Getting jiggy with it

It didn’t come as a surprise to anybody when the lockdown that was initially announced on 4 January for the entire month was extended until at least the middle of February in Scotland.  For all the promise of a fresh start at midnight on New Year’s Eve, suddenly we were living a longer version of the old one; the worst house of mirrors that anyone had ever thought of.  It didn’t seem to matter which direction we turned, we just expected to find the reflection growing larger and in the most ridiculous shapes.  This lockdown is different from the original one ten months ago, which felt almost like a novelty at the time, similar to the first day of snowfall in winter or when you buy a new pair of shoes.  Nobody had ever seen anything like it, and that made it exciting in a way, at least for a while.  There was naturally some uncertainty in the beginning, like when you can’t be sure how those new shoes are going to feel when you’re wearing them all day so you ‘break them in’ around the house to see if it hurts.  Gradually you feel confident enough to wear them outside, and before you know it you’re walking all over the place like it’s nothing.  That was the case until you realised that there was only so far you could go and so much you could do without the threat of falling flat on your face on a patch of ice.

Unlike in March, the winter lockdown has been dark, cold and wet, and because of it, people are truly forced to stay at home when they aren’t taking care of essential tasks.  It was difficult to tell exactly when it happened, but there came a point in the pandemic where we could measure our lives in lockdowns the way we used to with birthdays or summer holidays or football seasons.  I realised when I was talking to a friend that I hadn’t seen her since the beginning of the first lockdown; it was the period between the initial restrictions and the introduction of the tier system when I last had a drink in Aulay’s; I last had my hair cut the week before the second lockdown started, when the barber told me that he had trimmed my hair a little shorter than he usually does because he wasn’t expecting to be able to open again before the spring, as though the hairs falling from my head were tea leaves or some foreboding tarot cards and he saw some terrible events in them.  

The first lockdown was like the novelty of snowfall in winter

I took a real fascination in hearing about some of the different ways other people were passing the time during the extended experience of lockdown, mainly because they were more interesting than anything I was doing.  I had heard from at least a couple of friends who were watching the reality television series Married at First Sight Australia, in which complete strangers seemingly meet for the first time at their wedding.  I couldn’t get a single match on Tinder yet in Australia people were being married without having to put in any of the effort; without so much as a solitary swipe.  I never knew that such a show existed, and I asked what the point in it was if the people taking part had already got what they came for.   The viewer never saw the winning family proudly holding their prized fondue set at the start of The Generation Game, after all.

“It’s just easy television to binge,” it was explained to me.  The interesting part wasn’t the fact that these complete strangers were getting married without having never met, it was what happened after the wedding.  They would be followed by the cameras as they went on their honeymoon; when they met their new in-laws for the first time; when they moved into a home together.  And all the way through this they would be getting to know one another.  “Basically they’re doing everything in reverse.”  To me that meant that eventually the couple would reach a point where they are standing at their local bar and the man nervously approaches his wife with what in his head is a killer joke, but it only leads to a prolonged awkward silence before she turns and goes off to talk to the cool guys who are standing by the jukebox while he’s left wondering what he’s doing with his life.  He orders another pint, the camera cuts and the credits roll.

As well as binge-watching television shows, I knew of people who were reading as many as three books a week during the lockdown.  Others were engaging in crafts at home, while some had taught themselves how to cook some exquisite meals.  Most evenings the seafront was transformed into a cross between a running track and a camera club, and if the photographers were lucky they would get one of those clear winter skies that looked almost as though a nuclear reactor had gone off in the distance, or like a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon.  In my own social circle, there were as many people who had bought themselves a telescope as were watching Married at First Sight Australia.  The habits I had adopted were a bit more passive.  On a Sunday night, I liked to round off the weekend by lying in my bed and listening to the Absolute 90s radio station, which played nothing but music from the decade of its name.  I didn’t do this on any other night, just a Sunday.  It struck me as being a little peculiar, especially when I hadn’t paid much attention to the songs the first time around.  I wasn’t really into music at that age, and the only time I would hear it was when I played Nintendo in my brother’s room, where he’d usually be listening to Manic Street Preachers or Oasis, or occasionally Radio 1.  The only radio I ever listened to in the nineties was TalkRadio, where the presenters discussed the news of the day and took calls from listeners rather than play music, yet here I was in 2021 going to bed on a Sunday night with Absolute 90s playing until I fell asleep.  I suppose nostalgia is always comforting.

Through the week I often found myself gazing upon the drinks globe my sister had given me for Christmas with the same sense of wonder that I imagined other people must have for their children.  It’s so beautiful.  Sometimes I could just stare at it for minutes at a time without doing anything else.  I would think about a night when I could finally have folk around to serve them drinks from it, though I would need to invest in some more spirits since at the moment all that is inside the globe is three bottles of Jameson whiskey, along with some Jack Daniels on the bottom shelf of the trolley.  Although a generous supply of whiskey and bourbon wasn’t really giving any visitors a great deal of choice, I always liked to believe that Jameson could open up the world to anyone, and now I could actually see it happen.

When I wasn’t listening to music from a bygone decade or staring adoringly at my new bar, I most often passed the time by writing in my notebook.  My current book is a standard, unglamorous one picked up from WH Smith.  It has a black plastic cover which is bound by flimsy spirals, and there are 160 lined A5 pages.  I was down to the last few sheets when I started to take note of any old crap I could think of, so desperate was I to finish the notebook and move on to the new one I had bought towards the end of last year.  This is the drinks globe of notebooks:  a chestnut brown vegan leather hardcover; ivory white pages which are as thick as a fingernail; solidly bound.  I had ordered the journal from the London-based store Beechmore Books, and at £12.95 it was the most I had ever spent on a notebook.  I had convinced myself that if the book is prettier then the words I write on its pages will somehow be better and more meaningful.

This is the drinks globe of notebooks

To use up the remaining pages I took note of a story that appeared recently in The Scotsman newspaper about a DNA breakthrough made from the discovery of the 6,000-year-old remains of two men which were found in a cave in Oban.  According to the article, DNA analysis from a team led by a professor from Harvard University established that the men were descended from immigrants from the continent and were most likely related.  The report mentioned how the discovery tied in with previous research which has demonstrated that immigrant farmers from Northern France arrived in Britain in around 4,000 BC and brought with them a way of life that was entirely different to that of the indigenous population, who mainly relied on hunting, fishing and foraging.  These incomers had slightly lighter skin and darker eyes, and it is said that their DNA almost overwhelmed the indigenous DNA signature.  However, it has been discovered that seven people who were buried during the Neolithic period in Scotland were carrying a mix of both types of DNA, which perhaps shows that the immigrants were lovers and not fighters.  This was bourne out in a quote from Dr Allison Sheridan, who revealed the latest findings in a series of lectures.  She said:  “It is clear that some locals did get jiggy with some of the farmers.”  I underlined this line in my notebook and wondered if Dr Sheridan was also spending her weekends listening to vintage nineties music.

I often wrote down snippets from unusual news reports in the hope that I could use them later in conversation, making myself appear more interesting for knowing such things in the process.  I don’t know why I preserved this particular story about 6,000-year-old bones, however, other than to use up the last few pages of my notebook.  It’s not like I’m going to have any immediate use for the information with the country being in lockdown for the foreseeable future.  Yet despite that, it is hard to say how good an idea it would be to bring up the subject in the pub.  While I was often the butt of my own jokes whenever I tried talking to women, even I knew that I couldn’t approach a complete stranger at the bar when we aren’t even already married and bring up a story about 6,000-year-old remains and how there is evidence that even they had sex.  For the first time it seemed a good thing that the pubs weren’t open.

As the bars, like everything else, remained closed, our Zoom beer club continued to thrive into the new year, doing a good job of replicating – if not quite replacing – the Friday nights we used to spend in Aulay’s.  It was nice to have something to look forward to at the end of the week, even if it basically amounted to sitting in a different seat in my flat to stare at a screen.  Recently the plant doctor suggested that as a way of bringing some excitement to one of the meetings we could try playing an online Escape Room game, and he went ahead and bought us access to The Sinister Soirée.  Although only six people could participate in the game, a record high of eight people logged in to our beer club that night, ranging from such exotic locations as the island of Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Italian Peninsula, to Campbeltown, by the Kintyre peninsula.   

A winter sky that looked as though a bag of Skittles has been scattered across the horizon

The premise of The Sinister Soirée is that your niece, Victoria, has recently been the victim of an attempted murder at the party she had hosted to announce her engagement.  You, as a bumbling detective of no repute, are called upon to find the cloaked assailant, and you suggest that Victoria invites the same six people back for another dinner in the hope that you can figure out who the culprit was.  In order to solve the mystery and apprehend the would-be murderer, the players are presented with a number of puzzles that, once completed, offer up further clues which should help to crack the case.  The puzzles were said by the makers of the game to be of easy-to-medium difficulty, but I could feel myself floundering on the first one, which involved counting the number of petals on flowers around a fountain and coordinating them with the same colour of letter on the key to find the passcode that would unlock Victoria’s journal.  Everybody else seemed to get it without much fuss, which only heightened my anxiety.

As the games went on and I could tell that I was taking much longer to complete them than the rest of the group, I could feel myself becoming hot under the collar.  Deep down, I think everyone harbours some kind of belief that they would make an excellent detective, usually after watching a Columbo or Sherlock Holmes movie, when those characters make it seem like such an exciting living.  I was furious that my dreams were being torn apart in the cruellest fashion.  I was resorting to using the hints to help me solve the easy-to-medium difficulty puzzles, with the third hint being when the game would simply tell you the answer.  Somehow it didn’t seem like that would work in a real-life scenario.  I think my downfall was that I spent too much time focussing on the minutiae, jotting down into my notebook every small detail that might potentially be of use in the future.  Cecily spilt her wine; Franklin was behaving mockingly; Oliver doesn’t eat peppers; Adelaide is left-handed.

When it came time to guess which of the six suspects each of us believed had attempted to kill Victoria on the night of her engagement, my deduction was immediately met with derision.  I had somehow arrived at a theory that the dastardly diner was Victoria’s own fiancé, a fact that I had overlooked.  It went without saying that my guess was the worst, but in reality, nobody in the group managed to correctly identify the crook.  Considering that there were six of us playing the game, and that we had six options to choose from, that none of us managed to get it right was nothing less than an embarrassing sham.  I guess we were all pretty drunk, but since when has that been an excuse for not being able to do your job?  If there is one thing I learned from The Sinister Soirée as I looked around the screen at the faces of the rest of the beer club, it was that if there was ever a time when my bones would be discovered – maybe not 6,000 years from now, and perhaps not in a cave but somewhere else equally dark and cold, such as my flat – I hoped that no-one there would be responsible for investigating what had happened to me. 

DNA breakthrough of two men buried in a cave near Oban 6,000 years ago: click here to read the full article in The Scotsman.

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:

The Queen’s Gambit

Despite the fact that at 37 years of age I had never set my eyes on an actual chessboard, I managed to develop a fascination with the game by the time 2020 was drawing to an end.  For no reason other than sheer ignorance I had always viewed chess as being a pursuit for lonely nerds who had nothing better to do with their time, though really, wasn’t that all of us this year?  It was the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit that was responsible for me re-examining my views on chess.  The series tells the story of a young girl in an orphanage who begins to play chess with the janitor in the basement, and it turns out that she has a natural gift for it.  As she grows older, Beth battles with addiction to the tranquillizer pills she was given each day in the orphanage and a dependency on alcohol, as well as a string of broken relationships, all while becoming a successful chess prodigy.  The show was mesmerising, both for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance and the tense scenes portraying the game of chess.  I couldn’t help but want to learn how to play, and let’s face it, it’s not like I had anything else to be doing.

Playing online seemed my best option since I wasn’t yet interested enough to spend any kind of money, and the website chess.com had everything I was looking for.  There were tutorial videos for beginners which explained the basics of the game, alongside a vast library of lessons that expanded on many of the principles and theories of chess.  Users could get some practice in against a variety of computer bots of different difficulties, which is where I decided to start.  For absolute novices like me there was an option to play with assistance, where the app would offer a few suggested moves each turn and warn you if any of your pieces were in danger.  After the opening move, the system would tell you that you had made the Réti Opening or the King’s Gambit, which sounded impressive, but really, after a couple of weeks of playing the game this way, I wasn’t any wiser at what I was doing.  

Frequently once I had moved a piece a yellow “inaccuracy” notice would flash up on the screen, which presumably meant that I wasn’t following the book opening through its natural course.  Sometimes the app would tell me that I had made a “mistake”, which was accompanied by an ominous sound.  If I had made a really terrible move I would be reprimanded in red lettering with the word “blunder!”  It seemed harsh to have my inadequacies pointed out in such blunt terms, the sort of thing I might ordinarily hear if I was being given a running commentary on my approach to attempt conversation with a woman in a bar.  Every now and again I would beat the computer bot and it would feel good, but effectively it was like riding a bicycle with the stabilisers on:  I knew that I was getting somewhere, but I didn’t really understand how.  Whenever I would take the stabilisers off and play a game without any assistance, I would fall flat on my face.  Since I preferred occasionally winning, I continued to learn how to play the game with the assistance on.

I was forced to keep my new-found interest in chess in check for a couple of days as we celebrated the Christmas festivities.  Our family kept things reasonably as normal within the restrictions of the time, though dad decided that with him likely being in line to receive the vaccine within months it would be foolish to take the risk of spending five or six hours indoors with the rest of us, which made sense.  Who would want to risk being in our company at the best of times?  I asked myself.  My sister hosted Christmas once again, but before that my brother and I visited on Christmas Eve for a trial run of sorts – or, as our sister’s partner put it, to find out to what extent we could all handle mixing our drinks.  Our niece was drunk on the seasonal spirits of another sort, hyper from the imminent arrival of Santa Claus.  Before bed-time, she was keen to organise a glass of milk and a plate of cookies for our jolly visitor, along with a carrot for Rudolph, which was placed on the step outside.  Upstairs, in secretive tones, we considered why it was that Santa always left behind a little crumb from the offerings laid out for him.  Would the whole ruse really fall apart if Santa started to eat every morsel of food left for him on plates around the world?

We drank glasses of pink gin followed later by large Jack Daniels and Cokes as we looked to prepare ourselves for the big day ahead, sort of like putting a military unit through a series of intensive drills before sending them off into battle; there’s little point in going to war if you don’t know what to expect.  The four of us played the 8 years+ version of the board game Cards Against Humanity, which was more family-friendly than the regular variant, whilst a true-crime documentary about a child abducting sect in Australia played on the television in the background.  Nobody could say that we didn’t know how to party.  I seemed to be excelling at the 8 years+ pack of Cards Against Humanity, picking up more cards than I usually would, having perhaps finally found my level of maturity.

It was sometime around midnight, while we were talking about the vivid dreams we had had and my brother’s experiences with sleepwalking that the door creaked open and my niece shuffled into the room, bleary-eyed, and announced that she had been downstairs and seen that there were presents underneath the Christmas tree.  Santa had been.  I didn’t have a clue what a parent would do in that moment when even as a bystander I was filled with panic.  It was down to my sister to talk her excited girl down from her hype, and I think she eventually had to get into bed with her to make sure that she would go back to sleep and stay in bed so that she could save Santa’s spoils for the morning.  I had never seen a bank robber go to all the trouble of planning the perfect heist, studying the schematics of the property and making sure that they knew the exact time when the guards would be drunk and deeply involved in their card game, only to go and turn himself in when all that is left to do is open the vault and help himself, but somehow I think it wouldn’t look all that different to the scene on Christmas Eve.  I thought back to my games on chess.com and imagined that my niece had gotten into a position where she had the opposition king in check, only to decide to go and capture a rook instead.  Blunder!

Each year since I had moved into my single occupancy flat I bought myself a block of Stilton cheese with my Christmas shopping, and I had done the same this year.  I never really knew why this became a tradition of mine since I hardly bought any type of cheese during the other eleven months of the year, and it was difficult to know what to do with the rest of the block after it was opened for the first serving, much like the 1KG bag of carrots I had bought because they were only fourteen pence and I needed one for the beef goulash I was preparing.  Still though, I came to recognise the pungent waft of blue cheese each time I opened my fridge in the days which followed as being the true essence of Christmas.

I needn’t have bothered trying to think of a dish to use up some more of my Stilton on Christmas morning since my sister and her partner put on their usual incredible banquet of food later in the day.  I think I had lost count of the number of courses somewhere after the fourth.  It was immense, and there was booze of every description to go with it.  It was impossible to tell who had the most excitement:  my niece for the Elsa doll she had been waiting to open from Santa since midnight, or my sister for the bottle of Tequila Rose in the fridge.  My own excitement threatened to reach a similar level when I opened the gift from my sister and her partner, which was so large that I had to enlist my niece to help me with it.  They had got me a vintage globe drinks cabinet, which was something I had coveted for years.  It was the first piece of furniture I wanted to buy when I moved into my flat in 2018, but I procrastinated over whether I had the space for such an elaborate display and eventually forgot all about it.  Ever since, my bottles of Jack Daniels and Jameson, along with glasses and some other spirits that prospective guests might enjoy, have shared the same cupboard as my books, which made for quite a display itself, though it was becoming cramped as I bought more books or was gifted with bottles.  Occasionally I considered moving my own handwritten notebooks out of the cupboard to make some room, but I was reluctant since it is the only time I will be able to see my work alongside that of Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac, and David Sedaris, so I just found different ways of piling them on top of one another.

It wasn’t just the prospect of having more space on the shelves in my cupboard which excited me about the globe drinks trolley.  I liked to think about the first time I would be able to have people in my flat for post-pub drinks after all of the restrictions had been lifted.  They would admire the vintage globe in the corner of the living room and ask which year the map was drawn.  Obviously I would have no idea, so I would quickly move to distract from the question by lifting up the top of the globe to reveal the bottles contained within.  It was thrilling to imagine that there would be a talking point for my guests other than for them to ask “have you ever thought about watering your plant?” or “is it always this dark in here?”

Not every present exchanged came with such immediately obvious benefits.  Dad gave each of us an inflatable camping pillow which through the day became a source of bemused joy.  My niece was the first to unwrap hers, and the look on her face surely matched those on ours when we were four-years-old and would receive a pair of socks.  It was a look somewhere between confusion and frustration, the sort reserved for when you see someone in the supermarket who isn’t wearing a mask.  I recognised the look well, but also understood that if it was anything like me, who after thirty years came to appreciate the value of a pair of socks – especially if they were with a tie of the same colour – then, in time, an inflatable pillow might not seem all that bad.  

One-by-one we each dipped into the carrier bag of goodies dad had prepared for us and opened our inflatable camping pillows.  He later explained to us over video chat that he often struggles to know what to get for everyone and he didn’t want to just “buy any old crap” such as a Lynx deodorant gift set.  We didn’t know what this meant, though by the evening, and after a couple of shots of Tequila Rose, some of us were beginning to find some uses for the pillows.  My sister’s partner was already thinking of another summer camping trip like the one they had enjoyed this year, while in my mind I could see the inflatable pillow as being handy for those Friday nights when I had a habit of falling asleep on the couch.  My niece found that it was a comfortable headrest for when she was laying back playing her favourite new Paw Patrol game, discovering that sometimes, if you are patient, you can still find your checkmate.

A vaccine for small talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The night I was told I smell like old books (a second reading)

It was the twenty-first of November – I knew this because it was Wednesday, and it always rains on the day the blue recycling bins are emptied.  The morning was remarkable only for the way it was like every other morning: I woke up as a single in a double bed, trimmed my stubble to a fine 1.0mm, showered, stood bare-chested in the kitchen as I ironed a shirt which was the colour of a custard cream biscuit, ate a handful of blueberries and drank two small glasses of orange juice; because I liked to get my vitamins and my bright colours early in the day.

Fully dressed and ready for work, I was approaching the door of my flat when something struck me as being peculiar and out of the ordinary.  In the close, snuggled in against the bottom of the stairs, was a baby’s buggy – or, at least, a buggy which belonged to the parents of a baby.  Its transparent plastic hood had amassed a collection of pearly raindrops, and on the thin layer of fabric at the back of the seat were three polar bears of varying size, coloured white, black and minty blue.  The bears looked friendly and happy, as though they knew that their only purpose in life was to look in reverence at the back of this baby’s head, and they were doing a good job. Cradled between the purple handlebars was a marshmallow-coloured blanket which looked like it would provide great comfort and warmth.  The blanket had little pink tassels that dangled loosely along the ends, and I couldn’t help but wonder how they would look against my navy blue suit.

I was standing in the cold concrete surroundings of the close, the only light provided by a streak of winter sun which was shining through the glass pane on the back door, illuminating this baby’s buggy which had become the object of my curiosity; the lead actor on the stage of my life at that moment.  Nobody in my block of flats had any children, as far as I was aware, and the youngest living being was a one-year-old golden retriever who lived with her owners on the second floor, and I was feeling certain that she could be taken on walks without the aid of a pushchair.  I couldn’t imagine where the buggy had come from or why it was sitting outside my flat, especially when Christmas was more than four weeks away and I hadn’t indicated to friends or family that the gift I was cherishing the most was a buggy.

As the week developed, there was an increasingly cold wind which was ripping in from the sea, the kind that rattles in your bones and leaves a person feeling like they need to pee.  On my nightly walks along the Esplanade, I was finding that my hands were making for the pockets of my coat regularly, in search of warmth and in an effort to assure myself that I was still in command of my functions.  In Aulay’s, as I was entering into a debate with a bald-headed man about the percentage of a pint of lager which should be made up of the foamy head, a pair of women who were wearing woolly hats were ordering a measure of whisky each, and at that moment they were maybe the warmest people I had ever laid eyes on.

Downtown in the Oban Inn, a woman who was some years beyond middle age – if it is assumed that she won’t live to be a hundred – was dancing by the side of the bar with great gusto and enthusiasm, even if not entirely with rhythm.  She informed us that her father had recently died and that all she wanted to do was dance.  I was finding it difficult to judge a person’s ability to dance given the circumstances.  Over the shoulder of the middle-aged dancer, the one man bar band was preparing to resume his set, and as he sat on a chair alongside his pale electric guitar he was looking like a drawing a young child would produce if it had been asked to sketch the saddest man in the world.  His eyes were sunken shaded pencil outlines, and his mouth could have been a golf umbrella.

A short while later, in a bar along the bracing seafront, I found myself in conversation with a woman who was claiming to have cut my hair when I was little more than a small boy.  I didn’t remember her face, but she seemed trustworthy and I decided that I would believe her.  After all, I thought to myself, who would it really benefit to invent such a story?  The hairdresser was beginning to embellish me with further details when I could just about see the cartoon thought bubble appear above her head.  “I always knew he would struggle to keep his hair,” it read.

In a booth close to the door, my brother and I were talking to a couple of young women who we had met whilst stood at the bar.  The girl sitting closest to me had canary blonde hair that rested upon the top of her head, which was the size of a boulder.  Her facial features looked like they had been carved out of stone, the sort an archaeologist would spend an age studying.  She was a close talker who liked to speak almost directly into the eardrum.  Each time she leaned in to say something, her hair would wave across my cheek and I was picking up a distinctive scent which I couldn’t quite identify.  I speculated that it might be vanilla, and suggested this to the girl who had a face which vaguely resembled a rock, believing that vanilla is an inoffensive fragrance.  She didn’t dispute my sense of smell, and once again leaned into my ear.

“You smell like old books.”

To that point I had never been told that I have the aura of antique literature, and being that it was something I was not used to hearing, I misheard the words she originally used.  I don’t know why the question that I next asked occurred to me, but it was the only response that I could think of.

“The kind of old boots that someone might have died wearing?”

The girl’s stony features had the look of confusion you might usually see on someone who has happened upon a single slipper by the side of a busy road.  Her hair brushed my face once more, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about, before repeating that I smell like old books and that she found it comforting.

With it cleared up that I have the fragrance of words which go to the soul, rather than leather which goes to the sole, the archaeologist’s dream asked me if I had ever considered how sexy it would be for two people who work together in a library to hook up after a time.  I told her that I had not spent any time contemplating that particular scenario, though in my mind I was thinking how I would find it sexy to get with another person in just about any situation.

She sat closer to me as she started to elaborate on the fantasy she had in mind.  The young woman asked me to picture how it would be to work as a librarian, and I told her that I had no trouble conjuring the image of finding a way to make females stop talking, since it was a field I happened to be an expert in.  In her workplace ballad, the two participants would have been working in the same library for years but rarely crossed paths, which seemed terribly unlikely to me, but I was in no position to tread on her artistic license.  One day, she said, they would be returning books to the same section of the library, and their hands would touch as they were placing the books back on the shelf.  She illustrated this by touching my hand as she spoke.  I could tell that she was finding the idea of the saga quite stimulating, and I should probably have taken the role play more seriously.

“Which section of the library were they in?”  I asked.

“Why does it matter?”

“I like to paint a picture.”

“Oh, alright.  Non-fiction, I suppose.”

“So there was friction in the non-fiction?”

The girl with canary blonde hair took her hand from mine and suggested that I should get another drink, her words delivered in a manner which made it clear that not only were we not on the same page, but we were barely even in the same library.  Whilst at the bar I encountered a couple of friends, and once they left I found myself standing next to the fresh-faced homosexual.  It was the first time I had seen him since the night a few weeks earlier where he had suddenly appeared just as I had found myself in conversation with a young woman who seemed to have taken a liking to me.  I had never met the guy before, but he turned out to be a long lost school friend of the woman’s, and the pair of them sat on the end of my bed for several hours, reminiscing and catching up on lost time whilst I was drinking whisky in the kitchen.  As a gesture of good will, and a display of there being no hard feelings, I offered to buy him a drink.  The entire process of getting a round of drinks for our table took around ten or fifteen minutes, and by the time I returned the two girls had moved elsewhere.  The fresh-faced homosexual joined me, and I reminded him of our initial encounter a few weeks previous.  He laughed and denied that he had ‘cock blocked’ me, though in an absurd twist of fate he had unwittingly contributed to my failure on this occasion, too.   Instead of learning what happens after hands touch in the non-fiction section of the library, the fresh-faced homosexual and I were talking until closing time about his time as a trainee chef at a Michelin starred restaurant in Paris, and about the planet Mars.

In the small hours of the morning, I returned to my flat to find the baby’s buggy still sitting in the close.  I was beginning to feel like it was haunting me, as though someone had left it there as a cruel play on the Christmas story.  Instead of a baby being bestowed upon a virginal woman, an empty buggy had been presented to a single man who can’t be very far away from regaining his virginity.  It was either that, or I had new neighbours.

This post was originally published on 25 November 2018.

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.

Old Spice

One of the more difficult things about the time of year was knowing when it was appropriate to turn the heating on.  There were several points in the weeks before I eventually relented that I could have used the heat, when conditions in my flat were becoming cold enough to make Greenland look like an appealing warm-weather getaway.  It seemed to me that determining when to put the heating back on was one of those decisions that people only ever had to worry about once they became adults, like figuring out what time it was best to go to bed.

I was reluctant to make such a move while it was still September, before the autumn had really taken hold and when we were still in meteorological summer, even though the climate on the west coast of Scotland had never recognised the seasons.  If I could have, I would have left it at least until the clocks went back, but that was pushing it.  Apart from anything else, the two heaters in my flat never seemed to make a great deal of a difference to the feel of the place.  Their performance had always been underwhelming, and raring them up for the winter seemed to be as futile a gesture as carrying an umbrella into the eye of a hurricane.  I could never get it into my head how the storage heaters were supposed to work.  As far as I understood it, their task was to gather energy during the night and release it as warm air through the following day, but it was hard to say if that was what they were actually doing.  To my limited knowledge, the heaters only seemed to be storing up disappointment, and I had never needed expensive equipment to do that for me.

It was the first of October when my resistance to the tumbling temperature broke and I flicked the switch on my two storage heaters, and by the fourth, I was standing in my kitchen at half-past ten on a Sunday night wondering why my neighbours upstairs had decided that it would be the best time to use the washing machine.  No-one gets off the couch at half-past ten on a Sunday night and thinks, “I know what this is a good time for:  I’m going to put an entire load of t-shirts in the wash.”  It had to have been a premeditated move by people who were much more organised than I could ever dream of being.  They had presumably put a lot of research into the matter and learned that the most cost-effective way of running your laundry – or anything really:  boiling a kettle, running the hover, utilising a power drill – was to do it at a specific hour on the weekend.  I envied their preparedness and their ability to save money.  My own policy for putting on a wash was a lot more staggered, effectively being whenever the wicker hamper beneath the window in my bedroom had more shirts in it then my wardrobe did, or when I was looking for some green socks to pair with a tie to make a particular outfit work, whichever instance arose first.

During that same week, I had begun to suspect that I had a new neighbour across the landing from me.  The place had been quiet for an indeterminate period of time and I hadn’t really noticed that the previous tenants had moved out until I saw the let sign in the window some weeks earlier.  Suddenly there was a great deal of activity which started one afternoon when I arrived home from work for lunch to see the door opposite mine sitting wide open.  There were removal men treading back and forth through the close carrying cardboard boxes and items of furniture which were stacked so tall that the men almost appeared to be headless.  The recycling bins in the back became choked with scrunched up balls of newspaper, while inside the close door a black CD storage unit was abandoned, a relic of time.  in the evenings I could hear the soft shuffling of footsteps on concrete and the door opening and closing so loudly that it suggested whoever was entering the flat hadn’t yet come to terms with the weight of the door.  There was no longer any sign of the let notice in the window, and it was clear that the residence was once again occupied.

Having a new neighbour seemed exciting, a lottery that could be either won or lost.  It could have been virtually anyone in the world who had moved in across the hall from me, and naturally I had my own ideas about who my ideal neighbour would be.  Over the subsequent days I spent much of my time contemplating the potential scenarios that may have landed on my doorstep.  I thought about how in my preferred outcome the new person living in my block would have been a young single woman, possibly new to the area and without any contacts.  We would happen upon one another on the landing when I would be wearing my finest colour combination, having run a wash a few days prior.  She would introduce herself, starved of any kind of social interaction and eager to meet her new neighbours.  We would hit it off, our interaction too brief and off the cuff for me to say something stupid, and she would suggest that since we are both single occupants we should form a bubble and hang out together.

My new neighbour would come over to my place on a night and we would gradually form an unlikely friendship.  I would invite her to comment on my lucky plant and she would observe how well watered it is for a succulent.  She would compliment the mood set by the crepuscular lighting in my living room and marvel at the warmth in the small space between it and the kitchen, where the second of my storage heaters hangs on the wall.  Her remark on my living space was that it had charm, an emporium of bachelorhood.  We would dine on a meal of one of the three pasta dishes I know how to cook and then listen to U2 for hours whilst laughing and getting to know one another.  The more consideration I gave to the situation, the closer the bond I could see my neighbour and I forming.  But even I knew the thought was ridiculous, and although I could see our friendship blossoming in the reel of my sub-conscience, it was clear that we would only ever be two grapes on the same branch of the stalk who are destined not to wind up in the same bottle of wine.  She would be destined for better things, surely forming an intoxicating blend with some other grape from a different stem, while I would finish up a tired old raisin, the one which sticks determinedly to the bottom of the box.

I didn’t want to feel miserable about being spurned by the new neighbour who I had never laid eyes on, so I took yet another swipe through the dating app Tinder, an act which seemed to be like striking a dud match against its box again and again and

The low sun appeared to bounce off the lighthouse in the bay like it was a fork

again, desperate for any sort of spark.  By some peculiar fate I made a match, and I resolved with myself that I would not rush in and make any silly jokes like I had done when I was last paired with a woman on the site.  I played it cool, even though I couldn’t be sure what that actually looked like, and we exchanged a couple of cursory opening messages after I initially enquired about what makes a good escape rooms game moderator, since that was her listed job title.  

My Tinder match later went on to tell me that she had read my profile and believed it to be funny, which immediately led me to suspect that I was talking to some kind of scam bot.  I was waiting to be offered a link to some expensive website where I would be forced to pay to interact with women, and I was already looking out my debit card so that I could hear more of the compliments.  I should have seen the signs, really.  A 21-year-old University of Glasgow graduate, an escape rooms game moderator named Maria – it was barely plausible.  Nonetheless, we continued chatting on the app without transferring any financial details, and after around five days it became evident that Maria too had experienced some trouble with keeping succulent plants alive.  We had established a connection, a common bond, and it naturally followed that she would tell me that she was only using Tinder to make new friends, since it was difficult to meet people in the post-pandemic world.  It was a confirmation, at least, that it was all for real, since only I could find the one woman who was using the dating app for plutonic purposes.  If we were going to make wine, it was going to have to be a non-alcoholic vintage.

Other than the torment over the question of when the heating should be switched back on, I always enjoyed the change in the seasons at this time of year.  The sky seemed to be a different colour every day, sometimes every hour.  Bright and brilliant then dark and brooding, grumpy like a grown man who has been told that the pubs will have to close for two weeks.  The sun setting early in the evening would bring into focus a horizon of slates and chimneys, and the air was always redolent of coal fires, no matter the time of day.  More than any other month, October seemed to be when the sun would sit lowest in the sky, being almost exactly at eye level when I was rounding the town on my walk home after work.  It made it difficult to truly enjoy the scene and caused me to rethink the resentment I had been feeling towards those people who I had been seeing carrying their face coverings in all sorts of unusual ways.  Perhaps they were onto something after all.  Only, instead of scrunching the masks up under their chin or hooking them around the elbow joint as though portraying a gentleman from a fifties silent movie, the coverings could be worn over the eyes as some sort of protection from the glare of the sun.  As it was, I made do with the menace of the low lying sun since if I managed to catch it at certain points, it was at least as warm as the four-foot spot between my kitchen and living room.

I arrived home from my walk on Friday evening with a commitment to an hour or so of babysitting, though I could no longer be sure if it was technically still babysitting when my niece was four-years-old and approaching a similar level of maturity to my own.  Nevertheless, we had a rare old time together catching up and familiarising ourselves with all the hiding places my flat had to offer, which was really just behind the net curtain where everything was automatically invisible.  Out of nowhere, my niece told me that she had recently watched the 1997 movie Spice World, and I thought that it would be a good way of passing a few minutes if I played the Spice Girls song Wannabe on YouTube.  Clearly it had been some months since my last session of childminding and I had forgotten that videos can never be watched just once.  I think we spent at least the next 35 minutes listening to the song on repeat, and my niece announced that she had aspirations of being Baby Spice.  She seemed to have been particularly impressed by her ability to kick, though not as much by my performance of the dance, which led to me being assigned the role of Scary Spice.  There was nothing I could say to dispute the point – it seemed pretty fair.  Two days away from my thirty-seventh birthday and this was where life had taken me.

After my niece left, high on girl power, I was in the kitchen preparing for another of the Friday night Zoom meetings which had become a placeholder for our usual visits to the pub when I heard a knock on my front door.  I was about as accustomed to hearing someone chap at my door as I was listening to the Spice Girls and I couldn’t begin to guess who would have been on the other side, so I decided to go and answer it instead.  I unlocked the door and opened it up to find the figure of a man who was holding out a Royal Mail missed delivery slip.  He was slightly shorter than I was, perhaps a little older, and he had a reasonably well-kept beard.  Extending the red piece of paper towards my face he asked me if the name on it was mine.  I took a closer look at it, since my vision had a habit of failing in near darkness, and directed the man to one of the flats upstairs.  He thanked me and turned to leave, before doubling back on his steps.

“I’m your new neighbour, by the way.”
Of course you are, I thought to myself, as all my hopes and dreams of a bubble were burst.  He introduced himself as being Norman, or Edward, or Nigel, or some name of that sort.  I had forgotten it as soon as he said it, my bitter disappointment making me reluctant to learn anything about the man.  He remarked on how surprisingly quiet the street was to live on, considering that the block of flats were right by the main road, and I felt like telling him that he should learn how to close his door more carefully, but he seemed like a nice person and I wasn’t really wanting to get into anything that would make me seem like a dick, particularly when the truth was that he was the dick for not being a lonely single woman.  He thanked me again before heading upstairs, and I returned inside, where I picked up my phone and continued the conversation I had been having on Tinder about my ineptitude with houseplants.  I leaned against the storage heater in the hallway and accepted that friendship on a dating app was probably the best I could hope for.

Indian summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé

During the first couple of weeks in September, before new restrictions were introduced on the tenth which limited the number of people who could gather anywhere to six from two different households, I found myself sitting at a table in Aulay’s with a couple who were keen to know if I had started primary school at the same time as their identical twin boys.  I had no recollection of going to school with identical twins, but as the wife of the couple went through a mental checklist of the sort of questions one might be asked when you have forgotten your password for the website of an online retailer, the evidence became indisputable.  It was a certainty that I was in the same class at St. Columba’s primary school as her two sons, at least until the family left for Africa partway through primary two. 

I felt quite a deep sense of guilt that I couldn’t remember the children.  After all, how many times through life does a person encounter identical twins?  And yet right there, sitting at the opposite side of the table from me in the pub, was the mother of two such people who not only did I begin my journey into education at the same time as, but who it emerged grew up in Burnbank, around the corner from our home on Dunollie Road.  We all played amongst the same group of children in the neighbourhood, attended the same birthday parties and quite possibly even went to the same nursery.  I remembered nothing of the Bowen boys.  The mother vowed to return home that night and seek out the traditional first day of school photographs she would have taken to mark the event, and I agreed that I would do the same and we would bring our findings back to the pub the following week.  Since mum was no longer around, dad was the only person I could ask about the whereabouts of any school photographs in the family home.  While you could ask him where any Bob Dylan LP from the sixties was in the house and he would know exactly where to find it, there would have been no hope with a photograph.

Not only could I not remember the twins, but as I thought about it over the subsequent days, the only part of the story which seemed familiar was the woman’s husband, who I felt as though I recognised due to his distinct facial tick, which resembled the actions of a man who every so often remembers that there is a chunk of liquorice stuck to the roof of his mouth.  But the more I contemplated it, the more difficult it was to be sure if I was recalling the man from my childhood or from Friday night in Aulay’s.

The couple had an impressive recall for bygone events.  They had grown up locally and raised their children here for a short time before moving to Africa and then on to Edinburgh, and the woman in particular seemed to enjoy regaling us with tales of the school trips the Catholic church would organise to take them to the French pilgrimage town of Lourdes.  She described how the priests would spend the entire trip getting blind drunk, vividly remembering one specific morning where the bus was ready to depart for the next stop but the driver had to wait for the priests, who were lined up on the pavement alongside the vehicle in their sleeping bags, to waken up.  The woman’s husband bristled at the mention of Bishop Wright, whom he had a particularly strong dislike for since he had banished the man from mass because he had previously been divorced and so “there isn’t any point in you being here” but who himself was exiled from the Catholic church after his liaisons with a parishioner were exposed by the gutter Sunday tabloid the News of the World.  The scandal didn’t trouble me at the time when it broke, but as I grew older it was frequently a source of frustration that the Bishop of the diocese who conducted my Confirmation into the church had boasted a better record with women than I did.

I wondered what it was about certain types of people that enabled them to remember events from forty, fifty years ago with such clarity while others struggled to think about daily occurrences.  I got to thinking about the way that my own mind worked, and the meaningless things I would observe and note on a daily basis, yet I couldn’t remember something as significant as going to school with a set of identical twins, albeit briefly.  For example, on Wednesday morning, as I was returning the rain-soaked recycling receptacles from the pavement to the garden, I was struck by the contrast between the two bicycles which were stacked against the bottom of the stairway.  The black bike at the back was bigger and its tyres were thick with dried mud, while flashes of dirt were streaked across the well-worn bodywork.  Clearly the bike had seen a lot of off-road riding.  Slightly in front of it, nearest the door, was a white bicycle which was smaller and practically spotless in comparison and could easily have been a display model in a shop window.  Every time I left my flat my attention would go straight to the two bikes, and for days I was thinking about the variation in their use.

It was a similar situation when I opened the bathroom door at around ten o’clock the previous night, when the breeze that greeted me reminded me that I had left the window open all day.  Summer had stormed straight into autumn, bypassing the usual few weeks of indecision in September.  A daddy longlegs was flailing around the ceiling above the shower in that hapless way that that the spider does, its agitated gait forcing me to think about how it must have been to watch me on the dancefloor in Markie Dans back when people could dance in pubs.  Meanwhile, a moth took the opportunity to flea the scene.  I couldn’t imagine what had been going on in there before my interruption.  When I got out of bed the next morning the moth was sitting patiently on the small glass panel that was carved into the wall above the door to my bedroom.  I never really understood the purpose of that window, and neither did the moth, I suppose.

When I returned home from work in the evening, I was expecting to find that the moth would have moved from its position on the glass to go and do the things that moths do, but to my surprise, it was still assuming its lofty perch, despite my bedroom door being ajar all day.  Presumably something had attracted the insect to the window, to peer into the room, but there was a reluctance from it to venture inside my bedroom.  I concluded that the moth was most likely a female of the species on account of this behaviour, and it became quite comforting to know that it wasn’t going to be disturbing my sleeping chambers.  By the time it came to the business of cleaning the flat on Friday, I had forgotten all about the moth.  Things were dusted and polished and wiped in the usual manner, before I came to realise that on the windowsills throughout the place was a total of around seven dead moths.  I couldn’t fathom when my home had become a necropolis for departed winged creatures.  It felt as though there should have been a plaque somewhere.  I fetched the dustpan and brush, but not before briefly considering the merits of leaving the moths where they were as some kind of deterrent, a way of letting other beasties know that nothing ever thrives here and they would be better off leaving on their own accord.  In the end I thought better of it, worrying about the untidiness as well as the reputation I might gain.

Distractions such as memorials to moths, pristine bicycles and photographs of twins who I never knew existed were put to the back of my mind when The Unlikely Lads returned to the Lorne pub quiz for the first time since early March, finally making use of the weekly reminder I had optimistically set into my phone at the beginning of the year.  Our ensemble cast of quizzers had been trying to triumph in The Lorne for nigh upon fifteen months, coming desperately close on a couple of occasions, but ultimately always falling short.  With one of our founding members due to leave for university at the end of September, we knew that we only had two more opportunities to earn the win we had put so much blood, sweat and Tennent’s into, lest the original trio of Unlikely Lads ends their tenure winless.

The Lorne Bar had an impressive protocol for social distancing

When our team of five arrived in the pub for dinner before the quiz, we soon realised that we were the only regulars who were taking part, and one of the few teams of locals.  Most of the other tables appeared to be made up of visitors.  I couldn’t be entirely sure why, but this filled us with a sense of confidence.  The fact that we didn’t recognise anybody else in the pub had us believing that we had a better chance of winning.  I suppose that we already knew that we couldn’t beat the other regulars – the Bawbags, I-95, ‘Mon The Fish – but with a bunch of jokers that we had never seen in our lives and didn’t know anything about in terms of their ability to handle general knowledge trivia, anything could be possible.

We made a strong start, scoring 9 in the opening picture round on well-known ‘baldies’, despite some of our group misinterpreting the heading on the paper as asking us to identify famous baddies, which only made the inclusion of Sinead O’Connor all the more baffling.  Our general knowledge round was also decent, leaving us a point short of the early leaders The Pink Flamingos, who were destined to become our rivals due to them not being as inept as we had been hoping, and because they clashed with my own colour scheme.

There were some rocky moments for our quintet:  a disagreement over the colour which represents the District Line on the map of the London Underground, and basically the entire third round which consisted of questions where the answers would all feature the letter B in some form, during which we lost our way and answered at least four of them with Blantyre, which earned a rebuke from the silver-haired host.  During the round on Germany, we missed the date of reunification by a year, which in retrospect we were really frustrated with ourselves over.  Most people, I think, know that the timeline went:  1989 – the fall of the Berlin Wall began; 1990 – the year of reunification; 1991 – U2 released their album Achtung Baby.

An uncanny knowledge of whisky, due in part to one of our team having spent some time working in the local distillery, and an otherwise stellar performance answering questions about the nation of Germany put us in contention for the trophy of a £25 bar voucher, though there was a tightly-packed field of teams around the top of the board.  At the end of the final picture round, we were feeling pretty good about our efforts through the night.  We were confident that we had done enough to win the quiz, and there was a heightened sense of excitement around the table.  As the silver-haired host announced the scores in ascending order, it became clear that it was going to come down to us and The Pink Flamingos.  In the end it did, and the quiz was going to be decided by a tie-break question.  It was the worst possible outcome for us, since historically as a team our attempts at answering questions which required us to guess “to the closest number” the population of a country, the number of peanuts in a jar of peanut butter, or the distance between two points had been risible.  Often our responses to such bonus questions had drawn ridicule and we featured at either end of the “answers ranging from” scale, usually miles away from the actual answer – both literally and figuratively.  It was even the case earlier in the evening, when the bonus question asked us to determine the distance of the borders around Belgium and we were wildly inaccurate.  We felt defeated.  They would have been as well just giving the bar voucher to the flamingos.

Nevertheless, we had to be grown ups about the thing, and we dusted down our disappointment and readied ourselves for the tie-break question.  The silver-haired host read aloud a list of celebrity names whose birthday it was – or would have been if they were still alive – on that day, the ninth of September, and asked us to tell him, to the closest number, the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.  We took a studious approach to the task, forensically analysing each individual figure in our collective mind and trying to accurately guesstimate their ages, adding them together to reach a total which was probably going to be several decades out anyway.  It was revealed that the winning team had come up with a number that was only two years away from the correct combined total.  The Pink Flamingos, their name now taunting me in my pink tie and socks, had given an answer of 276, whereas we had calculated 288.  We were on the edges of our seats, which as far as we knew wasn’t breaching any government health guidelines.  It transpired that even though we had reached an incorrect age for every one of the five famous names, the combined total of incorrect guesses was within two of the number the silver-haired host was looking for, which was 286.  The Pink Flamingos were left red-faced; we had finally won the quiz.

It was a real moment to savour.  We rightfully basked in the glory of the unlikeliest of pub quiz victories.  The barmaid approached our table with a £94 bill for our food and drinks, setting in motion a cavalcade of chaos as we each tried to make individual card payments which were being hampered by a weak wifi signal and a reluctant chip and pin reader. In many ways, waiting to pay for my portion of the bill was like being a bus driver in France who is waiting for a bunch of drunk Scottish priests to wake up on the side of the road.  Nothing was going to detract from our triumph, though.  In years to come I might not remember the identical Bowen twins from my primary one class, but I wasn’t likely to forget the combined age of Otis Redding, Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, Natasha Kaplinsky, and Michael Bublé.

The first night

By the time the first day of August had arrived it had been 141 days since I was last in a pub, and boy did it show.  It isn’t that I had been keeping count of the days, just that it was easy enough to enter the dates into a search engine and let the internet do the work.  There were very few things in life that I could count in increments of a hundred days, and dates between visits to Aulay’s would usually only ever require the fingers from one hand to keep score.  The number of days since I had last been able to interest a woman in my company would run into multiples of hundreds, it had maybe been close to a hundred days since I had last thought to dust the dado rails in my living room since things had become lax during lockdown without the hope of being able to invite someone around after the pub, while the pre-pandemic panic purchase of a nine pack of toilet rolls was probably going to be good for another week or so.

Life in the intervening months had been transformed into something unrecognisable and unfathomable, like the sight of me wearing a t-shirt.  Masks were everywhere by this point, most commonly in shops and supermarkets, but also on the streets, where they were not as much seen on faces as they were found on street corners, by the sides of pavements amongst leaves and litter, or lost between park benches.  For something that was designed to preserve lives I struggled to comprehend how people could be so careless with their masks.  The more I saw them kicking around in the dirt, the more I thought of them as being no different to a pound coin left stranded in a supermarket trolley, a forgotten umbrella in a shop doorway, an abandoned baby’s boot, a jacket left behind on the coat rack in the pub, a woollen glove in winter, or, most worryingly, a pair of tights brazenly discarded in the drunken haze of a night out.

A sign that things were gradually getting back to some form of the normality we had previously known was when glossy leaflets for Mica Hardware started arriving in my postbox again, alongside another which informed me that I could buy three Bramley apple pies for the price of £10 from the frozen food retailer Farmfoods, when for months the only items of mail I had received were official pamphlets from the government advising me how to properly wash my hands and what I should do if I thought I had symptoms of Coronavirus.  Even though the sheets of paper usually went straight into the recycling bin alongside crushed cans of Tennent’s Lager and empty milk containers, it was nice to be getting them again.  I’d often heard people use the saying “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone,” and while I don’t think that anyone had ever said it about promotional leaflets, it seemed to be true.

The three bicycles that had gathered next to the stairs outside my front door in early April had been reduced back down to one by late July, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t seeing as many cyclists around town as I had been in the early days of the pandemic.  It used to be that you couldn’t walk through Oban without feeling like you were intruding upon some kind of a tribute to the Tour de France, and if people weren’t riding a bicycle then they were walking a dog, which was another sight that didn’t seem as frequent in the new near-normal, or normal adjacent.  I found myself in the chorus of a Paula Cole song when I wondered in my internal monologue where have all the doggies gone?  Dogs and bicycles had been replaced by tourists and masks on the streets, and there was soon the usual worry over how many perfect family photographs I had unwittingly walked through just as the shot was being taken.  There were always so many people lined up along the Esplanade, trying to create the ideal Instagrammable snapshot, that it seemed impossible to avoid ending up in some of them.  Being photobombed by a seagull I imagined the holidaymakers would be comfortable with, since it’s part of the charm of taking a seaside break and they were probably expecting it, but they couldn’t have been anticipating the awkward-looking man in tweed with a four-month-old haircut.  I wondered if it would be obvious when they returned home to view their photographs on some sweet family slideshow that I had been listening to the Taylor Swift song cardigan at the moment I became a blur in their album.  I couldn’t see how it would be, but I thought about it all the same.

Ever since restrictions were eased and bars and restaurants were able to open in mid-July I had been thinking about when, or even if, I would go back to the pub.  Hanging out with friends and like-minded people at the bar had always been a large part of my life.  It was important to have that escape from the miserable monotony of single occupancy by sitting around the bar and feeling miserable whilst in the company of others.  But after 141 days away from the pub, I wasn’t sure how I felt about going back.  Not from any fear of catching the virus – although it was naturally occupying part of my thoughts – it was more a sense of anxiety that things were going to be terribly different from the places I had loved in the past.  I had read about the measures that had been put in place in bars since they had reopened, and for as much as they sounded safe and sensible and necessary, it was hard to picture myself enjoying such a sanitised version of the bar life we used to know.  In my mind, a pub without the bar to socialise around would be akin to a church without an altar.  I was torn, though ultimately while there was a part of me that enjoyed spending a Saturday night alone in the quiet darkness of my flat, drinking craft beers and watching Bruce Springsteen concert footage on YouTube until three o’clock in the morning, it was becoming difficult when for the better part of twenty Saturdays the only company I had were the three mini cactus plants which I kept on the end of the mantel place, and they bristled any time I tried to start a conversation.  Those 141 days could as well have been 1041 for all I’d known, and by the end, I’d been starting to feel like a face mask lost under a rain-splattered bench; forgotten about, disposable, and more than anything else that feeling forced me into deciding that it was time to get out of my solitary confinement.

The plant doctor and my brother had already been to the pub some weeks earlier, and we decided that it would be best to go for the halfway house of the beer garden at the Whisky Vaults, which in practice was really more of a car park which had been transformed into a garden by way of adding some outdoor furniture and a few plants, which the bees seemed to be enjoying at least.  It had been very well done and looked quite chic, which was the first time I had ever described anything in that way.  More importantly, the Guinness was amongst the best I had tasted in town, with each creamy mouthful bringing me a little closer to comfort.  

For an August night it was cool, certainly not like the humid July day it had preceded, though it was at least dry, which was more than could be said for that aforementioned evening when without a coat to shield me I was caught in a torrential downpour as I was walking home from work, the sort of rainfall that was reminiscent of when you turn on the shower in the morning and leave it to run for a few seconds to warm up.  The only difference being that when I eventually step into the shower I’m not usually wearing a shirt and tie.  

Seating was so well spaced out in the garden that it was almost possible to feel as though ours was the only group there, even when most of the other tables were occupied.  Social distancing wasn’t a priority of the swarm of midges we had quickly been surrounded by, however.  The blood-hungry pests were everywhere, which it occurred to me was the first time in a very long time where I had attracted any kind of attention in a bar situation, though as usual I ended up without a bite.  The absence of music in the outdoor setting was compensated for by the backing track of an excited squeal of swallows who were swooping and swerving in synchronised formation overhead, having clearly spied the bothersome midges as an opportunity for a wholesome nighttime snack.  They made for splendid entertainment, different from the usual boxing matches which might typically be screened on television in a pub on a Saturday night.  Since beer gardens could only be licensed until ten o’clock we enjoyed a couple of pints outside before venturing indoors, leaving the birds and the beasties to decide things amongst themselves.

Inside the Whisky Vaults, the tasting room – which had become the main bar area since it could safely accommodate more people than the regular, much smaller tavern – had the appearance of a trendy city-centre pub featured in a television drama, the sort of place that would be popular with successful twentysomethings who had careers and relationships and where people like me wouldn’t ordinarily be welcome.  Its centrepiece was a recently installed ‘washback tasting table’, which since the lockdown had become more of a decorative feature, just like any other part of the bar, really.  The room was easily the most aesthetically pleasing place I had drunk a pint of Guinness in Oban, and it seemed a shame that it wasn’t able to be used in its natural function.

In these heady new times of hygienic consideration, there was almost as much alcohol being squirted onto hands as there was being poured down throats.  Hand sanitiser was available and encouraged to be used at all opportunities, and you could tell that the bottles in the Whisky Vaults were the really good high volume stuff by the way that they stank.  The liquid would cling to your hand the way a cobweb did when you were a kid, when no matter what you did the sensation of it would stay there for ages.  Every few minutes you would see someone returning from the bathroom and they would be rubbing their hands together in exactly the same way, somewhere on the scale between glee and Machiavellian plotting, or just a kid who couldn’t shake off that cobweb.

It was remarkable how quickly things began to seem just as they were before the fourteenth of March, as though the entire global pandemic had been the product of some wild sleep theatre.  After discussing a variety of topics, from our favourite kitchen hob to a comparison of our face masks, we made our way to our chapel – Aulay’s – where we managed to score the last table in the place.  The new one-way system took you in through the door to the lounge bar and exiting from the public bar, which was a route we were familiar with.  Just beyond the entrance was a small foldaway table that had been set up with some pieces of paper and a few pens.  It had the appearance of a stall at a summer feis selling raffling tickets, but in actuality was a contact tracing hub, the sort of lottery where you were hoping that your number wouldn’t come up.  I had often pictured what it would be like to be asked for my phone number by a barmaid, but when Maciej approached us in his surgical mask, it somehow wasn’t as romantic as I had been imagining.

We were seated at the table closest to the entrance, by the stained glass window, which I think was the furthest I had ever been beyond the fruit machine.  The vantage point offered a different perspective of the bar, like taking a painting you have been looking at for six years and moving it to a different wall.  Hanging above the bar at the precise place where we would ordinarily have been standing, by the ice bucket, was a thin, narrow sheet of plastic which was being suspended by a couple of flimsy-looking steel wires, not entirely dissimilar to a particularly garish Christmas decoration.  We found amusement in the fact that the protective shield had been positioned only at the part of the bar we inhabited, and wondered why they hadn’t thought of putting it up years ago.

Towards the end of the night, as the bar was slowly emptying and last orders were close to being called, we were approached by a woman who sat down at our table and introduced herself by telling us about how she and her group had travelled to Oban for the weekend to celebrate her husband’s birthday.  Her skin was the colour of a chestnut left in the microwave for too long, and it looked like it would have had the same texture, too.  The visiting woman’s hair had seen more bleach than even the plant doctor’s, and if I forced to guess I would have speculated that she was in her fifties, though she had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to dissuade people from reaching that conclusion.  She seemed a little surprised to learn that we were all local to the area, and proceeded to take it in turns to ask each of us about our occupations.  She didn’t seem particularly interested in our responses, although her painted lips curled when I mentioned that my work had kept me busy since the beginning of the pandemic, and she promised to come back to me.  We were then invited to guess which line of work the woman was in, which was when it became clear that the entire purpose of her coming over to join our table was a visual representation of when I have thought of something clever and I just have to get it into the conversation.  It felt strange to see it happening before my very eyes.  None of the three of us seemed to be especially good at the pub game of guessing a perfect stranger’s job, and after several fruitless attempts, the woman decided to put us out of her misery.

“I’m an undertaker,” she proclaimed.  And then, looking across the table at me, she returned to my earlier comment.  “Like you, I’ve seen a real uptake in business.”  

Ordinarily it would be the polite thing to do to wish someone you had met in the pub well in their future endeavours, but it seemed counter-productive in this instance.  Usually I was the person making deeply uncomfortable remarks in the mistaken belief that they sounded funny or clever, and despite all of my experience in the field, I didn’t know what to say in this instance.  I think all I could muster as a response was to remark to the woman that she didn’t look like an undertaker, but really, my only frame of reference for what an undertaker looks like was the WWF wrestler from the nineties.

After 141 days where everything had changed, suddenly nothing had changed at all.  People were being enticed into buying frozen desserts and power drills again, tourists had returned to Oban in their droves, and unusual and unexpected conversations were being conducted in the corners of bars.  It had been a while since I had become a blur in someone else’s holiday memories.

Recently I have been listening to:

Click through to my Instagram for some more photographs of masks seen in unusual places.