses carrying silver trays of sparkling wine and the little dressed toothpicks dad liked to serve guests at Hogmanay:  a square of red cheddar cheese on the bottom, some sliced ham in the middle, and a pickled onion gleaming at the summit, like a pearl finishing off a garish outfit.  There would be no advertising of the event beforehand and nobody would know what was going on, until one day the shades would be lifted and suddenly it was there, like a poster for the circus.  The excitement spreading by word of mouth would be tremendous, at least as much as social distancing would allow.

At the bus stop in station square, there was an older man who was dressed entirely in camouflage.  His feet were positioned at a ten to two stance, and between them was placed a small black rucksack and a Lidl bag for life which appeared to be stuffed full of clothing.  He was more than an hour early for the last bus to Glasgow of the day, but I supposed there was nothing else he could do but stand patiently in the enclosed space.  I spied his outfit as I walked past the bus shelter, considering how either I had been too quick to scoff at the idea of the army coming to Oban to lock down the hospital a week earlier, or the gentleman waiting for his coach to the city was taking the line about being “at war with coronavirus” much more literally than the rest of us.

By the time I had spent my first couple of days in isolation, I was finding that there was excitement in even the most minor of things in our new existence.  Most thrilling of all, so starved was I of human contact, was when I would happen to catch sight of another human being walking past my living room window, usually on the opposite side of the street.  When it happened it was like I was a little lovesick puppy, and if I was quick enough I would rush over to the window seat in the hope of getting a closer look, even if for just a second more, and then they were gone.  Although I was able to see them from my position behind the net curtain, the unknowing stranger would never notice me.  It was exactly how it was in the old world.

While I originally viewed the lockdown as having the feeling of being a terrible “social experiment” as part of a reality show for Dutch television in the early 2000s, as the week wore on and the days were beginning to blend into one the way the tomato sauce from baked beans converges with egg yolk on a breakfast plate, I began to see the situation as being like existing in a Radiohead song.

The premise of the song by Radiohead would have been something like this:  the subject finds himself in a situation where he still has his life exactly as he has always known it when he is inside his own home, but on the one occasion each day that he is permitted to go outside, he is forced to walk through this alternate universe that he recognises very vividly.  Wherever he travels it is only desolate streets lined with memories, almost ghostly in their appearance; good and bad memories; places where he has been before, places he would like to go again.  They are places where he has met friends, lovers; where he has laughed and cried.  As he walks the memories are repeated like a musical carousel, over and over again in his mind, but he can’t interact with them.  He isn’t allowed to go inside the buildings and he can’t see the people he has been thinking about.  Instead, all he can do is go home and repeat the whole thing all over again the next day.

My five o’clock excursion every evening was an eerie experience.  The streets were pretty vacant, as though the people of Oban had unconsciously come to an agreement that we were going to stagger our one piece of outdoor exercise over different times of the day.  Either that or it was like high school all over again, when everybody was gathering in one spot and I was off minding my own business somewhere else.  It was weird seeing the Oban Bay Hotel in darkness at the start of what would once upon a time have been tourist season, its car park completely bereft of vehicles or visitors.  The shutters had been pulled down at Aulay’s for more than a week, a sight I would ordinarily only see through hazy eyes at the end of another long and rewarding night. Nobody could get a six-inch sub from their favourite Subway sandwich artist.  Everything had fallen silent, the sort of silence that is so quiet you can’t help but hear it, except for the squawking seagulls, who were seemingly untroubled by Covid-19.  All that was missing was a killer riff from Jonny Greenwood.

Off in the distance, as I was walking along the seafront, I could see that I was steadily approaching a group of what appeared to be three teens and a slightly older male travelling from the opposite direction.  Deep within me I could sense my internal monologue summoning the fury of a cartoonish grumpy old man as it bemoaned the quartet’s flagrant disregard for the guidance against groups of people meeting outdoors. They were fanned out across the pavement, like conkers on a string, and I dreaded the moment that our paths would inevitably cross.  All I could think about was what would happen if they were the mischief-making sort who were only out to cause trouble.  The closer I was walking towards the group, the more clearly I could picture them all taking it in turns to cough in my direction, each of them the embodiment of the popular eighties film franchise starring Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.

In the end my fears were unfounded, and as I stepped out onto the road to avoid the group, they twisted around themselves like a hairpin, clearly with no intention of infecting me, and more than that, quite probably holding the same concerns about the anxious-looking man in the long black coat.  Following a discreet distance behind the group of teenagers was a lovestruck young couple who were strolling along the promenade hand in hand.  It was the type of romantic scene which left me far colder than it usually did.  Even in the grip of a global health emergency, people were always going to find a way of rubbing their happiness in everybody else’s faces.

In the space of a week the entire world as we had known it had changed.  We were in the rare position of living through a historic event, something far-reaching, frightening, challenging, and mad.  Who knew what was going to be waiting to be unveiled behind the shades at the end of it all, whenever that would be.  The best I could hope for was going to be a full head of hair if the barber was to be closed for much longer.

Links & things:
If you are social distancing, as well as working from home, and finding it difficult to remain as active and as healthy as you ordinarily might, please consider having a look at the online resources available from a local Oban charity Lorn & Oban Healthy Options, whose valuable work with the elderly and vulnerable in our community has also been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their Facebook page can be found by clicking on this link.

Fast March – my Spotify playlist for the month of March

Click through the link to my Instagram page for more photographs of empty hotel car parks in Oban taken using the iPhone’s “noir” camera filter.

This week I have been mostly listening to:

And something a little more uplifting…

Diaries of a social distancer

If there was one thing that I could be confident of being good at, it would be the art of ‘social distancing’.  Even at my most modest, I would say that I was the best social distancer I knew. After all, it was something I had been perfecting for years – for most of my adult life, actually.  Though for as much as my skill could be lauded, it wasn’t always intentional. Often it was the result of having said something stupid to a woman who I was trying to talk to at the bar, or when I would attempt a joke in a room full of people, such as the night at The Rockfield Centre when I read my story about asking the staff to assist me in finding a self-help book in Waterstones.  That was different from what we were all being advised to do from the middle of March, however.  That was accidental social distancing; this was the real thing.

Everybody in the country was being asked to reduce their contact with others down to a minimum in order to help contain the spread of Covid-19.  Businesses were closing or operating behind closed doors, some people were working from home, coffee shops were beginning to operate on a delivery only policy, and the population was generally staying indoors unless it was essential to leave the home.  Despite it being the UK government’s decree that people shouldn’t gather in places like pubs or restaurants, they refused to order the closure of them until the weekend, a strategy which was akin to telling a toddler that they weren’t allowed to have any more biscuits while leaving an entire jar of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies open and within reach on the kitchen counter as you went into the next room to do the laundry or manage your stock portfolio.

In the new Coronavirus age of social distancing, even an act which was previously so insignificant and minuscule could seem like the most daring thing in the world.  When I left my flat to venture outdoors for an evening walk after an entire Sunday afternoon spent staring at Henri Matisse’s 1905 painting ‘Open Window’, which two years earlier I had thought would be funny to hang on the wall next to the living room window, it felt like a bold departure from the things we were supposed to be doing.  

It struck me how the walk reminded me of the first time I smoked a cigarette, when I knew that it was wrong and it was probably pretty bad for me, but everyone else was doing it and they seemed to be having a great time.  In some ways, the smokers were looking cool, not at all dissimilar to the conditions those who were briskly striding by my window looked to be enjoying.  As I sauntered idly through the streets of Oban at four, or maybe five o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, noticing it to be no different to any other sabbath in times when we hadn’t been facing a global pandemic, I couldn’t help but think of the things mum would have been telling me if she was still around.  “Walking is a filthy habit,” she might have said.  “You’ll never find a girlfriend if you’re always out walking – don’t you know that kissing a walker is as good as kissing a petri dish?” Although I was a smoker for a time, I had never put my mouth to an ashtray to find out what it was like, probably in part due to mum making it sound like the most revolting thing a person could do.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” – A Friday night at home.

In the new reality we had all found ourselves in, it quickly became clear that when it was all stripped away, there was only one thing that separated humans from one another; one trait which above all else could sort the good guys from the bad guys, the strong from the weak.  What people were really looking for in others was their ability to transfer from the cold outdoors into a stuffy and well-heated room without so much as a cough.  Coughing had become the ultimate sign of weakness in 2020, the one single act that was absolutely guaranteed to attract scornful looks and see a person painted as a pariah.  All it would take was for a person to walk into a room and cough, even just once – and it wasn’t important if it was the only occasion that individual had coughed all month – and the rest of civilisation would cast visual daggers towards them, the sort of look that once upon a time was only ever reserved for the type of person who would waltz into a church during a beautiful Christening service and declare that the baby is “a stupendously ugly cunt.” 

As the penultimate week of March coughed into its dying embers, it brought with it the unusual paradox of Thursday being the first day of Spring – a beautiful blue day of brilliant, albeit cold, sunshine – as well as it being the day of greatest panic during the outbreak of Covid-19.  From early in the day a wild rumour was spreading through Oban like, well, a virus, that the army was on its way to the town to “lockdown” the hospital. Quite why the army was going to bypass every major city in the UK on its way to this tranquil seaside town, and without even a whisper of it happening on social media, was unclear, but the story was taken as gospel in no time.  All around the place, normally level-headed people were reacting like when a pot of pasta has been left on the hob for a minute too long and salted water begins to bubble and boil from beneath the lid like an active volcano.  It quickly spiralled out of control, and all I could do was wonder where such stories even come from and who thinks them up to begin with.  Is it something that is exclusive to small towns like ours, or were people in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen also buzzing around like bees surrounding the most ridiculous honeypot imaginable, frantic over the notion that soldiers were about to seize their city’s hospitals?

In the situation, there must have been dozens of different fables that would have been more believable, and which might even have gone some way to alleviating the anxiety and dread that was creeping through society.  A spokesman from the World Health Organisation might have been heard talking on Radio Scotland, for example, about how they were hopeful that the grains of sand at Ganavan were discovered to have contained some rare quality which could be used to produce a vaccine against Covid-19.  Or maybe people had been seen belly-flopping into the Black Lynn on account of reports that swimming front crawl in the burn acted as an antidote to the virus.  It could have been reported that Tesco had a stock of potatoes, that anyone who was born in Dunbeg had immunity, or that I was going to find true love during my spell of social distancing. 

Long before Friday, people were telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do the responsible thing and keep out of the pub.  I didn’t see the sense in going and had no intention of continuing my weekly habit, but there was a part of me which knew that later in the night I would be tempted to walk along the road to Aulay’s when the government hadn’t yet closed the bars and restaurants, like a little boy spying an open container of chocolate chip cookies on the countertop.  My detractors attempted to sweeten the deal by talking about how “this could be the weekend when you actually pull.”  I thought about it for a moment, and once we had all stopped laughing, I knew for sure that I was going to spend the night in my flat.  What a bittersweet thing it would be, I considered, if I was actually able to convince a woman to spend some time in my company and it later transpired that one of us was carrying Covid-19.  Me, I would happily take the hit.  But for her it would probably be a catastrophe when five days later a dry cough would remind her of the most awkward romantic encounter of her life.

There was the paradox of brilliant sunshine and a crippling global pandemic.

I always knew that it was going to be difficult to replicate the experience of being in Aulay’s when I was practising social distancing in my own living room on a Friday night.  The bar was a place where I would go to get away from my five or six other nights of ordinary isolation, even if it did often result in accidental social distancing, and now in the Coronavirus age I was going to have to find a way of recreating the escape to the pub in my own home.  To begin with, I lit a tealight candle to burn a heap of incense, hoping that it would help to create a weird smell around the place.  Someone had once described my use of incense as giving my living room the fragrance of a church, and specifically a funeral service, but my friends and I had always seen our weekly visit to Aulay’s as being like going to chapel, so it made sense to me

In the cupboards in my kitchen I had six pint glasses of various brandings which I had inherited from the previous owner of the flat.  Initially I was reluctant to hold on to them, both due to the fact that they were obviously stolen from some establishments in town, and because I didn’t feel comfortable owning drinkware that someone else had been using.  But they were useful for filling a space in the cupboards and making it look as though I had made some effort, so I decided to hold on to them.  I used one of the Tennent’s glasses to pour a can of the golden stuff into, replicating my habitual Friday night tipple, though it wasn’t the same when the 440ml can didn’t quite fill the pint glass, and the drink almost immediately fell flat anyway.  Something about the mechanism of an ill-begotten Tennent’s glass clearly wasn’t the same as when used at the bar.  As a barman to myself, I was hopeless.

Between trips to the fridge for my next drink, I would force myself to wait for a couple of minutes with an empty glass in front of me in an effort to replicate the time our group would usually spend trying to determine whose round it was next, though it was different without the tenuous puns, the excitable interjections from the moonlighting banker or the marine biologist barmaid’s suggestions of recipes for vegan curry dishes.  In the meantime, I played a Spotify playlist of mostly cheesy pop hits and charged myself a pound to add three songs of my own liking to the queue, in keeping with the jukebox system in Aulay’s.  On occasion I would play something by The Smiths, expecting to see the delighted grin on Geordie Pete’s face when he heard the familiar opening beats, or I would put on some Tears For Fears knowing how much Brexit Guy enjoyed his eighties synth, but in the end, I was just lining my own pockets with musical misery.

No matter what I tried, nothing came close to being in Aulay’s.  There wasn’t the same tangible thrill as when a barstool became free and you could park your load for a while, since the stools at the breakfast bar in my kitchen were always empty and I could sit in one of them whenever I liked.  I tried leaning against the mantelpiece, but it was just too high, and it didn’t have the same feeling of nonchalant coolness that standing by the icebox at the bar did.  Although it was welcome being able to go to the bathroom without the fear of having to engage in conversation over the urinal, I found myself going much more frequently when I knew that it was there.  People are always going to do something that feels good when it is just there and readily available.  

By the end of the night, I had grown tired of sitting around drinking by myself, and I was in bed before midnight.  Once again I had been unable to make conversation with a woman, and I wasn’t any closer to finding true love.  It was just like any other Friday night.  When I awoke the following morning I was fresh and hangover-free – it was a strange sensation.  The government had announced that all bars and restaurants were to close, and so I was going to be forced into making my own breakfast, rather than attend our usual Saturday morning family gathering at Poppies.  It was only the first weekend of social distancing and there was a long way left to go, but I was already craving a chocolate chip cookie.  The best I could hope for was a short walk.

Links & things:

If you are social distancing, as well as working from home, and finding it difficult to remain as active and as healthy as you ordinarily might, please consider having a look at the online resources available from a local Oban charity Lorn & Oban Healthy Options, whose valuable work with the elderly and vulnerable in our community has also been impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak.  Their Facebook page can be found by clicking on this link.

This week I have mostly been listening to the following songs by Bruce Springsteen and Eagles Of Death Metal:

Two-ply envy

Although everything in the world around us seemed to be changing on a daily, if not an hourly, basis, the one thing that the worldwide pandemic of Covid-19 couldn’t affect was the gloomy weather of a Monday in March on the west coast of Scotland.  All day the sky was thick with a heavy blanket of rain which was similar in shade to the style of jacket you would usually associate with an elderly woman, one which also happened to closely resemble the colour of the throw cushions on my bed.  It was at its most ferocious at five o’clock when I was leaving work, as was always the case, and so instead of taking my nightly walk along the Esplanade, I ventured to Tesco to top up the credit on my electricity key.  Even by the time I had travelled the short distance to the supermarket I was soaked from head to toe, my toes particularly suffering due to my continually poor judgment in the purchasing of footwear.

I approached the post office counter with the gait of a sodden bath towel and fished the small green and blue token from my jacket pocket.  There was no line, and the woman behind the desk was counting a bundle of Euros, as well as the minutes until the end of her shift. My long black coat was slick with pearly raindrops, my hair was as wet as it was after my morning shower, and my glasses kept slipping down the bridge of my nose, like a baby seal on a flume.  They wouldn’t stay still.  Despite these obstacles, and after the cashier twice checked that I had asked for thirty pounds of credit and not thirteen, the transaction was completed with minimal fuss.  My index finger was nudging my glasses back up my nose as the two of us were waiting for the terminal to splutter out its receipt confirming our success.  The post office woman took a good look at me and asked if it was still raining.  I told her that it was.

The first sign that people in Oban were becoming worried about the growing emergency surrounding the outbreak of the new Coronavirus came on a Wednesday morning that, aside from it being a double bin collection day, was quite unremarkable.  It was said that two police cars were seen racing through Argyll Square in the direction of Combie Street, although the ability of one of the vehicles to race to the scene of the crime was seemingly frustrated by the traffic which often chokes that particular road.  It emerged that the cops were responding to an incident of graffiti on the wall of the builder’s merchant along the street from my flat.  Someone had sprayed the words “CLOSE SCHOOLS” in gold paint, and although the town’s high school was in near proximity, it was to be presumed that it wasn’t intended as a helpful street direction.  

This seemingly had occurred earlier in the day, and the vandal returned some hours later, this time armed with the less luxurious although more visible white paint to complete the job.  The white letters were larger than their predecessors, as though more confident, like when Leonardo Da Vinci had sold a few pieces and realised that he was quite good at painting, so he attempted the Mona Lisa.  This time the concerned citizen daubed the phrase “CLOSE SCHOOL”, possibly after having remembered that the rest of the schools in Oban were considerably further away from the centre of town.  The lettering was oddly-sized on the second effort, with the bottom row clearly getting smaller and smaller, until eventually there wasn’t enough space for the final ‘S’, the way that my neat handwriting in my notebook would noticeably squeeze closer together when it became obvious that I would be struggling to finish my sentence without having to use a brand new page.  On the next section of the wall was a broadly more political statement, reading “Boris Johnson is killing us”, though the perpetrator was presumably apprehended as he or she had moved on to their next message, leaving behind only the letters ‘S’ and ‘P’.  Every time I passed the board I couldn’t help but wonder which letters would have followed “SP” and the word it would have formed.  There were some nights when I was lying in bed that it would be all I could think of to keep my mind off the Coronavirus and whether or not I had washed my hands before getting under the covers.

Two police cars had raced to an incident of graffiti.

People were slowly coming to terms with the global situation when the Scottish government announced that public gatherings of five hundred people and more would be banned from the start of the following week.  After the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies had initially been cleared of anti-bacterial hand gel, the panic buying had moved on firstly to toilet roll, and then to pasta, rice, canned foods, UHT milk, coffee, paracetamol, and frozen vegetables.  The first reports of the desperate demand for toilet paper were met with bemusement and amusement, and I struggled to understand why so many people were stocking the stuff in bulk when diarrhoea wasn’t a symptom of Covid-19 in adults, and nor even was sneezing or a runny nose.  Indeed, the panic buying of goods in general just struck me as being a hysterical reaction to a health emergency, the equivalent of dealing with a wine stain on your carpet by laying a brand new one, or sending two police cars screeching through town to arrest a graffitist.  What good, I wondered, was 5kg of penne and half a dozen Lidl own brand toilet rolls going to be when you’re laid up in bed and feeling lousy with a fever?

I scoffed when I thought of those people who were wasting their time piling trolleys full with tins of baked beans and cream of chicken soup, while I was doing useful things such as studying facts about the country of Romania for The Lorne’s pub quiz, writing notes on Tracy Chapman’s eponymous debut album for the inaugural meeting of an album club, and trying to find a use for two lemons I had been left with after buying a net of three in order to get one.  It wasn’t until later in the week when I saw the rapidly emptying shelves in Lidl, the difficulty supermarkets were facing in restocking them and the signs around the place advising that certain products were being rationed that I began to question my attitude towards shopping.  I was becoming panicked about my failure to panic buy.  As I slumped around barren aisles, considering if I would have any use for the canned chickpeas and jars of gherkins that nobody else seemed to be wanting, it was all I could do to think about the cupboards in my kitchen and how things would turn out for me if I was forced into a fourteen-day period of self-containment, different from my usual nights spent in isolation.  All I would be left to survive on would likely have been around half a pint of semi-skimmed milk, four free-range eggs, some frozen pork chops, wholewheat fusilli, porridge oats, two satsumas, some dried herbs and spices, a packet of pistachio nuts, three bottles of Jameson, six bottles of red wine, and a lemon.  I supposed that, if nothing else, the multitude of Lidl bags for life in the boiler cupboard would be useful for panic-induced hyperventilation.  I had, almost inevitably, reached a state of toilet roll envy.

Sleet was falling late on Wednesday night.

Fears about the spread of Covid-19 had escalated significantly by the end of the week, and it was becoming evident that things were not going to be the way we had become used to them being for quite some time.  By late on Friday night the streets of Oban had become like the ninth song on the 1988 Cheap Trick record Lap of Luxury.  Along with five other like-minded individuals, I was attending the first meeting of a monthly album club in the bar of the Perle hotel.  The group, which was like a book club but with the medium of literature substituted for a piece of music which we would all listen to and convene to discuss, was the brainchild of my friend who enthuses in studying birds, and together we had fine-tuned the concept to make it something that a group of people could do on a Friday night.

The lounge bar in the Perle was easily the most elegant of all the hotels in Oban.  Gleaming white columns stood from floor to ceiling, like the entrance to some Ancient Greek spa or a great site of interest.  Spotlights sparkled from the roof overhead like little stars separated from the rest of their constellation, creating a lighting that was soft and intimate, ideal for discussing Tracy Chapman.  Although the price of a pint of the tasty St Mungos seemed prohibitive at £4.10, it was probably worth it by the time the beer had travelled out the other end and it afforded the opportunity to use the Hebridean Seaweed handwash in the bathroom.  Although no excuse should have been required to wash our hands in this new world we had found ourselves in, the fragrant organic soap was a good reason all the same.  

We appeared to be the only people in the lounge, which from my previous experiences of the Perle was unusual, and it was quite eerie to think that in the world outside and all around us everything had fallen pretty silent while our geeky social endeavour continued unabated.  It was nice to have something else to think about for a few hours, different from the worries over whether I had enough toilet roll or lentils to last until summer.  I liked to imagine that, in a way, this must have been how it was when small groups of people were getting together in the hidden back storerooms of restaurants or apothecaries during the prohibition era, only now we would be trading in anti-bacterial hand sanitiser.

Momentarily our peace was disturbed by the racket of a cocktail shaker at the bar, though it wasn’t at all clear who the barman could have been preparing a cocktail for.  I supposed that, as with any other profession, a good mixologist had to practice his craft every now and again.  As we were getting down to discussing the detail of our chosen album, it occurred to us that it would have been useful if we could hear some of the tracks as we were talking about them, particularly the record’s most renowned single, Fast Car.  In a scene that could have been taken straight from a cheesy Hollywood script, the opening chords of the song were heard revving from the speakers in the bar.  We couldn’t quite believe our ears or our luck.  Within seconds it became obvious that the song was one of those cheap and crappy imitations that are often played in public places, likely due to licensing restrictions, and the entire episode neatly summed up our thoughts on Fast Car:  a story of hope and youthful excitement and the thrill of escaping which is betrayed by the disappointment of reality.

Our group’s first meeting ran much later beyond the two hours we had planned for, leaving us with only an hour to enjoy our reflective post-gathering drinks in the Oban Inn.  The bar resembled more of a Tuesday afternoon crowd than a Friday night, and there were so few people that we were able to walk in and easily pick a table, which were coveted and usually rare to find.  At closing time, three of us retired to my flat, where we listened to music, ate salted peanuts and drank bottles of beer until after five in the morning, when my supply had been exhausted. We were only hours into the new global crisis and already I had run out of my most critical item.  I dreaded how things were going to go once the shit really hit the fan and all I had was my usual stock of toilet paper.

This week I have been mostly listening to It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) by R.E.M.:

Human touch

Fears about the Coronavirus were slow to take hold in Oban.  At least that seemed to be the case when I found myself in the gent’s bathroom in Aulay’s after the Lorne pub quiz on Wednesday night and I had somehow become involved in a discussion with my co-habitant at the urinal about the wet floor.  He was drunk – a Saturday night kind of drunk – and insisted on advancing his theory that, much like the way that you can judge the quality of a restaurant by how busy it is, you can tell how good a pub is by how wet the floor around the urinal is.  “It’s a sign that the lager is good and that people are drinking lots of it,” he claimed in his role as the only true authority on the matter.

I had learned quite early in my adult life that in situations where one is grasping one’s penis in hand it is usually a good idea to agree with whatever anyone in close proximity is saying.  It was a strategy that had served me well up until the night in question, and in keeping with it, I suggested that the bar would probably appreciate the comment about the bathroom floor being left in a review on TripAdvisor.  His meandering thoughts continued as he approached the wash hand basin, where he activated the sensor under the tap and sprinkled his hands with enough water to wet a pinky nail. The hand dryer was given a cursory glance, like a driver checking the wing mirror, and then he was gone.  It was a scene I had witnessed countless times over the years in bars, but it was surprising to see in the current circumstance.  The absence of handwashing was either a worrying disregard for his and everybody else’s hygiene, or it was symbolic of a bold – and equally as worrying – confidence in the strength of his own immune system.

By the middle of the first week of March, guidelines had been released by government agencies advising the public of the importance of washing their hands and on the best method of doing so as confirmed cases of the new strain of Coronavirus were beginning to rise.  The common advice seemed to be that a person should wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing the Patty and Mildred Hill song “Happy Birthday” twice, while a small band of people progressed the idea that citizens should sing the lyrics of “God Save The Queen” whilst washing their hands, though I had always preferred Pretty Vacant, and at over three minutes in length I was worried about wrinkling my skin.

There were reports that the shelves of every store around town had been cleared of anti-bacterial hand gel, while at St. Columba’s Catherdral they were no longer initiating the ‘sign of peace’ during mass and Holy Communion was being offered by hand only.  In several walks of life, the handshake was being temporarily outlawed, and people were becoming increasingly vigilant of their contact with others. At a time when my prospect of making human contact was already minimal, the outbreak of Coronavirus was threatening to make it completely impossible. 

Even though any kind of romantic encounter of a physical nature was seemingly unlikely, and for more than just the usual reasons, I was still hopeful that my personality would shine through and I could find the right line to disarm a woman in an epidemic situation.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to date her immediately, but if I was able to make enough of an impression with a memorable line, I had it in mind that we could perhaps exchange contact details and organise something for six months in the future, once the worst of the virus had been predicted to pass.  I just needed to conjure the ideal combination of words.

“For a moment there I was worried that I might have the Coronavirus, but it turns out that you just took my breath away.”

“This silver pocket square isn’t just for catching coughs, you know.”

“Do you have a fever, or are you always this hot?”

“I’m tired of self-containing.  How about you and me get it on instead?”

For the first few weeks of the Coronavirus outbreak, Guinness proved to be an effective vaccination, even if it couldn’t prevent a hangover the next day.

Oban’s premier purveyor of cheesy chart music was spinning his compact discs in the upstairs bar of the Oban Inn on Friday night when my brother and I went along after the usual pilgrimage to Aulay’s.  We were encouraged to join the marine biologist barmaid and her boyfriend at their table in the corner, which posed a problem since I could never remember his name.  Despite knowing the two of them for a few years, there was always an awkward blank in my mind when it came to his name, like removing all of the vowels from a box of Scrabble and nothing that is left synchs.  I could be midway through a conversation when it would occur to me that I couldn’t recall his name, or I would blurt out a different name entirely.

A sense of awkwardness was only heightened when, in much the same way as a drop of water falls from a leaky faucet, it gradually soaked my consciousness that I had previously met the young woman who was in the company of the couple.  They had all been to see the critically-acclaimed film Parasite at the local cinema with a wider group of scientists, and it wasn’t until I focussed on the richly-coloured scarf which was wrapped around the woman’s neck that the realisation ate into me that I had talked to her just a few months earlier.  On that occasion I had been unable to take my mind off the beautiful piece of knitwear she was sporting, and it had affected my ability to communicate with her.  All I had wanted to talk about was the scarf.  This time it was a little different and I didn’t know what to say to her.

“Your colour scheme is very rustic.  It’s quite Autumnal looking.”

“It’s almost Spring,” she noted, quite matter of fact.  There wasn’t any way I could dispute it.  In my mind I could see a large green combine harvester being driven through the silence, churning its way through a field thick with grains.  Although the girl with the golden scarf had remembered all about my liking for matching the colour of my tie to my socks and pocket square, and we resumed a brief conversation about her plans for the weekend, which involved meeting up with her friend who was visiting from Puerto Rico, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had once again blown it with my fixation on fashion.  Nevertheless, I had decided that I was going to plough on and trial one of the lines I had been going over in my head.

“Imagine you are in Markies and the music is a little better than this,” I began, leaning closer to the two women across the table from me as Whole Again by Atomic Kitten was reaching its chorus.  “And I walk up to you and use the following line:  ‘For a moment there I was worried that I might have the Coronavirus, but it turns out that you just took my breath away.’  What would you think?”

The two women, who were both educated in science, looked at one another.  The girl wearing the Autumn-coloured outfit struggled to suppress an expression which suggested that she could throw up into her scarf, while the marine biologist barmaid offered the friendly advice that I should completely rethink the line.  The consensus around the table seemed to be that the whole idea should be put into quarantine.

I went downstairs to gather my thoughts and empty my bladder, acts which were not always mutual.  The floor appeared reasonably dry, while one man had taken the middle of the three urinals, a power move I would never consider making.  He briskly concluded his business and strode purposefully towards the sinks, where he checked himself out in the mirror sitting above them, before leaving the bathroom with some haste, as though there was an ongoing challenge amongst his group that anyone who spent more than three minutes in the toilet would have to buy a round of doubles for everyone.  The Pretty Vacant Challenge.  I was struggling to decide if I found it more or less worrying that there wasn’t even a pretence of preening.  All I knew was that Oban just wasn’t taking the Coronavirus seriously enough.  I was going to have a few months yet to perfect my lines.

Notes and links:

This post was written with the 1992 Bruce Springsteen song Human Touch in mind.

Guidance on how to wash your hands can be found on the NHS website.

This week I have been listening to Pretty Vacant, not God Save The Queen, by The Sex Pistols: