Diaries of an isolating man: days 9 & 10

Day nine:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day ten:

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

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

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

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

A stock image from January 2019

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

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

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Diaries of an isolating man: days 7 & 8

Day seven:

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

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

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

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

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

A felt tip line on my day 8 test

Day eight:

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

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

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

Diaries of an isolating man: days 5 & 6

Day five:

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

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

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

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

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

Day six:

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

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

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

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

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

Diaries of an isolating man: days 3 & 4

Day three:

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

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

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

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

The communal garden isn’t very much to look at

Day four:

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

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

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

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

Diaries of an isolating man: days 1 & 2

Day one:

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

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

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

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

Day two:

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

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

The preemptively ironic New Year celebrations

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

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…